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Robert K. Webb, 1922-2012

Published: August 23, 2012

Born in Toledo, Ohio, on Nov. 22, 1922, Bob Webb was a piano prodigy who, to the good fortune of British studies, chose instead to be a historian. Among the last of his generation of young men who left college to serve in the military during the Second World War and then became a seminal figure in his field, Bob entered Oberlin College in 1940 and was in the U.S. Army Artillery from 1943 to 1946. Eventually a Master Sergeant, Bob was posted to the U.S., Guam, and the Philippines.  He graduated from Oberlin in 1947 and went on to a Ph. D. at Columbia University in 1951. After a brief stint at Wesleyan University from 1951-1953, he returned to Columbia.  There, he advanced to senior positions, including Chair of the Contemporary Civilization Program.  From 1968 through 1975, he was the editor of the American Historical Review and from 1975-81 of Academe, the AAUP Bulletin.  In 1975, he joined the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he remained until his retirement in 1992. Throughout his career, he collected almost every academic honor and prize available, including a Fulbright Scholarship; a Guggenheim Fellowship, twice; and, an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship.  He also enjoyed three Research Grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was a Visiting Fellow in the School of Social Sciences and subsequently at the Humanities Research Centre, The Australian National University. Additionally, he was a Senior Visiting Fellow in the Victorian Studies Centre, the University of Leicester; a Member, the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton; a Visiting Fellow, the Center for the History of Freedom, Washington University, St. Louis; the Christiansen Visiting Fellow, St. Catherine's College, and an Associate Fellow, Manchester College, Oxford. Modestly and with great effect, Bob Webb had lasting influence upon the understanding and practice of British history.  His distinguished legacy in British studies and upon the greater academic community is apparent in scholarship and style; editorial authority; academic leadership; and teaching and mentoring.

Bob's analytic powers were legendary -- he was incapable of an incoherent thought -- and his mastery of the English language was meticulous and elegant.  Peter Gay got it exactly right when he dedicated his Style in History (1974) to "Bob Webb. Friend, Collaborator, Stylist."  In The British Working-Class Reader:  Literacy and Social Tension, 1790-1848 (1955), Bob emerged as a defining social and intellectual historian, demonstrating the explanatory power of a perspective then just beginning to challenge the long primacy of political history.  Bob set out to understand the challenge that a newly literate working class presented, especially to a newly ascendant middle class who attempted to impose their values and mores on those below them.  Bob found that attempt doomed, not least because of the allegiance of the middle classes to the iron doctrines of political economy.  This astute revisionary work preceded by eight years E.P. Thompson's iconic The Making of the English Working Classes (1963), which argued that the 18th and 19th century "working classes" needed to be rescued from the "enormous condescension of posterity."  Bob's discovery of the conflict between increasingly self-conscious working-class and paternalistic middle-class radicals led him to Harriet Martineau.  A Radical Victorian (1960).  Instead of a conventional biography, Bob deciphered those forces in the early 19th century that formed and were reflected "in this singular woman" and asked what "a study of her amazingly consistent attitudes" revealed about early Victorian society.  The book provided an intellectual and cultural portrait of the time set within a broad and then neglected religious, political and economic context. In this study, Bob became fascinated by the role of religion in general and Unitarianism in particular. Just as historical studies of women were hardly competing for bookshelf space in the 1960's, religion was rarely studied by scholars of the Victorian age.  Had Bob lived a little longer, his eagerly anticipated study of Unitarianism would have become the definitive work.  Instead, he left scores of graceful, revelatory essays, which beg for collection and publication.  Bob taught us that an understanding of religion was essential for an explanation of thought, conduct, policy, and class relations in Victorian life.  Aside from many other essays and book chapters on topics that included analyses of the 1950's and '60's, Bob wrote Modern England (1968) and together with Peter Gay, Modern Europe (1972).

Modern England, revised in 1980, served as the principal text book for at least two generations of students and it was the first volume to deal with both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of English history.  Bob explained his bias as "political and social" in which the theme of progressive change was more important than the theme of traditional continuity.  Undergraduates reading this book were introduced to a rare mind capable of extraordinarily compelling and memorable scholarly synthesis.   In 1980, in the second edition, Bob extended the time period, rewrote many sections and gave up the notion that some kind of greatness might still lie ahead for England.  But he retained his admiration for the country and its unique achievements in politics, culture, the arts, education, religious tolerance, and the practice of civility.  Had he written a new edition, as he acknowledged, that optimism, qualified as it was, would no longer be possible for expectations about the present and future. Modern England is still on reserve at UCLA's College Library and it was checked out of the Research Library as recently as April 2012.

At the AHR, Bob demanded and received the highest standards for articles and reviews. His careful reading of manuscripts and erudite commentary encouraged contributors to be better, more introspective historians.  Bob believed and acted upon the principal that historical writing should never be stodgy. His trademark was enthusiastic explanation, delivered with economic clarity and panache. Those skills led him to various tenures as a valued editorial advisor for libraries, foundations and publishers.

As an active member and leader in many academic organizations, he delighted his colleagues with his qualities of mind and of character--especially his wit, discernment, and uncanny ability to resolve apparently irreconciliable difficulties. Those organizations included NACBS, where he served as Vice-President and President from 1987-1989; the AAUP, where he held a number of offices from 1966-1981 (see the remembrance in Academe, May-June, 2012); and interdisciplinary roles in accreditation and adjudication bodies.  In 1975 he joined the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he enlisted and led a history department that now includes three eminent scholars of British History—Daniel Ritschel, Webb's successor; Sandra Herbert; and Amy Froide.  While at UMBC, he also served as Acting Chancellor for Academic Affairs from 1978-79. Ten years later, Bob became UMBC's first presidential research professor. After he retired in 1992, a university lecture series in history was created to honor him and distinguished students of Britain came annually to deliver those lectures.  In October, 2010, Bob closed the series with a typically urbane and intriguing exploration of "The Very Long Eighteenth Century: An Experiment in the History of Religion?"   (This can be seen and heard on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k5xUAxRZypk.)

Bob Webb was passionate about English history as a complex story, never entirely successful, about an evolving constitutional democracy and civilization in which more was to be admired than despised.  He was also passionate about good food, architecture, and the arts and especially about music.  But most of all, he was passionate about and deeply admired his wife of 54 years, Patty Shull Webb, and his two accomplished daughters, Emily Martin of Los Angeles and Margaret Webb Pressler, of Washington.  His family, including his six grandchildren, was a constant and renewing source of pleasure to him. He also cared deeply about the historical profession. When President of NACBS, Bob took the Executive Committee, of which I was a member, to a Michelin starred restaurant in Chicago.  As we started out, I noted with unease that the sidewalks were covered with ice.  In Los Angeles, ice is what we put into our drinks.  "Hold my arm," said Bob.  "I won't let you fall."  He never let anyone fall whom he could support, as so many will readily testify. A charismatic teacher and mentor to more than two generations of grateful students and colleagues, he will be remembered and missed for his kindness, generosity, authoritative scholarship, prodigious memory, and peerless range of knowledge.  Authentically good, Bob Webb lived wisely and well.

 

Reba Soffer, California State University, Northridge, Emerita

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