His reputation was founded on two books that turned accepted wisdom inside out and engendered seismic shifts in the scholarship of the period. They became staples of university classrooms.
The first, in 1956, was “The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South,” which juxtaposed the views of slaves themselves with the more conventionally researched perceptions of slave owners, yielding a far different picture of the institution than historians had previously created.
Rather than portraying slaves as docile, simple-minded creatures who were complicit in their own subjugation, Mr. Stampp showed how by working slowly, breaking tools and stealing from their owners, the slaves were in constant rebellion. And rather than portraying the owners as beneficent upholders of a genteel culture determined to maintain racial harmony, Mr. Stampp revealed the slave-keeping impulse to be an economically motivated choice.
“We now viewed slavery not only through the eyes of the masters but through the eyes of the slaves themselves,” said Leon Litwack, a long-time colleague and former student of Mr. Stampp’s at Berkeley, and the author of “Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980. “He was clearly one of the influential historians of the 20th century. All you have to do is open history textbooks and compare what you find in them to what you found before 1960.”
The second seminal book, “The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877,” published in 1965, demythologized another favorite trope of previous historians: that the decade after the Civil War was disastrous for the South, a time of vengefulness visited upon it by the North, of rampant corruption and of vindictive political maneuvering.
Mr. Stampp’s more measured account showed that much good was accomplished in the period; he called Reconstruction “the last great crusade of 19th century romantic reformers” and viewed it as a progenitor of the 20th-century civil rights movement that was in progress as he wrote.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
NY Times Obit for Kenneth M. Stampp
Full obituary plus photo here.