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Faculty Profile

The Watch and Word


Take any distinguished teacher, smart Seniors will tell you. Find out his favorite subject and take that course when he gives it; do it often enough and you'll have an education. What happens when a fine lecturer with loving knowledge of his specialty teaches that very specialty is illustrated by Frederick Merk, his watch, his pointer, and his History of the Westward Movement. Implacable enemy of the land speculator, chronicler of lusty American frontier democracy, the slight, earnest Professor is considered by many to have assumed the mantle of the late F. J. Turner as leading historian of the American West.

Born in Milwaukee and educated at the University of Wisconsin, Frederick Merk quite naturally followed in the footsteps of Turner, 1893 author of the attitude - smashing "Significance of the Frontier in American History," for the latter had been a professor at Wisconsin. His influence there was profound even before it spread throughout the "corpus of American history teaching," says Professor Merk, who, when he came to Harvard in 1918, found Turner here and worked in his seminar. In 1921 he began to teach what is now History 62, sharing it with his older colleague. Along with teaching the first half of Histoy 5 and writing books and papers on details of the westward expansion, this course has been Professor Merk's primary interest ever since.

To his teaching, Professor Merk brings restrained intensity of enthusiasm that makes even British tax rates on tobacco and the conflict between European and Asiatic lice fascinating to his students. From his opening "At the last hour . . ." to the end of the period, Professor Merk is an arresting spectacle. His gold pocket watch is on the lectern immediately. At intervals he picks it up, gestures sweepingly with it in his fingers; or he stands staunchly at attention, map-pointer towering like a lance at his side, as he sums up an historical conflict in memorable words like "a struggle between brandy and rum."

An example of the colorful continuity which Professor Merk maintains in his approach to history is his present attitude toward land speculators, the omnipresent villains of almost every frontier area he examines. "Speculators even today are of tremendous importance in the national economy," he says. Especially in times of high land values, in either city or country, the speculator is inevitably on hand, and helps to develop both slum districts and dust-bowls. Matter of fact, the Professor is worried right now about what speculation is doing in the way of a possible new dust-bowl out Colorado way; a combination of misuse of land and dry weather is apparently making for a serious disaster there in the new future.

After five years of administrative worries as Head of the Department of History, Professor Merk retired last summer from bustling Holyoke House to a Widener study; there he spends most of his day, doing the research which he maintains any teacher must continually do to keep himself fresh and alive. But it is as a lecturer that Harvard men know him. As Department head, Professor Merk says he early found that "when a man teaches something he likes, he teaches it better." The little dynamo with the thrilling voice is himself a working model that proves the statement.

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