Peter Novick, celebrated scholar of history, 1934-2012

Peter Novick, a University of Chicago historian whose specialty was the study of history itself, or historiography, died Feb. 17 at the age of 77. Novick, professor emeritus of history, used his formidable skills to explain how different views of the past can shape the retelling of history and establish narratives that have a power of their own.

Early success suggests Novick might have had a career as an historian of 20th-century France. His Columbia University doctoral thesis, awarded the Clark M. Ansley Award, was published in 1968 as The Resistance Versus Vichy: The Purge of Collaborators in Liberated France. In response to a vigorous national debate about the role of Vichy in wartime France, the book was translated and published in 1985 as L’Epuration Française, 1944-1949, a popular “Le Grand Livre du Mois” book club selection.  

But Novick’s interest in how the past is talked, thought and written about led to the two landmark books that followed: That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession (1988) and The Holocaust in American Life (1999).

That Noble Dream dissected and deflated the ‘myth,’ as Peter called it, of scientific objectivity that had legitimated the institutionalization of history in the American university from the late 19th century on,” said his colleague Jan Goldstein, the Norman and Edna Freehling Professor in History at UChicago.

The Holocaust in American Life developed the even more iconoclastic thesis that a segment of American Jewry had enlisted the Holocaust remembrance as a way of preventing their thoroughgoing assimilation into the American mainstream,” Goldstein said.

“What is remarkable about these two books is that in them, Peter trained his powerful intellect on two salient aspects of his own identity: his professional identity as a historian and his cultural identity as a secular American Jew,” Goldstein said.

“While Peter had chosen these topics for intensely personal reasons, his personal involvement never compromised the rigor of his research and analysis. That he was deeply ambivalent about both academic history and Jewishness only raised the stakes,” Goldstein said. “Written in a crystalline prose that appears effortless, the books are stunning works of history cum cultural commentary and, from the vantage point of their author, acts of moral courage.”

That Noble Dream won the American Historical Association’s 1989 Albert J. Beveridge Prize for best book of the year in American history.

The book fueled a hot debate at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, as the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in January 1991. “We should disregard far-reaching claims to objectivity,” the Chronicle quoted Novick speaking to his colleagues. “We don’t have to be definitive; we can just be interesting or suggestive.” The text of the entire panel was published in the American Historical Review of June 1991.

Despite the controversy, Novick’s colleagues recognized the enduring value of his contribution. As Linda Gordon, one of the panelists at the AHA session attested, “We are all in Peter Novick’s debt for this book. It is a gift to historians and other scholars, present and future.”

Though The Holocaust in American Life was the subject of much controversy, the book also brought much praise, including the Phi Beta Kappa Ralph Waldo Emerson Award for outstanding studies of the intellectual and cultural condition of mankind.

The award citation noted: “Novick’s work shows that historians choose their subjects and frame their evaluations and explanations in ways heavily shaped by their ideologies and the institutions in which they work. This is an exceptional historical essay––a work in which the author has used all the resources of his craft to clarify public thinking on a deeply problematic and sensitive issue.”

In a faculty report on the project, Novick wrote the Holocaust had become a “symbol and a memory in the public mind, both ‘the public’ in general and particular publics. I am concerned with strategies for ‘mastering the past’ with respect to the Holocaust, which naturally differ for different groups and sub-groups, and how the treatment of the Holocaust served various other social and ideological purposes,” he wrote. “I am equally concerned with the extent to which the Holocaust experience has become, for many Jews, the central symbol of Jewish identity.”

The book caused immediate controversy as reviewers, and some Jewish leaders criticized it for not recognizing the enormity and unprecedented nature of the Holocaust. Among his iconoclastic observations, Novick rejected the popular “lessons of the Holocaust,” claiming the Holocaust a bad source of lessons because of its extremity.

“Novick’s sensible if unpopular conclusion that we should study a historical event like the Holocaust, not to extract lessons but to its complexities and contradictions, will please a few readers but probably upset many more,” wrote Lawrence L. Langer, an author on the Holocaust, in The New York Times.  

Writing in The New York Review of Books in March 2000, Eva Hoffman was more in tune with the spirit of the book and with Novick’s motivations in writing it.

The Holocaust in American Life has already been criticized for the harshness and alleged “cynicism” of its tone, and it is indeed a tough-minded work, sharp, brusque, and sometimes nearly Swiftian in its acerbities,” she wrote. “But the anger is a measure of Novick’s involvement; his candor is part of the argument. Novick is clearly intent on cutting through the circumlocutions of habitual Holocaust discourse, on challenging what he sees as its obfuscations with uncompromising logic and saying out loud what is often intimated in private.”

Reprinted in Great Britain as The Holocaust and Collective Memory (2009), the book also has been translated into French, German, Spanish and Chinese.

Beginning his academic career as assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1965, Novick joined the UChicago faculty in 1966. He served terms as assistant visiting professor at Northwestern University and Pennsylvania State University in the 1960s, though UChicago remained his home institution until his retirement in 1999.

He served as president of the UChicago chapter of the American Association of University Professors and as a member of the Council of the University Senate.

Born July 26, 1934 in Jersey City, N.J. to Michael and Esther Novick, Peter Novick served in the U.S. Army from 1953-55. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1957 and his doctorate in 1965, both from Columbia University. He is survived by his wife, Joan (née Kroll) and his son, Michael.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. May 22 in Bond Chapel, with a reception to follow in the Swift Common Room.