Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Remembering Mike Green

I met Michael Green (1941-2013) for the first time in August 1994, when I enrolled as a student in his graduate seminar in Native American history.  I had just started school at the University of Kentucky, and Mike initially struck me as kind of a forbidding person, but his pleasant, gravelly voice and stock of amusing anecdotes and homey locutions (e.g. "rich as Croesus," "if the good lord is willin' and the creeks don't rise," "you pays your money and you takes your choice") soon set me at my ease. Indeed, when I began teaching a few years later I tried to adopt Mike's demeanor and mannerisms in class, which proved impossible for a beaky easterner like myself.  Professor Green's seminar also helped set me on the path that led to my dissertation and first book: at the end of the term I wrote a review essay on Iroquois historiography, which nicely dovetailed with a discovery I had just made in Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick's Age of Federalism (1993), namely that the paranoid and vindictive Federalist Timothy Pickering had in his early career been a respected commissioner to the Six Nations.  This led me to a seminar paper on Pickering's relationship with the Iroquois, and ultimately to a dissertation on the cultural background of Federalist Indian policy.

A couple of years later Mike agreed to join my graduate committee, and when in January 1997 we met to discuss my qualifying exams he decided the time had come to turn this somewhat limited early-republic scholar into an ethnohistorian.   "Which of the books on my seminar's reading list have you read?" Mike asked.  I admitted I had read about a dozen of them. "Okay, read the rest," he replied, "and write a one or two-page summary of each one of them for me."  That meant reading and summarizing about 50 books in ten weeks.  If I neglected to protest, it was probably due to the overconfidence of youth.  Mike, I suspect, thought I would find the next ten weeks intellectually exhilarating rather than exhausting, and so they were.  I have since taught several independent graduate readings courses in this manner, and a least a few of the students I've put through the ordeal, such as Craig Hammond and C.J. Lepley, thrived on it.

Mike had already provided me with the germ of my second book, an analytical history of the U.S. government's Indian factory system, which I learned about while writing a research essay for Prof. Green on Thomas McKenney and the 1819 Civilization Act.  The paper did not itself lead to an independent publication, but it did make me realize that the factory system had generated a large quantity of records and very little scholarship. When I completed the first draft of my first book in 2004, Mike encouraged me to undertake a book-length study of the factories, and when we subsequently met at conferences he asked me for updates and helped me through a difficult impasse I reached in one chapter.  When I finally finished the manuscript of the factories book in September 2011 Mike was generous enough to read the whole thing - all 450 pages or so - and write a couple of pages of comments and advice.  All of this ensured I would not only finish the book but make it presentable for publication.  "The Engines of Diplomacy," which is currently under contract with a university press, is in many ways Mike's book.

It was a long-standing joke among Mike's students that when someone asked him what subject they should research, he always replied "the Chickasaws."  I must have heard this joke at some point during graduate school, for when I was finishing "Engines of Diplomacy" and considering topics for my next monograph, I felt drawn to the economic and cultural history of the Chickasaws, on whom I wished to write a book similar to James Carson's Searching for the Bright Path (1999). Again, Mike played a big role in shaping this book project because he was one of the informal leaders of an NEH Summer Seminar I was privileged to attend in 2011.  Directed by Theda Perdue and Malinda Maynor Lowery, the seminar was one of the high points of my intellectual life: a month of readings, seminar meetings, lunchtime discussions, field trips to Native American communities in the Carolinas, and research in UNC / Chapel Hill's outstanding libraries.  Mike and Theda both provided direction to our discussions, offered advice on seminar participants' research, and hosted weekly pool parties that helped us get through a hot summer.  I had the pleasure, too, of accompanying Mike on a day-long book-buying expedition to several used bookstores in Chapel Hill and Raleigh; we got a chance to chat about our days at Kentucky and about reading recommendations.  (One of these days I'll need to sit down and read the Master and Commander series by Patrick O'Brien.)

Mike attended the first paper I presented on my Chickasaw research, at the 2011 Ethnohistory conference in Pasadena, and encouraged me to follow up my investigation of the Chickasaws' so-called "military economy," which became the subject of a paper I presented in Helsinki and of a chapter I wrote for a festschrift in Mike and Theda's honor.  By then Mike's health was failing, but we corresponded as late as last summer, exchanging our impressions of Finland.  I had a chance to tell Mike that I had recently traveled to Spain with my petite amie Susan, and that I had found his and Theda's North American Indians book very useful in class.

I suppose it is natural for graduate students to look for intellectual parents among their professors, and I was fortunate enough to find two intellectual father figures in my formative years, namely Lance Banning (my dissertation director) and Mike Green.  Now both of them are gone, and it remains for me and other survivors to figure out how to deal with the loss.  Probably the best thing to do is to follow a modified version of the Marques de Pombal's famous advice: "Honor the dead and feed the living."

Mike was not a religious man and I doubt he believed in a future state of rewards and punishments, but it is incontrovertibly true that everyone gets at least one real afterlife, living on in the memories and dreams of those who knew them in life. Mike was a scholar and a university professor, which means that he will live on in the memories and minds and research of his hundreds of students, and in the narrative voice of the seven books he authored.  If my own case is any indication, Mike supplied the living, in his own lifetime, with an intellectual and personal feast.  Those of us who knew him will surely honor his memory and carry on his legacy.


(A formal obituary for Michael Green may be found here.)

1 comment:

KO said...

Thanks for this beautiful reminiscence of your work with Mike, David. I did not have the pleasure of studying with him, beyond the NEH seminar, but his mentoring on my Choctaw project made it a much better monograph. Mike was a man of wide interests and his love of the West (and westerns) was only one of many topics which provided great conversations and much laughter. Although he was a devout atheist, I still say God rest his soul. He was a wonderful man and we will all miss him.