Michael Kammen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian whose scholarly aim was no less than the illumination of the collective American psyche, died Nov. 29 in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 77.
His death was announced by Cornell University, where he was the Newton C. Farr professor emeritus of American history and culture. His family said he had been in declining health in recent years, according to a university spokesman.
Kammen received the 1973 Pulitzer for the history “People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization,” published the previous year. That book sought to describe the national character from the country’s earliest days to the 20th century.
Underpinned by exhaustive research and abundant documentation, Kammen’s books, essays and criticism — he was a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review and other publications — were noteworthy for remaining accessible to the general reader.
His work, which stood at the nexus of history, folklore, psychology and sociology, helped cast the form of the modern scholarly field known as memory studies.
Kammen displayed a passion for paradox and an affection for contradiction, and in “People of Paradox” he uncovered no shortage of either. The American sensibility, he argued, was rooted in a simultaneous opposition: the continuity of Old World traditions juxtaposed with the discontinuity of New World innovations.
“We should understand, as William James did, that Americanism is a volatile mixture of hopeful good and curable bad,” he wrote.
Reviewing the volume in The Times Book Review, the historian Marcus Cunliffe wrote of Kammen, “I pay him the sincere tribute of envy: I wish I had written ‘People of Paradox’ even though I do not agree with him in every instance.”
If the historian’s essential task is to answer the question “What happened?” Kammen sought to answer further questions: How do we as a people construct what happened? How do we remember — or misremember — it long afterward?
“At some point, it must have been the early to mid-1970s,” he told Publishers Weekly in 1999, “I began to ask myself over and over, what difference did the story of what happened in 17th- and 18th-century America make to Americans living in the 19th and 20th centuries?”
In a spate of subsequent books, Kammen explored Americans’ conceptions of a variety of cultural phenomena, including the American Revolution (“A Season of Youth,” 1978), the Constitution (“A Machine That Would Go of Itself,” 1986), freedom (“Spheres of Liberty,” 1986) and even history itself, as in his 1991 book “Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture.”
In “Mystic Chords of Memory” (the title is a line from Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address), Kammen looked at history as a cultural construct, ranging over subjects like Margaret Mitchell’s rendering of the Civil War in “Gone With the Wind” and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s savvy invocation of the American past for political effect.
In “A Machine That Would Go of Itself,” he examined what he called “popular constitutionalism” — in his words, “the perceptions and misperceptions, uses and abuses, knowledge and ignorance of ordinary Americans” regarding the Constitution.
His later work also took in art and aesthetics. In “American Culture, American Tastes” (1999), he drew a distinction between popular culture (which in his view encompassed old-fashioned participatory entertainments like vaudeville and county fairs) and mass culture (including more solitary electronic pursuits like television, video games and the Internet), arguing that by the late 20th century the boundary between the two had become indistinct.
In “Visual Shock” (2006), he explored America’s long history of engagement with controversial works of art, discussing, for instance, the furor surrounding Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs in the 1980s and ’90s. The very existence of such controversies, Kammen maintained, is an index of a thriving democracy.
Michael Gedaliah Kammen was born in Rochester, N.Y., on Oct. 25, 1936. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from George Washington University, followed by master’s and doctoral degrees in the field from Harvard, where he was a disciple of the renowned American historian Bernard Bailyn. Kammen joined the Cornell faculty in 1965.
His other books include “A Rope of Sand: The Colonial Agents, British Politics, and the American Revolution” (1968), “Colonial New York” (1975), “The Lively Arts: Gilbert Seldes and the Transformation of Cultural Criticism in the United States” (1996), and “Robert Gwathmey” (1999), a study of the American Social Realist painter.
His most recent book, published in 2010, is “Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials.” In it, he examines the social forces that give rise to exhumation and reinterment, a fate that befell notables from Sitting Bull to Jefferson Davis to F. Scott Fitzgerald.
A past president of the Organization of American Historians, Kammen began his professional life as a historian of Colonial America. Little by little, however, his purview crept down the centuries to the present day.
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