Oral History: David Warren Sabean

DW SabeanNarrator: David Warren Sabean
Interviewer: John Tortorice
Date: 9 April 2013
Transcribed: Teresa Bergen (22 May 2013)
Format: Audio
Total Length: 2 hours, 23 minutes


David Warren Sabean biography:
David Warren Sabean is Henry J. Bruman Endowed Professor of German History, emeritus, and Distinguished Research Professor of European History at the University of California, Los Angeles. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, where he studied under George L. Mosse, Sabean has taught at the University of East Anglia, University of Pittsburgh, and Cornell, and he has been a fellow at the Max Planck Institute for history in Göttingen, the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, the American Academy in Berlin, and the National Humanities Center. He has received a Guggenheim fellowship and a Research Prize from the Alexander Humboldt Foundation. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His publications include: Power in the Blood: Popular Culture and Village Discourse in Early Modern Germany (Cambridge, 1984); Property, Production, and Family in Neckarhausen, 1700-1870 (Cambridge, 1990); and Kinship in Neckarhausen, 1700-1870 (Cambridge, 1998). He is coeditor of Kinship in Europe: Approaches to Long-Term Development (1300-1900) (Berghahn Books, 2007); Sibling Relations and the Transformations of European Kinship 1300-1900 (Berghahn Books, 2011); Transregional and Transnational Families in Europe and Beyond: Experiences Since the Middle Ages (Berghahn Books, 2011); and Blood and Kinship: Matter for Metaphor from Ancient Rome to the Present (Berghahn Books, 2013). During 2016-7, he co-directed an interdisciplinary project on kinship and politics for the Center of Interdisciplinary Research in Bielefeld. Currently he is engaged in an extensive study on the history of incest discourse in Europe and America (1600 to the present).

**To access the OHMS oral history page for David Warren Sabean, which allows listeners to search text or keywords and to listen to specific sections of this interview, click here.**


Tortorice: Okay, I should say first that it’s April 9, 2013. And this is John Tortorice. I’m on the campus of UCLA to interview Professor David Warren Sabean, a Mosse doctorate. Okay. We can start.

Sabean: Well, we were talking about his style of writing and the unreproducibility: for that, two things. When I was in Germany at the Max-Planck Institute for History, about 1971, [19]72, there was an intellectual historian who worked on the Enlightenment, who said that he had heard a great deal about Mosse and had tried to read him. And so he read him and was very disappointed. I was curious about that because I was disappointed that he was disappointed. But the point is that it was a whole style that this guy couldn’t recognize. It wasn’t Germanic. It wasn’t, it was clear. (laughs) And I don’t think he was used to reading intellectual history that was straightforward and clear at a certain point.


Tortorice: Well that is one of my questions. Mosse’s reception in Germany, or lack thereof…

Sabean: Well, up to the time I was there, he didn’t have much of a reception.

Tortorice: Yes.

Sabean: And when I first went there as a graduate student, he had some contacts, which I didn’t take up because I was in Tübingen and the contacts he gave me were in Berlin. And it was interesting that I was at the International Historical Congress with George and we had dinner; some graduate students, myself and George and [Geoffrey] Elton (1921-1994) from England. And Elton was kind of patronizing George the whole time. But George is unpatronizable.

Tortorice: He was! (laughter)

Sabean: And so we bumped into one of the Mommsen brothers, I think it was Hans, although I don’t now remember, because they were twins. And I didn’t know who they were. And again, that sort of German patronizing was clearly visible. So I don’t think George’s way of writing and the things that he wrote was something that Germans could appropriate, really. And when the first major study, The Roots of the Nazi Mind book….

Tortorice:       The Crisis of German Ideology (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2021)…

Sabean: The Crisis of German Ideology came out, I don’t think they really would have known what to do with it. And it’s only subsequently, … I’m not sure which books first were widely read in Germany. I know he went to the Kultur Wissenshaftliches Institut I believe, in Essen for a while. And I’ve known friends who were there at the time and have reminisced about him and so forth. So that must have been in the mid to late [19]80s when he went there. So you know, his real contacts in Europe for a long time were in England, not in Germany. And they were with the Jewish émigrés, like [Francis] Carsten (1911-1998) and so forth. And he was very popular among them.


Tortorice: Well there was a frustration with George’s work on the part of this generation of historians, obviously, because he was so creative and pioneering.

Sabean: Right.

Tortorice: There’s also great resistance to cultural history in general, the kind of cultural history that George did.

Sabean: I think so.

Tortorice: But I think it really it was The Nationalization of the Masses that caught the attention of the Germans, because I think they could put their teeth into that.

Sabean: That’s probably right. I really never have talked with many Germans about George’s work. And the people I worked with were doing quite different kinds of social history.

Tortorice: Yes.

Sabean: And first were very strongly influenced by [Jürgen] Habermas (b. 1921) then by [Pierre] Bordieu (1930-2002). I got involved with putting together an anthropology and history group in Göttingen, and so our [Mosse and Sabean] work went off in completely, completely different directions: None of the people I knew were really interested in that period or in the stuff that George did. By the time I got there, it was all internalized. And then I would say the people that should have been interested were the Bielefeld School, but they were heavily into sociological history.

Tortorice: Social history and—

Sabean: No, sociological history.

Tortorice: Sociological, okay.

Sabean: Not even social history: it’s the term they used was Gesellschaftsgeschichte rather than Sozialgeschichte, although they would use Sozialgeschichte. But they were heavily influenced by Weber, heavily influenced by modernization theory at the time. All of that, you know, George would kind of brush off with a gesture. And my own approach to social history was really also quite different. I did become very good friends with Jürgen Kocka (b.1941) and Kocka eventually also got to know George quite well.

Tortorice: He did. Yes.

Sabean: And appreciated George a lot. But that’s all later, and it’s also, by that time I was back in the States, mostly. So I really don’t know much about his reception.

Tortorice: Okay.

Sabean: I just know that it began to happen much later than I would have wished, because at the time when I was intensely involved and intensely there, people around me weren’t very interested. Now I suspect that, I don’t know this, but I suspect that as people began to pull away from the Bielefeld School, there was an opening for cultural history. There was…oh I know, he was very good friends, with Thomas Nipperdey (1927-1992).

Tortorice: Yes, right.

Sabean: And Nipperdey was sort of a pull or pole to the Bielefeld school. He came to the Institute for Advance Study, and went back bug-eyed over Geertzian anthropology, and pursued a kind of history that was more cultural history. And therefore perhaps it’s through people like Nipperdey that there was a great opening for George. But not with the dominant school in late [19]60s, early [19]70s, when the Bielefeld School was the hot thing. And I don’t see how they could easily have appropriated George. Now later on, they began, when people like Wehler began to talk about cultural history. And it could be at that point. But none of these people were going to give George a close read because they were so busy promulgating whatever it was they were promulgating.


Tortorice: Well, and cultural history had a lot of baggage.

Sabean: Right. Absolutely. No, that’s quite right. And I remember I was at quite a low point in my career. (laughs) I was at, I can’t remember, I think it was the German Historischer Tag I think it was in Berlin. And there was a panel with Wehler and Kocka and [Wolfgang Mommsen and Lutz Niethammer]. Lutz would have been more open to George, much more open to George. And in fact, he was the director of the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut when George was there, an intellectual of a completely different kind from the Bielefeld people. So I was on this panel and Wehler brushed off the kind of thing that I was interested in, which was the history of everyday life, and anthropology and history as, his term would have been Faschistoid. And his critique was of people like Alf Lüdtke (1943-2019) who was in the Institute with me. And who was developing theoretical understandings of Alltagsgeschichte, or of everyday life. And for Wehler this was the, you know, for him it was a recurrence of populist, völkisch history…I don’t know what he thought. But he just didn’t like it at all. I gave a kind of introduction to ways of thinking, but my German was too slow. And then Wehler was very funny. (laughs) … there was a big, there were about a thousand people there, or at least eight hundred. It was a confrontation of two very different kinds of history. And I outlined a critique of Kocka, but unfortunately I misunderstood and Kocka was the chair of the session, so he couldn’t really answer me directly—

Tortorice: Respond.

Sabean: And so forth, but I made a case for a kind of anthropology and history approach to society, and Wehler was having none of it.


Tortorice: What year was that?

Sabean: I’d have to look… it was a Historikertag, I think I was already gone, so after [19]73, it would have to be after [19]83. And I would already have been here. So about [19]84, [19]85, [19]86, somewhere around there. Because I flew from here to there.


Tortorice: Do you want to follow this script?

Sabean: Sure. I’ll follow your script and I’ll start with where I was born. (laughs)

Tortorice: Yes. Let’s go back to the birth.

Sabean: I was born in the thicket of Waltham, I was born in Waltham, Massachusetts

Tortorice: Oh, okay.

Sabean: And Waltham probably influenced me a great deal, actually. Because I came from a family that, my parents had emigrated from Nova Scotia. The Sabean family had come to the United States in 1633, or to the colonies, to Massachusetts. But in 1763, after the British beat up the French and the French were kicked out, the Sabeans went up and took their farms. (laughs) So they were Nova Scotians. And they came back. And my grandfather on my mother’s side was a Baptist minister. And that sort of set the tone for the family. My father was a dyed in the wool Baptist. The only time he ever got angry with me was when I called into question the doctrine of total immersion baptism. (laughter) In any event, it was a fundamentalist family, very much fundamentalist. And my mother had hoped to send three missionaries off into the world. She won with my older brother [Robert]. He’s in Costa Rica as a missionary. Family life was very warm. It was very difficult to rebel in that kind of family…


Tortorice: Because of the emotional warmth and the sustaining—

Sabean: My mother invented all by herself Jewish guilt. (laughs) When I hear about Jewish mothers, it’s nothing on my mother! (laughs) And she was very, very clear that I could do what I want, but “this is my (her) position.” You know, like dancing. “You may go dance if you wish. But I think, this is my position.” That’s why I didn’t dance. To my horror, today I still can’t dance properly. But you know, there’s no smoking, no drinking, no sex, you know, all these different problems. And we went to church a lot. Young Peoples, all kinds of things. So, and I was very as a young kid I was already an incipient historian, an incipient intellectual, whatever you want to say. So by the time I was 14, I was reading Calvin’s Institutes and then, very interestingly, my family, my mother’s family had obviously had long winter nights with no electricity and with kerosene lamps. And they had developed a style of declaiming poetry, memorizing masses of poetry. And so that kind of got ingrained in me. So I memorized a lot of poetry. But I also thought that you memorized texts. So we had to memorize masses of the Bible and so forth, and when I was about 14, I was reading Calvin. This was when I also started reading Plato: I started with the Phaedo, which is relatively short. I memorized it.

Tortorice: Wow.

Sabean: Then I realized as the dialogues got longer and longer, you can’t do this. So I gave up on that approach to intellectual life. But in any event, what was really interesting is that Waltham was a place of stable, slightly older immigrant groups. And I became extraordinarily aware of how the city functioned. The politics were completely controlled by the Irish. The new money and very wealthy were from immigrants, the only millionaires, I think there were seven millionaires in Waltham at that time, and they were all Italian. They had made their money in market gardening and in construction… There were the Jews of two kinds, ones who had businesses in Waltham, (and I worked in a drugstore for one of them) and the intellectuals who were tied up with the big institutions, the psychiatric institutions and so forth.

Now, these things have collapsed and disappeared. But at the time, they were cities with huge buildings and masses of people in them. And the doctor’s kids were in high school with me. In fact, one of them, Louis Asekoff (b. 1939) and me spent hours, hours cruising in my junior and senior year, once I could drive, just on Friday nights, talking about everything. And I’ve reconnected with Louis, who’s become a prize-winning poet. And I flew up to hear him read his poetry in Waltham last October. But, and someone like Louis is a genuine intellectual from the very beginning, very moral, very concerned. So it was a very sympathetic kind of relationship. And then the other group in Waltham was immigrants from Canada, French Canadians. I think that’s roughly the milieu. I can remember working in a haberdashery one Christmas, and one of the girls from my school came in, an Italian girl. And she bought 15 sweaters. I can’t remember the brand, but they were very expensive-fifteen for first cousins, or cousins. The idea of on the one hand an extended kinship group, second, a teenage girl with that kind of money—(laughter)-that was an eye opener. So I began to pay very close attention to the fact that you had three Catholic groups who didn’t intermingle; whose churches were all Irish, Italian, French-Canadian, miscellaneous whites of various kinds; Episcopalians, Baptists, whatever. And when I say miscellaneous whites, there’s a sense of, I mean, WASPs would be the better term. So I was looking at this, the power, the political power on the one hand, the new money. And then there were two or three old estates in Waltham, very old money. You never knew these people. And the rumor was that their money had been made in the illegal slave trade. But we’re talking about 100-year-old families. You never met them. You just knew that they kind of existed. So it’s a very interesting thing, and so my early background was one of thinking and struggling with ideas about Protestantism—and there George was very important as well, later. So Protestantism—


Tortorice: And kinship so early on.

Sabean: And looking at kinship and looking at the way, but also kind of looking at social class and social groups. I remember, you know, my mother let me dress as I wanted to, and I would buy flashy yellow jackets and things like that. And there was this teacher in the fourth or fifth grade who clearly differentiated among her students by class. And so the kids who their mothers dressed and were properly dressed and had the right, you know, who bought all the stuff from Harvard Square, I mean, I began to sort of understand all that, she liked them and gave them preference. Me, I was kind of, in my yellow jackets or whatever I was, and I’m a loud mouth and so forth—

Tortorice: It’s amazing how these things are very early recognized by students, and yet they’re never acknowledged.

Sabean: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. But so my sense of class, my sense of social differentiation, ethnicity, the importance of religion in maintaining—I learned later that the Baptist church we went to, because somebody did a book on it, a book called Working Men of Waltham or something like that [Howard M. Gitelman, Workingmen of Waltham: Mobility in American Urban Industrial Development, 1850-1890. And the church I went to was the working man’s church. And I didn’t realize that. So what was really there were a lot of people who came down from the Maritimes or what have you and were working at the Waltham Watch Company, which was very close by. And so they sort of centered around this church. And I probably got a strong sense of that as well. But you know, it’s all, you know, thinking about it later. So that was, the milieu and the structure and so forth. Now I had two brothers [Robert and John], older brother, three years older. Obviously I was in conflict with him. (laughs) And he was the one who you know followed my mother and was the dominant figure in the family. Now a missionary.

Tortorice: And he is now—

Sabean: He is now the missionary.

Tortorice: Okay. And he’s still—

Sabean: Yes.

Tortorice: —missioning. (laughs)

Sabean: Yes. Very much a missionary. Although I have to say that you know, with all my later on differentiation and so forth. But I, he’s the one who now pushes family, family relations. We spent three days with him just now. And he’s actually quite impressive. He was very much interested in teenagers and so forth. And we spent summers at a summer camp in New Hampshire, a Christian summer camp. And he rose up to be director of that eventually. And that plays a big role in his ultimate trajectory, which is he’s very interested in developing institutions for bringing teenagers together that are tied to small group interaction. He stresses relationships, criticizes camping in the United States as more entertainment camping, and so forth. And he’s written a lot of manuals, and he actually taught at one of the universities in San Jose. He taught camping. And he was asked to found a department of recreation, which he eventually didn’t do. But he’s been very involved in Costa Rica. Plus he’s very ecumenical. Some of his closest friends are Catholic. And when I grew up, there was a very strong conflict between Catholic/Protestant.

Tortorice: Yes.

Sabean: So coming away, I’m more impressed with him than I would have acknowledged as a kid. (laughs) But anyway, that played a big role, I think, second kid, in pushing against the older brother. Then a younger brother who’s eleven months younger who essentially kind of followed in my footsteps. He got a PhD and ended up in Canada- very active in developing cultural institutions in Ottawa. He just got a big medal from Ottawa, for his cultural activities. So as a family, my father was a grocer. Very quiet. And unfortunately he died when I was about 21, when I was back at Brandeis. But I think my mother still was, even when he was alive, the dominant figure. Because she was the day-to-day influence.

Teachers. That’s quite interesting. Because you always have some teachers who encourage you and some teachers who, in a sense, try to push you back. So I read all the time, and otherwise I was mouthing off, I think, in school. And in the second, third and maybe fourth grades, I had teachers who just left me alone. Let me sit in the back of the room and read. (laughs) I can’t remember which grade it was, but this was really dumb. We had to do math every day and you know, I knew the math. So a paper would come up, so instead I would pull out a book and read it. But I had to get rid of the paper, so I ate it. (laughs) And then when the kid came to collect it, I said: “Oh, I passed it in.” And the teacher never either noticed or cared. (laughter)

Tortorice: Wow. That’s amazing!

Sabean: So I would sit in the back of the room and read and read and read. And the fourth grade, I remember, the fourth grade teacher very much encouraged me in the reading. And we had a little box of books that came from the library. And she kind of pointed out things for me to read. So for a couple hours a day, at least, I wasn’t paying any attention to what was going on in class and just reading. It was the sixth grade teacher who was the real problem. She’s the one where I began to see the class differences. Don’t even remember her name. But she dressed differently. She had a style, a bourgeois style that the others didn’t have. Now remember, you know, my generation was taught by the last great generation, I think, of women teachers. There was nothing else for women to do. They could become nurses or teachers. So we had brilliant, well educated women teachers. And with the feminist movement, that all broke down and they go off into all kinds of other fields—and my suspicion is that that group of extraordinarily well-educated women with no other place to go, is part of the collapse of the school system. But they were really good. And then when I went to junior high school in the ninth grade, we had a teacher who taught ancient history who gave us real syllabi, extra reading. She was just a brilliant teacher. And I can’t say that any of these teachers really got me going in history. Except this woman gave me a vision of what it could be.


Tortorice: So the books you were reading were histories?

Sabean: Were novels. But a lot of historical novels.

Tortorice: Right. Were mostly novels. Okay.

Sabean: And it turns out one of my colleagues here who’s now retired, Peter Reill (1938-2019), I walked into his office one day and arrayed there were all of the novels he was reading as a teenager. Kenneth Roberts (1885-1957), did these great New England colonial novels and Revolutionary War novels.

Tortorice: Right. Yes.

Sabean: And of course The Leatherstocking Tales [by James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)]. So I think my interest in history was determined by these two trajectories. That is, an understanding of Protestantism, which was historically oriented. Reading Calvin. I belonged to a book club as a teenager that was called the Evangelical Book Club or something like that, and we’d get a book a month. And Jonathan Edwards’ great book on free will, or the lack of free will, was one of the books. And I got my teeth into that, the debates about free will. So there was that sort of interest in intellectual development in life. But the other thing was, historical novels. They really perhaps determined my interest in history more than any history teacher. I do wish I could remember the name of this history teacher. She was really brilliant. And she was, you know, you think of these, she would, nowadays she’d be a university professor without a question. As several of, many of the teachers I had would now be.


Tortorice: Do you remember if she was single or married?

Sabean: I think she was single. A lot of them were single. Yeah, a lot of them were single. Oh, yes.

Tortorice: Yes, indeed. My teachers were, too.

Sabean: The Latin teacher was, and we hated our Latin teacher was, I mean we hated the Latin teacher, but she was very good. It’s very interesting. I keep relearning my Latin in order to read certain seventeenth-century texts. But since I don’t do it on a regular basis, you know, it fades, I have to relearn it. I bought this grammar, which turned out to be the grammar we had in the ninth grade. And I started going through and it all came back, it’s all there, except certain chapters. And clearly those were the chapters where I was lazy and didn’t really work at. And then these others I’d work at and so forth, and it’s all exactly what I could remember and exactly what’s there. It had to do with this quite remarkable Latin teacher.

Tortorice: Now, I’m going to pause here.


Sabean: Oh, undergraduate work. My older brother had gone to a college called Houghton College, which is 70 miles south of Buffalo and Rochester sort of in a triangle. And so I followed suit. And it was a Wesleyan Methodist college. And where its strength lay was in close reading of texts. It was very biblically oriented. A great teacher in sophomore lit, we went through, through texts, you know, absolutely, her name was Rickard, I think, she was called “Doc Jo.” Josephine, I think her name was Rickard. And she was a Victorian. She loved Victorian prose. And I think, yes, I took a course from her later precisely on Victorian prose. But you know, she had it all memorized. And we had to memorize the prologue to The Canterbury Tales. And do it in Olde English. [recites some] She would sort of stand back, close her eyes and so forth. Now the limitation was absolutely no secondary literature. So you never were introduced to literary criticism at all. You read the texts. And the same thing with Bible courses, we had to take Bible courses. They weren’t all that exciting, they weren’t all that good, but they were all textual-based. And I would say that was the perhaps strongest influence. The historian, who was there, the older historian, was terrible. And she certainly didn’t influence me to go into history. (laughs) But then there was a young guy came named [Richard] Troutman (1930-2020), who taught American history and did some political theory and so forth. And he was kind of influential. He was a very nice man. We got kind of close. And he encouraged me. I wouldn’t say he was a very strong intellectual influence on me. Although quite interesting, he was one of the first people ever to do a dissertation, he did it at Kentucky, that used statistics. I don’t think he published his dissertation. He eventually went off to Western Kentucky and became chair of the department or something like that. So it was a moment of at least encouragement. But the things that I remember, the great stuff that I remember: I took some Latin, maybe I took a French course and so forth but the influence was in literature and texts. But not literary criticism.


Tortorice: And not history.

Sabean: Not history, essentially. And philosophy. So again, the philosophy I took was mostly the history of philosophy. So when I showed up, my brother said, “Tell the philosophy professor,” whom he knew well, that you don’t want to take the introduction to philosophy. You want to jump right into the advanced course. And he let me do it. So we’re reading, again, from Plato to Hegel or whatever. And so my approach to philosophy wasn’t analytical or systematic, it was historical. And it was like the history of ideas. So that, perhaps, gave me a stronger sense of the possibilities in intellectual history than any history I took. The woman who taught history was a real disaster.


Tortorice: So you got your undergraduate degree here?

Sabean: At Houghton.

Tortorice: At Houghton.

Sabean: And I did it in three years. You know, I was already bored. So I went to summer school at Boston University. Oh, there, I took some history. In fact, I did take some history at Boston University. And there, the history was much more exciting. Much more interesting. The summer schools were usually taught by, I think now, either fresh PhDs or what have you. They weren’t on the regular faculty, I don’t think. But they were very exciting. And for the first time, very systematic and I could come away quite excited by some of them. And I took some economics there. And that one course of economics is all the economics I know, but it also helped determine ways in which I could conceptualize things.


Tortorice: So you graduated in—

Sabean: [19]60.

Tortorice: In 1960. Okay. And then you got your master’s at—

Sabean: At Wisconsin.

Tortorice: Oh, you did?

Sabean: Yeah.

Tortorice: So you came right directly—

Sabean: So I came right directly to Wisconsin. No, I applied to various places. But the only place that gave me any money was Wisconsin, where they were giving everybody these tuition, out-of-state tuition waivers, whatever they were.

Tortorice: And the tuition was very modest in those years.

Sabean: And the tuition was very modest in those years. And I could take a little loan out and so forth. So I went and the first year I’d never heard of George. And the only thing I knew was that Wisconsin was the leftist university. Which kind of made me nervous. The other thing, was my transition from being Republican to being some kind of more radical. And in this period of leaving Houghton I transitioned away from any, any belief. And I suppose, George might in a sense play a role, but only passively, in the sense that it was great intellectual history and I was thinking through all kinds of ways of thinking about history. But George had me pegged as a WASP. George had this seminar full of every kind of—he had two kinds of Catholics. He had Trotskyist and a Trotskyite. (laughs) and so forth and so on.


Tortorice: Do you think he selected them that way?

Sabean: No. But once he had you pegged, he kind of pegged you that way, kept pushing you that way.

Tortorice: Yes. And then he would ask you specifics, needle you.

Sabean: He had me pegged as the WASP. And the real Protestant and so forth And he kept pushing me to do—(laughs)

Tortorice: Challenging your beliefs, yes?

Sabean: So—

Tortorice: Because of course that was very seductive to him.

Sabean: Well, yeah, I know.

Tortorice: Actually was, of course.

Sabean: And so anyways, I came there and like there was 150 of us new graduate students. I mean, Wisconsin was a factory. It was huge. I think there were 600 graduate students all together in history at various levels. And I went in and the chair of the department at the moment was an English historian whose name escapes me at the moment. He did seventeenth century England. And I went in and he said, “Well, what are you interested in?” And I said, “I’ve narrowed it down to intellectual history and the early modern period.” That was all I could say…. He said, “You go to Mosse.” And that’s how I got started. And I went to see George. And he was sitting in his office with his high forehead. All of us remarked how over the 20 or 30 years we knew him; he was always the same age. And he was kind of a little bit intimidating. And I asked him what his seminar was going to be on. And he said, “I’ll tell you when you get there.” So then I asked around.

Tortorice: Amazing.

Sabean: He told other people it was going to be on Calvinism, of all things. Yeah, Calvin and Calvinism. And that was right down my alley, because one of the things I’d done as an undergraduate at a Wesleyan Methodist thing was use Calvinism as a way of differentiating myself.

Tortorice: He probably was testing you. He had this way of testing his potential students.

Sabean: Well, that’s true. And it was interesting because then I asked other people and he had told them what it was. And Wisconsin was great because it had this huge library. And they had this huge room with journals. And the journals were laid out all around in this huge circle. And once I knew it was going to be on Calvinism—You don’t really know what to do. I was killing time for a week or so before we started. So I went into that room and you just, I don’t know, again, you don’t know what prompts what you do. But I simply went around that room and picked up every single journal in that room in my hand and looked at it. And in the course of doing so found six or seven articles about Calvinism in one way or the other. And I discovered the journals. They had everything, like the Bulletin of French Huguenot History, and The Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte which I couldn’t really read because I didn’t know German. And at that time, I don’t think they published in English. But I went around and I jotted down all the journals which seemed relevant. Read the six or seven articles that introduced me to the current scholarship. And then we got into this seminar. And it was very intimidating because it was a series of older students and then a bunch of us who were first-year students. And we kind of ranged around the seminar, and the seminar at that time was in the library, the library rooms. And so George is sitting there with his pipe. And he had another pipe ready. And he had all the paraphernalia. (laughs) Ashes are dropping all over his shirt and burning holes and so forth. In those days, he smoked so much he had no feeling in his cheeks. So you could watch a fly go across his cheek and he wouldn’t notice.


Tortorice: Oh my God! That’s amazing.

Sabean: And he was, of course, extraordinarily charismatic and very funny. So he started off, and he started with the older students and he’d say, “What are you writing your paper on?” Well, remember, it’s a semester. So the first three or four weeks we had to read the Calvin’s Institutes and write a short paper on some subject like predestination. And so he got our feet wet. And then he started talking about the general bibliographical aids and the major works. But then he started with the older people. And the older people had these great topics. And some of them were directly within Calvinism. Others were Reformation in general or some issue. And he would talk about each one. And there was one guy whose name escapes me [Carl Weiner] who was George’s assistant and who was the older one and the one who knew everything. And he eventually left George, did his PhD at Columbia, and then taught at Carleton College. And was Lynn Hunt’s major influence, for example, so that—anyway, he, I’m trying to think of his name. but he taught for years and years and years at Carleton and was a famous history teacher. But sociologically oriented. He was interested in, at that point, and I think he eventually did it, on the spread of Calvinism in 16th-century France. And took sort of a social, sociological approach


Tortorice: We have two of Lynn Hunt’s students on our faculty. So this is, I’m going to tell them about this connection. (laughs)

Sabean: So there’s a genealogy. Anyway, so as he goes around, then he comes to the new people. And nobody had a clue. So somebody said, “I’m kind of interested in Calvinism and sects.” And of course George misunderstood.

Tortorice: Immediately!

Sabean: Misunderstood immediately. (laughter) And his eyebrows raised. And so forth. And George said, “Well, there’s an article on the subject with the journal…” And I said, Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte I didn’t know how to pronounce it but because I’d just gone around all the thing, I had all these things.

Tortorice: He noticed you.

Sabean: And then next kid wanted to do something on Luther and Calvin and he said, “Well, there’s an article in the Journal of So and So. Let’s see, who is it by?” And I said, “By So and So.” (laughter) And this went, it went four or five times. But it was just by chance that I had done this, not knowing how to get started. (laughs) And so George’s eyebrows go completely up and then because I was- it just had to do with my own biography-I was interested in Calvinism and critiques of Calvinism. And I formulated them as Calvinism and skepticism. So he looked at me, I was the last person here, and he said, “Well, what are you going to do?” And I said, “Well, I was interested in Calvinism and skepticism.” And he said, “This is the first student I’ve ever had that’s come up with a good idea,” he said. (laughs)

Tortorice: Wow.

Sabean: I thought, great. And he said, “Come into my office tomorrow and I’ll give you a bibliography.” In those days George typed on this old computer (typewriter), very fast. And I came in and he said, “Oh, Calvinism and skepticism.” And he types up like seven or eight titles and rips it out and he gives it to me and says, “Go read these.” So I go up to the library and of course three or four of them don’t exist. (laughter)


Tortorice: He just made up the titles?

Sabean: And the titles are wrong. But part of my introduction to the library was partly trying to figure out what the hell he was talking about. And of course two or three of them were completely irrelevant, they had nothing to do with the subject. But he had told us about the great Wisconsin library, the library was full of stuff. And they had bought a Huguenot library which was sitting in the middle of the stacks.

Tortorice: It’s now in Special Collections, what’s left of it, yes.

Sabean: That’s the same thing here. Ripping off of 17th century texts. So I kind of went into that. And there was another special collection, the Tank Collection, which was this incredible collection of a Dutch Calvinist library. But the trouble is a lot of it was in Latin. It was a wonderful library, but I didn’t know quite how to start that. But I look at the Huguenot stuff since I had French. I ran across this guy [Moses] Amyraut (1596-1664). It was an attempt to create a, the particular volume was an attempt to create a rational understanding of the Eucharist. So I thought oh, so my master’s thesis was on Amyraut. But the first paper I wrote was about this. And of course George started with the older students first, and then I was the first of the new students.


Tortorice: Do you recall any of the names of those older students?

Sabean: Yeah, Bob [Robert] Soucy?

Tortorice: Oh, he was in the—

Sabean: Yeah. And [Paul] Grendler?

Tortorice: Okay, Grendler. So many of them went on to great careers—

Sabean: Yes, Absolutely. Now the interesting thing is my generation, nobody did. That is, the only one who did was Dan Toft (1935-2014), and Dan Toft then failed to get tenure. And I don’t know what happened to him. But he came from a farm family in Iowa with a lot of money. He had inherited a lot of money. He had three, eventually four children; three boys in Germany. We were there at the same time. He was at Heidelberg, I was in Tübingen. And he wasn’t really very, I’m going to say scholarly. He had liked history. He never really properly learned Latin. He hired somebody to read the Latin texts for him and so forth. So he wrote this thesis. He got a nice job at Washington University in Saint Louis, but he didn’t get tenure. But none of the others really finished. It was these older, and then the next generation of students after me. So Bob Soucy wrote very much in the Mosse mold, and looked at these right-wing French people before the war, like [Maurice] Barrès (1862-1923). Grendler was, in some ways, like me. He was a Catholic kid, interested in the Renaissance. Did very well, became a great scholar at Toronto but not so much in the George Mosse mold. He moved off in a different direction. And when we tried to do the Mosse Festschrift both Soucy and Grendler fought like hell over our vision of what it should look like. And Grendler eventually didn’t contribute anything. I can’t remember if Soucy did or not.

Tortorice: I don’t think so.

Sabean: I don’t think so. It was the same thing. But if I remember correctly, almost everybody in that volume is of the next generation, the post-[19]65 people.

Tortorice: I believe you’re right.

Sabean: So it was a very exciting moment, very exciting time. So anyway, I presented my paper. And George started by saying, or usually, and I still do this with my seminars, he would simply pick on somebody and went around the room. So everybody had space to learn how to develop a critique. And I really liked that. And I still do it. Because I was always a little hesitant to jump in. And so by having that you had to have something ready which was very useful and you learn to formulate. So I still do that with my graduate students.

Tortorice: But he was tough in the way that he critiqued in front of other people.

Sabean: Very tough. Absolutely. And I still do the same.

Tortorice: Really. That’s great.

Sabean: Absolutely. I take students very seriously. I go through everything from grammar to how they formulate, how they do footnotes, to how they conceptualize. And I do precisely what George did. He went around. But he had already typed out his points. And then he would take the last 20 or 30 minutes and say, “Now I’m going to summarize,” but he already had it, and I always already have it, and go through the points systematically and very, very rigorously. So when I gave my paper, he said, “We’re going to do it differently tonight. Because here’s a paper of a first-year student that makes every mistake that a first-year student makes.” And then he proceeded for two hours to have the seminar laughing so hard that people were falling off their chairs.

Tortorice: About you?

Sabean: About me. It was, it was extraordinarily—

Tortorice: Humiliating?

Sabean: Well, both humiliating but, I mean, even I was laughing so hard at his critique. His critique was just devastating.

Tortorice: But he gave you his full attention.

Sabean: Well, oh, yeah. But as I walked out, I said to this guy who ended up in Carleton, [Carl Weiner] I said, “I guess I better quit.” And he said, “What?” I said, “Well, look what he did.” He said, “He would never have done that if he didn’t think highly of it.” So that was that, but George would never, George never, ever told a student he was good or bad. So if a student gave an awful paper or blew him off, he would start the seminar by just changing the subject. He never discussed the student’s paper. He did that two or three times in the time I was there.

Tortorice: He would completely ignore the student?

Sabean: He would ignore the student, essentially.

Tortorice: Write them off.

Sabean: Yes.

Tortorice: You couldn’t do that now, but anyways, we won’t go into that.

Sabean: No. In fact the worst of it is that I have developed a highly critical style but I will tell a student right straight that you shouldn’t continue. And this creates for the students in the seminar a very devastating moment. But I don’t know how else to do it.


Tortorice: Do you tell them that in front of other people?

Sabean: Yeah.

Tortorice: Okay.

Sabean: And if they really blow me off, you know, as several have done over the years… But you can do very poor work that is and not know how to do it and screw up. That doesn’t bother me. It’s if you just don’t try or don’t even pay attention-and this happens, you know, happens every couple of years there’s somebody like that. In the seminar I just did, everybody tried. Some of them did a disastrous job. But I tell them why and how they should go about correcting it. So I’m very rigorous precisely in the way George was. And I learned that from George. And I take them very seriously. And by the time they get to writing their dissertations, they have a much better idea. But some still can’t write. I mean, it’s amazing how poor some people are with writing.


Tortorice: Well, not to digress too much, but the New York Times now is so poorly written—

Sabean: Oh, yeah.

Tortorice: —that I, you know, I feel sometimes I’m learning bad things from reading this paper. It’s so bad.

Sabean: That’s absolutely right. And all kinds of ways that are oral ways of thinking, have crept in, in which, like the definite article is missing or what have you. But I have these students who really- their sentences make no sense and so forth, and even at the PhD level. And I put a lot of time into basic grammar and structure. Which George would never have done. But he would thoroughly critique how you formulated something.


Tortorice: Were some of the students just devastated and left the seminar?

Sabean: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And he blew off women, as fast as he could blew them off. So it was pretty much a male Bund: Later on he changed his whole way of doing it.

Tortorice: He did. But although he had that one early student that he thought was one of his best.

Sabean: Oh, Margaret. Margaret Donovan. And he always talked about Margaret.

Tortorice: Yes, his great exception.

Sabean: It was a great exception. But she was a nun.

Tortorice: Oh, was she? I didn’t know that.

Sabean: I think she had stopped being a nun. But she had been a nun.

Tortorice: Okay.

Sabean: So George, I think, was scared of her. (laughs)

Tortorice: She was going to put—

Sabean: All the other women—

Tortorice: George was fascinated by a nun….

Sabean: And then he was so disappointed because she went to take care of her mother instead of going to Harvard.

Tortorice: Right. He had gotten her a job (at Vassar) and she decided—

Sabean: To take care of her mother.

Tortorice: Yes. And ended up at Whitewater, I think. Something like that.

Sabean: And George always used her as a great example of a great mind. And we all knew about Margaret. And so forth. But there were several women showed up in each of his seminars while I was there. And they were pretty quickly gone.

Tortorice: Really.

Sabean: And they weren’t any worse than some of the guys—

Tortorice: Isn’t that incredible.

Sabean: And I once caught George and some other faculty member who I can’t remember in the hall saying, “I got rid of her.” And so forth.

Tortorice: Gee. Oh, man.

Sabean: Now that was a different period back then—now, the woman he idolized while I was there was Joan Scott.

Tortorice: Indeed. Yes.

Sabean: And Joan Scott wasn’t in his seminar. But he got her as his teaching assistant and eventually read her dissertation. And you know the story about her—

Tortorice: Signed for her, yes.

Sabean: —making what’s his face read it.

Tortorice: Harvey Goldberg, right.

Sabean: Harvey Goldberg read it, and so forth. Because Harvey, yeah.

Tortorice: They remained good friends.

Sabean: Oh, yeah.

Tortorice: And I think Joan always had a feeling of, well, I shouldn’t really be this close to George given his reputation with some other women, you know.

Sabean: Well, but that all changed. That all changed.

Tortorice: Yes, right, it did.

Sabean: Nikki Keddie (b. 1930) claims, (who was my colleague here for a long time, and a great Iran scholar) she was up for a job at Wisconsin. And that was in the days when I don’t think there was any woman in the department. And she claims that she was poorly dealt with. Now that has all changed—I mean, George became very close with Itsie (Isabel) Hull.

Tortorice: Oh, with a lot of younger women historians

Sabean: And a whole lot of women.

Tortorice: And very, very supportive. In the time that I knew him, he was extremely supportive of younger women scholars…

Sabean: Yes.

Tortorice: And more interested, actually, in their work, than he was in other work.

Sabean: Absolutely. And he also changed, you see, I was in a transition period. He’d come up out of Haverford, which was an all-male school. Went to Harvard, which was all male.

Tortorice: Had gone to all male boarding schools and had very little—

Sabean: Hadn’t a clue what women—

Tortorice: —interaction with women.

Sabean: Yes, right. Except his mother and his stepmother.

Tortorice: His mother, who was hysterical….

Sabean: And his stepmother who he was in love with—

Tortorice: And his sister, but that relationship—

Sabean: And his sister and so forth.

Tortorice: But very few women in his life.

Sabean: Yeah. Right.

Tortorice: And it was possible to be that way in that generation, of course.

Sabean: Yes. Yes. And then he had this very close relationship with what’s her name in England.

Tortorice: Paula Quirk.

Sabean: Paula. In any event, I never met [her husband] Roger. I only met Paula. I met her there in the house. And that was a close relationship. And George always stayed with them [in London].


Tortorice: By the way, when did you and Ruth get married? Were you married before you came to Madison?

Sabean: No, I came to Madison first. Ruth was still an undergraduate.

Tortorice: Okay.

Sabean: Then as soon as she finished – and she was two years behind me. She is a year younger—

Tortorice: So she went to Wisconsin, also.

Sabean: No, no. She went to Houghton.

Tortorice: Oh, she went, you met at Houghton.

Sabean: Yeah.

Tortorice: Okay. All right.

Sabean: Yeah. So she was a year and several months younger than I. But I went through in three years and she didn’t.

Tortorice: Okay.

Sabean: She also came from a missionary family and was born in Nigeria. And her father was the head of, eventually, of the mission, and then head of an interdenominational mission. And so this, anyway, so she was there in Madison. I did my master’s with George, and George encouraged me, so I got it done in one year. And nobody else did in those days. But I had gone through undergrad in three years… I did my master’s so quickly. And I, I don’t know, I was still torn, I wasn’t quite, didn’t quite understand what I was getting in Wisconsin. So I went to Brandeis. And I wanted to study with [Herbert] Marcuse (1898-1979). And so I went to Brandeis—


Tortorice: Did George introduce you to Marcuse?

Sabean: No.

Tortorice: This was something that came from the atmosphere.

Sabean: It came from reading Marcuse’s book on Hegel. And I knew they had this history of ideas department. And I was really somehow drawn to that.


Tortorice: Was this before Marcuse became this cult figure and had, you know, the following?

Sabean: Well for me, it was already with the Hegel book.

Tortorice: I see. Okay.

Sabean: But I went to Brandeis. He accepted me. He liked my application. But he was gone that year writing One Dimensional Man. He was in Europe. I then spent the year at Brandeis, and realized that Wisconsin had a really clear program. Brandeis didn’t. The only faculty member that I remember well…. there were two faculty members, there. But the one that I was very influenced by, extraordinarily influenced by, was Frank Manuel (1910-2003). Now, Frank Manuel-his entire teaching was explication de texte. You look at a text, you—

Tortorice: Just rip it apart.

Sabean: George was the opposite. You know, George was the big, broad, intellectual historical thing. It took me 25 years to deal with that. On the one hand, wanting to look close, and on the other hand, wanting to give broad understandings of things. So George was my model at one level of teaching. And I certainly adapted to his whole model of graduate teaching. And Frank Manuel was the other intellectual model. And I couldn’t figure out a synthesis. So I go to Brandeis and Marcuse was gone. And I began to see that when you look at Marcuse, you know, he would teach Aristotle, he would teach Hegel and so forth. And I’d think, how can this person do this? And I began to realize that essentially what he was was a product of the German Gymnasium, with Greek and Latin and all of those texts. And then he does Hegel and it’s tied up with [Marcuse] as a younger member of the Frankfurt School. So that in a sense, despite the fact that I never really met him, I had this vision of a kind of education that I could never have, I’d already had—and realized that this is a product of the German Gymnasium. As in a sense George was and wasn’t. That is, George went to the Salem and so forth. And came up out of a milieu that would have been a Gymnasium milieu, but ended up in these—

Tortorice: English

Sabean: Both English schools. So he would have had that partly classical training. But he was also a kid who sat around and read all this crap. And it’s that feeling for the second-rate but widely read—

Tortorice: Popular

Sabean: —popular stuff, which George developed as a kid. Which if he’d gone to a real classical Gymnasium, he wouldn’t have had the time to do it. He would have been learning Greek and Latin. And the only way you learn Greek and Latin is having it beaten into you. So this was very attractive. So with Frank Manuel, we went systematically through Hume and Montesquieu and Diderot and Rousseau and so forth. And it was great stuff. So for one year, I redid my education. I took three courses each term, each semester, in some form of history of ideas. And I took a seminar on Hegel with a guy named Heinz Lubasz or Harry Lubasz (1928-2012) who eventually went and taught in England as well, and was one of the founding members of the department of history at Essex. And I met him there a couple of times. He was a very nice man. But again we read sentence by sentence, we read The Phenomenology. It was a great experience since none of us understood it. And each of us was trying to figure out—he had written this really very interesting stuff on Aristotle. And either Hegel and Aristotle or Marx and Aristotle- might have done both. So those were the two people at Brandeis, as I said, I read, you know, and also took a course on ancient thought. So we read a book a week. And then medieval thought- a book a week.


Tortorice: So at Wisconsin, you didn’t have that kind of immersion.

Sabean: No. No.

Tortorice: There weren’t other professors that filled in the gaps that perhaps—

Sabean: No. Because they were much more, George was systematic. Now George taught, one year he taught early modern intellectual history and the next year modern intellectual. So I took the whole series. And he gave us a lot to read, including Hegel. But it was in the context of a big lecture. Where the courses at Brandeis were very small, most of them, and oriented toward reading original sources with some secondary stuff as well. And so it was very good for me. It was a good year. But I realized I had to get back to Wisconsin, and I realized what I’d had with George. So I went back.


Tortorice: And then decided to do your dissertation?

Sabean: Yes. I mean, I went back to study with George. No question about anybody else or anything. And that was really very interesting, because George had a, in general, a way of opening things up and leaving you to do what you wanted to do. And providing the context for doing it. Now the other model, and the only other people I practically knew there, with some exceptions, which I’ll mention in a minute, was, I’m trying to remember what his name was. But he taught seventeenth-century England. And he taught a seminar year in, year out, on seventeenth century England. [William L. Sachse]

Tortorice: Never changing? (laughs)

Sabean: Never changing. And all of the students came in. And he assigned them, “All right, you’re doing Bishop So and So. That’s your master’s degree.” So they were doing master’s degree on an obscure bishop. And they knew all the sources and they knew everything. And none of them ever amounted to anything. I mean, they got jobs. But there was no creativity. There was no openness. And with George, you’d come in one time and you’d say, as I did, “I want to do my dissertation on the French Libertines, early, first half of the seventeenth century. And I’m interested in the fact that they all went to study in Italy. And they went and were in the households of bishops and so forth.” And so I said, “I’d like to study these Libertines in Italy and their education and so forth.” He said, “Great topic! Terrific!” But, you know, later on, I’d come up with another topic. He said, “Great topic!” So, now the key thing when I came back, I was now studying for prelims. And one of the people I studied with, apart from someone like Dan Toft, who was also studying for them, was Chris Johnson. Chris Johnson was studying with the French historian [Henry Bertram Hill (1907-1990)]…


Tortorice: Was [Edward T.] Gargan (1922-1995) there in those years?

Sabean: No, Gargan came later, see, a lot of these people came after—

Tortorice: Okay.

Sabean: While I was essentially gone. Or came while I was finished or finishing. So the person I studied closely with was Domenico Sella. And Domenico Sella (1926-2012) was very important, because he filled in all the stuff that George didn’t go over. And I did a lot of economic history with him. As I also did medieval, we had to do a minor.

Tortorice: Right, right.

Sabean: And I did medieval history. In those days, Robert, um—

Tortorice: Was it Reynolds still? Was he still there?

Sabean: Reynolds (1902-1966) was dying. But teaching. And I did some economic history with him and with one of his students. And it was great because we read all these contracts and sources and so forth. So I got a good feel for medieval economic history. And with Domenico-I did a reading course with Domenico Sella. And I have great fondness for Sella. He was very serious. We took thousands of notes.

Tortorice: Great guy. Very nice person.

Sabean: He was really, really important. And a good complement to George. And so as I was essentially doing early modern, he was also very crucial, I took all of his courses. But that’s pretty much the history department as I knew it: George and Domenico Sella.

Tortorice: Ok. Amazing.

Sabean: I started doing a course that George and oh, I can’t remember the name, American historian did on Marx—

Tortorice: William…

Sabean: William Appleman Williams (1921-1990). But George said, “I don’t want you to take this-sign up for it, but I want you to finish your master’s thesis.” I think that was the second semester. Or whatever. And so, when I came back, I was studying for prelims and Chris Johnson and I read books together and discussed them in great detail. Chris eventually had a very good career at Wayne State.


Tortorice: Okay. And is he a Mosse student?

Sabean: No. He was a Hill student.

Tortorice: Henry Hill.

Sabean: But he taught for George. He was one of his TAs. And he took all the courses from George as well. And he and I have edited a number of books together, the latest thing we co-edited, let’s see-I’ve done four books on kinship, which I’ve edited, co-edited, and he and I did the one on siblings together [Christopher H. Johnson, David Warren Saben, Simon Teuscher and Francesca Trivellato eds. Transregional and Transnational Families in Europe and Beyond (Berghahn Books, 2011)]. And then he was part of the international family book, and part of the latest one that just came out on kinship and blood [Christopher H. Johnson, Bernhard Jussen, David Warren Sabean and Simon Teuscher, eds. Blood and Kinship: Matter for Metaphor from Ancient Rome to the Present (Berghahn Books, 2013)]. So we reconnected and we worked very closely together. But as we were working through everything- and again, here was George who was really, as many people have remarked, always like a decade ahead of everybody. And he was the one who discovered Ariès for example. And I believe [Philippe] Ariès (1914-1984) came to Wisconsin for a visit. And George, I can remember George—

Tortorice: Sponsored him?

Sabean: Well, I don’t know. I think he just came through or something. And I think it was Ariès but I’m not sure. But in any event, he introduced us to Ariès and [E.P.] Thompson (1924-1993).

Tortorice: E.P. Thompson?

Sabean: And I think we discovered Tilly, Charles Tilly’s (1929-2008) book on our own, but I’m not sure. So we were reading Tilly, oh, and the person who was making a big splash at the time, Jack Hexter (1910-1996), Reappraisals in History (1961). And between that kind of mixture—okay, so back up. George’s approach to cultural history was the thing we were all talking about and worrying about. We were dissatisfied in many ways because he was leading us to a taste in popular literature, a sense of which ideas actually had effect. Not necessarily Hegel, but, you know, Marlitt (1825-1887), some second-rate writer like Julius Langbehn (1851-1907). When I think of the lectures he gave, and I bump into people now who are studying, say, Dinter’s Sins Against the Blood, or something like that, George gave whole lectures on these things.

Tortorice: It’s amazing.

Sabean: And people are discovering Artur Dinter (1876-1948) now. And I bought a book at a, antiquariat, at a used book store recently and was reading it. And George gave these great lectures on everything. [Ernst] Haeckel (1834-1919) and so forth- all of these things which became texts that people are learning about much later.

Tortorice: Yes.

Sabean: But we were concerned with the issues of ideas having effect. Ideas and politics. And he would sort of say, “Well, thousands of people read this book,” or, “Everybody read this book.” There was a, you know, deep in Gymnasium, or whatever. And that was kind of unsatisfactory.


Tortorice: In what way?

Sabean: Just because it was “seat of the pants” in the sense of- we wanted to know how many, numbers sometimes. Or we wanted to know more—I can’t—

Tortorice: Numbers of people that had read it or how—

Sabean: Or editions and so forth, and he never did that sort of thing. He just said, “Everybody read it,” whatever.

Tortorice: In the transcript of the Stanford Seminar, he tries to quantify, because they kept pressuring him about that. And he claims that he did in fact have these numbers.

Sabean: Yeah, well, he didn’t have numbers. (laughter) But he knew that there were big editions, or many editions, and so forth. And he was right on. Because he grew up in that culture. Several of the people who also grew up in Germany in that seminar, you know, are real Gymnasium. They didn’t read any crap. And they keep trying to say, “But there’s this crap literature and this great literature and you have to differentiate.” Well, in the next generation it’s the [19]70s where you know, in Germany and all these literature departments in Germany started reading the crap. And they start saying precisely what George was saying, the differentiation, the creation of the cannon, and so forth, which becomes a big issue in the [19]70s and [19]80s and [19]90s.

Tortorice: I’ve been reading this biography of Himmler. He was reading all of that crap.

Sabean: Right.

Tortorice: It’s amazing. He was reading those books that George mentions.

Sabean: Yes. And that’s in the sense that George had a real insight into a lot of these people —it’s very interesting, and this comes up- he both read it, and he loved it. For example, when he went to South Africa, he goes to the German areas and so forth, he’d read all the novels and knew precisely what he was looking for and had a great sense of this place, because he already read all these novels as a kid, and had them in his imagination. And he had a real, real sense for how these things worked. But it wasn’t replicable in the same way. So we are reading these other, these new texts. And Chris and I, I can remember sitting at lunch together and saying, “Let’s become social historians.” “Yes, what is it?” (laughter)

Tortorice: And we don’t know anything about it.

Sabean: And we began to catalog and think through what social history could be. And it was around that time that I then realized that if I was going to be an early modernist, I had to have German and I didn’t have it. Secondly, that I wanted to do social history. And the model was Tilly’s Vendée study. So I still was thinking of social history in terms of an event. So I said to George, “I want to do the German Peasant War.” He said, “Great. Bring me the book and don’t bother me in between.” Which was also great. So, he encouraged me. He helped me get fellowships. I went off to go to the archives. And of course he gave us no training in paleography or anything like that. As I don’t, either. As I tell the students, you’ve got to deal with it. And here are things you can learn, and so forth. And occasionally I’ll sit with a student who’s been to the archives and has a transcript and I’ll teach him how to read it and so forth. But, you know, it was a shock. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I couldn’t read the stuff. That took a long while to get into, but the great thing was that George just let me do it. And I had, some of the things I had learned from Domenico Sella-how to study. Lots of the questions that grew out of English economic history. In a sense I came with those questions to study. And I decided by myself I would study Upper Swabia because that’s where the thing started.


Tortorice: So you found George’s method, or the direction that he was going, unsatisfactory as a model for you to pursue. And you realized that as he was moving in this new direction.

Sabean: But it was also extraordinarily interesting. And in a sense I rejected it for a long time, came back and was much more impressed. And I assign the stuff to my students all the time. And I read a lot of the stuff he produced later, and I read it later. So I was, at that transition period where he’s going from that classical early modern stuff, which he learned from [Charles Howard] McIlwain (1871-1968) at Harvard and [Horace Gray] Lunt (1918-2010) and so forth, to his ideological critique and interests. And so that book came out about, what? [19]62, Roots of the Nazi Mind? [Crisis of German Ideology].

Tortorice: [19]64, I think.

Sabean: [19]64, okay, sort of after I had him as an undergraduate, as a graduate student. So it’s really a great deal about the next generation, Robert Nye and Andy Rabinbach and all of those people. Also [David] Gross, I think Gross came just as I was finishing. All of those people have a completely different George. The other thing was that George was going from being a kind of quasi-Protestant to becoming a Jew-and that was also taking place. And when he went off to take the chair in Jerusalem (1969), which was much later-all of that-in the early sixties, he claims that he went to the Episcopal services every week in Harvard (in the early forties).

Tortorice: Mm hmm. I’m sure he did.

Sabean: And he probably, he probably did. But, and then the Quaker schooling and, and his Reformation work, his little Reformation book, which was a runaway bestseller- so all of that- he was going from that to studying his youth, the Nazi thing, the things that he went through. And he’s discovering more and more his Jewish identity—

Tortorice: He was a moving target as a historian.

Sabean: Absolutely. So people like Andy Rabinbach know him completely differently from how I knew him. And as I say, his first seminar was on Calvinism. And then he did totalitarianism. Then he did the Radical Reformation. Then he went back and forth like that. And he really, when Bob [Robert McCune] Kingdon (1927-2010) came, who came after I, when I was writing my dissertation, when he brought in Bob Kingdon, then he abandoned all of the Reformation to Kingdon. Up till then, he had all the Reformation scholars as well.


Tortorice: And in those years, I mean, there were about ten years, and that’s when the vast majority of his graduate students studied with him.

Sabean: Yes.

Tortorice: Because after about [19]72, he didn’t take any more graduate students.

Sabean: Yes.

Tortorice: And he had 38.

Sabean: Yes. So he had a few from—

Tortorice: Iowa, right?

Sabean: Iowa. Then he had the generation of Sterling Fishman (1932-1997) and Sy Drescher. And I got to know Sy very well. I got to know Sterling fairly well, because Sterling came on the faculty while we were there. But he was also a little distanced.

Tortorice: Reserved.

Sabean: Reserved. I knew him in Germany when we went there. And then I bumped into him from time to time. But Seymour and I became very close, as you know. And, but that was early first generation. In my generation, practically nobody finished. Then he had all that—

Tortorice: The final burst. Right. Right.

Sabean: Andy Rabinbach and so forth, and Nye, and a lot of people who worked closely with him who essentially did their dissertations with him but weren’t formally, like the guy at North Carolina who did the study—

Tortorice: Chris Browning.

Sabean: Browning.

Tortorice: Just retired.

Sabean: Browning was essentially—

Tortorice: George’s student.

Sabean: George’s student.

Tortorice: Because [Robert] Koehl (1922-2015) by that time was…. You know, I think George, obviously, was very influential.

Sabean: So there’s a whole bunch of people like Joan Scott were very closeto George that were not his dissertation students.

Tortorice: Yes.

Sabean: Chris Johnson was very influenced by him. I kind of jotted down a few people who were there at the time. Oh, Joan (Scott) talking with Joan a lot was also very important at the time.

Tortorice: For you?

Sabean: Yeah.

Tortorice: Okay.

Sabean: We weren’t terribly close, but she was very important. Andy (Rabinbach), I only knew later, of course. Bob Nye much later. Bob Soucy was important, but he went off to do his work at the time while we were studying for exams. So early on, he was kind of influential. David Gross came just as I was leaving. Bob Pois (1940-2004) who died, went to Colorado, was a very strange person, and very interesting. And we talked a lot. And he also studied for exams at the same time: Very quirky. Very much more attuned to George’s, ultimately to George’s approach, and eventually very interested in psychology and psychoanalysis. And he went off more in that direction using more formally Freud and so forth. Paul Lachance was an undergraduate at the time when I was there, and became a graduate student. Paul was interesting because I talked with him a lot about good writing. And then I lost touch with him. He also did his dissertation with George, but I was younger. And of course then Paul Breines was an undergraduate.

Tortorice: Then he came back to get his master’s and doctorate

Sabean: And I only got to know Paul much, much, much later, and not very well.


Tortorice: And Steve? Did you know Steve Aschheim?

Sabean: No, Aschheim of course, came well after I was gone. And I only know him from afar and I’ve met him a couple of times: Extraordinarily impressive mind. And I think in some ways one of George’s best students. But fully developed before he came, you know. And also with a great presence, you know.

Tortorice: Charisma.

Sabean: Charisma.

Tortorice: He has that Mosse charisma as a teacher.

Sabean: Yeah. So and when we, after George died and we did that book—

Tortorice: What History Tells.

Sabean: What History Tells. Almost all of the people there came later. I think Sy Drescher might have been there.

Tortorice: That’s true. You and Sy I think, were the two from the earlier period.

Sabean: But then Sy and I didn’t overlap.

Tortorice: But for George’s eightieth, there were some people there from your period.

Sabean: That’s right.

Tortorice: Yes, Grendler and some other ones.

Sabean: Paul Grendler, right, he came. And Robert Soucy came.

Tortorice: Right. Right.

Sabean: Grendler and Soucy were a year or two ahead of me. And then there was a guy, Irish, big Irish guy, huge guy, who sort of disappeared, but was one of Mosse’s, students-same generation as Grendler. He and Grendler were very impressive figures in the seminar. I can’t remember his name, but he went off to—

Tortorice: Not [John] Thayer.

Sabean: No, Thayer is much older. Thayer is the generation of Sy Drescher and—

Tortorice: Okay. He’s part of that generation.

Sabean: And he may even have started in Iowa.

Tortorice: Okay. With Dick [Richard] Soloway?

Sabean: And Thayer was there with Soloway.

Tortorice: Right.

Sabean: Thayer was always very distanced and critical of George.

Tortorice: Mm hmm. He was, yes.

Sabean: And trying to get him to take part in the- Festschrift.

Tortorice: I read those letters. They were very, very critical of George, yes. He found George’s methods highly frustrating.

Sabean: So Thayer-we couldn’t get Thayer to write. And it was very frustrating. So there was that earlier bunch, and then my generation, which mostly didn’t work out. And then, but this new generation were all into the New Left politics. They were all into the Frankfurt school. And George introduced them to a lot of that stuff.

Tortorice: Mm hmm. He really (helped) introduce that history of the Frankfurt School in the U.S. along with the fellow at Berkeley.

Sabean: Yes.

Tortorice: Carl Schorske (1915-2015)?

Sabean: It could, well it might have been Schorske, but probably it was what’s his name. you know, who wrote about the Frankfurt School

Tortorice: Not Martin Jay?

Sabean: Yes, Martin Jay.

Tortorice: Well, George (helped) introduce him to it.

Sabean: Oh, he did?

Tortorice: When Marty gave the Mosse Lectures at the Hebrew University, he said that.

Sabean: Oh, really? That’s interesting.

Tortorice: Because George knew some of these figures, you know.

Sabean: Yeah.

Tortorice: And he also, and Scholem of course and these people.

Sabean: That’s right. But this is all later. George didn’t mention the Frankfurt school to any of us.

Tortorice: Right. It was later that he—

Sabean: It’s all later. So that whole influence—and then George gets interested in sexuality.

Tortorice: Right.

Sabean: He gets interested in Jewish history.

Tortorice: Right.

Sabean: And starts doing undergraduate seminars in these things. He never mentioned Jewish history to us. And that was my great, ultimate criticism when I started to then teach German history, which I only did much later, when I came here: Actually only after I got the chair. So when I came back the second time, the fact that I didn’t know any Jewish history I blamed on George. And then I tried to figure how to catch up and put it into German history.

Tortorice: But he taught the first seminar, his first seminar on Jewish history, or his first course in 1970. He had taught, I think, a seminar, or course, when he went to Hebrew University.

Sabean: Yes.

Tortorice: And we have those lectures on our website, but the audio isn’t very good. I’m trying to get that improved. But all of the summaries are there. And it’s basically German Jewish history.

Sabean: Yes. Oh, very good.

Tortorice: And whenever it was about Eastern European, George brought someone in, because he didn’t know anything about it, you know.

Sabean: And he was contemptuous of all that. (laughs) Very funny time when George was lecturing on either the Baltic or the Balkans or whatever, and he was calling it the wrong thing, so if it was the Balkans he was talking about the Baltic. With the Baltic, he was talking about the Balkans. And some kid raised his hand and said, “Don’t you mean the Baltic?” or something. And it was 500 students. He was very funny, he’d say, “Baltic Schmaltic. They’re just a bunch of short little people running around that nobody cares about.” (laughter)

Tortorice: Terrible. Terrible. Yes, George and facts. He was very, very skeptical about facts in history. It was not one of his strengths. Let’s put it that way.

Sabean: Well it was funny. When he introduced Ariès, he would work these things into his lectures, whatever he was reading. So he always had his five pages that he had in front of him. But then he would riff on stuff. So he starts talking about Ariès, and he’s talking about the non-differentiation of, of girls and boys until they’re seven or eight. So they all wore the same thing. They all wore, he said, he wanted to say “smock.” But he said, “They all wore little schmucks.” And the entire place burst into laughter. And of course George is trying to figure it out: what did I say funny? Because he wants to milk it. And so he goes back over it again, and he says, “And they wore a little schmuck” and they’d laugh again. So afterwards he said to me, “What are they laughing at?” Because he didn’t know any Yiddish. That was the other thing.

Tortorice: Or Hebrew.

Sabean: “Schmuck, George. You said schmuck.” He said, “What does that mean?” And I say, “You know, it’s Yiddish.” We’re talking about, and I explain it to him. And his face falls. He’s just, “How did they know that?” (laughter) He said, “How terrible that they know these things!”

Tortorice: Oh, that’s funny.

Sabean: And I said, “It’s just Yiddish, George. Even I know it.”

Tortorice: In Wisconsin. Right. But the students would know that.

Sabean: It was very, very funny.

Tortorice: Oh, that’s hilarious.

Sabean: And that has to do with his put-on accent. He would always refer to Milvaukee (instead of Milwaukee).

Tortorice: He did that on purpose. VowSaw (Wausau) and all that.

Sabean: Yeah. Volkyshaw (Waukesha).

Tortorice: Yes: He had his own language to put it that way. Well maybe we should go on and we can come back to this, and you can talk about—


Sabean: Okay. Go ahead. We talked about how George directed my dissertation on the German Peasant War. But one great moment- I wrote the manuscript, I did the research. Oh, and then I’m getting a job, George was crucial, of course. But his cousin Werner [Mosse] (1918-2001) was the professor of history at the University of East Anglia.

Tortorice: Werner the absolute opposite of George.

Sabean: Totally opposite.

Tortorice: He perhaps George would have been like that if he had gone to England. Who knows.

Sabean: Well, no, the key thing, the key thing is the kind of school they went to and exactly what age they hit school. Because here’s Werner in an English school and he is the quintessential outsider. George played with his outsiderdom—

Tortorice: That’s true.

Sabean: Werner was awkward, and very straightforward.

Tortorice: Very German.

Sabean: And German. And the kids must have been merciless with him.

Tortorice: Mm hmm. He was probably gay also?

Sabean: That could also be, yes, yes.

Tortorice: He probably was.

Sabean: Yes, yes, yes.

Tortorice: And of course he had seen his father killed right in front of his eyes.

Sabean: Oh, I didn’t know that.

Tortorice: His father was a politician and he was shot [Werner’s father, Rudolf Sigismund Mosse (1890-1933), died in unclear circumstances on 21 August 1933 on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. He was being escorted by the SA to Oranienburg concentration camp. Werner Mosse was not present.[1]) And Werner was there.

Sabean: Oh, I didn’t know that.

Tortorice: Yes.

Sabean: I didn’t know that. So he was completely, he was (verklempt) and he was just a completely different—

Tortorice: Yes. But a great historian in his own way from what I’ve been told: A German Jewish historian.

Sabean: Yes. That came later. He was writing a three-volume history of the Russian Revolution when I knew him. And he sent it off and [Theodore H.] von Laue (1916-2000) said it was a piece of crap and he abandoned it. And he started off with a book on diplomatic history and so forth. And then he started writing on German Jewish history and did a very fine job.

Sabean: He was totally alienated and isolated at East Anglia.

Tortorice: And George got you the position there?

Sabean: And George said to his cousin, “Hire David.” And I went and gave a miserable interview. Because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. And Werner took me and they hired me. And I had a great four years there. It was swinging England. I went through [19]68. And it was really interesting: Great teaching. It was seminar teaching, though I essentially did George’s seminars. And I had to give three lectures a year. It was essentially a seminar situation. Not tutorials. So I easily slid into it. A lot of the English faculty who had been raised on tutorials in Cambridge and Oxford couldn’t figure out how to run seminars and they had great problems. So sometimes they broke up their seminars into tutorials and so forth. But I was very influenced there by some anthropologists. And I had written some stuff—oh, let me come back to the point about George. I wrote, I did the research and then the first year and maybe even the second year I figured out I had to learn how to do statistics. I had to learn how to think about this material. And it was this time that [Emmanuel] Le Roy Ladurie’s (b. 1929) great book on Languedoc came out and that was very influential. I began to read the French Annales school a lot. I began to read about issues of population change and all those kinds of things which were all new to me. And trying to figure out how to utilize them and think about them for the background to the German Peasant War. And then I was also using English economic historical ideas of changes in rent, changes in land tenure and that sort of thing. And then I wrote it up and George came to London and I went down and handed him the dissertation- I went to the British Museum and worked in the library and met him there. Handed it to him. By the end of the day, he’d read the first half and gave it to me. By noon the next day he’d read the rest of it with his comments.

Tortorice: Amazing.

Sabean: His comments they were in some ways useful and in some ways frustrating. He just said, you know, “Finish going through the revisions.” Which I did. And then he accepted it. But it was that sense of immediately dealing with graduate student work. He always did that. No matter what he was doing, he turned graduate student work around immediately.

Tortorice: Which is so helpful, to say the least. And not currently the way things are done.

Sabean: Absolutely. And that has just always been my model.

Tortorice: That’s great.

Sabean: I always turn graduate student work right around. Except as I’m getting older, it’s more difficult. (laughs) But I always do that. And his sense of professionalism: I now have to give students lectures on professionalism. His example as a professional simply taught us all a great deal about professionalism. Because you know, at one level, he didn’t care about the facts so much, and he’s always bullshitting and so forth around you, yet you have this sense, you know, he’s very Prussian, very organized.

Tortorice: Oh, yes: Very disciplined.

Sabean: Very disciplined. And that you learned with time, and with his interaction with you: Because he always took your work seriously. He always critiqued it. He didn’t praise you. No patting on the head, but full support. And that you learned; that the support was there, and so forth.

Tortorice: That he valued you and your work.

Sabean: Yes. Yes. So he turned it right around and did it right away. And then we were earning miserable pay in England, and I couldn’t afford for a whole year to come to Madison to defend my doctorate: in those days we had committees of…..


Tortorice: Who was on the committee?

Sabean: The committee was people I hadn’t worked with: Domenico Sella was on it. Bob Kingdon and David Herlihy (1930-1991).

Tortorice: Oh, sure.

Sabean: And Herlihy didn’t read it. He kind of thumbed it through and told me that my tables should have, you should have a little thing under that saying what the table was. Kingdon read it, thought, and liked it a lot. Sella read it, of course. And he was the one that posed the most challenging question. George asked the wrong question at the beginning. He said, “This is a very innovative dissertation: Could you discuss your innovation?” And, you know, I’m seat of the pants, learning how to do this, really, and I couldn’t, at that point, stand back and talk in general. And I actually learned how to do that from that very question. But we were all sicker than hell. We all had the flu.

Tortorice: Oh my God. (laughs)

Sabean: And I flew all the way from England and the whole thing lasted 45 minutes. (laughs) but George was extraordinarily supportive. He got me the job. We had a problem later.

Tortorice: You and George?

Sabean: Yes, because in those days George would only write a letter for one person per job. Now that may have changed later. So I came from East Anglia to Pittsburgh, and then I got an offer to go for a year on my sabbatical to the Max Planck Institute for History in Göttingen and misunderstanding what a sabbatical was, I stayed for seven years. (laughter) Anyway, so when I was finished and had to come back, and get my kids back in the schools, I applied for two jobs: Iowa and, and here (UCLA)…those were the only two jobs. And George had already written for Andy [Rabinbach] and he wouldn’t write a letter for me.

Tortorice: For here, UCLA?

Sabean: For here.

Tortorice: Okay.

Sabean: And Peter Reill, who was chairing the committee, wrote to me and said, “You’ve got to have a letter from Mosse.” So I called George and said, “You’ve got to write me a letter.” And so there was a great deal of tension between us at that point.


Tortorice: Did he finally write one, or—

Sabean: Yes, he did. But he wanted Andy to have the job. And Andy interviewed and I interviewed, and a woman named [Kristen] Neuschel who went to Duke. And I got the job. I mean, I think Andy’s a great historian and probably deserved it more than I. But I got the job, partly because it was an early modern; they wanted an early modernist.

Tortorice: Right.

Sabean: And then I stayed here for five years, and I hated Los Angeles. And didn’t quite know what I had. I was beginning to develop a seminar situation like George’s, which was always my model for teaching: I never was able to deal with students one-on-one properly. I don’t like that. I really like the seminar situation, and that’s what I encourage. I developed: We have a quarter system here, and so I invented the two-quarter research seminar. First quarter was the introduction into a topic, and the second quarter they did papers. So it was exactly George’s seminar. So, when I first came, all of the seminars were monopolized by two older faculty, and a bunch of us got together and restructured the nature of graduate education. And like George I tried to create big structures. And one of the things that had struck me when I came back was how different the German discourse about selfhood and the American discourse about selfhood were. So the first seminar I gave was on the history of individualism. And it’s in that seminar that I put in history of the body, history of memory, history of identity, subjectivity, conscience, sexuality. None of which had taken off yet. Gender was the only one that was beginning. And all of these became whole subjects and vast literature in the next years.

Sabean: The next seminar I gave was on the history of the body. And then I got a call from Cornell, and was asked if I was interested in teaching there. I thought yeah this would be great! Great teaching. And I went off to Cornell and regretted it the moment I got there. It’s in the middle of freaking nowhere, and all of the faculty had come in the [19]60s. And the hates and loves were all set. It took me a while, took me five years, but I came back to the chair here [UCLA].


Tortorice: And George used to come out every year to Cornell.

Sabean: George came every year as a visiting professor, and I was part of the group that brought George. It was interesting; I think he came two or three years. That was the idea.

Tortorice: Yes, and then he was A.D. White Prof. at Cornell, but you had left by then, I think. He was A.D. White professor there for four years, and he had a couple years when he passed away still left.

Sabean: Yes, well that was, that was the thing.

Tortorice: Oh was it? Okay.

Sabean: I was part of bringing him for the A.D. White Professorship.

Tortorice: He went, I think for four years he visited Cornell for six weeks.

Sabean: And [Dominick] La Capra played a role and so forth. There was a big fight, no one knows quite what happened. But [John] Najemy claimed that George, I can’t remember. Made some insult about the Middle East being a hell hole or something like that.

Tortorice: Right.

Sabean: And Najemy—

Tortorice: Sand jockeys or something like that?

Sabean: Oh, whatever. And then Najemy fought bitterly not to allow George to come back.

Tortorice: Najemy, who’s that—

Sabean: John Najemy

Tortorice: Oh, John Najemy, Okay.

Sabean: He’s a Renaissance scholar. And La Capra and I and several others fought to have George. And then our question was, I was talking with Joan Scott, and the two of us were laughing about it all. And she said, “Well, he probably did say that.” I said, “I know he probably did say it. Of course he did.” (laughter)

Tortorice: Yes, of course he did.

Sabean: And so forth. But he was very successful. Everybody liked him at Cornell.

Tortorice: And then you ended up coming back here [UCLA]?

Sabean: And then I came back here: but then there was a chair in German history that Wehler had turned down. And they were looking for somebody who would actually come. (laughs) So I was able to come back. And then I became a German historian.

Tortorice: Oh, so not until—

Sabean: It’s really, I mean, I taught courses in European history. I taught, as I say, these big seminars from which I always had four or five books first in anthropology. And then we would read historical works on, let’s say, the history of individualism in some way with student reports. And that first group was a really good group of graduate students, terrific group. My student Ann Goldberg, who just got a prize for her second book, is at UC Riverside; Matt Matsuda, who’s at Rutgers- a very inventive and very interesting historian.


Tortorice: And these are your doctoral students?

Sabean: Yes, so Matt wrote on—you asked me how many graduates I had. I’ve had seventeen.

Tortorice: Seventeen.

Sabean: And I’m chairing ten committees at the moment.

Tortorice: My God.

Sabean: So I may eventually have 25 or so.

Tortorice: And you’re still really enjoying it and still engaged in teaching?

Sabean: Yes. Yes, yes. I was very close to, and worked very closely with eleven students who eventually did their PhD. I did a dissertation reading group at home.

Tortorice: Like George’s seminars in his home?

Sabean: Yes And also, I’ve had a lot of students who came I wasn’t chairing. And one of the most brilliant and, I think, one of the best students we’ve ever had, was Claudia Verhoeven who is at Cornell and teaches Russian history. But she was first going to do a dissertation with me on the German peace movement, but she decided to work on the first attempt to assassinate Alexander II-she wrote a brilliant book that’s published by Cornell. And then she started off at George Mason and went to Cornell- she’s now at Cornell. And she’s quite brilliant.

And I worked with several others, a guy named Robert Batchelor who does very inventive and very obscure global history: He wrote an article in a book I edited on space and self in which he took a Japanese character that deals with space and it’s almost like a kind of riffing on this. He’s in England here, he’s in Japan there, he’s in China here. Anyway, Bob actually did his undergraduate senior honor’s thesis at Cornell, and then he came here. And by the time I came back, the professor he’s working with, John Brewer, had left. And I think technically I was the chair in the end for him. I may not have, but I think so. But I saw it through. So Batchelor, I think, is really very interesting.

I wrote down the names of a number of them. Oh, yes, and the interesting thing is, most of my students, I’ve had early modern and modern, I’ve had French and German. So when Lynn Hunt came, I didn’t get any more French historians and so forth. Jared Poley I worked essentially on the Weimar Republic: Very intellectual history. Very much like George’s work, but self-invented.

And then I’ve had two really good early modernists working in German history. Ben Marschke and Jason Coy who are extraordinarily active and played a big role, as has Jared Poley in the German Studies Association: They run the program, they’re on the general committees. So they are very good and very inventive young historians. Britta McEwen did her dissertation on sexual knowledge in Red Vienna, the whole development of sexual advice centers and so forth. And then one of my most successful was John Mangum, who is now running the San Francisco Philharmonic, but for a while, was vice president of the New York Philharmonic. He wrote his dissertation on the building and development of the opera house in Berlin-Very inventive.

And then one student I worked closely with is Ritika Prasad, who worked on railroad construction and the meaning of the railroad in India: A cultural historian who I pushed in the direction of social history. Another very fine historian that I worked closely with was Bill Clark, who wrote a book on the development of the German university and the seminar. It’s been translated into about ten languages: a very important book. And one who’s going to develop and become very famous is Teresa Barnett, who came to all my seminars. She’s older, she had already abandoned a PhD in literature. But she was the associate director of the oral history program here. She eventually became director. And she did her PhD in history in American history, looking at the whole development of artifact in 19th century America. She’s really smart. And her dissertation has been rewritten and coming out with Chicago. There’s been some really smart and interesting students here.


Tortorice: You know, David, it seems in many ways, with huge exceptions, you’ve replicated George’s career in the sense that—

Sabean: He’s a model, he’s a model. And I became more German than I expected. But it’s, you know, no disciples. Nobody does what I do.

Tortorice: You know, this is typical of George, too, in that sense. That there isn’t this kind of theoretical approach that you can bounce off of and play with. And yet in another way, when you think of your students and George’s students, and the tremendous influence they’ve had in various universities in Europe, and the U.S., Israel, it’s not a school of history, but—

Sabean: [phone ringing] Where’s my phone?

Tortorice: (laughs) Well, that’s a good question. That’s my phone.

Sabean: Oh, that’s your phone.

Tortorice: Yeah.

Sabean: Oh, no, it’s in here.

Tortorice: Oh, it is your phone.

Sabean: It’s in my jacket.


Tortorice: But also your peripatetic career, and the fact that you still have such a passion for history and for teaching…

Sabean: [unclear] (laughs)

Tortorice: I mean that you still spend large amounts of time on the road and away and on sabbatical, that you’re still very passionate about your work. You still love teaching.

Sabean: Right.

Tortorice: That this is more a calling than a job. Is there, I mean, perhaps there isn’t a school, but there’s maybe—

Sabean: No, but that influence was, there were several structural influences. The range, early modern and modern—

Tortorice: Right.

Sabean: Now when I moved to social history, when I first tried to teach social history, I was never able to synthesize in the way that George had synthesized intellectual history. So I never, never was successful at quite doing that and doing good social history from early modern to modern. And I was always moving around social history, cultural history, intellectual history. So one of my books is—well, the chief thing I wrote- it took 30 years to do, was this village study. Hardcore social history.

Tortorice: Yes. Right.

Sabean: But as I was doing it, I did Power in the Blood, which is much more a discourse. Now the key difference is I did this village study, which I did family reconstitution and put in a lot of the data about every court appearance, inventories, land sales. Now what George did, which is really very different and intellectual history, is he’s reading all these texts. So each book builds on this bunch of texts. And every time he has to give a lecture, he can spontaneously talk about Fichte, or whatever he wants to do, and so forth. Where I put together a little biography of Hans Hensler. (laughs) and while I could write these two thick volumes on the village, and perhaps there was another volume to be written, I don’t have this huge literature behind me. And most of what I have behind me is what I read in graduate school. Now I’ve read a lot since then, I read a lot of anthropology. And for a number of years, I only read anthropology until it got too self-reflective, and reflexive. But I read a lot of monographs, read a lot of anthropology. I did do a year with Jack Goody (1919-2015) at Cambridge studying anthropology systematically. And always for a long time saw myself as much an anthropologist as a historian.

Now as I’m coming back, I still see myself as a social historian. The last seminar I gave was on the epistemological foundations of social history. Trying to figure out what it is that I’d been doing all these years. And constitute a group with an Israeli scholar, Gadi Algazi who was chair of the Tel Aviv History Department. He is a medievalist. And then a scholar at Zurich, Simon Teuscher, who I’ve edited books with. The three of us are putting together a compact group of twelve or thirteen people to meet regularly and discuss social history. That’s one thing.

But the book I’m doing now, I’ve been working for many years on, without much success so far, is on the history of incest discourse from 1600 to the present in Europe and America. It’s very complex and I’m trying to figure it all out. But sometimes I’m writing up a whole bunch of texts and I find myself writing like George. And it’s very unsatisfactory because I don’t do it as well. But it’s reading through this, that or the other…one of the periods I’m dealing with is the end of the nineteenth, beginning of the twentieth century. Throughout the West, but particularly in Germany, there’s an enormous amount of stuff written about mothers and motherhood. And mother is highly sexualized. And so I read every, every book in the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin with the word Weib or female in the title. And I have a massive amount of material and I have begun to write it through. I’m writing more like George. And what I’m trying to do is nail down, and this is then goes back to that original problem- nail down this discourse in social relations. And trying to figure out how, what the context really is, how families are structured, how bourgeois society is structured and why mother and motherhood is such a topic. So trying to get that other level of dimension without doing that simple structure and superstructure thing. Or all the other models.

But I think of culture and society as indissoluble and trying to figure out how they’re related is very complex. But it’s back to the original problematic issue that I found in George’s work and in his seminars. And it’s very difficult. And but again, as I take one after the other of these women and men that are writing, and I am interested in, as George is, in both the popular and the scientific, and I want to see them as a continuum, not as a, so some cell biologist, I want to see them as a, you know, as a Pfadfinder, as a kid who grows up and he’s a cell biologist but all that crap is in him. And his relationships and thinking about gender and so forth. And then I want to look at a popular novelist and try to treat and think of European society in this period as an anthropologist would look at it. And I think George’s eye was very much an anthropologist’s eye before the fact. And that, perhaps when I reflect on it, that plays a big role in how I think about things and how he tried to do it. But writing it up the first time is not satisfactory. And I’ve got to find a different way of writing it. But George had a good way of weaving his way in and making a judicious comment about how this fits, text fits. And then go on and so forth. So it’s that huge set of things that he’d read that he always can call on. And frequently it’s associative. He has this associative way.

Tortorice: It is. Yes.

Sabean: And I can’t, I’m not skilled enough to pull that off.

Tortorice: Very few historians are allowed to pull that off. (laughs) Or are satisfied with it. But George, because he had both the reputation, but also his style of writing was expected, you know. He was allowed to do that in a way. And he was so good at it, as you said-so many insights.


Sabean: But it was also the problematic that we were dealing with. Let’s see, let me see if I can pick up on some of the questions you asked.

Tortorice: Yes

Sabean: Do you [Mosse students] constitute a school or an approach to history? I think the cohesiveness of that next generation was much greater. I interrelate with the ones that I see often, with of course Sy Dresher and Andy Rabinbach so those are the ones I see most often. Andy used to get together with us at the AHA.

Tortorice: Right. Yes.

Sabean: But when I listen to Andy, it’s a different George. And Sy and I probably a little more. But I pick up on a lot of things about George. George is Protestant, George is… and so forth, that other people wouldn’t have unless they were attuned to what he knew and what he could talk about. Let’s see. But, on the other hand, we did see ourselves almost as a Bund, as a bunch of men, young men, with a leader. And when he talked about all this völkisch stuff about leadership and so forth, we were all enthralled by it all and we loved the fact that we were a special group. Because we thought we were the most exciting, the best group at Wisconsin. And we kind of hung around together, we didn’t know, at least, I didn’t know a lot of people outside the group. Except when we were studying for exams, then people like Chris Johnson and so forth. And so, you know, I did not keep a close relationship with George’s students over the years, except when I come back to—again to Sy was very important. You asked a few things about—we’ll have to break off soon.

Tortorice: Yeah.

Sabean: Get something to eat.


Tortorice: I just want to ask you a bit more about George’s legacy and reputation before we… You know, George always said everything is politics. Everything is political.

Sabean: Yes. That’s another great insight. I have—

Tortorice: And then Foucault came along. Everything is power. Ten, twelve years later, which is essentially the same thing.

Sabean: It’s similar. But Mosse has a greater feel for social reality. I mean, Foucault is very abstract.

Tortorice: Yes, indeed.

Sabean: I mean, Foucault, you know, dug out stuff about the prison, about the psychiatric profession and stuff.

Tortorice: But a real disdain for facts, also.

Sabean: Yeah, also (laughter)

Tortorice: Very much so. Even worse, because he extrapolated in a much more theoretical manner…

Sabean: Well, the thing about Foucault, and the thing about Bourdieu and so forth is they came up out of the Lycée. They all did explication de texte. This whole set of people read exactly the same things, exactly the same hour every day. So when Foucault takes and turns something around and twists it, it’s out of that, out of that precise set of texts which they all read: Pascal, Descartes, Proust, and so forth. And he’s playing with that. And in a sense, it’s a series of texts. And in that way, George has got a different set of texts, but he’s playing with those texts. The difference is, George is decentered. He moves from Germany to here. Nobody here has those texts. And this is a little bit like Marcuse, Marcuse is bringing the Gymnasium, and nobody has that set of texts or that range. And the same thing- Foucault is often misunderstood in the United States because he’s working through a tradition which he doesn’t necessarily always mention. And it’s very much that. I’ve had graduate students who were Foucauldians, but they don’t know Descartes, they don’t know Pascal. They don’t know the texts. And they think they know—

Tortorice: Foucault

Sabean: Foucault. But they don’t know what he’s talking about.


Tortorice: Well, and I think George’s, the basis of George’s work was a moral and ethical—

Sabean: Absolutely.

Tortorice: And he also was a great human being.

Sabean: Yes.

Tortorice: And that’s very different from Foucault.

Sabean: No. The moral commitment, the understanding of politics at a kind of visceral level and everyday level—

Tortorice: Yes. Right.

Sabean: That has remained. And that has influenced how I think of things a lot. And regrets. Because you know, for example, when I started doing the kinship study, I was reading around in development studies. And the idea that the nuclear family was the product of Western civilization. And without the nuclear family, you can’t have development. So Ford money and all these big people in the [19]60s and [19]70s were pouring money into talking people into developing the nuclear family and getting rid of kinship. So my simple question was, a very simple one, “is it true, the history of the family as the development of the nuclear family?” And if once in the past Europe had kinship and then it developed the nuclear family, how could we model and talk about kinship? And that was the influence of these anthropologists in East Anglia on me. And then, to solve the problem, I entered into looking at one small little place to see if you could really look at kinship. It took me 30 years to do a simple question and so forth. But the push was a political ethical issue. But solving it and dealing with it was a different kind of thing.

Teaching is different. Teaching allows me to open up issues about selfhood, history of the self, how to think about it, a critique. And that ethical idea remains. But I can’t, like George integrate the two, his research and his teaching. And I’ve split it. I can’t do that. Because I chose the social historical route. I thought it was going to take me seven or eight years to do the Neckarhausen studies. And it really took exactly 30 years. And once I was in it, I couldn’t abandon it. So I kind of was schizophrenic in both the teaching and the research. And in a sense, the kind of thing I’m doing now is much more integrated. It still is all about social relations and what the implications of certain forms of social interaction are.


Tortorice: Well we probably, given it’s 12:30 and I know you have an appointment at one—

Sabean: Yeah. I can run and get something to eat.

Tortorice: Yeah. We probably should wrap it up.

Sabean: Okay. Let me tell you how to get to my house.

Tortorice: Okay. Yes. Let me turn this off, though. Thank you so much. It’s wonderful—

02:23:07         End of Interview Session

End of Oral History #1399

[1] See Kim Wünschmann, Before Auschwitz: Jewish Prisoners in the Prewar Concentration Camps (Harvard University Press, 2015), 17-20. Werner Mosse was not present.

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