[NOTE: A couple of months ago, I did an online search because I was curious about the legacy of Arnold Michael Shankman, my best friend from graduate school, who died on March 1, 1983, after a lengthy battle with lymphatic cancer, at the age of 37. He was a fine teacher, a gifted researcher, and a productive scholar—four books and forty articles in only fifteen years as a historian! (I only knew the end was near for him when Arnold told me that he had begun limiting his research projects to those he could finish in a short time.)
What I discovered on that search surprised me. I ran across references to a number of Arnold’s publications, as I’d expected to, but then I was stunned to learn that there was an “Arnold Michael Shankman Collection” in the archives of the Dacus Library at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. And, when I visited the library’s website, I discovered much, much more about Arnold’s post-graduate school career, so much in fact that I began to reflect on Arnold, his career as a historian, and what he had meant to me and my family.]
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Arnold and I met in grad school in the autumn of 1968. Arnold, born on November 11, 1945, in Cleveland, Ohio, graduated from Cleveland’s Shaker Heights High School and Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, then headed south to study American History at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. I had just finished two years in the Army in 1968 and, dreaming of becoming a college professor, also accepted a fellowship from Emory to earn a PhD. in American history. The two of us quickly became fast friends.
Arnold had energy to burn when it came to graduate study, but he didn’t limit his activities to attending classes, writing papers, and prowling the stacks. In addition, he helped organize the history grad students for some (mild) political action, and he was always eager to help colleagues facing difficulties, whether academic or personal.
Arnold and I lived near each other, and our dissertation studies in Emory’s Woodruff Library were also close together. Since we were both majoring in American history, we took some of the same courses and spent hours hashing over many a puzzling historical work or interpretation, either in the library, over coffee at the student center, or, occasionally, over cheap beer at grad student parties or in a local watering hole. We studied for our preliminary written exams together, took them at the same time, and passed. (NOTE: We were supposed to discuss our preliminary exams with a few faculty members in a session open to the public, but, son of a gun, the department couldn’t actually gather enough professors to do that, so Arnold and I were told that we had passed “with distinction,” and, thus, no “orals” session was necessary!)
Arnold received his degree a year before I did (he obviously possessed a bit more self-discipline), completing his dissertation, on the anti-war movement in Pennsylvania during the Civil War, under the direction of noted Civil War scholar Bell Irvin Wiley. But, in the early 1970s, having a PhD in hand did not guarantee a college-teaching position. In fact, things were so tough that Arnold and I had tried to spur the History faculty to become more active on the job-search front, but to little avail. Perhaps the nadir of this effort came when one of our professors recommended both of us for the same vacancy at a North Carolina university, which naturally guaranteed that neither of us got the job!
Arnold and I sweated out, by letter and over the phone, the vagaries of his early professional career. He moved from Emory to a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard, where he studied immigration history under the renowned Oscar Handlin and sat in on classes taught by other “big guns” of that era, including Bernard Bailyn and David Donald. His comments about those august scholars were an absolute hoot to read; let’s just say that Dr. Shankman was not intimidated by academic nabobs–he had very high standards, and these historical demigods sometimes failed to meet them!
Following his year at Harvard, Arnold returned to Atlanta to take up to a one-year appointment at Oxford College, the junior college adjunct of Emory, located in Covington, Georgia. During his time there, incidentally, the ever considerate Arnold arranged for me to be a “guest lecturer” in his American History class, on the American Revolution in Georgia. It was a nice gesture, sincerely appreciated, especially when he managed to wangle a small honorarium for me!
I was almost as happy as Arnold when he finally landed a tenure-track appointment in the History Department at Winthrop College [now Winthrop University]. (It was just as he was moving to Winthrop that the lymphatic cancer that would eventually kill him reared its head.) I followed Arnold’s career at Winthrop closely, and he helped me by sending frequent letters, as well as copies of some of his articles.
Arnold and I were inveterate frequenters of book sales. As our bank accounts dwindled, the number of volumes in our personal libraries increased, a phenomenon neither of us minded very much. Even after he was out on his own, Arnold kept me apprised of book bargains, occasionally going so far as to purchase volumes for me and send them to Atlanta at his own expense.
Not only was Arnold a bibliophile, but he also loved libraries and archives, and woe betide the librarian or staff member who fell below his standards. For example, I still recall the time when, in high dudgeon, he claimed that he had found a copy of St. Augustine’s City of God shelved in one library [identity omitted to protect the guilty] under “urban history”! (But I think—at least I hope—he was just jerking my chain. The man had a sly, but infectious, sense of humor.) Arnold also loved research trips; when it came to visiting libraries and archives, he was a firm believer in the more, the merrier.
One of the first things Arnold did upon joining the Winthrop faculty was to throw his still considerable energies into the effort to create a college archive, serving on the committee charged with that task. The effort was successful, and, perhaps naturally, Arnold eventually bequeathed his papers to the new archive, where they can still be viewed today. Moreover, he obviously earned the friendship and respect of both students and colleagues during his all too brief tenure at Winthrop, as is evident from a wonderful overview of his life and career by Joyce E. Plyler, “Custodian of the Past: Arnold M. Shankman,” that serves as an introduction to the website for Winthrop’s Dacus Library’s Arnold Shankman Collection.
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Arnold was one of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever known. He showed up at my dissertation prospectus to cheer me on, and, during my time as an Emory teaching assistant, if I got in a bind trying to keep ahead of my classes, I could always count on Arnold to lend me lectures he had written on topics like Jacksonian Democracy, the New Deal, and McCarthyism.
On research trips to various libraries for his own projects, Arnold somehow managed to keep his eyes open for documents that might be of use in my work and that of other friends. I wish I had a nickel for every letter I received from Arnold that included useful information of this kind, usually scribbled on the back of the discarded library catalogue cards he used for notes.
When our first son was born, in 1972, Arnold bought him a large stuffed panda bear, which Jim named “Big Panda,” and which became a treasured possession. When Jim was a little older, Arnold purchased for him a set of huge plastic trucks and a plastic “hard hat” to wear when he played with them. Even after the trucks were gone, the hard hat reposed for several years in our basement.
Once I had finished my graduate work and taken a job in Atlanta, Arnold and I only saw each other perhaps once a year, though we continued to correspond and to keep in touch by phone. Arnold had a large circle of friends, and he kept up with all of them. It amazed me that every time he wrote or phoned, he brought me up to date—and in detail—on people I had not seen for years!
Arnold was a first-rate scholar, deeply interested in the study of the past and in conveying what he learned to his students, as well as to a wider public. A lot of what he published over his brief career illuminated the contributions of minority groups to the American story, despite the fact that these contributions could be (and often were) overlooked by historians—as well as the views of elderly former “radicals” who, before they made Arnold’s acquaintance, believed their efforts had been in vain.
Arnold Shankman summarized his worldview, the thing that made him so precious to friends and colleagues, in an unpublished essay in 1973: “We live in a world, and unless we wish to be an island, we need to learn how to appreciate our differences and to love people because they are different.” (Quoted in Plyler, “Custodian of the Past,” p.9)
Not a bad epitaph, that.
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For those interested in reading more about Georgia History, here are links to my books on the subject: