University of Rochester

European Intellectual Historian William McGrath Dies

December 3, 2008

William J. McGrath, professor emeritus of history at the University of Rochester who was revered for his pioneering histories of Austrian political culture and Sigmund Freud, died Nov. 30. He was 71.

"He was a man of incredible originality," said Carl Schorske, professor emeritus of history at Princeton University and one of American's most influential intellectual historians. "William McGrath wasn't just a follower, and that makes a big difference," explained Schorske of his former doctoral student and lifelong colleague. "He had the capacity to establish relationships between things that you would not think would go together. He had the imagination that links the seemingly disparate in culture and politics."

Professor McGrath bridged such diverse fields as art history, philosophy, musicology, psychology, and politics, said Stewart Weaver, professor of history and chair of the Department of History at the University of Rochester. "His signature mark lay in how he broke down barriers not just between academic disciplines but between whole forms of modern thought," concluded Weaver.

His two books, said Celia Applegate, professor of modern European history at the University, are "major interdisciplinary works". Dionysian Art and Populist Politics in Austria (1975) explores how influences such as Richard Wagner's musical ideas and Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy shaped the cultural life of turn-of-the-century Vienna. Freud's Discovery of Psychoanalysis: The Politics of Hysteria (1986) places Freud's revolutionary psychological theories into their cultural, political, and historic contexts.

"The cliché about historians is that we 'put text into context,' " said Applegate. "Bill painstakingly, clearly, and beautifully did that; whether he was writing about a psychoanalytical text or a Mahler symphony, he showed how each emerged in a particular time and place."

Following a Fulbright fellowship year in Vienna, Professor McGrath completed his doctorate in 1965 at the University of California at Berkeley. He taught at the University of Chicago before moving to Rochester in 1971. During his 26 years at the University, McGrath was known as a gifted teacher of modern European thought and ancient history and in 1978 was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities grant.

As Applegate noted, Professor McGrath was deeply interested in students, both as a teacher and as a scholar who sought to understand how individuals develop their ideas. He served for many years as the director of undergraduate studies in history and, in his research, focused on the formative University experiences of important philosophers, artists, and political leaders.

A respected Freud scholar, he was a contributor to the New York Review of Books and in recent years, was working on a new book titled German Freedom and the Greek Ideal: From Goethe to Mann.

Professor McGrath is survived by his wife, Stephanie Frontz, longtime art librarian at the University's Rush Rhees Library, as well as two daughters, Katherine McGrath and Jennifer (Josh) Torres; a son-in-law, Jordan West; and four grandchildren. Friends may call Thursday, Dec. 4, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Anthony Funeral & Cremation Chapels, 2305 Monroe Ave. and are invited to bring a written memory or favorite photograph of Professor McGrath for the family's memory book.

A memorial service will be held Friday, Dec. 5, at 2:30 p.m. at the University's Interfaith Chapel on Wilson Boulevard. Donations may be directed to the Friends of the Library, 236 Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14627.

The University flag will be flown at half-staff in Professor McGrath's honor on Friday as well.