Burt Freidel Jr., Charles Warren Professor of American History,
Emeritus, took satisfaction in the achievements of a distinguished
career as teacher and scholar. But he never effaced the memory
of a difficult youth. Born in Brooklyn, New York, on May 22,
1916, he moved with his family from place to place before coming
to rest in southern California. His father struggled to make
ends meet, but had not really established himself when the Great
Depression struck. Frank learned to contribute to family income
by odd jobs while he continued his studies; stints as an extra
in movies and as a local reporter broadened his experience.
Meanwhile he continued his undergraduate work at the University
of Southern California, where he earned his bachelor’s
degree in 1937. Marriage a year later, and soon after, children,
did not weaken his determination to pursue a scholarly career,
but did emphasize the urgency of achievement and of haste. After
earning a master’s degree at his alma mater, he proceeded
to Madison, Wisconsin, where he took his doctorate in 1942.
For prospective young teachers, times were as difficult during
the war as they had been in the Depression. Apart from a brief
term in the United States Naval Reserve, where he struggled
to learn Japanese, Freidel took whatever positions were available,
moving from place to place as opportunity presented itself.
Short stints at Shurtleff College in Illinois, at the University
of Maryland in College Park, at Pennsylvania State University,
at Vassar, and at the University of Illinois, filled the next
decade, each position an improvement over its predecessor, but
each move disruptive, especially because financial pressures
compelled him to fill out his calendar with summer teaching.
However, he acquired from the experience redoubtable lecturing
skill and the ability to inspire a variety of students. He also
gained a first-hand acquaintanceship with almost every region
of the country.
In 1953 his years of wandering seemed to close when he accepted
a position at Stanford University. There he could have remained,
for the institution offered him not only first-class students
but also the research opportunities of its own excellent library
and of the Hoover Institution – collections certainly
attractive to a scholar of twentieth century political history.
After two years, however, Freidel elected to come to Harvard,
where he remained except for the few years after his retirement
when he served as distinguished senior professor at the University
of Washington in Seattle. Marriage in 1956 to Madeleine Bicskery
had by then added stability and comfort to his life, thereafter
imbued with emotional warmth and intellectual understanding.
At Harvard, Freidel took responsibility for the large introductory
survey course in American history, directed primarily at undergraduates.
Therein he followed in the long tradition of scholars –
among them Edward Channing, A.B. Hart, Paul H. Buck, Frederick
Merk, and Arthur M. Schlesinger—who took teaching at that
level seriously. Freidel worked hard and successfully at that
course. Yet he also gladly devoted himself to guiding graduate
studies in the history of the United States in the twentieth
century, an era which relentlessly extended itself as time went
on. A generation of outstanding scholars and teachers who worked
with him testified to the skill and devotion with which he guided
them to their doctorates. As a matter of course, he also bore
whatever committee and administrative chores the university
loaded on him. He did so out of a sense of responsibility and
also out of the ethos of doing good that was a product of his
He responded also the long and laborious challenge of revising
the Harvard Guide to American History, a useful—indeed
indispensable—tool in the pre-computer age. Channing,
Hart, and Frederick Jackson Turner had prepared the first edition
in 1906; a revision by the next generation of Harvard historians
followed in 1954, by which time it had become the standard reference
work throughout the world. By the time Frank Freidel prepared
a third edition (1970), the field had grown luxuriantly, not
only in the number of titles, but also in scope and complexity.
It took mastery of a vast literature to draw it into comprehensible
The same sense of responsibility moved Freidel to prepare a
pioneering course on African-American history in response to
undergraduate complaints about the neglect of the subject at
Harvard. Not having worked previously in the field, Freidel
devoted prodigious effort to assembling the necessary materials,
to organizing the sections, and to composing the lectures. He
succeeded insofar as he drew the then-fragmentary sources into
a meaningful analysis, presented in a thoroughly scholarly fashion.
Nevertheless, he did not repeat the endeavor. Instead, the African-American
Studies program then took up the task.
Freidel’s Wisconsin doctoral dissertation on Francis Lieber
(published 1947) had opened a rich lore of material on nineteenth
century political history which he treated intermittently thereafter.
Well on in his career, he explored some other aspects of this
subject, notably in the volumes of pamphlets on the Civil War
prepared for the John Harvard Library. The collections, notable
for its breadth of coverage, illuminated neglected aspects of
opinion about the great conflict.
However, by the time Freidel came to Harvard his primary attention
had shifted to the era of the New Deal, at the time little more
than a decade in the past. His analysis took the form of a full-scale
biography of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The subject
had, of course, attracted an outpouring of books by journalist
and political scientists, and would continue to do so –
much of it partisan, much of it directed at a popular audience.
In addition, prominent figures from the 1930s put into print
voluminous memoirs, diaries, and collections of correspondence
– all of which added to, rather than eased, the burdens
of analysis. Freidel mastered the vast flood of such material,
and in addition made himself familiar with the collections in
the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, as well as with archival
sources and manuscript and newspaper collections throughout
the United States and Europe. The tolerance of his devoted wife
eased the difficulties of the necessary journeyings.
All along he sought an understanding of the subject as a human
being, set in the context of the encompassing society—a
twentieth century life and times. He started with some skepticism
about Roosevelt as wartime president, an attitude comprehensible
in the light of the years when the research began. But as the
work proceeded and led Freidel to an understanding of a privileged
youth so different from his own, and then threw light on the
response to a Depression through which he himself had lived,
his attitude grew more tolerant and favorable. The result was
a well-rounded, judicious portrait of F.D.R. as president and
of the effects of New Deal reforms on American society. The
first of these volumes appeared in 1952. There more volumes,
each written with the same precision, brought the narrative
down to 1933.
Freidel did not live long enough to complete the work on the
same scale. Perhaps he tired of it, particularly since wartime,
diplomacy, and military action raised issues different from
those of economic depression and recovery. Instead a summary
but substantial single volume (1990) covered F.D.R.’s
whole life span.
Illness prevented a consideration of whether or not to undertake
a fifth volume on the extended scale of the first four. Frank
Freidel died in January 1993, survived by his wife and seven
Donald H. Fleming
Ernest R. May
Richard E. Pipes
Stephan A. Thernstrom
Oscar Handlin, Chairman
of Arts and Sciences Memorial Minute read at a meeting of the
Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, on October