Dr. Quintard Taylor, Jr.
Scott and Dorothy Bullitt
Professor of American History
 
 
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African American History | African American History in the West (Now available at www.blackpast.org)  


Curriculum Vitae:
Former Bullitt Chair: Frank Freidel

Frank 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 Quaker heritage.


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 shape.


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 children.

Bernard Bailyn
Donald H. Fleming
Akira Iriye
Ernest R. May
Richard E. Pipes
Stephan A. Thernstrom
Oscar Handlin, Chairman

Faculty of Arts and Sciences Memorial Minute read at a meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, on October 18, 1994.