In remembrance

What I Shared With Peter Dobkin Hall

Editors’ NoteOn April 30, American philanthropic and nonprofit history lost one of its leading scholars, Peter Dobkin Hall. Today, HistPhil offers reflections on the man and his work from two of Hall’s colleagues. The first tribute is by David C. Hammack, followed by this second one by George E. MarcusAnother moving tribute to Hall, from legal scholar Evelyn Brody, can be found at the Nonprofit Law Prof Blog

I first met Peter when I invited him in 1980 to a small “Capitalism and Culture” conference (an emergent fashionable topic in those years) at Rice University.  He was at Wesleyan, and his scholarly promise was built on a 1973 doctoral dissertation, “Family Structure and Class Consolidation Among the Boston Brahmins. “ It was a most remarkable work, the significance of which endures. In it, Peter exhibits the edgy curiosity and the ability to articulate interesting questions (and to perceive the things on which to focus, in order to develop them) that allowed him to lead, at first, the counterculture in the study of non-profits and philanthropy and then to define what have become its central tendencies as a field of research.  Upper-class consolidation and transformation in its specifically American meaning and history have centrally depended on the law, institutions, and broader ‘structures of feeling” that center on the activity of philanthropy.  This defined the thread of intensifying focus in Peter’s career.

But Peter was never a careerist—rather he was an academic counter-culturalist, and mainly was a citizen in the most profound and deeply American sense of the word.

He lived ethically in his community (New Haven) as a sort of profession in itself, and he was fascinated by the historic and contemporary conditions, and with an ethnographer’s observant eye, by which such citizenship could be sustained in America (especially in the Northeast and Midwest).  In order to this lead this life, in the communities where he resided, he required a keen sense of both the class and power structures that defined a life as citizen—and often challenged it as well. He had a subtle understanding of how patron institutions and interests both promoted and blocked the ability to live ethically as a citizen in America.  His interest and unparallelled expertise in the historic rise and operation of American philanthropy served this shaping of his own ethical life in community.

His doctoral dissertation was never published; instead he produced a ‘big idea’ book, The Organization of American Culture, 1700-1900: Private Institutions, Elites and the Origins of American Nationality (1982). For this, he did not receive tenure, and for several years he moved about as a public historian, and sustained a connection with the PONPO Center at Yale, which he eventually led in its final years.  That 1982 work, which does not seem to be very well recalled now and was not widely read then, is a remarkable synthesis demonstrating Peter’s originality as a thinker.  After all of these years, amid the piles and stacks of hundreds of books around me, I know exactly where to go to find it in my library. It had been the guiding beacon of my own work on dynastic fortunes in American society through the twentieth century, and I admire it as a model of writing ‘big’ with subtlety.

We shared a view of the American upper classes as being eccentric in a variety of senses—and their eccentricities that shaped the institutions that supported them had a very deep effect on what justice and citizenship could be for the rest of us in the United States. Peter’s developing work and recognized expertise on nonprofits have their roots in his deeply informed view of the eastern upper classes and the institutions that they originated. In this he was a much better anthropologist—a field-working ethnographer—than I was. It was the paths laid down in his unpublished dissertation and in his 1982 book that defined our most fruitful conversations alongside his developing achievements as a scholar of non-profits.

I recall most vividly our sharing stories about the generally interesting and sometimes productive forms of eccentricity among American upper-classes, with serious and often unintended consequences for the rest of us.

This mutual interest culminated in 1992, in Lives In Trusts, including a mini-monograph by Peter, “The Empty Tomb: the Making of Dynastic Identity,” on how the Rockefellers generation after generation contracted famous historians to provide biographical portraits of them; yet much about them remained inscrutable to such narratives. In conclusion, Peter gives an account of his own “Unsolicited Ethnographic Scribeship.”

Peter once told me that as a graduate student he had a pivotal meeting with Richard Hofstadter who evoked for him the courage, costs, and pleasures of asking ‘interesting’ questions and pursuing them “whatever else.”  This is what Peter did and thus exemplified for me what it is to live a worthwhile life of the curious mind in America.

I followed Peter’s career from time to time after the 1990s, but lost personal touch with him. Word now of his existential absence has been a personal shock for me and is a blow to the life-force of democracy in America.  The idea that his mild-mannered, intense concern about how we live everyday in America is not happening elsewhere, fills me with an uncanny sense of loss here, at this moment of writing—though we have not talked in years.  Specific memories of our collaborations, though, have continued to spur my thinking, as I cast a glance away from the word processor, just now, at the work of his on my shelves that we discussed and produced together.

-George E. Marcus

George  E. Marcus is Chancellor’s Professor and Chair of the Anthropology Department at UC Irvine. From 1975 to 2005, he was a faculty member at Rice University’s Department of Anthropology from where he is now professor emeritus. 


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