I just learned the sad news that Jesse Lemisch has passed away.
Readers of Public Seminar and historians have known Jesse as a friend and/or a sparring partner for decades, and many more have known his name and work.
I met Jesse late in his life, but at a crucial juncture in mine. I attended the 2012 AHA meeting in Chicago, and sat in on the plenary session about the academic job market and “Plan B” for historians. Jesse was on that panel, and he was having none of “Plan B.” Instead, he called for a new WPA for historians. He wanted the AHA to lobby for and fight for funding for under-employed and professionally-trained historians to undertake various projects that would serve the public good by capturing what they could – what we could – of the ever-receding past. He was combative, ornery, bordering on the contemptuous towards his interlocutors for what he believed was a lack of vision and a lack of will or a lack of courage. That was Jesse.
Later that evening, I attended the Oxford University Press happy hour at the invitation of Heather Cox Richardson, who had been virtual mentor for a while but whom I finally had the chance to meet in person. And there, gripping his walker and by turns scowling and beaming, was Jesse, with his good friend Joanne Landy, slowly making his way toward the door to call it a night. I walked up to him, put my hand on his shoulder and said, “You know, for an old dude, you really can kick some ass.” He threw back his head and laughed until the tears rolled down his cheeks.
So we became instant friends, and friends we remained, through many an online donnybrook. Once in a while we would talk on the phone, or exchange emails or Facebook messages. In the weeks and months following his wife Naomi Weisstein’s death we spoke more frequently than we had before. He cried, and I cried with him. But then he would harrumph and clear his throat and get back to the business of dispensing advice to me and / or anathemas on other historians of our acquaintance. He knew I was a vital center liberal, not a Leftist, and that I was (and am) suspicious of “revolution” as a mindset and a mode of existence. However, he also knew that I was coming into my own as an intellectual who is also a woman, and he identified my personal journey with Naomi’s much more powerful and public fight. Indeed, in many ways her struggle made my career possible, and we talked about that.
He would say the most irate things to me on Facebook or in blog comments – to me, to my friends, to people he had never met and who, after tangling with him, perhaps wouldn’t look forward to meeting him. Though I wouldn’t have put up with such combativeness from anybody else – not from anybody – I always gave him a pass. (Though I messaged him once or twice on the backchannel and asked him to lighten up, for heaven’s sake.)
I called him by turns ornery, irascible, crusty, and crotchety – and instead of taking those as a compliment, he told me those were ageist terms that I wouldn’t apply to someone as young as I am. (I am 49, but it’s always nice to seem young to somebody.) And he was right. Those are terms we reserve for disputants of a certain age, to diminish the threat their ideas or their approach may pose to the social order.
So Jesse was as forbearing to me as I was to him, never throwing a haymaker or trying to land a knockout blow in an online argument, but retreating to his corner and letting me retreat to mine – and then postgaming the argument with me afterward. He was a sparring partner and a kind of pal in the profession when I really needed one.
Jesse Lemisch was a great historian. He was one of those rare historians who themselves make history. He always wanted to stand on the side of justice, he always wanted to stand with the powerless against the powerful, and he did his best to find that ground and hold that ground — even if that meant the occasional jab at those standing nearest to him.
Jesse Lemisch was something else. And he was – amazingly, improbably – my friend.
Jesse, God grant thee not peace but glory.
L.D.Burnett is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University. She is collecting memories of Jesse Lemisch at the Society for United States Intellectual History blog, where this article was published earlier today.