Alan Brinkley, leading historian of 20th-century America, dies at 70

The cause was complications of frontotemporal dementia, a neurological disorder, his daughter, Elly Brinkley, said.

Alan Brinkley, leading historian of 20th-century America, dies at 70

Alan Brinkley, one of the preeminent historians of his generation, with a specialty in 20th-century American political history, died Sunday night at his home in New York. He was 70.

The cause was complications of frontotemporal dementia, a neurological disorder, his daughter, Elly Brinkley, said.

Alan Brinkley’s work spanned the full spectrum of the last century’s seminal events and influential characters, including the Great Depression and World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

His “Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression” (1983) won the National Book Award. And his high school and college history textbooks “American History” and “The Unfinished Nation” were bestsellers and frequently updated.

“For the 20th century, Alan set the agenda for most political historians, especially about the New Deal,” Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University and co-editor of Dissent magazine, said in a telephone interview.

But his interests ranged widely, and he was devoted to teaching. He received teaching awards at both Harvard and Columbia and held the rare distinction for an American historian of teaching at both Oxford and Cambridge in England.

The central themes of his scholarship were “the strengths, limits and vulnerabilities of the 20th-century American liberal tradition; the challenges to it, both internal and external; the connections between popular movements and partisan politics,” as well as the New Deal’s legacies, Eric Foner, a fellow historian at Columbia, wrote in a foreword to “Alan Brinkley: A Life in History” (2019), a collection of essays written in tribute.

Brinkley grew up in Washington, a son of David Brinkley, the longtime NBC News anchor, who died in 2003. His brother Joel was a reporter and editor for The New York Times and died in 2014; his brother John is a writer at Forbes.

Although journalism was the family business, Alan was less comfortable in that world than his brothers were and toyed with alternatives. After graduating from Princeton, he applied to Harvard Law School and was accepted, but his father’s overt loathing of lawyers intimidated him and he abandoned that plan.

Alan did not escape journalism entirely. He became a singularly public kind of historian, someone who reached out beyond his academic scholarship and engaged with the world at large through the media in an accessible style.

Nancy Weiss Malkiel, a historian and later dean at Princeton who was Brinkley’s adviser on his senior thesis, said he wrote with grace and flair unusual for an undergraduate.

“Even then, he had an uncanny feel for language — a sense of pace, style, composition and felicitous phrasing all too rare among historians in general, let alone history students,” she wrote in the tribute book.

Brinkley wrote his senior thesis on the Louisiana politician Huey P. Long. He once described the thrill he felt doing research with primary documents.

“I’ll never forget the feeling of opening, for the first time, a box of papers, and holding in my hand a letter that Franklin Roosevelt had written and signed,” he wrote after his first trip to the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York.

Touching that letter, he added, gave him “the sense of being a part of the great tradition of historians who have built their work around this exposure to the immediate product of the minds of the great figures, and not so great figures, of our history.”

His senior thesis became his Harvard dissertation and, later, his first book, “Voices of Protest.” He was fascinated by how both Long and the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, the chief subjects of that book, had used the radio in the 1930s to mobilize their supporters.

He would pursue his interest in how mass communications shaped midcentury American politics in “The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century” (2010), an examination of the co-founder of the Time-Life magazine empire.

“The thread that ran through Alan’s work — that American political history was made as much by popular figures wielding cultural influence as by officeholders and policymakers — was fully developed in this magisterial rendering of Luce’s life,” Lizabeth Cohen, a friend and Harvard history professor, wrote. The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Being attuned to contemporary journalism perhaps allowed Brinkley to be one of the first historians to see the rise of the conservative movement in American politics.

“Very few historians were writing about conservatives, but he had his eyes open,” Kazin said. “They were changing the political dialogue, and he wanted to understand it. It’s become a major theme in American political history.”

Alan Brinkley was born on June 2, 1949, in Washington to David and Ann (Fischer) Brinkley. He was born in the same hospital room on the same day as Frank Rich, the future New York Times chief theater critic and opinion columnist, now a television producer and writer for New York magazine. Their mothers were good friends, both part of a relatively small enclave of Jewish families in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

The boys remained close friends throughout their lives. They watched the first installment of “The Huntley-Brinkley Report,” the nightly news program co-anchored by David Brinkley and Chet Huntley, together from the Brinkleys’ living room couch in 1956.

Alan attended Landon, a private boys’ school in Bethesda. He graduated from Princeton with a degree in public policy in 1971 and earned his doctorate in history from Harvard in 1979.

He taught history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before returning to Harvard in 1982 as an assistant professor. He was a popular teacher, with classes so oversubscribed that admittance was determined by lottery, and he won the prestigious Joseph R. Levenson Memorial Teaching Prize.

After just a few years, the history department recommended him for tenure. To the astonishment of many, it was denied.

Brinkley, who was then in his late 30s, was apparently deemed by senior faculty members too young to deserve tenure, Jonathan Alter, a journalist and former student of his at Harvard, wrote in the tribute book.

“And rumor had it,” Alter added of those who denied him tenure, “that his popularity — including occasional television appearances — rendered him suspiciously unrigorous in their jealous eyes.”

The denial of tenure to a popular professor became a cause célèbre on campus and renewed debate over the role that teaching ability, rather than scholarship alone, should play in the selection of senior faculty.

In any case, Brinkley was snapped up by the City University of New York, where he taught before being recruited by Columbia in 1991. He served as chairman of the history department there from 2000 to 2003 and as provost from 2003 to 2009. He retired in 2018.

In 1989 he married Evangeline Morphos, a theater and television producer who held a doctorate in 18th-century English literature and taught theater and film at Columbia.

In addition to his wife, daughter and brother, Brinkley is survived by a stepsister, Alexis.

Brinkley stood up for academic freedom. He refused a university order to dissuade graduate teaching assistants from organizing a union, saying his students could think for themselves. And when faculty members came under attack from partisan outside groups for their teaching, he refused to yield to demands to monitor their classroom statements; to do so, he said, would violate their academic freedom.

Among Brinkley’s other books were “John F. Kennedy” (2012), “Franklin D. Roosevelt” (2009), “Liberalism and Its Discontents” (1998) and “The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War” (1995).

He also helped his father research and write “Washington Goes to War,” David Brinkley’s memoir of being a young reporter covering Roosevelt and the capital as it prepared for World War II.

“There’s no better portrait of Washington in any era,” Frank Rich wrote in the tribute book, “and in its piquant and touching narrative, you can find a father’s and a son’s droll voices collaborating to enchanting and insightful effect.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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