April 2011: James T. Patterson '52
James T. Patterson ’52, a Ford Foundation professor of history emeritus at Brown University, is a distinguished historian who has received numerous fellowships and honors, including the prestigious Bancroft Prize for American history for his book Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974.
After Hotchkiss, Patterson became an English Speaking Union exchange student before matriculating at Williams, where he received a B.A. in 1957. Then, after a six-month stint in the Army, motivated by his interest in journalism, he took a job at the Hartford Courant. He says, “I was responsible for writing 25 inches of news every day, and I learned to write quickly, using strong verbs, because I knew that the audience was made up of American adults at the breakfast table. This developed my style of writing, which seeks to be strongly narrative.”
In the fall of 1960, Patterson entered Harvard University, where he received an M.A. and a Ph.D. in history in 1961 and 1964 respectively. His long-term interest in 19th and 20th-century U.S. social and political history had been spawned in part by his father, J. Tyler Patterson ’26, who was elected to the Connecticut State House of Representatives in 1950 and went on to serve as its speaker.
After finishing his graduate program, Patterson began his teaching career at Indiana University. During his tenure there, he wrote his first three books, Congressional Conservatism and the New Deal, The New Deal and the States: Federalism in Transition, and Mr. Republican: A Biography of Robert A. Taft. He notes, “My early work was straightforward political history. I had always been very interested in politics before moving to academia.” For this work Patterson received the Frederick Jackson Turner Book Prize from the Organization of American Historians (1966), two fellowships from the National Endowment for Humanities, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He was also the recipient of an Indiana University Teaching Award and the Ohioana Award, a book prize for his volume on Taft.
In 1972 Patterson became professor of history at Brown University, where he taught modern U.S. history to both undergraduate and graduate students until 2002. During this time, he published several more books, including America's Struggle Against Poverty, 1900-1980, which he updated several times. In the 1970s, he noticed a trend away from the academic writing of political history toward an emphasis on societal issues such as race, class, and gender. In 1987, in keeping with this trend, he published The Dread Disease: Cancer and Modern American Culture, a book about the cultural history of cancer and societal reaction to the disease from the 1880s to the 1980s. The book explores the social tensions that cancer creates and the persistence of fear, which in turn exposes divisions in American life.
In the 1990s, Patterson wrote Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974, part of the multivolume Oxford History of the United States. This portrayal of political, cultural, and economic events of the postwar period was praised by historians and readers alike for its balanced commentary and very readable understanding of the years between the end of World War II and Nixon’s resignation. In his next two books, Patterson tackled the civil rights case of Brown v. Board of Education, and the period from the Watergate era to the Bush versus Gore election of 2000.
In 2010, Patterson published Freedom is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life from LBJ to Obama, an absorbing history of the years following Moynihan’s contentious report of 1965. Patterson hopes his account of the complex racial, political, cultural, and social issues leading to the deterioration of lower-class black family life revealed in the report will stimulate debate since many of the concerns Moynihan identified remain unaddressed today.
In his next book, Patterson’s focus will be on one transformative year, 1965. What many people call the “1960s,” he argues, really began in 1965 with the escalation of our involvement in Vietnam, the Watts riot in Los Angeles, fights about the Moynihan Report, the start of the Great Society programs Medicare and Medicaid, and the passing of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, among other things. Gender relations, race relations, and civil rights concerns were all in the news, as was the violence that stemmed from the many ensuing protests.
Why is the past so important to the present? Patterson believes that “the historian helps people understand the ‘pastness of the past.’ We do this with thorough research from original sources. I don’t believe that history can be instrumental as a guideline as to how you should act. But it will help you understand the immense variety and oddity of human nature.”
Reflecting on the pleasure he has found in teaching and writing, Patterson notes that because of a crowded market, it will be more difficult for the next generation of able young M.A.s and Ph.D.s to find jobs teaching history, especially at the university level. “It often takes seven or eight years to get a Ph.D. in history, and there is a lot of competition for the professor jobs at the major universities. The average general reader enjoys history, but few can make a living writing it.”