Edmund Morgan, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, dies at 97

Esteemed historian Edmund S. Morgan (second from right) taught at Yale for over 30 years. From left, Annette Gordon-Reed, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009, historian and librarian Ted Widmer, Morgan, and Robert Weil ’77, Morgan's editor.
Esteemed historian Edmund S. Morgan (second from right) taught at Yale for over 30 years. From left, Annette Gordon-Reed, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009, historian and librarian Ted Widmer, Morgan, and Robert Weil ’77, Morgan's editor. Photo by Ted Widmer.

Edmund S. Morgan, an established American historian with a sweeping and storied career, died of pneumonia July 8 at the Yale-New Haven Hospital. He was 97.

Since his appointment to the Yale faculty in 1955, Morgan taught generations of students both on campus and around the country through his immensely popular seminars and numerous writings. Morgan was interested in the foundations of American society from the perspectives of religion, race and the American Revolution, and he wrote over two dozen books on these themes, winning awards such as the Bancroft Prize and a special Pulitzer Prize in 2006.

Morgan’s former students and colleagues remember him as a professor with a twinkle in his eye whose intellectual curiosity took him to the forefront of historical research throughout his 60-year career.

“The gift and accessibility of Ed Morgan’s scholarship was truly rare and extraordinary,” said Michael Kammen, a history professor at Cornell and a close friend of Morgan’s. “He had a curious kind of charisma that came from integrity, simplicity of style and the dignity of dedicated artisanship.”

Robert Weil ’77, who met Morgan as an undergraduate and later became his editor, described Morgan as a courageous academic whose intellectual interests led him to examine the stories of women and minorities long before the general tide of scholarly study. Like his hero, Benjamin Franklin — who Morgan studied extensively, and with whom he shared a birthday — Morgan displayed a spirit of independence, Weil said.

Morgan’s academic prowess stemmed from his strengths as a writer, said Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’02, Morgan’s former student and a current lecturer in the History Department. Gitlin added that Morgan’s talent lay in distilling the most sober and esoteric topics down to elegant prose.

Morgan’s first published work, “The Puritan Dilemma,” a biography of John Winthrop, remains in print nearly 75 years since its original publication in 1958 and has become a staple of high school history curriculums. His 2002 biography of Benjamin Franklin was a national bestseller.

John Merriman, a history professor, said Morgan is part of a rare breed of historian whose books will always be read.

“[Morgan was] a writer of enormous distinction,” literary critic Harold Bloom GRD ’56 said. “I always responded to how beautifully Ed’s prose conveyed exactly what he wanted it to do.”

Despite being soft-spoken and slight in stature, Morgan took easily to commanding a classroom. Whole lecture halls clung to his every word because he packed each sentence with wit and wisdom, Weil said, recalling the colonial history course Morgan taught at Yale in 1974.

Morgan pushed students to examine evidence firsthand and think for themselves, Gitlin said. He conferred “enchanting” bits of knowledge upon his students, such as teaching them 17th-century handwriting, Gitlin recalled.

Outside of academia, Morgan was a handyman who did his own home and car repairs and enjoyed crafting wood and metal sculptures, Merriman said. Morgan set up a workshop in his house on Livingston Street in which he made furniture and carved wood bowls, said Robert Middlekauff GRD ’61, a history professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Morgan sold many pieces of his woodcraft, Weil said, and also gave several out as gifts. Kammen recalled receiving a black walnut salad bowl as a present from Morgan.

“I wouldn’t dream of putting salad in it,” Kammen said. “It’s a work of art, and that’s the way he lived — committed to the life of the mind, decency, wit and friendship.”

In his spare time, Morgan also enjoyed bird-watching, Middlekauff said, traveling as far as the Mexican border in Arizona to pursue his hobby.

Morgan was raised in an esteemed family and his father was the dean of Harvard Law School, Weil said, but “you would never know it.” Despite his background, Morgan cultivated an extreme modesty and never expressed a sense of entitlement, even after winning the special Pulitzer for his body of work in 2006, said Weil, who informed Morgan of his award over the phone the day prizes were announced.

Morgan graduated from Harvard with an undergraduate degree in 1937 and a doctorate in 1942, and then became a professor at the University of Chicago and Brown, until he accepted a position at Yale. He remained there until his retirement in 1986.

Correction: July 17

A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that history lecturer Jay Gitlin said Edward Morgan taught his students how to write in medieval calligraphy. In fact, Gitlin said Morgan taught them 17th-century handwriting.

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