Stanford Pulitzer Prize-winning historian dies at 93

A leading post-World War II historian, Stanford Professor Carl Degler was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his groundbreaking 1972 book on slavery and race relations. One colleague described him as a scholar who crossed disciplinary boundaries and challenged conventional pieties.

Professor Emeritus Carl Degler

Carl Degler, Stanford professor emeritus of history, died Dec. 27 at age 93. (Image credit: Courtesy Therese Baker-Degler)

Carl N. Degler, a scholarly champion of the common man and woman in American history, passed away from natural causes on Dec. 27. He was 93.

Degler was the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, Emeritus, at Stanford University. In 1972, he won the Pulitzer Prize for history for his book, Neither Black nor White, a work comparing slavery and race relations in Brazil and the United States. He taught and researched at Stanford University from 1968 until his retirement in 1990.

In his career, Degler broke new ground in the study of groups once largely ignored, especially ethnic minorities, the poor and women. His primary interests included the history of the American South, comparative race relations in Brazil and the United States, the role of women in American society, and the influence of Darwinian ideas in American culture.

Degler wrote Out of Our Past, a study of U.S. history that is still used in many Advanced Placement high school American history classes. Like Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, Degler’s work presented alternative views on conventional interpretations of American history.

Founding feminist

His widow, Therese Baker-Degler, an academic sociologist, said that her late husband was “widely known as a founding feminist, and one of the first male historians to write a book on the history of American women,” referring to his 1981 work, At Odds: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present.

She noted that the feminist leader Betty Friedan asked Degler to be one of two men among the founders of the National Organization for Women in 1966.

“As inequality was my own primary area of professional inquiry and efforts in sociology, the vision we shared made us soul mates,” said Baker-Degler, who was married to him for the last 14 years of his life.

Degler began his career as a professor in 1952 at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where he taught for 16 years before coming to Stanford. Once on the Farm, he served as the leading adviser for 23 graduate students who completed doctoral degrees in American history and are now teaching in higher education across the country.  

Widely respected in the field of American history, Degler was elected president of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians and the Southern Historical Association during his career.

His other books include, The Other South: Southern Dissenters in the 19th Century (1974); Place Over Time: The Continuity of Southern Distinctiveness (1977😉 In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought (1991) and The Third American Revolution (1959.)

Degler was born Feb. 6, 1921, in Newark, N.J. From 1942 to 1945 he served in the U.S. Army Air Force in India. Afterwards, he earned his master’s (1947) and doctoral (1952) degrees in American history from Columbia University, and a bachelor’s degree in history from Upsala College. At Columbia, he met Catherine Grady, and they were married nearly 50 years until her death.

Degler held the honorary Harmsworth professorship at Oxford University. He also had teaching stints at City College of New York  and New York University.

 ‘Demanding, but warm-hearted’

Jack Rakove, a history professor at Stanford University and a Pulitzer Prize winner himself, said that his colleague was a historian of “enormous intellectual range” and a mentor who encouraged his students and colleagues to follow their interests as he had followed his own.

“He was much more the fox than the hedgehog, a scholar who liked to follow his imagination wherever it carried him. He preferred asking sharp questions with a broad reach to agonizing too much, as historians often do, over the quality and extent of his sources,” he said.

Rakove noted that Degler had an aptitude for asking big questions and undertaking sweeping re-interpretations of American history. He was also a focused critic who had a knack for identifying questions that scholars should have answered, but had not.

Linda Przybyszewski, a former student of Degler’s and now an associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, described him as a “demanding, but warm-hearted patriarch of an adviser.”

He could write prolifically on a wide range of topics. “Carl combined a lively curiosity – he was always reading up yet another subject that he was happy to talk about – and a practical work ethic that he handed down to his students,” she said.

Estelle Freedman, a Stanford historian who specializes in women’s history and feminist studies, said that Degler took a sincere interest  in her career as a young scholar.

“To have a senior colleague who championed women’s history back in the 1970s – when I really needed support – enabled me to flourish,” she said.

James Sheehan, a historian of modern Germany at Stanford, said that Degler was renowned for his collegiality, generosity and reliability as both a professional and a person.

“Carl seemed to me to have the best qualities of the country he studied – energy, an innovative spirit, and a deep commitment to democratic values,” he said.

A memorial service is being planned for the campus community in the spring. A private funeral was held in Palo Alto on Jan. 3. He is survived by his wife; two children, Paul Degler of Bethesda, Md., and Suzanne Degler of Palo Alto, Calif., and four grandchildren.

Media Contacts

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: 650-725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu