Alfred Kelly Biography:
Alfred Kelly is the Edgar B. Graves Professor of History, Emeritus at Hamilton College. He was raised in Detroit in an academic family. His father was a historian specializing in American constitutional history and his mother a Latin teacher. He received his AB (1969) in history from the University of Chicago, where he was most influenced by William H. McNeill, Eric W. Cochrane, and Karl “Jock” Weintraub. Professor Kelly received his MA (1971) and PhD (1975) in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. George L. Mosse directed his dissertation on “Between Poetry and Science: Wilhelm Bölsche as Scientific Popularizer.” After temporary positions at Virginia Commonwealth University, The University of Richmond, and Shimer College, he came to Hamilton College in 1981. At Hamilton Professor Kelly taught a wide range of courses, including Modern European intellectual history, German history, the history of science, the origins of modern social science, and the philosophy of history. His publications include The Descent of Darwin: The Popularization of Darwinism in Germany; The German Worker: Working-Class Autobiographies from the Age of Industrialization; Carl Rückert’s Memoirs of the Franco-Prussian War; and a number of articles on the legacy of the Franco-Prussian War. He retired from Hamilton in 2018, though he still teaches one course a year at the College.
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Doney: Okay, we are underway. Today is the sixteenth of December, 2022. My name is Skye Doney and I’m interviewing Professor Alfred Kelly using TheirStory. Professor Kelly graduated from UW-Madison with a PhD in December of 1975. After working with George L. Mosse, he wrote a dissertation titled “Between Poetry and Science: Wilhelm Bölsche as Scientific Popularizer.” We’re going to start really at the very beginning. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about where you were born, the milieu you grew up in, a little bit about your childhood and your early background and schooling.
Kelly: Sure, I’d be happy to. I come from Detroit. I am part of the first wave of the Baby Boomers. I was born in 1947. My parents met as history graduate students in the social science building of the University of Chicago. I think that fact alone tells you quite a bit about my background.
My father was a professor at Wayne University, later Wayne State University. He taught American constitutional history, was a Stevenson liberal; 1952 to 1956 he was the co-chairman of the Michigan Volunteers for Stevenson. I myself had little Stevenson pins, including the famous tiny silver shoe with the hole in it, which you may remember. Well, you don’t look old enough to actually remember, but you may have heard about it.
Kelly: He was also active in the Civil Rights Movement, helping Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) to make the historical case in Brown vs. Board. So I grew up as an academic brat.
My mother was a stay-at-home mom until I was about ten or eleven. And then she got a job teaching Latin at a girls’ school in Detroit. So from age eleven on, I had parents who were both working. Both teaching.
My background was unusual in the sense that my parents did not move in the 50s when, as the euphemism has it, “the neighborhood changed” in the center of Detroit 00:03:00 where they lived. This was, I think, basically for two reasons. One is the sense of inertia and the other is my father didn’t want to be at least too much of a hypocrite as part of white flight when he was actually a friend of Thurgood Marshall. You see the problem. They stayed, and I was made to do the commute. I had school transportation, which meant basically a teacher picked me up at a shopping center (to which I took the bus) out to a private day school, Detroit Country Day School, where I went starting in the sixth grade. And then graduated in 1964.
I was not a particularly distinguished student. I managed to graduate third in my class, which sounds pretty good, but there were only 24. (Doney laughs) And the only thing I was really distinguished at in high school was, not surprisingly, Latin. My mom was a Latin teacher, of course, and would give me a dollar if I could translate into Latin long, very complex sentences with the ablative absolutes and everything. I had to get it absolutely perfect, including the long marks, and then I would get a dollar. If I missed one long mark or had the ablative a little bit wrong, I didn’t get anything at all. This was kind of a friendly challenge—a sign of being in an academic household, I think.
Doney: Mm hmm. Yeah.
Kelly: TV was also frowned upon. So I have very little knowledge of childhood TV outside of The Lone Ranger and Howdy Doody. Indeed in 1952, as you may remember or have heard of, Howdy Doody ran for president. And he actually got more votes than Eisenhower. But it was like Chicago, where you could vote several times, as long as you had the requisite Wonder Bread wrappers. We were allowed only one apiece because Wonder Bread was terrible and my parents just thought that American bread was just ghastly. (laughter) But I voted for Howdy Doody while my parents voted for [Adlai] Stevenson (1900-1965). Of course, I was only five. And I believe that 00:06:00 Howdy Doody got more votes than [Dwight] Eisenhower (1890-1969) in 1952.
Kelly: I was a nerdy little boy. Not surprising for someone who grew up to be a professor. Was interested in reading books. But not particularly precociously reading books. I would sample some of the books in the living room bookcase, including some [Charles] Dickens (1812-1870). There was a whole shelf of huge brown volumes, the complete works of Dickens there. And I pulled a few off the shelf when I was I suppose ten, and tried to read it. I didn’t get very far. I did manage to get through Nicholas Monsarrat’s (1910-1979) The Cruel Sea (1951) when I was about eleven. And I tried some John O’Hara (1905-1970), Ten North Frederick (1955). I didn’t really appreciate what was going on. Actually, my literary taste may have been fairly good, not appreciating John O’Hara. In any case, my taste ran more to what now would be called young adult adventure stories of the sea, that sort of thing.
When I was ten, I loved the Hardy Boys. Read all of the Hardy Boys. Could still pass a quiz, I suppose, on some of the Hardy Boys. I didn’t realize at the time that the Hardy Boys stories were not actually written by Franklin W. Dixon, I think was the name on the title page, but were written by a team, machine-turning out all of these things, including the Bobbsey Twins, which my sisters read.
So I spent a lot of time reading. I was also very, very interested in geography and maps. I had a lot of maps, and every year I would buy the World Almanac for the coming year. And I would lie on the floor and try to memorize certain things, like the tallest building in Cleveland, that sort of thing. So I was filled with completely useless information, including, of course, typical of a boy of that era, baseball statistics. I always knew whether Mickey Mantle (1931-1995) had hit a home run. I always knew whether 00:09:00 Frank Larry (1930-2017), the pitcher, had beaten the Yankees. This sort of thing. I was also interested in making model planes and model ships. The old plastic kits that you assembled—sometimes hundreds of small parts using what we called airplane glue. I think this is probably no longer available. It became clear to some boys pretty much outside of my ken that you could sniff airplane glue and get high on it. This I always found fairly bizarre, given that I basically had to have a fan blowing the stuff away from me because it was so disgusting. (laughs)
But in those days, we did a lot of things that would be considered very dangerous, like riding our bikes all over wherever without any helmet. We burned our trash. All kinds of things that would not be allowed now. Someone has calculated that a child who grew up in Detroit in the 50s basically has the lungs of someone who smoked three packs of Camels a day as a child. This has not yet caught up to me at age 75, but maybe it will eventually.
So that was my childhood. We were the only white people around, basically. So I grew up kind of assuming that most people were Black. I like to joke, and it’s half true, that I learned that white people were a majority from the World Almanac. How was I to know?
Doney: Wow. Yeah. So you’re in a really interesting situation then in Detroit. But beginning in sixth grade, you started to go to a private school. And was that majority white?
Kelly: Oh, yes.
Kelly: At first it was all white. Everybody was from the northwest suburbs of Detroit or the northwest side of Detroit. I was the only person who came down, who came out there from the center of Detroit. The only person.
Doney: Interesting. So you talked about your mom influencing your at least facility in Latin. Were there other teachers at the high school, or I’m just curious. Was it not until you were an undergraduate student that you started to get interested in history 00:12:00 as a discipline?
Kelly: That’s true, yes. If you’d asked me when I was sixteen what I wanted to do, I would have said that I wanted to be an English professor. And I had visions of myself smoking a pipe and sitting in a wood-paneled seminar room talking with a bunch of undergraduates, rather pretentiously about the human condition as seen by Tolstoy or whoever. And then walking across a leafy campus with a coterie of followers. Having lunch with them at the faculty club. This sort of thing. I knew at the time that this was basically romantic fantasy, because my father taught at gritty Wayne State, where there were no wood-paneled rooms at all. (laughs) And that life would not be like that. But I did like to read a lot of novels. I went through a period when I was fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen where I would bring home a whole bag full of paperbacks of Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) and Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) and all kinds of people who were fairly well known in the early 60s. And those days, you could buy a paperback for 25 cents, so even allowing for inflation, that’s pretty cheap. So I could get a whole bag full, and I read through a lot of novels—and thought that it would be a great job to get paid to sit around and talk about them.
I didn’t have any sense that I wanted to be a historian. We had the state-mandated eleventh-grade American history, where we went through the classic textbook, I think by [David Saville] Muzzey (1870-1965). The teacher was not inspiring. Very nice man. I did okay. But there was nothing special about it. Didn’t make me feel, well, I’m definitely going to major in history when I go to college. Not at all. I thought if anything I’d probably major in English. I don’t think any of my high school teachers particularly inspired me. I was rather a late bloomer. 00:15:00 Something of a smart aleck, I would say in retrospect.
Doney: Well let’s talk about then how you wind up getting interested in history. After you graduate high school, how did you decide where to continue your education?
Kelly: Well, in those days, this was 1964, as you know, though Detroit Country Day School was a machine to get people into college, the whole industry of getting people into college didn’t really exist at that time. You had to write away for a catalog if you were interested. A lot of traveling representatives came to the school, and if you were a second-semester eleventh grader or first-semester twelfth grader, after lunch you got to meet with these guys. I think they were all guys. So I must have met 200 of these people and can still hear them saying, “We’re a small college located in the Midwest.” There are many such places as you know, and they all blend together.
I actually did, and I remember it now, talk to the recruiter from Hamilton College, which at that time was all men. And all of us decided that we would not apply to Hamilton for two reasons. It sounded really like a grind—very hard. And there were no girls. And when the bolder boys asked about this, they were told, “Well, there’s a girls’ college, Wells College, a two-hour drive.” And of course nobody would have a car, so this was ridiculous. It’s not that I had any girlfriends myself going to a boys’ school and living in the center of Detroit and having basically no social life at all. But I did think it was probably a good idea to go to a coed college or university.
My father suggested that I apply to the University of Chicago, which is where he and my mother went as well as my grandfather and my great-grandfather. I was the first fourth generation, actually my cousin a little older than I was, the first fourth generation family to go to the University of Chicago. So he suggested that I apply there. 00:18:00 And to Cornell and to Swarthmore and to Oberlin. I was summarily rejected by Cornell and by Swarthmore, though Swarthmore was very, very nice about the rejection. But it was still no. I did manage to get into Oberlin, and I did get into the University of Chicago. So it was quite natural for me to go to the University of Chicago.
I didn’t really get interested in history particularly early there. As you may know, we ran through a very rigorous and vigorous two years of general education there, which included one history course, a, I think famous, western civ course based on original documents. And we had to take Humanities 1 and Humanities 2. Humanities 2 was literature, philosophy and history, so we read some classic historical works, including Trotsky on the Russian revolution. And I thought that those books were pretty interesting. And you had to declare a major. I decided that I would not be an English major for a couple of reasons. One is that I went down into the bowels of Harper Library and pulled off a bunch of literary journals, articles written by professors of English, and they pretty much turned me off. I thought I did not want to write any articles about river images in nineteenth-century American literature or anything like that. It seemed pretty sterile to me.
And I also thought, a related thought, that English and writing criticism did not admit mediocrity very well. That the really distinguished critic did not stand on the shoulders of many mediocre critics. They basically went out on their own.
And one of the things that attracted me to history 00:21:00 was that it did admit solid mediocrity. That is to say, you could write a good monograph or edit something, and it would be very useful to the truly distinguished historian, who stands on the shoulders of many competent historians. And I thought, and I still think, that that’s not true in literature, that mediocre criticism is basically mediocre criticism. And it doesn’t form the foundation of really first-rate criticism. Whereas as it does in history. That was one thing that attracted me to history.
The other was that as a historian you could basically research and write about anything you wanted. It was the only subject, I thought at the time and it holds up pretty well, that is basically about everything. And you could keep expanding the questions and talking about different things. So if you were interested in physics, you could write about the history of physics. If you were interested in water treatment plants, you could write about the history of water treatment plants. And in fact, there are such histories in social history and in public history. And I thought that that was a pretty good deal, being able to write your own ticket.
And then of course there’s the attraction of being a professor, which I knew about. You could be your own boss, pretty much. You could tell the dean to shove it. And you were on a payroll. And you really couldn’t say that about most jobs.
So I was determined that I would be a professor, and that being a professor of history was probably overall pretty much the best deal…and the most intellectually productive and respectable if you were going to join the ranks of the average professor.
Doney: I think that’s—
Kelly: That’s why I majored in history.
Doney: Yeah. That’s really interesting that you found your way to history with such a disciplinary framework, rather than some inspiring moment or a particular lecture. But that you went there by way of not wanting to write, 00:24:00 to write literary criticism or to write for English journals, and rather liking the flexibility of the research. That’s, I think that’s an atypical trajectory into the field.
Kelly: I suppose, I suppose it is. I think most people who become professors go back and say that they were inspired by oh, Professor So and So changed their lives. My guess is that a lot of this is romantic fantasy.
Kelly: And some of them backed into it in a way that I did. Certain things are eliminated for most people because they have no knack for them. I obviously was not going to be a mathematician, though I’m very good at arithmetic. That has nothing to do with it, of course. So there were all kinds of areas that were closed simply by ability, inclination, or utter lack of interest. That narrowed it down, basically, to history and anthropology and literature. Basically narrowed it down to the humanities. And I thought that history gave you the broadest view of humanity. So I can do some philosophy. And then I could do some literature. I could talk about war. I could do all kinds of things.
Doney: Yeah. And the history of science or the lived experience. It’s true.
Kelly: That’s right, yes.
Doney: So let’s talk a little further, we’re still at the University of Chicago. You’re now going into your junior year having declared history as a major. Maybe we should talk about your junior and senior year, courses you took or how it was that you went from declaring a history major to deciding to go on to pursue a PhD and the decision process about where you would want to do so.
Kelly: Yes. At the University of Chicago, to be a history major, you had to have two areas at the time. I have no idea now. But my two areas were recent modern history, that is, French Revolution to the present. Of course, the present at that time was a long time ago. So recent modern history was actually a lot shorter than it is now. And my other area was American history. You had to take a three-quarter 00:27:00 sequence in each of those. And then you had to take some upper-level, more specialized courses to be a history major. The major was culminated by a three-hour BA exam in each of your two areas, as well as a senior thesis in each of your two areas. This gives you a sense of the rigor of 1960s University of Chicago. When my students used to complain about doing a senior thesis, I would say, “Well, I had to do two senior theses. And I also had to take two comprehensive exams.” That shuts them down pretty fast in their complaints. (laughs) So I took American history from John Hope Franklin (1915-2009), Richard Wade (1921-2008), and a young assistant professor named Frederic [Cople] Jaher, who later went to the University of Illinois, I believe. And I took European history from, well, isn’t it odd that at the moment, the names escape me, though not the faces, for the three-quarter sequence. If I really thought about it, but then you probably don’t want to wait for a 75-year-old man to think of some undergraduate teachers, I could come up with it.
I do remember some other courses that I took. I took a seminar on the Enlightenment from Eric Cochrane (1928-1985), who was actually a Renaissance specialist, and Keith Baker (b. 1938). Eric Cochrane was probably the best undergraduate teacher, seminar leader, and lecturer that I encountered. And I took a course from Karl Weintraub (1924-2004), who was famous as a teacher, not at all a scholar, at the University of Chicago. He was considered certainly the best teacher in the history department. I took a course from him called cultural history, which we basically read ten books 00:30:00 and discussed them. Ten books that he thought we ought to read, basically. It was everything from Max Weber on early religion to [Johan] Huizinga’s (1872-1945) The Waning of the Middle Ages. I was pretty impressed by that. And I liked Jacques Barzun’s (1907-2012) essay on how to do cultural history. And I liked the way he wrote. Thought he was a wonderful writer.
And so I decided that I would do modern European history. And it was focused on Germany for the reason that my second year at the University of Chicago I took a year off to go to Tübingen with my father, who was a Fulbright guest professor at the university there. And I took their Deutsch für Ausländer courses there—the same courses that are offered at the advanced level at the Goethe Institute. And I got pretty good, though not spectacularly good, at German. And I came back to the University of Chicago and took some German literature courses. I had done poorly freshman year in their fiercely hard German 101, 102, 103. I managed to eke out a C studying four hours a night the first quarter. Second quarter I started getting in trouble, so I dropped. The irony was that after I came back and did well in their upper-level courses, I shared the department, German department prize with Jim Steakley.
Doney: Oh, wow.
Kelly: Who later turned up as a professor in Madison. He and I sat next to each other in German 230 or something like that at the University of Chicago. 00:33:00 So it was natural for me to work with German stuff, rather than, say, French material. My French then as it is now is, let’s say, undistinguished. (laughter) I can read pretty well if I know what it’s about. And I was able, I was able to pass the French exam in Madison. I believe the standards were pretty low. They gave the Princeton test, I don’t know whether they still do. And you had to get, I don’t know, 600 or something like that in order to pass, which I was able to do. But the truth is that you didn’t really have to know very much because it was multiple choice and you had a choice—you could read science or art or social science paragraphs. And you could game the social science paragraphs by choosing either what was the ideological position behind the writer, you either chose Marxist or a sharp criticism of Marxism. And you could usually pretty much tell the difference. And you were right most of the time. I don’t know whether the people who made up the test realized that it could be gamed in that way. But it could, so I did probably better than I should have. That’s a roundabout way of saying that I got into doing German history more or less by accident. (laughs) Had my father gone to Paris, I probably would have ended up doing more French history.
Doney: Were you able to travel? While in Tübingen, were you able to travel in Europe?
Kelly: Oh, yes. They have very long vacations there between semesters. (laughs) And, well, we made our spring grand tour down to Italy. We traveled in France. Basically all over. We traveled to Austria. We traveled to the Netherlands. We traveled to Berlin 00:36:00 and visited East Berlin, which you could do as an American. I found it incredibly dreary in 1966, which in fact it was. And we went to Switzerland. So, we got around a bit. Giving me a taste of what things looked like, which in the last few years I have reinforced by getting addicted to Google Earth and the expansion of Google street view, so you can drop down anywhere. One of my hobbies.
Doney: Oh, wow. I didn’t know that there was an expansion. I’ll have to look at that. Okay. German topics. You’re now, you’ve completed the two senior theses and examinations. And you decide to, how did you decide to go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, beyond it being just up the interstate?
Kelly: Well, I applied to two departments. Why I applied to only two, I don’t remember. That was probably a mistake. But I applied to Columbia, and I applied to Wisconsin. I got into both. I was not, and I didn’t know anybody else in my cohort, offered a fellowship first year. So I asked a few professors at the University of Chicago whether I should go to Wisconsin or Columbia. And to a man, they said I should go to Wisconsin—on the grounds that at Columbia, they wouldn’t pay very much attention to me. (laughs)
So I ended up at Wisconsin. At that time, I don’t know whether it’s true now, when you applied, you applied to get into a particular professor’s seminar. So I had a list of all the seminars, and I thought that George Mosse’s seminar sounded the most interesting. So I applied to that, and he admitted me. So I was admitted. And I duly showed up in the fall. He was not there, as was often the case, so I waited until the second semester till I actually met George. At that time, of course, you didn’t call him George. He was Professor Mosse, at least until you passed your prelims and were going on your dissertation. 00:39:00 And then there was a tacit agreement that you could call him George. But certainly not before.
I arrived in Madison and encountered not George, but Georges Haupt (1928-1978), whom you may have heard of.
Kelly: Who was visiting. And was in his seminar on the “ambiguity of right and left” in late- nineteenth and early twentieth-century Europe. Or as Georges Haupt, who could speak as far as I could tell every language but English, said, (imitating his accent) “the ambiguity of right and left.” His English consisted largely of saying things like, “He was a big guy” about anybody we might not have heard of but didn’t want to admit it. He would tell us that he was very important.
It was said, I think I heard this from Sterling Fishman (1932-1997), do you know who Sterling Fishman is?
Doney: Yes. Yeah.
Kelly: George’s boy from the early 60s. Sterling told me that when they picked up Georges Haupt at the airport for his visiting professorship, they asked him how his English was coming. And he said, “English? What English!” (laughter)
Kelly: So being in his seminar was something of a challenge.
Kelly: He spoke very good French and very good German. The problem was that in the seminar, some people could understand German and some people could understand French. So we wasted a lot of time while he would explain something in German and then explain it in French. (laughs)
Kelly: He was a very nice man. Very enthusiastic. And really learned, too. You got the impression that he’d read everything and he knew everybody.
Doney: But still, a hard way to start graduate training.
Kelly: Yep, it was a hard way to start. I also took Ed Gargan’s (1922-1995) French history. And I took a course in the philosophy of history by one of the American historians. And I guess one other course maybe was 00:42:00 was Professor Sella on early modern economic history.
Doney: Yeah, Domenico Sella (1926-2012). Yeah.
Kelly: Something like Domenico Sella, yeah.
Doney: So when Mosse—
Kelly: That was my introduction to Madison. I really didn’t have much idea of what was going on or what I wanted to do. So I wrote the papers and I took the exams. And as is the case in graduate school, if you’re respectable, I got my As.
Doney: So when Mosse returns then for the spring semester, do you have an MA topic in mind? Or you still need to, I mean, in a sense you’ve used a semester without being able to work closely with him. What was that encounter like, and what was the process of narrowing what you wanted to work on, at least for that initial—
Kelly: Well, for a master’s thesis, I didn’t really have any idea. And George suggested that I write a master’s thesis on the historian Karl Alexander von Müller (1882-1964). Now largely forgotten. But he was one of the innumerable professors who are sometimes labeled Edelnazis—basically a decent human being who got caught up in the movement, but himself didn’t really do anything bad. But was indirectly at least an apologist for Nazism. And was allowed to continue on after 1933 as a professor in Munich.
I discovered that he was actually a pretty interesting guy and had met and, with exaggeration, “discovered” Hitler’s talents in the immediate postwar period. Where returning prisoners from then-Bolshevik Russia who had been propagandized as communists were, as they would say now, deprogrammed by skillful people in the military giving them courses. And he saw that Hitler was pretty 00:45:00 impressive at persuading people not to become communists. 45:03 And then he later went on to have a very distinguished career, write lots of books, and a very interesting three-volume memoir. So there was a lot of material there. And I wrote what was clear at the time and is clear in retrospect was a solid but undistinguished master’s thesis on him.
Which George either liked or just was being polite about. I recall him saying, “Well, you really made something of him, didn’t you?” (laughter) I did the job and you passed me. So I was ready to go on for prelims. If you want to ask me about prelims.
Doney: Yeah, I do want to ask about prelims. But I also want to ask about whether you were teaching in these early years. Were you acting as a graduate assistant?
Kelly: Uh, yes. I had a job as a TA. I guess first semester or maybe second semester of my second year, I TAed for a young professor whose name escapes me in the early modern survey. And I did an okay job. And at that time, I realized that the worst part of the job was grading papers. And of course I could see why all of these guys at a university didn’t grade papers. They had their, as we would say now, enslaved people do it. But I was okay. I think the very first semester, they still didn’t have teaching evaluations. They did later. Teaching evaluations were just coming in at this time. So I’m not sure I had at that time any direct feedback from the students in my section. So I was a TA, and being a TA paid pretty well in those days. Because as a graduate student your needs 00:48:00 were small. And you could pay your rent, and do your grocery shopping, and have quite a bit left over for various kinds of entertainment. So I was happy enough to take the money.
I also had, like many in my cohort, Ford Foundation money. So I managed after first year, of course you paid in-state tuition. Even though I was out-state, they would give you in-state tuition, which was pretty cheap in those days. So I had either Ford money or a TAship or was a reader all through, until I was actually just a dissertator and registering for History 990, Dissertation, or something like that. For which you paid a dissertator fee to keep your library privileges and be a student. Something like 90 dollars a semester. It was a nominal fee. So I didn’t really have any financial problems going through, and could take my time.
Doney: That’s great. Okay. So let’s talk about then the preliminary examinations. Which fields? Which fields did you take with which faculty, and how did it go?
Kelly: Well, you had to do four fields at that time—each made up and graded by a different professor. I took George’s nineteenth-and twentieth-century European cultural history or European cultural and intellectual history, whatever it was called. And I took [Theodore S.] Hamerow’s (1920-2013) Germany since 1648. And I took [Harvey] Goldberg’s (1922-1987) European Social History, which was actually not social history as most people understand it, but rather the history of the European left. And I took Ed Gargan’s France since 1700, or something like that.
In the office at that time, there were ring binders of 00:51:00 old questions from the previous decade or so on all of these. So you could sit in the office and basically learn the dozen questions that had ever appeared in the last decade or so. So there really weren’t any surprises. You just didn’t know which of those dozen it was going to be. I basically prepared by thinking about how I was going to answer those questions. So I knew, for example, that Professor Hamerow was probably going to ask about why the Revolution of 1848 failed. I knew he was probably going to ask about why the Weimar Republic failed. I knew he was probably going to ask us to assess German responsibility for the First World War. I knew he was probably going to ask a question of the effect of the French Revolution on the German world. It’s just a question of which one of these would come up.
I also discovered that you really didn’t have to prepare the seventeenth and eighteenth century material carefully because there was always only one question on that. And you had to do three out of four. So if you were willing to do the other three on the nineteenth and twentieth century—twentieth century basically meant up to 1945 at that time—if you were willing to do those three without any choice, you could get by with preparing only the nineteenth and twentieth century. Which is what I did with enough of the earlier period so that I could make pseudo-learned references to it.
So I prepared all four prelims basically this way. And then on a Saturday morning at eight o’clock, you would show up at the history office. And they’d give you a stack of typewriter paper if you brought your typewriter, or a big pad of paper if you were going to write it by hand, which I did. Said, “Here’s the key to Professor So and So’s office. He should have cleared off his desk for you.” I don’t know who I was assigned to, but I had to clear off the desk before I could set to work. 00:54:00 “There’s coffee and donuts in the Curti Lounge. Come back at 4:30, eight and a half hours from now, with all four of these done.” In other words, you would have written twelve essays in an all-day marathon. Which I thought was probably not a very good test of how much you knew.
Doney: (laughs) Yeah.
Kelly: But I managed to pass. I think I passed all four of them. And Hamerow gave me an honors in German history. But I think you had to have either two or three of your four be considered honors in order to get honors overall. So I did not get honors overall.
I’m reminded that while I was studying for prelims, I asked George whether if he had to take prelims the next day, he could pass. George was the kind of guy you could ask something like that. He wouldn’t be offended.
Kelly: Though I think some people would. And he thought for a moment and he said, “Probably not. Except for my own, which of course I would grade.” That was a half-truth. I think more accurately you were never better prepared in your life to take prelims than the day before you actually did. It’s not that you knew more at that time than you would later. That was certainly not true. But he was kind of half right.
Doney: That’s funny. That’s interesting. What was it like working with Hamerow? And with these other big personalities, Goldberg.
Kelly: Well, I didn’t, I didn’t really work with Goldberg at all. I attended his lectures, which were at that time campus events. Not just history lectures.
Doney: Yeah. Sure.
Kelly: And I attended Hamerow’s classes. I didn’t work carefully with him. He was one of the readers on my dissertation, but I didn’t work carefully with him. Of course, Harvey Goldberg’s lectures were famous. He was lost in his own world, taking off his glasses. I don’t think he actually saw the audience. 00:57:00 He just went into a kind of trance. Started to talk about Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) or Jean Jaurès (1859-1914) or something like this.
Hamerow was much drier and more factual as a lecturer. He would come in with one of those old cheap yellow sheets of paper that he would put on the lectern. And then he would just talk. And then at the end, he would walk out and throw away the yellow piece of scrap paper. One time on the way out, I picked it up and looked at it. I was interested to know, what does he put down for notes? It was completely blank.
Kelly: So he just talked. But he lectured. It was not particularly inspiring. But it was, like his work, it was detailed and solid. The guy really knew his stuff.
Doney: Yeah. Huh.
Kelly: And he valued that kind of detailed, highly researched, positivistic history. Almost all of it political.
Doney: Yeah. Well, all right. So you have encountered a lot of different approaches at this point, and you’ve passed your preliminary exams. So I want to talk about I think two things. The first is, does your relationship then with Mosse change after you completed the preliminary exams? Or how does that relationship continue into the research and the writing of the dissertation? And the second thing I wanted to talk about is how do you choose which approach—cultural, political, we could say ideological for Goldberg to some extent. But you’ve sampled a lot of different methodologies. How do you decide what’s yours, or what you want to make yours?
Kelly: Like a lot of historians, I didn’t really think much about methodology. I thought about what I wanted to do. And I told George, who took all of his students more seriously once they had passed prelims and they were going to be his guys, I told him that I wanted to do something about the popularization of 01:00:00 ideas or popular culture. This was an idea that I had myself and it was reinforced by George, who always said that if you wanted to understand an era that you had to read the bad books. They were actually more important. There were a lot of them. They were easier to read than the great books, and they told you a lot more about the era. That it was much more important to read Karl May (1842-1912) than it was to read Thomas Mann (1875-1955). A lot more people read it. A lot more people had it in them as cultural references. It was much more important to read Samuel Smiles’ (1812-1904) Self-Help (1859) than it was to read Das Kapital (1867). And I agreed with that.
And so I talked to George about that, and he sort of directed me in two directions. He said, “Well, why don’t you go to Göttingen, where the Max Planck- Institute für Geschichte is, and talk to my friend Thomas Nipperdey (1927-1992).” Who even then was kind of a big, scary name. “And you can work with him. And how about as a topic the Revolutions of 1848 as a cultural movement.” This sounds pretty big and pretty amorphous.
Doney: Yeah. (laughs)
Kelly: A cultural movement where, what kind of culture, etcetera. But I didn’t know what I was doing. It’s amazing how many graduate students, and frankly even professors, have no idea what they’re doing.
Kelly: I think you understand that.
Doney: Yeah. Definitely.
Kelly: So off I went to Göttingen. Lovely town. And managed to get in to see Thomas Nipperdey, who started to talk and talk and talk about all of the things I might do. Most of which I understood. But all the while he was talking, I was thinking, maybe I’m not really mature enough to do this. (laughter) This sounds like a great idea for someone.
Doney: Yeah. Yeah.
Kelly: Maybe not when you’re twenty-five. 01:03:00
Kelly: But I’ll give it a try.
Kelly: So I’d been staying someplace. And so I said, well, I’ll get an apartment. And so, I looked around at the university, and I found a place that was advertised. A little bit out in a new area, but the city’s not very big. So I took the bus out there. Was a typical white stucco German postwar apartment complex. And when I got there, the fire department was there. I’ll be damned if the place wasn’t on fire!
Doney: What?! (laughs)
Kelly: So I couldn’t get in to see it. I took this as a bad omen.
Kelly: Again, chance has an awful lot to do with what you do. And was quite disheartened when I got back to my room and thought about my conversations with Nipperdey and how hard it would be establishing myself there. So I went down to the Bahnhof and bought a ticket for Munich. Because George had suggested another topic, also, which was Wilhelm Bölsche (1861-1939), most famous for Das Liebesleben in der Natur (1898). George said that he had read Das Liebesleben in der Natur, which was pretty racy for the time, under the covers with a flashlight, when he was a boy. This is the story of evolution told through sex. Now I think George was embroidering when he actually said that. George was known for his embroidery of stories. But I was intrigued by it because I had said that I was interested in the history of popularization, and he said that nobody’s written about this guy. And he was actually the bestselling nonfiction author of the era. And it gives you a focus—one guy. And he said that he knew a guy named Fritz Bolle (1908-1982), not to be confused with 01:06:00 Bölsche, who was a publisher in Munich, knew Wilhelm Bölsche’s son and had collected a whole lot of Bölscheanea, if that’s a word. Incidentally, when I mentioned that I was writing a dissertation on Wilhelm Bölsche in Madison, people would say, “Well, we always knew that dissertations were bullshit. But this is a little too strong.”
Doney: (laughs) Yeah. A little too literal. Yeah.
Kelly: In any case, I arrived in Munich and wrote to George. And he said, “Oh, very fine. Great idea.” So I went to the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, and I started reading Bölsche’s works and all kinds of stuff around it. And I went to see Fritz Bolle. He was very kind. And called up while I was there Wilhelm Bölsche’s elderly son, who lived down on Starnberger See south of Munich, and said that he had before him an American student who spoke fluent German, which was something of an exaggeration. And would he be willing, would he, Mr. Bölsche the younger, be willing to talk to this fellow? And he said, “Oh, yes, fine. Send him down.”
So, I also asked Fritz Bolle what happened to his archive of Wilhelm Bölsche’s stuff, his Nachlass. And he said, “Well, I gave it all to the library of the Deutsches Museum.” And he said, “You go over there and they’ll show it to you. It’s in a big metal cabinet there.”
So I go over there. And it was there indeed, and they showed it to me. And as was often the case, even as late as the early 70s, the lighting in scholarly work rooms was not up to standards. There was a dim lightbulb in this incredibly dismal ceiling there. And you could barely see what was going on, you know. But they allowed me to do a lot of photocopying. So I got something out of it. 01:09:00 And there was material there that was not in the library.
So I was able over the course of the year to gather quite a bit of material. Incidentally, George was, as was often the case, was through Munich for a few days. So he and I met and chatted. And he took me to dinner at the fanciest hotel, the Vier Jahreszeiten. Then we went to a movie together. Chatted and so on. At that time, I learned that George was always a Schwarzfahrer on the U-Bahn.
Doney: Oh, really?
Kelly: They owed him something, given what had happened to his—
Doney: Yeah, yeah. That’s great.
Kelly: But we were on the subway a couple of times. And fortunately the Kontrolle didn’t come in at that point. It would have been an interesting confrontation. George would have insisted that he’d basically already paid for a year’s worth of rides, so leave him alone. (laughs) And they probably would have, because, and he would have said all of this in very stentorian, beautiful Hochdeutsch so everybody in the subway car could hear it and would be going like this, you know. (laughs)
Doney: That’s awesome. I did not know that.
Kelly: Anyway, I came back to Madison and found myself another apartment on North Pinckney Street, the end of the street there. And started to work on this dissertation, which of course took much longer than expected—as it virtually always did.
George didn’t interfere too much. His basic idea about dissertations was, as he put it, the only good dissertation is a done dissertation. He thought that what was really important was revising the dissertation to become a book. And that the dissertation itself—nobody’s going to read the dissertation. You just have to get it done. Sounds easy just to get it done. And George was not particularly helpful in getting it done. His attitude was that you got a shoebox full of notecards. In those days, of course, it was all notecards. And George literally did have a shoebox. And he said, “When your shoebox is full of five by eight cards 01:12:00 or whatever they are, then it’s time to start writing. Even if you read material later.”
And one time he trapped me on the stairway in the Humanities building, which we called the Brutalities building (SD laughs) because horrible architecture.
Kelly: George hated it too, of course.
Kelly: He appreciated the irony of having it named after him. (laughs) George had a real eye for irony, as you know. He trapped me on the stairway, standing two steps above me so that he could look down on me. I’m tall and George was short. And he said, as he often did to his students, “Where’s your dissertation?”
And I said, “Well, I’m still working on the reading for it. And I’m coming along.” (laughs)
He said, “Well, do you have a shoebox full of notes yet? When you have a shoebox full of notes, you must start writing. That’s my rule.”
And I said, “Well, I don’t have a shoebox full of notes yet.” But I said, “George, there’s something that you need to take into consideration. And that is that my feet are a lot bigger than your feet. And my shoebox is a lot bigger than your shoebox. So it’s going to take me longer to fill my shoebox.” George was rarely at a loss for words. But it’s hard to argue with that.
Doney: (laughs) Yeah.
Kelly: And so he thought for a moment. And then he says, “Well, maybe so. But just stop fucking around and do it.”
Doney: That’s great.
Kelly: That was his usual response to getting people to try to finish their dissertation. Eventually I did. And he thought it was fine, or said that he did. Gargan, I don’t think read it. I later saw Gargan at an AHA convention. We stood next to each other at the urinal in the bathroom. And he said he thought my dissertation was really, really well-written. I think he read, from what he said, I inferred that he read only the abstract. Which was actually pretty good, 01:15:00 if I do say so myself. Much better than the dissertation.
And Hamerow, the other reader, did read it. I know that he did because the department accidentally gave me back the copy that had gone to him. He’d turned it in to the secretary at the desk, and they just gave it back to me because, you might as well have your extra copies. And in the front there, when I opened it up, was a note from Hamerow to George saying, “Well, this is all very nice. I won’t make any trouble at the defense.” (laughs) So I knew there wasn’t going to be any trouble at the defense. And there wasn’t. It was pretty much pro forma.
Doney: Wow, that’s, I mean, it’s nice to know that, though. You knew that before the actual defense?
Kelly: That’s right. Yes.
Doney: Yeah. Well, it helps take the edge off. Well I want to take just one step back. Because one thing we haven’t talked about is life in Madison generally. And sort of your experiences being a student in Madison in the 70s, the first half of the 1970s. What was the town like? Campus like? Maybe this could be a chance to talk about some of your fellow graduate students and the relationships that you developed in the seminars.
Kelly: Well, I was something of a loner. Not an outsider in any way. But I wasn’t a big socializer. I shared an apartment with Peter Gordy, someone you might want to talk to, actually. G-O-R-D-Y.
Kelly: Do you know the name?
Doney: Yeah. I think he interviewed Mosse, actually, in the 70s for the Historical Society.
Kelly: Oh, he might have. Because he worked for the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Doney: Yeah. I think that’s where I’ve come across the name.
Kelly: Yes. Anyway, he got started on a dissertation on the Danish National Socialist movement. Which he never finished and ended up in the development office at Boston University. I guess he’s retired 01:18:00 now. I’m a friend of his on Facebook, but I haven’t really kept up with him much.
Some of the people in my cohort drifted away and didn’t finish. There was a young man by the name of Bob Gippin, who dropped out second semester and went to Harvard Law School. There was a guy named Kent Taylor, who headed off to Israel. For all I know, he’s still there. There was a young woman named Nancy Miller, who wrote a master’s thesis on the theater of the terror in the French Revolution. There was Jimmy Fisher, who I think you recently interviewed, who became kind of king of the one-year jobs. He had five or six one-year jobs. Never a tenure track. And ended up, as you know, as a lay analyst in Los Angeles. Still doing some scholarly work on the side, I guess. There was Peter Gordy. There was Joel Truman, who was doing a dissertation on the working class in Braunschweig. Never finished. Became a state bureaucrat and then I think a federal bureaucrat in Washington. There was Tom August, who finished but never got a tenure track job. I’m mentioning only some of them. There were a lot of people who basically just disappeared. This was, of course, the famous or infamous lost generation. And not all of us were lucky enough to end up in an academic career. I did. Laurie Baron did. I don’t know whether you’ve interviewed him.
Doney: I am on Tuesday.
Kelly: Right. He will remember me, and I remember him. And of course Anson Rabinbach 01:21:00 was probably the most successful of these people, who finally ended up at Princeton after a long series of temporary jobs at Cooper Union and then at Princeton itself. I think Steve Aschheim did pretty well. Those two are a bit older than I am. Paul Breines, who I think you’ve interviewed. A bit older than I am. I left in early 1976, so I didn’t know any of the later PhDs from George.
Of all of these people, I knew Peter Gordy very well. It’s one of those unfortunate things where over the decades you lose track of someone when they’re far away.
As for the atmosphere there, this was a time of the last years of the New Left. And a damper was put on the last years of the New Left in 1971 with the bombing of the Army Math Center there in which a researcher actually died. That made a kind of reality check on the left. Which I think was fading anyway.
I myself was not involved in demonstrations. Because the demonstrations tended to degenerate into trashing store windows on State Street. Including Paul’s Bookstore, which was kind of a revelation to a lot of people. I don’t know whether Paul’s Bookstore is still there anymore.
Doney: It is.
Kelly: He’s long, long dead. But he was a Wisconsin institution. Progressive man himself. And some demonstrators threw bricks through his front window. Of course, they threw bricks through the windows of Rennebohm’s drugstore, local capitalist pigs, you know. They responded by half bricking in the wall and then half putting unbreakable glass there 01:24:00 in the front. And I was skeptical of the radical left and the way it was alienating progressive people like myself, who were more concerned about actually getting things done.
I remember one conversation I had, and this was not at the university, but in front of the state Capitol. There was a well-known radical priest in Milwaukee at the time named Father [James] Groppi (1930-1985). I don’t know whether you’ve heard of him?
Doney: Mm hmm.
Kelly: Yeah. And he led a march from Milwaukee to Madison that ended up in the state Capitol after a rally on the library plaza there. He was a wonderful rabble-rousing speaker. This had to do with, I think, fair housing or something like that. I don’t remember. The crowd then surged down State Street and managed to break into the Capitol and spill Coke on the rug and just cause general havoc. I don’t think anyone was actually injured in any way. Screaming, “Power to the people!”
I ran into one of these guys standing outside, he hadn’t actually gone in, screaming, “Power to the people!”
And I said, “What people are we talking about here?” This is a question that George would always ask when people started to talk about “the people.” What people?! It matters. Why are you homogenizing everybody? And I said to this guy, “You know, your problem here is that the representatives in the state legislature, elected by the citizens of Wisconsin, are the people. The problem is, ironically, that the people have power. And you don’t like what they do.” I said, “Neither do I. But the solution is not to give power to the people. That’s really the problem. What you mean is power to people like you, 01:27:00 who are a minority.”
Well, this guy was not used to this kind of discussion. But it’s a very George Mossean kind of discussion to have. That’s one of the influences of George. What people?
Doney: What people?
Kelly: Even if the people aren’t that good. (laughs)
Doney: Yeah. Not inherently, at least.
Kelly: Not inherently. So that was the atmosphere in Madison. I went to a lot of events, a lot of movies, a lot of concerts, a lot of lectures. Some of which were good, some of which were really, really boring. I remember the famous German historian Karl [Dietrich] Bracher (1922-2016) came to Madison. I suppose George brought him. George knew everyone, as you know. And he gave a talk in the big auditorium in the Humanities building. There were hundreds of people there. They were hanging from the rafters metaphorically. Sitting in the aisles. And it turns out that at least in English, Bracher is a terrible speaker! (laughter) His lecture was dull! And people were streaming out. It was kind of embarrassing. He later met with some graduate students, including me. We literally sat at his feet on the floor.
Kelly: And he talked. He was much better in the small group. So that was a lecture that I remember very, very well.
Doney: For perhaps not the reason the speaker would—yeah.
Kelly: Not the right reason. It turns out that famous scholars may, unlike George, not be great lecturers. George as you know was a fabulous lecturer.
Kelly: I think if not the best I’ve ever heard, I certainly can’t name anybody who was better. And that was really his forte as a teacher, that combination of substance and provocation, as he would step away from the podium and prance around, making ex cathedra statements followed by, “Oh, you like that, don’t you?” He would say things like, “The workers never read Marx! 01:30:00 They read Samuel Smiles!” And people would go, (grumbles) “Oh, it’s true! It’s true! You like that, don’t you?” (laughter) He loved doing that. And he was never at a loss for words. When George was occasionally at a loss for words, he would say, instead of “well” or “um” or “er” or nothing at all, he would say, “That, too, we must remember!” You may have heard him say that.
Kelly: (laughs) He had completely written-out lectures. But so far as I could tell, he rarely looked at them. He just started to talk. And then when he wanted to be provocative, he would prance around on the podium. Just to get everybody’s goat. And of course in those days, you could provoke more than you can now among students, where there’s a greater sensitivity to these kinds of really insults. George was usually being ironic. He knew that these were half-truths.
Doney: Do you think that sense of provocation is what drew students to the classes, though? What was it about his lecture style that made it so popular among the student body?
Kelly: I think it was the combination of substance and certain themes that were indirectly relevant. Particularly George’s insistence that “the people,” if you will, were not necessarily reasonable or progressive in the sense that they may have wanted them to be. And that the irrationalism or at least non-rationalism that he at first encounters in his study of the Reformation, and then the Baroque period, was directly relevant to modern politics. And I think he agreed with some of the thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, particularly [Sigmund] Freud and [Georges] Sorel (1847-1922), 01:33:00 that you could not understand politics if you applied a kind of John Stuart Millian reason to them at all.
And I think this appealed to students, that they were getting not just a lecture on nineteenth-century cultural history. But they were getting a lecture, without being lectured to directly, on the contemporary scene. And that while George himself was a liberal and always remained a liberal, he had a real feeling both from scholarship and from his own family history of the tragedies of liberalism. And that came across.
Kelly: That was entertaining! The combination.
Doney: No, definitely not. Yeah, the entertainment value is essential. So let’s resume our chronological track. So you—
Kelly: I’m sorry I’m talking so much.
Doney: No, these are amazing stories. I mean, I’m really, I’m learning a lot. It’s fascinating. If you’re okay to continue, I say we can continue.
Kelly: Oh, sure.
Doney: Okay. So resuming the chronological track, you have successfully defended your dissertation. No problems from Hamerow in the defense, luckily. And now you’re on the market. Or did you already have prospects lined up when you completed?
Doney: Let’s talk about then how do you wind up at Hamilton? The different steps that that takes. And then I want to talk about your monographs, also. The different projects you undertake.
Kelly: I’ll try to be a little more direct about how I ended up here. It’s a combination of luck and pig-headedness.
Doney: Okay. (laughs)
Kelly: As you know, the market in the mid-70s almost didn’t exist.
Kelly: And people were not doing well, shall we say? Everybody, of course thought that they might be the one to strike it rich. But most people were not striking it rich.
When I finished in December of 1975, I had been applying for jobs. 01:36:00 I guess I’d had a couple of convention interviews. You know the kind where three or four colleagues are sitting on a bed in a hotel room? Not be allowed now. But I hadn’t gotten anything.
Believe it or not, I had a job driving a taxi for Badger Cab. (laughs) Is this stereotypical or what?
Doney: Yeah, that’s great.
Kelly: So I drove for Badger Cab and learned every street, at least in the eastern half of Madison. And applied for jobs. Eked out a living. And in April of that year, that would be April of 1976, I was lucky enough to get a one-year job at Virginia Commonwealth University. Teaching European intellectual history and a bunch of other stuff. You didn’t really have any negotiating power about what you were going to teach. (laughs) Anyway, I was one year there. And glad to have the opportunity.
A more permanent position opened up, and they chose between me and a guy named Joseph Bendersky. I don’t know whether the name rings a bell. Wrote a big book for Princeton University Press on Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). Anyway, they gave him the job. He probably deserved it over me and was more political about getting the job. He went to Hardy’s, the Southern equivalent of McDonald’s, every day with the department chair, which I didn’t do. I’m not really capable of sucking up like that. But he had a wife who was really pushing him to do that. And he probably deserved it anyway.
So I was out after a year. But then got a call in October when I was in Richmond from the University of Richmond, private college on the west side of Richmond. One of their adjuncts had left a few weeks into the semester to take a job at Virginia State libraries. Would I take over a course, two sections of a course, on early modern Europe? Of course, you don’t say no to such things, even though my knowledge of early modern Europe was probably not up to snuff. So I had 01:39:00 a job there as an adjunct. My office, such as it was, literally was a cleaned-out broom closet—like the taxi driver thing, the adjunct part of my career has this stereotypical quality about it.
So I did all right there. And they then ran an ad for a four-year position there, which as it happens turned into a tenure-track one. And I was an internal candidate for that. I did not get the job. Partly because there was a split in the department between the West Hampton College and Richmond College, the men’s college and the women’s college. And more people showed up from the other building to vote on the position. And I didn’t get it. There was a guy who said, “Oh, I was going to go. But I had to go to the dentist. I didn’t realize that you were on the agenda.” So I might be talking to you from Richmond, Virginia if this guy hadn’t gone to the dentist.
Doney: Yeah. (laughs) Wow.
Kelly: Thus our fate is in the hands of people that we don’t even know. And unrelated things. So then I was out for a couple of years working on revising my dissertation and so on. My wife had a job, and we lived very simply, and I applied for jobs. And I finally got a job at Shimer College, which I don’t think you’ve ever heard of. A little place in Illinois which had the Chicago Great Books program. They’d been out in western Illinois, had lost their campus, gone into bankruptcy. And had moved into some houses and apartment buildings in Waukegan, Illinois, north of Chicago. I got that job because I had gone to the University of Chicago and had basically taken the courses that they had. But they were going down the drain. And as soon as I got there, they said, “Well, would you be willing to take a 25% pay cut? We can’t really pay you. We’ll just owe you the money.” And then they stopped paying us in the spring anyway and put us on unemployment. So that was pretty much a disaster. And of course I was applying for other jobs. One of which was at Hamilton.
And I interviewed 01:42:00 at Hamilton. The usual, three or four guys sitting on a bed in the Hilton in what city, I don’t remember. They all blend together. And they called me up later and invited me here in February. And I gave the usual job talk and went out for dinner, and they thought I was okay. I guess my credentials were in order. So they offered me the job, and I snapped it up. At that time, it was two-year renewable, and it looked as though I might be out. Because the president of the college at that time had a policy of what he called institutional considerations. Which meant in my case that there were too many people of substantially the same graduate school generation in the department. And unless one of them left or was assassinated or whatever, I was not going to get tenure. No matter what.
Well, fortunately one of the people was on leave teaching at York University in Toronto. A Russian historian. And they offered him a permanent position there, which he took. Because his wife was Canadian and lived in Toronto. And so at the last minute, a position in effect opened up. I got tenure early, because I had credit from this, teaching credit from these other places. And the rest, as they say, is history. I was promoted to full professor, I guess in 1989 after only eight years there. And then sometime in the early 90s, I was offered a named professorship honoring a beloved medievalist who had taught from the 1920s into the 1960s. Didn’t involve a pay raise, but there was a nice slush fund there—what the Germans call a reptile fund. You can buy books and take research trips and that sort of thing.
So I became their rather grandiosely titled Edgar B. Graves 01:45:00 professor of history. And now emeritus. I like to put the title on correspondence. But in fact, it doesn’t really mean very much, because something like 38 professors at Hamilton College, which has a faculty of 200, have these titles. But on the outside, people don’t know that. So at the University of Wisconsin, it meant something to be a Bascom professor, because there were hardly any professors in the history department of what, 60 people, who had an endowed chair. (laughs)
Doney: Yeah. That’s, and so you were, okay. It’s a lot more straightforward than I thought it was going to be. And you wound up, you were brought in to teach the modern sections of European history. And then your colleagues. Did you have Europeanist colleagues throughout your career? Or were you covering—
Kelly: Uh, yes. Indeed. The French historian and women’s history historian, Esther Kanipe (1976-2011), was a Gargan student from Wisconsin. She retired a little earlier than I did and is now dead. And there was an English historian and a Russian historian—actually several in my 37 years there. And there was a medieval historian, and then a bunch of American historians. The history department has varied from eight to nine and ten people. It’s now either eight or nine people. As people retire, their position goes into the general pool and might be given to another department.
I was replaced after they tinkered with the position by a very, very distinguished and promising young woman by the name of Mackenzie Cooley, who will have a career far, far more distinguished than I. I think the only reason that she might stay is that her husband is at Syracuse University and she has family in that area. Otherwise, I think she’d be snapped up by Princeton or someplace.
Doney: Let’s talk about your books.
Doney: I wondered if you could just walk through 01:48:00 your major publications and the questions that have guided them. How your interests have and have not remained the same since your dissertation.
Kelly: Well as I said, I did my dissertation specifically on Wilhelm Bölsche. There is now a huge book in German on Bölsche himself. But I didn’t think that that really made, even in an age of specialization, a good book without expanding it. So I expanded it basically beyond Bölsche, the most important popularizer, though now lesser known than Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919). I expanded it beyond him to talk about the popularization of evolutionary thought in Germany, where in many respects it was more important than anywhere else. And I did that on the basis of finding the most important popularizers and looking at and analyzing their books. And then trying to place popular Darwinism, as opposed to Darwinism among specialists in the universities, which nobody except specialists knew about, documenting that by looking at broadly speaking the cultural politics of Darwinism. And I argued that this was a phenomenon largely of the left and had infiltrated and polluted, some Marxists might say, socialism. And turned it into the direction of a biologistic thought, rather than keeping the Hegelian base of it. As George Lichtheim (1912-1973) said, the Social Democratic party moved from Hegel to Haeckel. And I agreed with that and substantiated it, I think, pretty well, including reading some workers memoirs about their reading, which would later become important to me. 01:51:00
And I argued, the other half of that was, that I argued contrary to the popular scholarly view that popular Darwinism, as opposed to some particular individuals, was not really an intellectual ancestor of Nazism. And indeed, some of the Nazis explicitly rejected it. And that it was largely a phenomenon of the left—which is not to say that there were no connections. But for the most part, popular Darwinism was not what we commonly call Social Darwinism. And of course social Darwinism—and here I’m referring back to Georges Haupt and the ambiguity of right and left—social Darwinism and eugenics was originally a phenomenon very much of the progressive left. A kind of modern, progressive medicine, if you will. This was true in the United States, also. Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) was a eugenicist and racist and a progressive left winger at the same time. Anyway, I tried to deal with these issues also.
This led me indirectly into my next project. While I was reading workers’ memoirs to figure out how they approach socialism and the kinds of things that they read, I realized that this was a pretty interesting genre. Small, a bit ill-defined—who exactly is a worker or remains a worker? But that I could identify, and this was confirmed by a few scholars who worked on it, roughly 100 working-class memoirs from the late nineteenth and twentieth century, starting with experiences in the 1860s and going down to the First World War.
So I had the idea, and this was one of those ideas which does come as a sudden inspiration to you. I was standing in line at the canteen of the Bavarian State Library and I thought: Wouldn’t it be interesting to take excerpts from these memoirs, write a long introduction about them and footnote them with explanations and make it available to students of German history so it could be 01:54:00 assigned in a course? And this was an idea which happened to be good at the time and right. The University of California Press had published a shorter book of five Russian worker memoirs. So I proposed it to them and they thought it was a good idea. I made a much more substantial book, if I do say so myself. There were nineteen of these. And I know from syllabi that are on the web on H-Net that there are, people are still using this.
Kelly: And it was made fairly early on so into an electronic book. And of course none of this takes into account people using it without permission. Which is fine with me, of course, but never fine with the press itself. So that was the second project and really if I’m known for anything, that’s what I’m known for in the profession. If I’m known at all.
This led me also, well, let me start over again. At about the time or a little after I finished that project, The German Worker, I got the idea that another form of doing George’s reading-the- bad-books and trying to get the cultural milieu from the bottom up, would be to write a history of the memory of the Franco-Prussian War, and the founding of the nation. Now there had been a little work on war memory, particularly Paul Fussell’s (1924-2012) The Great War in Modern Memory (1975), which is falsely titled. It’s really the Great War in a few pretty well-known English writers. I wanted to do something much more comprehensive than that. Everything from war poetry written at the time, to the way the war was reported in the newspaper, to playing cards with war scenes on them, to the way that the churches dealt with the war, to toys, 01:57:00 to veterans’ societies. Everything. I wanted to do everything.
Now it turns out that unlike doing a project on German working class memoirs, this is a bad idea. And the French historians understand this. If they want to do a big project, they have literally 100 people working on it. This is not something for a relatively small mind at a small teaching institution to do. It’s a mistake. But I got into it and never finished it as a book, but published a bunch of articles about it instead. And then got another book out of it because one of the things that I did was read a whole lot of memoirs of the Franco-Prussian War. Most of them, actually all of them, by officers. But I did find one that was by a corporal, a common soldier who had been horribly injured in the war and who had marched to France and then gone through the horrors of so-called field hospitals and barely survived. And then thirty years later wrote a virtually unknown but outstanding account of it, which I translated, wrote an introduction to, and put in two or three hundred footnotes. And after a lot of hemming and hawing and firing a bunch of editors, not that that had anything to do with me, Palgrave-MacMillan finally put out in an overpriced book. So I did end up getting quite a bit out of that project, even though the big, unrealistic book never happened. And by God, I’ve got more than a shoebox of notes.
Doney: (laughs) Guess it’s never too late to start writing.
Kelly: But definitely George thought that this was a really, really good idea. I don’t think he realized the broad ambition that I had for it. I think he would have filled his shoebox with a 02:00:00 narrower view of it and then gone ahead and published it as a 250-page monograph.
Kelly: Which was, career-wise, the right thing to do. But I was basically involved in the college. And I always considered myself a teacher and a generalist. And never really bought the standard line that research and teaching are complementary. I think they are only in a world without time.
Doney: Yeah. Well, I have one, I have two more questions for you. The first is about teaching. I wondered if you could talk about your teaching career and shifts that you observed, both among the students and among pedagogy in general. And then I’ll table the second one for after. But I wonder if you could just reflect on a career of teaching at Hamilton and beyond.
Kelly: Well, there is no beyond Hamilton. I retired from Hamilton. I would say that the changes at Hamilton are, and this sounds odd coming from an old guy, basically for the better. The students in my later years were better. The college made a really concerted effort to reach out to the better students nationwide, not just in the northeast. They closed the fraternity houses in 1995. And they did a better job of recruiting young women. And it had originally been until shortly before I got there a men’s college with a women’s college built in the 60s across the street. So I think overall, the college is better now than it was when I came in 1981. I don’t think the students, the only negative thing I can think of, I don’t think the students have the vocabulary that they did forty years ago. I think this is reflected in the fact that the SAT has basically done away with the vocabulary part of the test. And this shows up all the time. I often use a word and they look puzzled. Well, surely a college student knows what these things mean. 02:03:00 So that’s the only negative thing I can say about them. On the whole, very good. Few of them interested in being in, having an academic career. But that’s all to the good. There are already too many academics. A lot of my students are becoming high school teachers. And that, to me, is all to the good.
I believe that the most important influence that I’ve had, actually, and it sounds crazy to say this, is among students, there are relatively few, who became military officers. There’s no ROTC at Hamilton, but they can take a program at Syracuse University. And I always thought that my humanistic influence on these people was extraordinarily important in keeping the military from becoming militaristic, as it were. I hope that that’s a good legacy. And of course like all retired professors, I hear from former students. You always hear selectively. Nobody writes you twenty years later and says, “I remember being in History 226 and you bored the hell out of me.” (Doney laughs) First, I wasn’t that bad. But nobody says that. So you get an artificial sense of, there are too many four and five stars, you know. You don’t see the one and two stars. But I think overall I’ve had a positive influence on the students. And George’s philosophy of teaching, which he didn’t really have, was basically—don’t bore the students. And he certainly didn’t. And I’ve tried to follow George in that sense. Whatever you do, just don’t bore them. As long as you know what you’re talking about, things are going to go pretty well. That’s been my philosophy.
In the last few years, as you may know, in a lot of colleges, particularly small colleges, you have to state your philosophy of teaching in your annual report. Which I always make short. And I just say, “My philosophy of teaching is don’t bore the students.” And don’t ask me whether it works. Ask them in ten, fifteen, twenty years.
Doney: Yeah, what they remember. Yeah.
Kelly: They want three or four pages of BS, you know. (laughs) I’m incapable of doing that. 02:06:00
Doney: That’s great. I think it’s a very good philosophy. It works. The last question I have for you is just, is there anything we didn’t get to talk about, about your interest in history, your graduate career, your relationship with Mosse and your subsequent publications and teaching? Are there any glaring oversights?
Kelly: Well, like every professor, I come to class prepared. That is, to say jotting down a few things that I might have mentioned. [pause] I think we’ve covered pretty much what I wanted to get in. You know about my parents, and I’ve said a little about George. I’ve said a little about why I became a historian. You did ask about the way my view of doing history changed. I’m afraid that it didn’t much. I like to think it’s because I had a pretty good sense from the beginning. But the other way to interpret that is that I didn’t have a good sense at the beginning and was too lazy to change that. But I think some of what I’ve written has held up pretty well. And that’s really the test. I wouldn’t go back and radically change anything that I wrote. Instead I would put nuances on it and add new information and make a concession here or there. But I wouldn’t radically change anything that I did.
As I’ve said, I’ve considered my career mostly as a small college teacher. And the students have been the center of that. And that I don’t regret at all. I don’t really regret not leaving a string of 25 books, the way George did. That was his life and a different way, a different way of life. 02:09:00
Kelly: That’s okay.
Doney: Yeah. Definitely. I did, a non sequitur question just occurred to me, which was you were in Munich in the 70s and you met Mosse there. That was also when he was talking to Albert Speer (1905-1981). Just wondered if you ever talked about that sort of pseudo-friendship that Mosse developed with Speer, trying to understand Nazism.
Kelly: Well I guess it was a pseudo, I knew about it. Because a pseudo-friendship in that he—this was not hard for George—retained an ironic distance. As he did about virtually everything. I think this was a kind of defensive mechanism for him dealing with the harsh realities of what had happened to his family, and being an outsider, first as a Jew and then realizing that he was a gay man and not coming out. At the time that I was in Madison, of course, he was in the closet. Nobody ever made an issue of it. But he always considered himself, I think, an outsider, even though he knew all kinds of people everywhere. So he maintained a certain ironic distance. And my sense was that he did that with Speer also. That there was some decency in the man. So you could talk to him. And oh, you’ve just disappeared.
Doney: No, I’m still here.
Kelly: Oh, there you are. Bad connection. You’re blurry. That there was some decency in Speer and that he probably had regretted and re-thought what he had done to some extent. And George had a knack for appreciating people who were different than he was. And so I think he was well-positioned to understand Speer in a way that many others were not. But I never talked to him directly about that, no.
Doney: Okay. Any other loose threads that we should tie off?
Kelly: Well, I notice that I jotted down, since you had said in your letter, in your email, that you wanted 02:12:00 some stories about George. Another thing that I jotted down that occurred to me was that he had his seminar at his house. We started in the library. And then after we were done with the seminar, we would move into the living room where he served us beer and sat in his lounger chair with his dachshund Schnutzie between his legs, stroking Schnutzie. And he would do most of the talking. He would hold forth, basically. And one of the things that he said that has stuck in my mind is the reason that we moved into the living room, as opposed to staying in the study, was that he could take both rooms off his taxes as business in his house. George was very concerned about evading the taxman. In this sense, he remained deeply European. This shocked me to some extent being a secularized Protestant from the Midwest. But George loved to fool the taxman.
And he also told us about how he had been audited. And he had taken off as a research trip, a trip that he made to Val d’Isère, the pretty hoity toity French ski resort. And the taxman said, “I noticed that you deducted your trip to Val d’Isère.” George, of course, made up something about he was going there for research. And the taxman said, “But I think it’s just a ski resort. I’ve been there.”
And George said—in this he revealed the old European upper-class attitude, which he still had—he said, “This little taxman had been to Val d’Isère!” He was shocked. (laughter) But he also loved it. He loved the irony. He loved being caught.
Doney: Yeah. That’s awesome.
Kelly: And that’s one of the things I remembered about George. He had a good sense of his own limitations and his ridiculousness. And loved to be caught out by it.
Doney: That’s a great note to end on. This is December 16, 2022. This is Skye Doney concluding an interview with Professor Alfred Kelly for the Mosse Oral History Project at the University of Wisconsin Archive. Thank you again for participating. It’s been a pleasure to hear more about your story and your career.
Kelly: Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you and reminiscing. Thank you.