Joyce Oldham Appleby, a giant in the field of early American intellectual and political history, died earlier this week at the age of 87. If you are unfamiliar with Appleby or her work I encourage you to head over to The Junto and read Michael Hattem’s excellent obituary.
I never met Appleby, but I read and admired her work. I read Capitalism and a New Social Order, Liberalism and Republicanism in Historical Imagination,and Telling the Truth About History in graduate school. Appleby’s published disagreements with Gordon Wood and others from the “republicanism” school of the American Revolution were staples on the reading lists of all early American graduate students in the 1990s. Her book Inheriting the Revolution made me aware of the role memoirs could play in understanding the American Revolution and the early republic.
In 1996 Appleby and James Banner Jr. founded History News Service (HNS) in an attempt to get more academic historians to write for a public audience. As a newly-minted history Ph.D who was trying to imagine a slightly different kind of career than the one I was encouraged to follow in graduate school, my interests intersected with the mission of HNS and I began sending op-eds to Appleby and Banner. Anyone who wrote for HNS remembers the editorial good-cop (Appleby)/bad cop (Banner) routine they used when editing the work of those of us who were new to this genre of writing. Banner would cover the piece with the proverbial red ink. In my case he pushed me to write more succinct sentences and dispense of academic jargon. Appleby was no less of a critic, but she had a softer, more encouraging, touch. Both of them made me a better writer. Banner made me realize that it would take hard work to master the craft of public writing. (And I am certainly not there yet). Appleby made me feel like there was actually a chance I could contribute to this genre.
After I learned that she had passed away I went back and re-read some of the e-mails she wrote to me in her role at HNS. Here is one from 2004 that I will always remember:
“Excellent rewrite, John. I am ready to turn this over to Jim for fine-tuning. I have made one suggestion in caps for your conclusion. I hope that you will consider it. Many thanks. I wish you’d write more for HNS. You are a natural writer. Joyce
Joyce Appleby probably never thought again about the last two sentences of this e-mail, but this small kindness meant the world to me and kept me going. Thanks, Joyce. RIP.