Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, May 17, 2000

Memorial Resolution: Gordon Wright


Gordon Wright, who died on January 11, 2000, was the pre-eminent historian of modern France in the United States. His accomplishments were many and have secured him a position as a major figure in the profession in this century, reinforced by his extraordinary qualities as a person. His international and national standing is attested to by his membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, as a foreign honorary member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences in Paris, Commander in the French Order of Arts and Letters, President of the Society for French Historical Studies, and President of the American Historical Association (in effect head of the profession in the United States). At Stanford he served as executive head of the History Department from 1959 to 1965, as an Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences from 1970 to 1973, held the William H. Bonsall Professorship of History from 1970 on, served on the Faculty Senate for more than five years and received the Dinkelspiel award for service to undergraduate education in 1975. He served the University in innumerable other ways.

Gordon Wright was born on April 24, 1912 in Lynden, Washington to a family of school teachers, farmers and preachers with roots in this country going back to the 1630s; he himself taught junior high school the year after graduating from college. His great grandfather had come west to join the California gold-rush but didn't strike it rich. As Gordon remarked: "My family has never had the knack of making money." He received his B.A. from Whitman College in 1933, (his alma mater awarding him an honorary degree in 1957) and his Ph.D. at Stanford University in 1939, writing a dissertation on Raymond PoincarÈ and the French Presidency which in a revised version was published by Stanford University Press in 1942. He was a teaching fellow at George Washington University in 1936-37. From 1939 to 1943 and 1947 to 1957, he was a member of the History faculty at the University of Oregon, serving as department chair from 1951 to 1957. He served as a specialist at the Department of State in 1943-44 and as a Foreign Service officer at the embassy in Paris from 1945 to 1947. In late 1944 he led a convoy of vehicles and personnel from Lisbon to Paris, while the fighting was still going on, in order to bring reinforcements to the newly-reopened embassy. The State Department official who handed him the assignment later told him that he hadn't expected him to make it. He returned to Paris as the cultural attaché from 1967-69, having a front row seat at the events of May 1968.

On August 20, 1946 he married Louise Aiken and they had five sons: Eric, Michael, Philip, David, and Gregory, who died in 1965, and six grandchildren. Gordon and Louise were an inseparable couple; she greatly enriched the life of the History Department and of the Stanford community.

Gordon returned to Stanford as a full professor in 1957. The Stanford History Department rarely hires those who have trained here as graduate students; such a step was further testimony to its belief in the high quality that Gordon Wright possessed. He retired in 1977 but continued to teach not only at Stanford but also at the University of Washington, Northwestern University, Arizona State University, and at the College of William and Mary.

Gordon Wright was an extremely successful undergraduate teacher. While at Oregon he taught a wide range of courses and one of the attractions of coming to Stanford was the opportunity to concentrate on his main area of interest: Modern France. Yet he also ultimately taught various courses on modern Europe. He summed up admirably his concerns and his attitude to teaching in some remarks he made about a colloquium he gave on modern war. "The central goal is to encourage [the students] to read, reflect, and argue about some sensitive issues associated with modern war. For example, can one distinguish just from unjust wars? Are there moral constraints in wartime on soldiers, statesmen, citizens? Do men fight because they are innately aggressive, or because they are socially conditioned to do so? Are modern wars purely destructive, or are they locomotives of history, that speed up technological development and social change? My role in all this is to set the agenda and then to prod and provoke when necessary -- definitely not to hand down obiter dicta."

In 1973 with colleagues Gordon Craig and Lew Spitz he taught the 20th century section of a European survey course, nicknamed "Son of Super Civ," which paved the way to the reintroduction of the present program of first year general courses. He also taught a wide range of undergraduate and graduate courses on modern France. He became the leading trainer of students in that field, having been the principal adviser of approximately thirty Ph.D.s, many of whom now hold major academic positions.

Gordon Wright had a long and prolific scholarly career. Although he was the co-author of a number of general books and anthologies on European history, all but one of his important writings treated modern France. These included The Reshaping of French Democracy (1948) as well as his much admired Rural Revolution in France: The Peasantry in the Twentieth Century (1964). But surely his most read book was his text France in Modern Times (1st edition, 1960) which became the preeminent survey of French history since the Revolution. He revised the book several times over the course of his career. Indeed, he came to consider these time-consuming revisions an albatross that distracted him from scholarly research.

Perhaps the high point of his publishing career came when William Langer, the editor of the highly influential Rise of Modern Europe series, invited him to write the volume on the Second World War. The result, The Ordeal of Total War, 1939-1945 (1968), is generally regarded as his masterpiece. There, he provided an analytic account of this central event of the twentieth century, one that took him well beyond Europe to the Pacific (and places in between). His vivid prose conjured up the drama, horror, and overwhelming passions of total war.

He continued to write in retirement. In 1983 he published Between the Guillotine and Liberty: Two Centuries of the Crime Problem in France, in which, as the reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement reported, he engaged "in a polite but skeptical dialogue with Michel Foucault, gently pointing out the occasions when Foucault has passed off hypothesis as fact." The remark nicely captures the Wright style: rigorously empirical and doubtful about grand theories, but expressing those doubts in courteous, if unambiguous, language.

His necessarily grim account of French penal history was followed by a more genial work. In Notable or Notorious (1989) he examined a series of neglected and often outrageous Parisian intellectuals and politicians, from Eugène Sue to Charles Pèguy. In typically self-deprecating fashion he referred to the book as "a historian's version of the busman's holiday." But his colleague Gordon Craig praised the "ten beautifully conceived and executed portraits" by "the dean of American historians of France." This last book, like his first, was dedicated to his wife Louise, "Companion and Critic."

There can be no doubt of his manifold contributions to the academic world both at Stanford and beyond. But Gordon Wright also had other qualities that meant a great deal to those who knew him at Stanford and elsewhere, and for the many who only knew of him. As his son Eric said of him, he was not a boastful man. Indeed one could say that he was excessively modest, so much so that his colleagues had to plan a retirement event for him in secret and one suspects that he didn't really enjoy it. Upon his retirement he had made plans to teach elsewhere to clear the way for his successor so that the dean and the department had to employ various stratagems to secure his teaching at home. He had firm opinions and great moral authority. He made it clear that the right way was to act as honestly as one could, painful as it might be at times. But the last thing in the world he would do would be to impose his views and he would only give advice when asked to do so.

He was a committed liberal. It was not surprising that in 1961 he protested against American Cuban policy. Later he spoke out strongly against the war in Vietnam at the same time bemoaning the "strange mixture of idealism, fanaticism, and paranoia" that produced conditions "explosive enough to blow a campus up as would a Molotov cocktail." He experienced being called a fascist by those on the far left and a traitor by those on the far right. In 1978 in a talk at Stanford to Phi Beta Kappa he decried the anti-intellectualism to be found among intellectuals, generally on the right, that manifested itself in a hatred of liberalism. In 1975 he gave a talk to entering freshmen about the ambiguities of treason, ending in a typically understated but powerful way: "Man can see that there is a higher loyalty than that to a nation. But that will be slow in coming. In the meantime the best that we can do is to try as much as possible to make that higher interest and the national interest coincide in our own country."

It was not surprising that his presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1975 was on "History as a Moral Science." There he remarked: "The liberals among us . . . continue to be haunted by our pluralistic, skeptical, anti-dogmatic heritage. . . . We liberals have been re-enacting the charge of the Light Brigade: while cannon volley and thunder to the right and to the left of us, we ourselves gallop on in a cloud of dust, unsure just which way is forward, and shouting to those who follow us to study the map and draw their own conclusions." He believed in "a self-conscious and coherent value system that would enable students to reach their own conclusions." It would be "a set of guideposts through the mine field."

In his talk, and as Louise Wright reminded us at a gathering in his honor, the figure he admired most in French history was the socialist leader Jean Jaurès whom he described as: "untouched by vanity, arrogance, or a thirst for power, deeply committed to the Orwellian principle of decency." Although modesty would have forbidden him from saying so, in those words Gordon Wright described himself.


Professor Peter Stansky, Chair

Professor Paul Robinson

Professor Carolyn Lougee Chappell

Professor Gordon Craig