Friday, May 22, 2015

The Man Knew His Micah


Your humble narrator recently received an invitation from alma mater (the graduate one) to say a few words about his doctoral director, Lance G. Banning (1942-2006). Unfortunately, a vicious case of stomach flu kept me from going to Kentucky to deliver my talk. Fortunately, I wasn't the main speaker at the event, and a member of the U.K. History Department, Tracy Campbell, read my remarks for me. (Thank heavens for email.) It occurred to me, though, that while I've written a memorial or two on this blog before, I haven't yet said anything on behalf of Lance, who as my chief graduate adviser played a big role in my intellectual development. To remedy, however partially, this omission, I present herewith my words from last week's event:

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We have heard of Lance Banning's many accomplishments as a scholar. I'd like to take a few minutes to discuss his merits as a mentor. These merits grew out of one of Professor Banning's personal virtues: his appreciation for the blessings of private life. Lance had studied with J.G.A. Pocock and may have been one of the few people to understand that turgid Kiwi, but I think he found little appeal in Pocock's account of the ideal of the vita activa, the active political life. What Lance most appreciated, I think, was the modest but fruitful life of a gentleman scholar: time with his books, particularly the belles lettres of his heroes Jefferson and Madison; time to write, which he did so masterfully; time to exchange ideas with fellow seekers of truth, like the professors and attorneys he gathered at so many Liberty Fund conferences; and time for recreation, for a softball game or one of his morally indefensible bowls of popcorn.* Lance was fond of Richard Matthews's book The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson. Discussing that monograph with him I realized that Dr. Banning agreed with Matthews's Jefferson about the essence of the good life: everyone under his own vine and fig tree, free from fear and free to pursue happiness.

These genteel aspirations informed Lance's attitude toward his students. His main undertaking as a graduate instructor was to give his charges the tools to pursue their own intellectual interests. He taught us to critique methodologically diverse scholarship, to read primary sources - I spent one semester with him reading all of Madison's notes on the Philadelphia convention, along with large swaths of the Federalist - and, above all, to write clearly and effectively. Beyond that, Lance preferred to let students find their own interests and pursue them wherever they led, knowing this would reinforce the focus and drive they needed to finish a dissertation. When I discovered a bizarre story about paranoid arch-Federalist Timothy Pickering's diplomatic missions to the Iroquois, and wanted to follow it up with a research paper, Lance didn't tell me that the subject of early U.S. Indian policy had been done to death. Instead, he asked probing questions, read and edited a dozen of my drafts, and offered praise and encouragement all the way to the dissertation that grew from this project. Lance didn't see the publication of Red Gentlemen and White Savages, but in his final email to me he mentioned its progression through the editorial gauntlet, as well as Todd Estes's book (then in press) and new or forthcoming works by two more of his students. "You guys are doing me proud," he declared.

Lance had no academic axe to grind or agenda to push, other than helping create other intellectuals. The diversity of careers that his students have followed - leading Liberty Fund events, managing Congressional staff, military history, ethnohistory, ecological and local history, academic administration, writing a two-century overview of slavery and empire - demonstrates Lance's understanding that everyone pursues happiness and intellectual fulfillment in different ways. That we have done so successfully, that we have each cultivated our own vine and fig tree, is an important part of his legacy.



* I've never actually seen one of these, but apparently Lance would pop a medium-sized bowl, then pour an entire melted stick of butter on top, then cover the soggy mass with a blizzard of salt.

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