A life of achievements
Merrill Peterson remains an avid writer and reader in retirement.
Courtesy of U.Va. News Services.
Historian Merrill D. Peterson is not one to rest on his laurels. From his humble beginnings in Manhattan, Kansas, through his retirement as a distinguished Jeffersonian scholar, Peterson, 84, has created his own opportunities and grasped those life has offered him. For his dedication to scholarship and writing, the Library of Virginia has honored him with its Literary Lifetime Achievement Award.
Peterson has written or edited 37 books. A noted Jeffersonian scholar, he is the editor of the Library of America edition of the writings of Thomas Jefferson. His 1994 study of Abraham Lincoln, “Lincoln in American Memory,” was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize in history.
The innovative thinker and elegant writer, who doesn’t appear to know the meaning of the phrase “to slow down,” remains an avid writer and researcher. His most recent book, “Starving Armenians: America and the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1930 and After,” was inspired by the time he spent in Armenia while in the Peace Corps — at the age of 76.
“The Peace Corps doesn’t have an age limit, you know,” he said.
Peterson’s friends and colleagues admire his hardworking character. “We joke that he misread a ‘book of the month club’ flier and thought that he had to write a book per month,” said Paul Gaston, a longtime friend who described himself as Peterson’s “right-hand man” when both were teaching in the history department. “He is a progressive and imaginative thinker who takes on important subjects and writes absolutely amazing books.”
Peterson grew up in a family that prized education. His mother opened a boarding house to support her family, rearing her three sons in close proximity to Kansas State University so they could receive a college education.
While his brothers attended Kansas State, Peterson chose to attend the University of Kansas in Lawrence instead. World War II broke out while Peterson was working on a bachelor’s degree in political science. He took summer classes to accelerate his graduation and in January of 1943 received his degree. He and his mother moved to North Adams, Mass., to await his call to duty.
By night, Peterson worked as a soda jerk and fry cook; by day he could be found at nearby Williams College, listening to lectures by distinguished scholars simply for his own enrichment.
A few months later, he was drafted and sent to Chicago’s Navy Pier on Lake Michigan. It was there that he noticed a simple flier on a bulletin board that would change his life.
It was an announcement for a 12-month training course for the U.S. Navy Supply Corps at the Harvard Business School. Peterson jumped on the opportunity. He applied, was accepted, and soon shipped off to Cambridge.
The move brought him back to the East Coast, where he’s lived ever since. It also brought an encounter with the woman who would become his wife, Jean Humphrey, then a recent graduate of Tufts.
The couple married in 1944 between Peterson’s tours of duty — in the South Atlantic, Mediterranean and South Pacific. After his discharge in January 1946, he resumed a scholarly life. That same semester, Peterson entered a new doctoral program in American Civilization at Harvard University.
It was there that he encountered the subject that would define his career. Peterson came up with an innovative approach to the study of Thomas Jefferson — he would trace Jefferson’s influence on American thought and imagination since his death in 1826. Peterson’s mentor and adviser, Perry Miller, a Harvard scholar in American Puritanism, endorsed the idea.
Peterson’s doctoral dissertation would become the foundation for his first critically acclaimed book.
“The most important thing in my education was my dissertation,” he said. “If I had any words of wisdom for Ph.D. students in history, it would be that the most important thing that they will do is select a dissertation subject, as it could potentially set the stage for their careers.”
In 1950, he received his doctorate and began to teach American history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.
Five years later, he accepted a three-year appointment at Princeton that included time to revise his dissertation. He jumped at the chance, and moved his wife and young son Jeffrey to Princeton, where their second son Kent was born.
In 1960, “The Jefferson Image in the American Mind” was published. It won the Bancroft Prize, awarded to authors of distinguished work in American history, and established Peterson as a Jeffersonian scholar.
“He made a particularly important contribution to the study of the age of Jefferson,” said John A. C. Stagg, professor of early American history and editor-in-chief of the Papers of James Madison at U.Va.
After his stint at Princeton, Peterson and his family returned to Brandeis where he taught for five more years. Then the University of Virginia came knocking.
Then-U.Va. President Edgar Shannon was looking for a Jefferson scholar to replace Dumas Malone, who was up against the mandatory retirement age of 70. Peterson was interested.
“Once I got to U.Va., I never wanted to leave,” he said.
During his second year at U.Va., his colleagues asked him to head the history department. He served as chairman for five years then accepted a yearlong fellowship in Palo Alto, Calif., to finish his second book, a short biography of Thomas Jefferson.
Peterson considers that biography, “Jefferson and the New Nation,” published in 1970, his most important book.
“His one-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson is still considered among the very best that have ever been written on our University’s founder,” said Edward Ayers, dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
Upon his return, he chaired the department for two more years before returning to full-time teaching. He also served as dean of faculty of the College of Arts & Sciences for four years.
“I remember as a young member of our faculty hearing about this remarkable man who continued to be quite productive as a scholar while working as dean,” said Ayers. “Now that I am dean, I appreciate just how remarkable Mr. Peterson’s record was.”
Gaston, then the director of graduate studies for the history department, recalls working long hours. “Merrill had even more paperwork to do than I did, but there he was, late into the night, cranking the microfiche machine doing research for his next book,” Gaston said.
To focus solely on his scholarly career, however, leaves out much of who Peterson is as a person. According to Gaston, Peterson pioneered the recruitment of black faculty at a turbulent time in Virginia history.
“His speech on the steps of the Rotunda [during a 1965 ‘Sympathy for Selma’ civil rights march] was one of the greatest speeches that has ever been made,” Gaston said. “He linked Jefferson’s principles and legacy of freedom to the civil rights movement. It really made me proud to know him.”
In retirement, Peterson has continued his extensive research and writing, though there are moments when he realizes he’s been at this for a while. “I find myself citing myself,” he said.
When asked if he has a favorite quotation from Jefferson, the tall, eloquent, white-haired scholar starts to say no, then stops, and says, “The earth belongs always to the living generation.”
“Thomas Jefferson never thought that there would be perfection,” Peterson said. “He thought that there was always room for improvement.”
For an award-winning historian now in his 80s, further improvement might seem superfluous, but not to Peterson.
While he lives alone now — his sons are grown and his wife died in 1995 — he continues to read and write and is currently shopping a manuscript, “The President and His Biographer: Woodrow Wilson and Ray Stannard Baker,” to publishers. He also has plans for his next book — a study of Jefferson and Fiske Kimball, who wrote the first major book on Jefferson as an architect.
Peterson’s only concession to his age is his description of his next manuscript as a “little book.”
Edgar Allan Poe, Booker T. Washington and Now Merrill D. Peterson
What do Merrill D. Peterson, professor of history emeritus at U.Va., Edgar Allan Poe and Booker T. Washington have in common? Besides the Virginia connection, all three are winners of the Library of Virginia’s Literary Lifetime Achievement Award.
Peterson, a noted Jefferson scholar who has written or edited 37 books, is the most recent recipient. He received the 2005 award at the eighth annual ceremony in Richmond on Oct. 15.
The Library of Virginia launched the annual literary awards in 1998. The competition is open to Virginia authors who have published books in the previous year. In the case of nonfiction, books about Virginia subjects also are considered. In addition, judges select a Virginia author from any genre, living or deceased, to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award.
An independent panel of judges selected Peterson and winners for each of the three 2005 annual award categories — fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Two current U.Va. English professors were finalists for the poetry award. Rita Dove, former U.S. Poet Laureate and winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, was nominated for her collection “American Smooth: Poems.” And Charles Wright, winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, was nominated for his poetry collection “Buffalo Zodiac.”
First Freedom Council National First Freedom Award, 1997
Virginia Foundation for Humanities 20th Anniversary Award, 1994
U.Va. Phi Beta Kappa Book Award, 1994
Bancroft Prize, 1960
Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Gold Medal, 1960
This story originally appeared in the November 4, 2005, issue of Inside U.Va.