Generosity marks the academic career of Lawrence J. Friedman. When I first met him, probably in 1971, I was doing research at the Library of Congress for my doctoral dissertation. Richard King, whom I had met seven years earlier in graduate school at Yale, introduced us. Born in 1940, Larry is two years older than I am, and his career was already advancing toward Parnassus. The White Savage (1970), which I sometimes kidded him was his best book, appeared when he was only 30. At that meeting in Washington, DC, Larry astonished me by offering help that I, a mere graduate student, had not solicited. Whether it was for inside dope on the already bleak job market or to find relevant sources for a biography that I was writing about the radical economist Scott Nearing, I can

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no longer recall. (Please cut me some slack: I have known the honoree of this festschrift for over half a century, longer than any other contributor.)

I soon realized that Larry’s gesture of assistance back in 1971 was entirely natural to him. I also feel obliged to report that, although I did read and criticize the manuscript versions of several of Larry’s books, I have never really adequately reciprocated. In 2014, Larry did ask Richard and me to join him in Indianapolis, where the Society for U.S. Intellectual History was deliberating, to celebrate his birthday. We accepted and had a great time together—even as troublesome signs of the aging process were already kicking in for us. A year later, Richard repaid Larry for a lifetime of friendship by dedicating Arendt and America (2015) to him (and me).

Larry’s assistance to others cannot be fully tabulated, but here are some instances. He has characteristically gone out of his way to help younger scholars conceptualize their projects, to criticize with candor their claims and arguments, and to propose further research opportunities. For example, he helped my wife reinforce her thesis about French public opinion during the Algerian War when she was writing her dissertation at Brandeis University. I watched with admiration as he helped two promising young Japanese students, whom we met in Kyoto, with the intricacies of the thought of Erik H. Erikson. Through an encounter in Bloomington, Larry had met the Korean-born host of a conference that was intended to focus on intellectual and cultural history. (If you’ve ever experienced the equivalent of listening to a simultaneous translation from Japanese to English of a critical explanation of the impenetrable thought of Jacques Derrida, you have some sense of the challenges to comprehension.) Larry’s invitation to join him in Kyoto was a special thrill—not least because of the chance to stare at the exquisite, sublime temples in that city. He proved to be a boon traveling companion.

Larry’s impact on the profession has registered so powerfully because he showed by example how history can be authoritatively and gracefully written. He loved working with primary sources and managed to convey that passion for the archives to many others. His interests shifted from the 19th century (The White Savage, Inventors of the Promised Land, and Gregarious Saints) to the 20th century (biographies of the Menninger family, Erikson, and Erich Fromm). That alteration of direction enabled Larry to focus quite

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directly on the role of public intellectuals. His new curiosity inaugurated a series of conferences, first in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then elsewhere, from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Lisbon, Portugal. These conferences, which were serious yet informal, illuminating, and also sociable, testified to the debts that so many historians and biographers owe to him. (The lineup of participants included the likes of Pulitzer Prize winner Martin J. Sherwin, two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Jill Lepore, and Berkeley intellectual historian Martin Jay.) The first of those conferences, held at Harvard, explicitly paid tribute to Larry, in gratitude. Nor is it entirely a coincidence that in 2003 he co-edited a volume on the American style of philanthropy, which Cambridge University Press published. Generosity has thus been not only a feature of his character but could also be converted into an object of historical scrutiny.

Why did I regard The White Savage as Larry’s best book? Partly to tease my amiable and abiding friend, to amuse him, to nudge him toward regarding the possibility that his career has demonstrated a downward trajectory. Of course, we both know how much—in scale, depth, and influence—the later volumes reflected his development as a scholar of American politics and ideas. But because Menninger: The Family and the Clinic (1990), Identity’s Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson (1999), and The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet (2013) are biographies, their conceptual force is bound to be generically limited. The fresh information that they provide is invaluable. They are sympathetic and judicious. With the probable exception of Menninger, they are close to definitive, in the sense that no one else needs to tackle these particular subjects again, at least not with Larry’s ambition. These biographies are so well written that, as I remarked in Reviews in American History, he made “Erikson’s story almost as compulsively readable as a ransom note” (Whitfield, March 2000, p. 135).

But although these last three volumes are richly inflected with knowledge of the interior lives of Larry’s subjects, the books do not in themselves contribute to psychic understanding in a way that The White Savage does. It scarily explores the subterranean undercurrents of racial fear and fantasy that made the postbellum South distinctive, the site of sociopathic violence. The instincts that were unleashed at the end of the 19th century have not been entirely and conclusively tamed in our own 21st century. By disputing the most influential book of the most influential historian of the

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segregationist regime, namely C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955, 1957, 1966), Larry inserted himself into a major historiographical debate, which none of his later books sought to do. In making something akin to the collective psyche open to retrospective consideration, he lent pertinence to his chosen field of history, and I am therefore not alone in the pride that I take in being his friend.

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References:

  • Whitfield, Stephen J. (March 2000). Becoming Erikson. Reviews in American History, 28(1), 134-141.

Authors:

Stephen Whitfield

Stephen Whitfield, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of American Studies at Brandeis University, where he taught for 44 years. He is the author of A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till (1988), The Culture of the Cold War (1991, 1996), and eight other books. Whitfield served as a Fulbright visiting professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Catholic University of Leuven and Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgium). He can be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Whitfield, S. (2023). The generosity of Lawrence J. Friedman. In M. I. West, P. H. Elovitz, & N. D’Andria (Eds.), Lawrence Jacob Friedman Festschrift. Clio’s Psyche, 29(3), 267-270.

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