Three Historians and a Furnace Guy

Jim Marten reminds us that the scholar’s profession isn’t just about teaching and publishing.  We are all part of a living historiography. 

I doubt that the following stories will help anyone achieve a deeper understanding of the process of doing history, but I think they represent the evocative web of connections that every historian will encounter in his or her own life.  The people making one set of those connections for me include my predecessor at MU, my mentor, my mentor’s mentor—and a furnace guy.

When I came to Marquette in 1986 I succeeded Frank L. Klement, the legendary professor who had taught here since the 1940s (there was actually someone else in the line for a few years, but he wasn’t a Civil War historian, so I feel like I followed Frank rather than the person I really did replace).  Frank had won the Award for Teaching Excellence, served as international president of Phi Alpha Theta, the history honor society, and published several well-received books on northern dissent during the Civil War. Alums remembered him fondly—many recalled Frank’s mantra that “C” really was the average grade in his classes (which would horrify students today!)—and when we sought donations for the Klement Lecture fund, they really came through, with over 200 of them contributing well over $50,000 in less than two years.  So it was humbling to have been hired, in effect, to succeed him.  (For a brief biography of Frank Klement and information about the lectures, go to http://www.marquette.edu/history/klement.shtml.)

It turned out that we had a number of connections.  The first is the least interesting, at least for the purposes of this blog: while he studied dissent in the Civil War North, my dissertation and first book was on dissent in Civil War Texas.  More interesting to me is that it turned out that he had a personal connection not only to my advisor but to my advisor’s advisor.  When Frank and I first met, he asked who I’d studied with, and I told him Robert Abzug.  I doubted if he’d have heard of him, since Bob was a very young historian and his work in social history and psychohistory (his first book was a psychobiography—very big in the early 1980s—on the abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld) was way outside of Frank’s research his.  But Frank surprised me by arching an eyebrow and referring to that “unfortunate article.”  I found out later that Bob’s first published article (in the Indiana state history magazine) was on northern Copperheads (arch-opponents of Republican policies) and in it he had criticized Frank’s sympathetic portrayal of dissenters, especially his assertion that the secret societies they allegedly had organized were figments of Lincoln-era Republicans’ imagination.  Frank had a long memory; the article had come out sixteen years earlier.

But the connections ran deeper than that.  Bob Abzug had been a PhD student of Kenneth Stampp at Berkeley.  Stampp wrote books on everything from pre-war politics to Reconstruction to slavery; his most famous book, read by hundreds of thousands of students from the 1950s through the 1980s (and probably beyond) was a history of slave life in America called The Peculiar Institution. It was one of the first books I read in graduate school, although I have a dim memory of having read it as an undergraduate, too. I benefited from Abzug’s extraordinary admiration for Stampp, who had ten or twelve students at a time, yet managed to turn chapter drafts around quickly, with great splashes of red corrections, suggestions, and questions. I was Bob’s first and only student at the time (he’s had almost two dozen since), and he did the same for me (although he eased the shock by using less-alarming blue ink and calling me ahead of time to warn me of the looming set of revisions waiting in my department mailbox). He was a careful editor and a compassionate advisor who visited my wife Linda and I in the hospital after the birth of our daughter Lauren, bringing flowers and chocolates. Two days after I accepted my job at Marquette, he and his wife Penne took us out to a celebratory dinner (and paid for a babysitter for Lauren!). A year or two before, when Stampp had visited Texas to give a lecture, Bob introduced me to him. “Ah,” he said, “you must be my grand-student.” It was a nice moment.

Let’s get back to Frank, who attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1940s—with Ken Stampp as one of his fellow students (Stampp was a couple of years ahead of him).  Both studied under the same professor, William Best Hesseltine.  Hesseltine was pretty well known during his lifetime, but the only book still-cited much anymore had to do with Civil War prison camps. But he trained a generation of Civil War historians, including Frank Friedel, T. Harry Williams, Richard Current, and Stephen F. Ambrose (Google those guys and you’ll get a sense of how extraordinary a group they were).

Stampp recalled Hesseltine quite fondly in a memoir published on-line not long before the latter’s death. “He had a wonderful lecture style. He was witty, he was clever, his lectures were full of humor. Challenging, sometimes outrageous generalizations. But I was rather young and naive then, and he seemed to me awfully exciting. There was no discussion in these lectures. He lectured, and we listened. For a while, I was scared to death of him. I thought he was wonderful, but I was afraid of him.” (http://hnn.us/roundup/entries/32242.html)

Frank’s experience with Hesseltine seems to have been even more ambivalent than Stampp’s. As he liked to say, he was just a “country boy who grew up on the banks of the Embarrass River” in central Wisconsin, and although Frank was a little older than the other students, he was nevertheless intimidated when, as he told me on more than one occasion, he walked into Hesseltine’s seminar room for the first time and Stampp, Current, and Williams turned to look at him. That’s a lot of intellectual firepower for one room (although, of course, this is before any of them had published a single book)!  Already feeling a little out of his element, he was also caught off-guard when Hesseltine declared that “Roman Catholics should not be in academia.” I have no idea why Hesseltine would say such a thing—although academia was still dominated by white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men in the early 1940s—but it seems to have inspired Frank as much as it shocked him. He was a devout Catholic who always seemed to have felt like an outsider in the academy, which no doubt helps explain his sympathy for Civil War dissenters—outsiders themselves, many of whom were also Catholics. Yet Frank dedicated his 1970 book, The Limits of Dissent: Clement L. Vallandigham and the Civil War to Hesseltine’s memory.

Relationships between students and advisors can be fraught.  Yet the connections you forge in that most important graduate school relationship will follow you throughout your career—and life.

I have one other personal and rather unusual connection to my mentor’s mentor. When we bought our 1921 Milwaukee bungalow many years ago, I discovered a professional card stapled to a post in the basement (skilled craftsmen like plumbers often leave cards in handy places for future emergencies) that promised to “install and service” all makes of boilers. To my surprise, it was the business card of a man named Harrold Stampp. I knew Kenneth Stampp was a Milwaukee native and when I had the chance to exchange emails with him on a small matter a few years later I asked him about it.  He confirmed that it was a first cousin with whom he had grown up and that he had died just a few years earlier.

That card is still stapled to the post.  It reminds me of my personal history and of the connections that I’ve treasured.  I have a feeling most of my colleagues could share similar stories.

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2 Responses to “Three Historians and a Furnace Guy”


  1. 1 Aaron Stockham November 1, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    Really a fascinating story, Dr. Marten. I wonder if that same sense of collegiality and mentorship exists within graduate cohorts? I guess I’ll find out in March, when I finally meet some of Dr. Theoharis’s “children.”

  2. 2 anngrafics February 4, 2014 at 9:19 pm

    Mr. Klement lived down the alley from my current house. He enjoyed gardening in his retirement and all the neighbors judged when it was appropriate to put in tomatoes based on when Frank did it. Of course this was nearly 20 years ago. I never knew who he was at the time. A friend bought his home and built a new garage where his garden used to be. Fellow gardeners rued the loss of the best soil on the block. Wish I had chatted more with him when I had the chance.


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