John Higham, an eminent historian of American culture
and of the interplay of ethnic and national identity in the
United States, died Saturday at his home in Baltimore of a
massive cerebral aneurism. He was 82.
Higham graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1941 and
returned 30 years later to be the John Martin Vincent
Professor of History. He retired in 1989.
"He was enormously influential," said Ronald Walters,
a professor of history and a
colleague of Higham's since the early 1970s. "He basically
shaped a field."
Walters cited Higham's first book as having a
"monumental impact" in the field of nativism. Strangers
in the Land (1955) was a comprehensive study of
nativism during its heyday in the United States.
Republished in 1963, 1975 and 1989, it remains the classic
work on the hostility that native-born Americans showed
toward immigrants outside the "Anglo-Saxon" fold.
Strangers in the Land marked Higham's interest
in ethnic relations, a central topic in U.S. history, but
one that fell out of favor for a time as many American
historians turned their attention to race and to the social
history of particular groups.
His persistence put him in a position to address
debates about multiculturalism during the 1980s and 1990s
and resulted in a book of essays, Hanging Together
(2001). At the time of his death, he had just finished
another innovative essay on immigration, race and
ethnicity. Throughout his career, Higham maintained a
commitment to a pluralistic and assimilationist national
culture while remaining attentive to new and opposing
points of view.
"For him, writing history was not just an intellectual
exercise," Walters said. "It was also a moral act. He
believed we should be morally accountable for what we
write," a philosophy that, Walters noted, had great
influence on Higham's colleagues and students.
Born in New York City, Higham received his bachelor's
degree from Johns Hopkins in 1941 and served in the
Historical Division of the U.S. Army Air Force during World
War II before earning a doctorate from the University of
Wisconsin, Madison in 1949. After teaching at UCLA,
Rutgers, Columbia and the University of Michigan, he
returned to Johns Hopkins in 1971.
Higham was elected president of the Organization of
American Historians in 1973 and held a number of
prestigious fellowship and lectureship appointments in this
country and abroad. Last year he was honored with lifetime
achievement awards from the American Historical Association
and the Immigration and Ethnic History Society.
He is survived by his wife of 55 years, Eileen, a
clinical psychologist; four children, Margaret of
Winchester, Mass., Constance Vidor of New York City, Jay of
Sandy Hook, Conn., and Daniel of Baltimore; and seven
A memorial service is planned on Sept. 16 from 4 to 6
p.m. at the Johns Hopkins Club.