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John Higham, 82; Historian Held to 'Melting Pot' View of America

August 20, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

John Higham, who described himself as "an old-fashioned historian" because he continued to analyze the United States as a melting pot while contemporaries increasingly focused on overlooked contributions by specific racial and ethnic groups, has died. He was 82.

Higham died July 26 at his Baltimore home of a cerebral aneurysm.

Certainly no opponent of diversity or ethnic studies, Higham further characterized himself in his Johns Hopkins University biography as "a generalist in American history, but with special interests in ethnic history and historiography." He preferred to study America as a totality, rather than as a series of fragments.

Born and raised in the multiethnic Jamaica section of Queens, N.Y., Higham earned his bachelor's degree from Johns Hopkins in 1941 and was its John Martin Vincent professor of history from 1971 until 1989, when he took emeritus status.

He made his imprint as a cultural historian with his first book, "Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism." Published in 1955, it grew out of his 1949 doctoral dissertation at the University of Wisconsin.

The book, updated in 1988, was considered the first comprehensive -- and still important -- account of anti-immigrant sentiments and actions between the Civil War and the 1920s. Native-born Americans, Higham suggested, often felt hostility toward immigrants because of their own economic and social insecurities.

His final book, the 2001 "Hanging Together: Unity and Diversity in American Culture," "makes it possible to assess the full achievement of a very creative historian," said George M. Fredrickson in the New York Review of Books. "Higham, in his own singularly judicious and good-tempered fashion, is an engaged intellectual in close touch with contemporary cultural trends and controversies, particularly over changing perceptions of the American past."

Seemingly guided by the adage "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts," Higham studied the unifying forces that have created cultural nationality or "Americanness." He cited three areas of historical common ground: primordial unity such as membership in an Indian tribe; ideological unity, which led to the American Revolution; and technical unity, manifest in the cooperation and coordination required to build factories and roads.

National symbols demonstrated America's common values, he once told U.S. News & World, citing the 19th century's covered wagon and Statue of Liberty, which "both mean opportunity grasped by moving on."

Higham served in the history section of the Army Air Corps in Italy during World War II and was an assistant editor of H.L. Mencken's magazine American Mercury for a year before completing his doctorate.

The historian taught at UCLA from 1948 to 1954, Rutgers for six years and the University of Michigan for a decade before settling at Johns Hopkins in 1971.

Among his other books are "History: Humanistic Scholarship in America," published in 1965; "Writing American History," 1970; and "Send These to Me," 1975. He was co-author of other works, including "American Immigrants and Their Generations," 1990; and "Conceptions of National History," 1994.

Higham served as president of both the Organization of American Historians and the Society of American Historians, Immigration and Ethnic History.

He is survived by his wife of 55 years, Eileen; two daughters, Margaret Higham and Constance Vidor; two sons, Jay and Daniel; and seven grandchildren.

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