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A Celebration of Frederick Merk (1887-1977)

ISSUE:  Summer 1978

Frederick Merk came to Harvard from Wisconsin. He brought his West with him and nurtured it in Cambridge, as a student, teacher, and scholar, for more than six decades. Born in Milwaukee, he received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1911, worked for five years on the staff of the State Historical Society, moved to Harvard in 1916 to begin graduate study under Frederick Jackson Turner, won a prize for his dissertation, and in 1921 received his first faculty appointment as an instructor. His cursus honorum brought him in 1946 to the Gurney Professorship. A quarter of a century earlier he had shared the teaching of various courses with Charles H. Mcllwain, Edward Channing, and Arthur M, Schlesinger. A colleague and contemporary of Samuel Eliot Morison, among others, Merk in the latter year of his tenure taught graduate students who are now still a decade from retirement. His career, then, spanned the first three or four generations of professional historians, and his benign and rigorous influence continues to imbue American university classrooms.

He was a small man, but big-boned, especially his hands, craftsman’s hands. He had a singularly narrow face with a large, responsive mouth and inquiring eyes behind unobtrusive spectacles. Winter and summer he wore dark suits, white shirts, dark ties, black shoes, and, on cold days, sometimes a wool cardigan. Even in his eighties his erect posture accentuated his determined walk. His throaty, rather high voice had a penetrating quality, not the least because of his controlled, meticulous diction. He did not smoke or drink alcoholic beverages, he had no small talk, he was never a familiar of his students, never a gregarious hail-fellow, and yet his generosity of spirit, his profligacy with his own time, made every student and colleague who knew him well his debtor.

In March 1977, about five months before his 90th birthday and seven before his death, I knocked on his door at Widener 515 as I had intermittently knocked there for almost 40 years. As he had responded on each previous occasion, so did he respond then:

“Come!” Half invitation, half command.

“Fred,” I said as I entered, “how are you?”

A moment’s reflection, stock-taking perhaps, then:

“John, I’m tough!”


Frederick Merk was tough—physically, morally, and intellectually tough, as tough as a wonderfully gentle man could be. After the Valentine’s Day blizzard of 1940, with greater Boston immobilized, Fred Merk snowshoed into Cambridge from Belmont, some five miles, to deliver his nine o’clock lecture on the history of the American West. Up from the river houses at Harvard there walked to join him only half-a-dozen undergraduates, perhaps a tenth of the class. He made no comment at the time, but he never forgot any one of them, not a face, not a name. Physically tough, though illness forced him to miss several lectures the following year. Did he ever miss more?

Intellectually tough, disciplined for seven decades to long days at his desk, to exhaustive efforts in his search for historical data and in precise veracity in their use. He loved his calling and beckoned others to it. To the first meeting of his graduate seminar he always put the same question: “Why do you want to study history?” Some within the class of which I was one replied that they expected, like Ranke, to find truth; others believed history had a special relevance for current issues. Fred had the last word, the only good answer to his own query: “I study history because I like to.”

In his shy way he also liked his students. Perhaps those he knew in the early years of his long Harvard career became closer to him than did his postwar flock, But we, too, felt the personal warmth that lay beneath his criticisms, whether those criticisms were admiring or corrective. And annually, at tea at 10 Village Hill Road, Belmont, we sensed the privacy and serenity of his home, the quiet intimacy that he shared with his wife, Lois, (an historian in her own right and in time also his collaborator), and with their son and daughter. He established with each of us a precise relationship as supportive as it was controlled. Most important, he encouraged us in his seminar or in our dissertations to go our separate intellectual ways. Never prescriptive, he responded in kind to our varied enthusiasms so long as they were genuine and disciplined enthusiasms. While he gave us collectively a common lesson about the methods of history, he permitted us individually to wander as we felt we had to, in 1946 one to the triangular trade; another to the young Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois; still another to the Irish-American ward politicians of Jersey City. Even when we were just beginning our apprenticeship, Fred welcomed us as future colleagues.

As chairman of his department during the years of World War II, he wrote many long letters, often in hand, to his students in the armed services. I shall not forget one I received while my ship was en route to Iwo Jima, Several pages long, that letter described in extraordinary detail the provisions of the G. I. Bill of Rights as they would apply to me if I chose to pursue a Ph. history at Harvard, the exact terms according to which I would be admitted to the program, and the various reasons why Fred believed that I should apply. He concluded by urging me to select a topic for my dissertation before I left the Navy. It was some months before I could give that letter my full attention, but once I did, I was moved and flattered by the effort he had made on my behalf, and persuaded by his advice, the chart and compass of my apprenticeship, as it was also for so many others. He was our master.


Teaching absorbed Fred Merk, as it did few others on the Harvard faculty in his time. The substance of what he taught evoked the enthusiasm of the undergraduates who filled his classes; the spirit behind his teaching bound his graduate students to him. Shortly after the end of the war, a group of Harvard doctoral candidates had luncheon together in the top floor of the building of the Department of the Interior in Washington, by coincidence the department responsible for so many of the public policies that engaged Fred’s professional interests. About to leave the armed services and to return to the academic enterprise, those eating together asked themselves what their various Harvard mentors had taught them. No empirical answer satisfied them. Then the most discerning of the company put it right.”I don’t know what any one else was teaching,” he said, “but Fred taught integrity.” So he did, an integrity of mind and process, of the way in which to understand and to write history, an integrity by his standards so severe that perhaps no one of his students could ever achieve it, but a quality he made so important that all of them would try.

The substance and method of history imbued his lectures. As a lecturer he had no equal at Harvard in the field of American history, and few in any other field or any other discipline.(In my own experience, only William L. Langer and F. O. Matthiessen rivaled him.) In the first half of the introductory course, he made each lecture a separate, complete essay. Once when he was ill, his teaching assistant read aloud from the text that Fred had prepared in his characteristically cramped but wholly legible hand. The assistant finished in 35 minutes. Fred’s special rhetoric, his sense of the drama of what he had to say, his clarity of thought and emphasis, his use of pauses and repetitions, would, had he been reading that text himself, have consumed easily the allotted 53 minutes. Those qualities of his delivery always did. Gems of synthesis, his lectures combined narrative with analysis, including evaluation of the latest relevant scholarship, invariably indentified by author and title.

He altered his style in only one respect when lecturing in his more celebrated course on the history of the westward movement. There he addressed a topic for as long as he deemed appropriate, perhaps for three or four lectures. In order to remind his students of where they were at the start of each session, he began with a brief summary of the previous lecture, a summary prefaced by the phrase: “At the last hour. . . .” That course, according to Harvard folklore, became known as “Wagon Wheels” or “Cowboys and Indians.” It was not so known when I took it in 1941. Then we all called it “Merk.” Each extended topic in the course had the attributes of a carefully structured chapter that took its proper place in the commanding book that the total course represented.

That book had the fascination of variety as well as of structure and synthesis. Some parts of it, but not many, derived from Frederick Jackson Turner. I have no recollection of Fred discussing the impact of the frontier on American character or the safety-valve thesis, though he had us read Turner on those subjects. He did give continual attention to sectionalism, and within sections to regionalism, though his ideas about those questions diverged at crucial points from Turner’s. Further, his magnificant slides included copies of what he called “the great series on presidential elections” that Turner had prepared. He had many more slides of his own, slides that communicated his insights into political and economic geography, as well as his sense of the relationships among patterns of settlement, varieties of crops, and voting behavior. He had, as he once put it, a “stubborn conviction that for undergraduate and graduate teaching visual aids are, and always have been, a big help. The slides are also a help to me in my writing. I return to them again and again to find information I cannot find elsewhere in convenient form.” An incomparable resource, the slides, he said, would ultimately go to the Harvard Archives where they might “help to turn the Harvard Department again into the path” of the study of the history of the West.


As Frederick Merk taught that subject, and as he wanted his students to comprehend it, it included significant excursions into related topics: national politics, of course; economic and business history; the history of agriculture and of agricultural and extractive technology; the history of American foreign policy. His monographs on Manifest Destiny, on the Texas question, the Oregon question, the Monroe Doctrine, studies completed and published, by and large, after he had retired, found an earlier, vigorous, exciting expression in his lectures.”Do you recall,” one of his former undergraduate students wrote not long after Fred’s death, “(did you share) the youthful sensation which came when we first learned that we could learn county-by-county, crop-by-crop, election-by-election the economic and political history of the United States? Some of us . . .loved and admired him.” Lots of us did.

Fred’s interests again and again influenced at least two generations of his graduate students. So it was, among those who wrote dissertations under his direction, that Paul W. Gates, the most honored among them, made his province Western and agricultural history; Rodman Paul tilled Western fields and worked western mines and their technology; Ralph Hidy and Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., became preeminent in the history of American enterprise, and Samuel Hays in the study of voting behavior; Bradford Perkins pursued issues in Anglo-American relations; Elting E. Morrison provided stunning contributions to both the history of technological innovation and the history of national domestic and foreign policy. Fred Merk never suggested that he made those distinguished scholars what they became, but he delighted in their achievements, which were mirrors of his professional purpose. “I am very proud of my old graduate students,” he once wrote, and about what some of them had done, “. . .1 am actually vain.”

For their part, they were proud of their relationship to him; they felt his presence in their work just as his undergraduate students felt it in his classrooms. Fred had a kind of monumental quality. It drew to his last lecture, delivered in the spring of 1957, several dozen of his former students, undergraduates and graduates alike. “The turnout Tuesday,” he wrote a friend who was there, “was contrary to my expectations. The History Office, at my wish, kept the news of my retirement confidential until such time as an announcement should come through the regular University channels. The announcements did come in the press on Tuesday morning, but already, on the previous day, the news was abroad and I was receiving letters from as far away as Amherst. I felt rather ashamed afterwards that I had not shared my secret. . . .” Only as modest a man as he could have believed that his “secret” would not out, that his former students would not discover their last chance to see and hear him in his sanctum.


He had in fact no intention of retiring from history. About five years before that last lecture, one of his former course assistants, by then a professor in his own right at a distant institution, met Fred on a Saturday afternoon in the stacks at Widener Library.”Why Jim,” Fred said, “what are you doing here on a lovely Saturday afternoon?”

“A young man,” came the reply, “has to make his way in the world. And what are you doing here, Mr. Merk?”

“An old man,” Fred answered, “has to prepare to die.”

That preparation lasted another quarter century. In that time Frederick Merk published the bulk of his contributions to the literature of American history. Most of those books spoke to questions of foreign policy, but the last, destined for posthumous publication, focused on the history of the West. “I have recently returned,” he wrote a friend about that book, “to my first love, the “Westward Movement” after some years of desertion of it in pursuing the red-haired Muse of diplomatic history. Now I am done with that indiscretion. . . . Much new writing on the Westward Movement has appeared since I last taught that course and to catch up with it is no slight task. However, I still have all the old devotion to the subject and a little though less, of the energy for it that I once had. If I can apply the spur to myself . . . I may succeed in finishing the job.”

Of course he did. Until the day he died Fred Merk remained tough physically, morally, and intellectually, above all, perhaps, tough on himself. For all of us whose dissertations felt his influence and his dedication, he will continue to be, as George Washington was for Henry Adams, a “primary . . .an ultimate relation, like the Pole Star.” And so we shall continue to try to dedicate ourselves to his standards, and thus to celebrate him, Frederick Merk, Magister Artibus Historiae.


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