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Renowned historian Joseph Levine dies at age 75
Renowned historian Joseph Levine dies at age 75January 30, 2008SU News ServicesSUnews@syr.edu
Joseph Levine, an internationally respected historian and the first director of Syracuse University’s London program, died Saturday of cancer at age 75. Levine taught at SU from 1966 until earlier this month, when he retired as Distinguished Professor of History after teaching his final seminar.
“He was one of the leading intellectual historians in the United States, and he enjoyed a truly international reputation,” says Mitchel Wallerstein, dean of SU’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. “Joe spent every summer pursuing his research in the British Library in London, and he produced an impressive scholarly output. Professor Levine set a high standard in his department, both as a scholar and as a teacher. His career accomplishments will be emulated for years to come by his faculty colleagues and by graduate students in history. He will be missed.”
A former Guggenheim fellow and the author of six books, Levine had a dual appointment in Maxwell and SU’s College of Arts and Sciences.
He was an expert in the history of ideas and was considered the world’s leading authority on how the British thought about, and recorded, history from the Renaissance to the 18th century. Levine spent 35 summers in Britain, digging through archives, and built a personal collection of nearly 30,000 books, many of which were printed in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
“Joe Levine was a historian’s historian, but he also served extraordinarily well a wide range of scholars and students who care about intellectual and cultural history but approach it from some more oblique angle — through literature, for instance, or art or philosophy. Joe was passionate and he was rigorous — always up for a good argument about either substance or method — but he was also patient and gentle, giving everyone else a looser rein than he kept on himself,” says J. Paul Hunter, the Barbara E. and Richard J. Franke Professor of Humanities Emeritus at the University of Chicago and professor of English at the University of Virginia. “As a friend, colleague, interlocutor and fellow part-time Londoner, I treasured him most for his integrity, intelligence, knowledge, perspective and intensity, but also for his generosity with both people and texts. And although he could be annoyed by the uncertainties and roundaboutness of literature, I think he loved it almost as much as history itself, right up there almost with his love of humanity. And he was a friend’s friend.”
“Joseph Levine was a master historian of ideas. In six books and countless articles, all of them erudite, wide-ranging, and elegantly written, he illuminated the lives and work of British intellectuals from the 15th to the 18th centuries,” says Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton. “He created new models for the study of scholarly and artistic traditions and of the ideas and practices of historians, and applied them brilliantly in his own highly interdisciplinary work. Both Levine’s example and his generous teaching and advice helped to shape the work of younger scholars in many fields.”
In “Doctor Woodward’s Shield: History, Science, and Satire in Augustan England” (Cornell University Press, 1977; second edition, 1991), Levine recovered the spirit of English intellectual life at the end of the 17th century by telling the story of a controversy that involved many of the leading wits, scholars, and scientists of the era. (The controversy concerned a shield that was thought to have belonged to Achilles himself, but ultimately turned out to be a forgery.) The London Review of Books called “Dr. Woodward’s Shield” “one of the most imaginative contributions to the history of ideas written in the last 50 years.”
In “The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age” (Cornell University Press, 1991) and “Between the Ancients and the Moderns: Baroque Culture in Restoration England” (Yale University Press, 1999), Levine described the dispute about whether ancient culture was always superior to modern culture — an argument that profoundly influenced writers, scholars, scientists and artists for several centuries. In “The Autonomy of History: Truth and Method from Erasmus to Gibbon” (University of Chicago Press, 1999), and in other writing throughout his career, Levine described the development of historical thinking and methodology. He was a passionate defender and teacher of the modern methods and craft of history.
Throughout his career, Levine was concerned with such questions as: How did history separate itself from fiction? Why was the imitation of classical models so popular and successful for several centuries of European history, and then what reduced the impulse to imitate Rome and Greece? How and why did modern methods of historical research develop? When and why did Europeans begin to understand ancient culture as profoundly different from their own? He approached such questions by identifying particular people who had thought and written about historical issues. He sought to recover their original motives and reasons through meticulous research, based on primary sources. This was the historical method whose development he traced back to the Renaissance.
“Joe Levine and I were friends, colleagues, and collaborators for over 50 years,” says Donald R. Kelley, the James Westfall Thompson Professor of History at Rutgers University and the Executive Editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas. “From the first day of grad school … through the ‘Ellis Island committee’ … teaching at Queens College, scholarly convergences in New York, Syracuse, Washington, Princeton, London, Germany, etc., reading and promoting each other’s books and articles (having decided from the start for Joe to take mainly Britain, me the other side of the channel), contributing to books, festschrifts, editing and contributing to the JHI (with Leonard again), and retiring, though unlike me Joe kept working toward a big book. Without him I can’t be wholly myself.”
“Joe was an extraordinary man and a scholar of the first order. He challenged us to rigorously debate our ideas in ways that would further our understanding of the cultural context within which history is created,” says Cathryn R. Newton, dean of SU’s College of Arts and Sciences. “We send our deepest condolences to his family, friends and colleagues both at SU and across the world. Joe’s passion for ideas led him on a lifelong journey of discovery. His generous spirit and scholarship will most certainly be missed.”
Levine was born in Brooklyn in 1933. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School in New York City and then Cornell University. He received a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University in 1965.
He married the former Beulah Learnard in 1965. She survives him, as do their children: Caroline E. Levine, professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) at the University of Maryland.