Morning Coffee with Roy, "Roy as Radical Historian"
by Ellen Noonan
“Radical historian” means different things to different people. There is certainly a generational divide in how most of us understand this label and its professional context. I am not of Roy’s generation, so I won’t pretend to understand what it meant to Roy to be a “radical historian” when, as a graduate student, he was among the founders of the MidAtlantic Radical Historians Organization, or MARHO. Intellectually, MARHO “sought to develop a critical history as a means of understanding capitalism as a mode of production and as a complex system of social relations.” Professionally, MARHO sponsored forums, conferences, a newsletter, and the Radical History Review, all designed to help put those politics into action by promoting teaching and public history to non-scholarly audiences at a time when the mainstream of the profession marginalized such activities.
Unlike so many of the enthusiasms of youth, Roy never outgrew being a radical historian. He was at the founding MARHO meeting in 1973, a member of the Radical History Review Editorial Collective until 2000, and an Associate member of the journal until his death in October. He was the “Organizing Secretary” of the early MARHO Associates groups, charged with maintaining contact between far-flung outposts of radical historians and the mother-ship MARHO collectives in Boston, New Haven, and New York. Roy was one of the editors of the influential “public history” issue of RHR in 1981, the basis for the 1986 book Presenting the Past, which he edited with Susan Porter Benson and Steve Brier. Roy was heavily involved in the journal, but largely invisible when it came to bylines; beginning in the mid-1980s as half of the pseudonymous R. J. Lambrose, Roy was responsible for quite a bit of RHR’s wise-assery.
If I don’t presume to understand Roy’s original embrace of the radical historian identity, I do know what being a radical historian meant to Roy in 2000, when the RHR organized a roundtable discussion on the occasion of the journal’s twenty-fifth anniversary. Roy and his original MARHO colleagues set out to establish an alternative to the OAH and the AHA, which in the early 1970s were resistant to change. But by the late 1990s, after the initial MARHO collectives had become a distant memory and a baffling acronym, the radical historians had also managed to influence, one might even say infiltrate, those existing organizations in significant ways. “To some degree, we’re running these things” Roy said, adding: “radical historians have had a profound impact on the shape of the historical profession in the United States. It’s easy to exaggerate this, but 2000 versus 1960—it’s an unbelievable change in the kinds of people who are in it, the kinds of issues that are being discussed, the whole set of things. Well, that’s a transformation we participated in.” Given that Roy was not inclined toward exaggeration or self-aggrandizement, we should take that assessment seriously.
Since Roy tended not to toot his own horn, he did not talk on that day about his own institution building, which was an enduring part of his identity as a radical historian long after that intellectual designation had shifted its meaning. Roy understood that this was long haul, often tedious work, and he labored within universities and funding sources to nurture projects that were open and democratic, from putting archival resources on the Web for free to developing digital collecting projects and open source tools. Roy built “radical” institutions with people and funders who might be, at the least, nonplussed by that word.
Roy’s scholarship, too, was collaborative and democratic in its outlook: he explored “who built America,” how New Yorkers used Central Park, and how Americans thought about history; he guided others in creating the kind of digital projects that he helped to pioneer. And his approach to the work mirrored its content: the only book that Roy authored by himself was his first. As a mentor and colleague, Roy was unparalleled in the history profession. The MARHO Associates were only the beginning: he nurtured a far-flung network of likeminded people throughout his career, and not for nothing did Dina Copelman dub him a “one man employment agency.”
And so, “Roy as Radical Historian” encompasses virtually everything in Roy’s career: a lifelong commitment to connecting and collaborating, to working within the academy in order to expand historical scholarship beyond its borders, and to “writing” history in a myriad of ways that brought the experiences of ordinary Americans to the surface.