University of Rochester

Rochester Review
July–August 2011
Vol. 73, No. 6

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NAMED PROFESSORSHIPS Making a ‘Lasting Imprint’ History professor Robert Westbrook turns to moral and political philosophy to frame his writings on the American past. By Karen McCally ’02 (PhD)
westbrookHISTORIANS’ ART: “Professors are among the few lucky artisans left in the modern world of work,” says Westbrook, a historian who was installed this spring as the first Joseph F. Cunningham Professor of History. (Photo: Adam Fenster)

Robert Westbrook once confessed to a room full of graduate students that his doctoral dissertation advisor at Stanford had called the first draft of his dissertation prospectus “constipated.” The comment came in a talk, titled after the Rolling Stones classic, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want, But If You Try Sometimes, You Get What You Need,” in which, with characteristic candor and wit, Westbrook advised his listeners that “the alertness to contingency and the unintended consequences of human action that we cultivate as historians is one that we might well extend to our own lives.”

Westbrook had gone to Stanford directly from Yale, where, he explained, as part of his financial aid package, he had landed a job as assistant to Howard Lamar, then the chair of Yale’s history department and a noted scholar of the American West. It led him to appreciate, he recalled, that “professors are among the few lucky artisans left in the modern world of work.” That realization, as well as the “rush” he says he experienced with the publication of his first work—an entry in The Reader’s Encyclopedia of the American West on barbed wire—sealed his decision to become a historian. Westbrook, who

has taught at Rochester since 1986, this spring became the first Joseph F. Cunningham Professor of History, a professorship named for Washington, D.C., attorney Joseph Cunningham ’67 (MA).

He has supervised more than 20 doctoral dissertations, a sizeable number in the history department’s small graduate program. And many of those students came to study with Westbrook in part because of the book, John Dewey and American Democracy (Cornell, 1991), that eventually came of that allegedly burdened first effort.

James Kloppenberg, the Charles Warren Professor of History at Harvard, says the book was “an instant classic.” Daniel Borus, a professor of history who has been Westbrook’s colleague at Rochester since 1990, calls it “one of those rare books that redefine a field.”

Dewey, a late 19th- and early 20th-century social reformer and one of the founders of the American philosophy of pragmatism, had long been written about as a major contributor to modern American liberalism. To the contrary, Westbrook argued, Dewey was “a minority, not a majority, spokesman within the liberal community, a social philosopher whose democratic vision failed to find a secure place in liberal ideology—in short, a more radical voice than has been generally assumed.”

In 1993, the book earned the 1991–92 Merle Curti Award, an honor given biennially to the best book in social or intellectual history by the Organization of American Historians. The critic Louis Menand found the book significant enough to devote a 7,000-word essay to it—entitled “The Real John Dewey”—in The New York Review of Books in 1992.

Casey Blake ’87 (PhD), a professor of history and founding director of the American studies program at Columbia, says of Westbrook “where I think he really is quite unique is in drawing on debates in moral and political philosophy to frame historical questions.”

Westbrook’s second book, Why We Fought: Forging American Obligations During World War II (Smithsonian Books, 2004), was cast as an examination of the claim made by many political theorists that Enlightenment liberal states, such as the United States, founded on the principle of individual liberty, generally fail to foster deep conceptions of civic obligation. Westbrook put that claim to the test, attempting to excavate the political philosophy implicit in the artifacts of everyday life—advertisements, cartoons, posters, Norman Rockwell paintings, and even the pinups of Hollywood starlets—distributed to Americans with federal sanction during the war.

Through a discerning and at times colorful analysis of these artifacts, Westbrook concluded, in accord with the political theorists, that the reasons for which Americans fought were to carry out essentially private obligations—to families, children, parents, and “an ‘American Way of Life’ defined as a rich (and richly commodified) private realm of experience.”

Westbrook was drawn to Rochester 25 years ago by the prospect of teaching and working alongside Christopher Lasch, the historian and social critic who taught at Rochester from 1970 until his death in 1994. Over the years, Westbrook has consistently attracted a loyal following of undergraduates as well as graduates to his courses on American intellectual history, American culture during the Great Depression and World War II, and many others in a wide and ever-changing repertoire.

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen ’92, the Merle Curti Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who took several courses with Westbrook as a history major, calls him “transformative” in her personal and intellectual development.

“I’d grown up in a shopping mall. I said ‘like’ every sixth word. I didn’t come in a package that at all announced that I could be a scholar,” she says. “But he took me deadly seriously, hearing past the ‘likes’ and ‘you knows’ and could see what was possible in me and helped me cultivate that.” These days, Ratner-Rosenhagen is among the scholars to whom Westbrook regularly sends his essays for feedback.

Says Kloppenberg (with whom Ratner-Rosenhagen studied in graduate school): “Robb has left a lasting imprint on the fields of American intellectual history, American political science, and the history of American philosophy. Those are three distinct fields. And not many people make a mark in more than one academic discipline during their careers.”

McCally is an associate editor at Rochester Review and earned her PhD in history, under Westbrook’s supervision, in 2002.