Daniel Rodgers, among the most innovative and respected historians of American cultural and intellectual life, is retiring after thirty-three years on the Princeton faculty.
Dan began his education in engineering, earning an A.B.-Sc.B., summa cum laude, from Brown University in 1965. Amid the hopeful reformism of the Great Society years, and with the deep social concerns that would in time stimulate his scholarship, he joined the AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program after graduation and worked for a year in Oregon, providing social services chiefly to impoverished rural households. His experiences, in turn, helped to shift his interests from engineering to American history, a field then roiling with fresh work on the social history of labor, work, and poverty. Under the direction of C. Vann Woodward, Dan completed his Ph.D. at Yale University in 1973. His dissertation was a pioneering study of how moral and political conceptions of work changed during the era of high industrialism. The revised version of that dissertation, published in 1978 as The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920, earned him the prestigious Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians.
Two years before he earned his Ph.D., Dan had begun his teaching career at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he thrived until Princeton had the good fortune to lure him away in 1980. Appointed to an associate professorship, he rose through the ranks, attaining his current position as the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History in 1998. By then, he had left an indelible mark both on the field of American intellectual and cultural history, and on Princeton.
Dan’s scholarship—meticulous, probing, and written in an arresting, sinewy style—continued to explore the ways in which Americans perceived their changing social and political order, and how those perceptions, in turn, shaped continuing social and political change. His second book, Contested Truths: Keywords in American Politics since Independence, published in 1987, offered a bracing analysis of how Americans contended over certain key words in their politics—including “utility,” “government,” and “the people”—from the Revolutionary era to modern times.
In Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age, published in 1998, Dan greatly expanded his own intellectual horizons and those of the field at large. The idea of American exceptionalism, whether raised in celebration or dismay, has long hampered historians’ understandings of the nation’s intense interactions with intellectual currents abroad. Breaking through that artificial barrier, Dan discovered vibrant networks of transatlantic influence in social policy, and he analyzed the neglected international roots of such innovations as city planning, rural cooperatives, public housing, and social insurance over the long period from the end of the Civil War to the end of World War II.
With its stunning acumen and its range of archival research, as well as its own ambitious architecture, Atlantic Crossings immediately established itself as one of the few indispensable historical studies of American social reform. It also became a foundational work in what has become known as “transnational” history, understanding the history of the United States (and it could be any nation) as part of a global ebb and flow of ideas, as well as the struggles over those ideas. The book won Dan further professional honors, including the George Louis Beer Prize of the American Historical Association, along with an enlarged audience that ranged across several disciplines, in Europe and Asia as well as in the United States.
Dan’s latest book, The Age of Fracture, published in 2011, may be his most rewarding yet. Over the last quarter-century and more, Americans have felt numerous reliable intellectual verities inherited from the New Deal era crumble beneath their feet. Covering fields as disparate as microeconomic theory and feminist cultural theory, Dan tried to make sense of it all—and he showed how a proliferation of metaphors and notions, sometimes reaching the level of ideas and sometimes merely masquerading as ideas, undermined old concepts of political consensus, managed economic policy, and active citizenship. In their place arose a clamor of multiple personal identities that, when coupled with the retreat of Keynesian presumptions, battered older solidarities of community and collective purpose—solidarities that had once framed social debate. Rarely has any historian offered so sweeping and compelling an account of major intellectual trends of his or her own time. The achievement earned Dan the Bancroft Prize, the most coveted professional award in the field of American history.
A leader among American historians, Dan has been awarded numerous fellowships and other honors, including a stint as the Visiting Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at the University of Cambridge and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has been no less a leader at Princeton. During a crucial period of generational transition in the late 1980s and most of the 1990s, he chaired the history department with steadiness and inventiveness, helping to keep the department in the very front rank of achievement and international reputation. From 2008 to 2012, he directed the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies, carrying on the center’s singular tradition of excellence with no small degree of welcome iconoclasm.
Apart from his scholarship, Dan’s most lasting impact will almost certainly come from his exceptional teaching. In 2012, Princeton recognized him with the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching, but even that high honor only begins to convey Dan’s contributions in the lecture hall and the seminar room. In particular, he has trained a remarkably large and gifted group of graduate students over the last third of a century, not simply in the fields of intellectual and cultural history but in the history of cities, slavery, and race relations, and much more. Dan is among a handful of historians now working whose influence will be felt across the length and breadth of American historical studies for decades to come, not just because of his own writing but because of the writing and teaching of his students, and of his students’ students.
We will sorely miss having Dan’s regular presence, his ability to goad as well as to embody calm reason—and the wonderful, smiling, slightly quizzical expression that could cross his face just before he delivered a fine, wise, and often brilliant observation. But he has already presented us his exciting thoughts on a new piece of work, one that will take him back to Puritan New England and stretch all the way to Ronald Reagan’s America. So we can expect that he will continue to shake up how we think about the nation’s past in a capacious context, with a sensibility at once cosmopolitan and deeply rooted in America’s contentious past. And we will continue to count on him as exemplar, counselor, and dear friend.