Historian Michael G. Kammen began his career steeped in colonial America. But the era quickly proved too intellectually confining for a man who over the course of a prolific career examined such diverse topics as controversies over public art and the reburials of famous Americans.
“He was just interested in everything. You never knew when you sat down with him what he would bring up,” said fellow Cornell University historian Walter LaFeber.
A Pulitzer Prize winner who explored the conflicting strains of American culture with irony and an appreciation of the quirky, Kammen died Nov. 29 in Ithaca, N.Y., said a spokesman for Cornell, where he taught for more than four decades. He was 77 and had been in failing health.
The author or editor of more than three dozen books, Kammen was awarded the 1973 Pulitzer Prize in history for “People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization.” His 1986 book “A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture” earned him the Francis Parkman Prize and the Henry Adams Prize.
“He picked topics that were daunting in their own way,” said Richard Polenberg, who, like LaFeber, is an emeritus professor of history at Cornell and was a longtime colleague of Kammen’s.
“His productivity was sort of beyond belief,” Polenberg added. “He didn’t stop. He’d write one book and before it was published, he was working on another.”
Not one to retreat to the library, Kammen lectured internationally and was known for his sometimes wicked sense of humor. “He could see the humorous and quirky aspects of life and people,” including himself, Polenberg said.
Kammen was born Oct. 25, 1936, in Rochester, N.Y., and grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. He received his undergraduate degree in history from George Washington University and earned his doctorate at Harvard University, where he studied early American history with Bernard Bailyn.
Cornell hired him as an assistant professor of history in 1965. He later chaired the history department before retiring in 2008. He also served a term as president of the Organization of American Historians.
He is survived by his wife, Cornell historian Carol Kammen, sons Daniel of Oakland and Douglas of Singapore, three grandchildren and a sister, Edith Kessler, who lives in the Boston area.
Kammen’s research was prodigious, his books sometimes bulky and stuffed with details. “Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture,” published in 1991, ran to 864 pages. “This book is not for the faint-hearted or the hurried,” observed one reviewer.
Another reviewer called Kammen a sardonic guide who illustrated his themes with “hundreds of well-chosen anecdotes and minute observations.”
In one of them, Kammen related how in the 1930s, the staff of colonial Williamsburg hired a black craftsman to hand-mold bricks to satisfy patron John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s desire to replicate 18th century styles. The man became “a hero to the Rockefeller purists,” Kammen wrote in “Mystic Chords,” noting that at the same time Rockefeller barred black people from staying “at any of our hostelries.”
In “People of Paradox,” Kammen examined the contradictory underpinnings of American culture: idealism and materialism, the Puritan and the hedonistic, the peace-loving and war-mongering.
“For him, the doubleness of American civilization is not the result of a mingling of Old World inheritance and New World environment,” wrote a reviewer in the New York Times. “Rather, the American scene itself blends the two.”
In the 480-page “Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture,” published in 2006, Kammen traced the nation’s long history of squabbles over public art, from tut-tutting over an 1830s sculpture of George Washington in which the founding father was shirtless to controversy over “Tumbling Woman,” a briefly exhibited bronze statue commemorating victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks who leaped from the World Trade Center.
Perhaps nothing speaks to the breadth of Kammen’s curiosity as much as his book “Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials,” published in 2010.
In the book, Kammen tells of how years after Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1959 burial in Wisconsin, his daughter Iovanna fretted that “Daddy gets cold up there in Wisconsin.” In 1985, Wright’s remains were exhumed, cremated and taken to Arizona, where his ashes were scattered with those of his third wife.
In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kammen said he decided to write about reburials because he kept coming across mentions of them in his research. The exhumations and reburials showed the ebb and flow of reputations, he explained, but there was also a bizarrely funny element to them.
“This was a hilarious project,” Kammen told the Chronicle. “I chuckled my way through.”