Daniel Walker Howe

Pulitzer Prize winning historian, professor has loved history since childhood

Unnamed photo
Courtesy Associated press

1Uncaptioned photo

The opening scene of Daniel Walker Howe ’59’s Pulitzer Prize winning history, “What Hath God Wrought,” artistically depicts the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, which pitted British regulars against a heterogeneous American force. The “Americans” hailed from Louisiana, Haiti, Kentucky, encompassing crack Irish-American units, freed slaves, and wary Native Americans. Orders were translated into Spanish, French, and Choctaw.

The diverse internationalism of such a scene must have particularly piqued the interest of Howe, Harvard graduate and Professor Emeritus of both Oxford and UCLA, who once dreamed of ancient overseas battles as a young boy growing up in Denver.

“I got interested in history when I was about six years old and my father sat me on his lap and told me about Hannibal crossing the Alps with elephants to fight the Romans,” Howe said. “I thought this was the most fascinating stuff imaginable.”

Coming from Denver to Harvard was, in those days, still vaguely unusual: Denver was remote and provincial, far from the colorful melting pots of 19th century New Orleans, or ancient Rome. His storytelling father, a newspaperman, died when Howe was eight years old, widowing his mother and making money scarce. It was only a National Scholarship from Harvard that allowed Howe to afford an Ivy League education.

Recalling his early days of transition between Denver and Harvard, Howe interrupts himself to say, “By the way, in those days transportation meant the train,” he said, “It was a night between Denver and Chicago and then another between Chicago and South Station where the train came in early in the morning. So this is a different world.”

It was a different world, a slower world, one that is closer perhaps to the world that Howe wrote about in “What Hath God Wrought” than to the modern era.

The book covers the period between 1815 and 1848. Its popularity is remarkable because, as Susan Ferber, acquisitions editor for the Oxford History of the United States series, wrote in an email to The Crimson, “It’s not an obvious period for many, since it doesn’t cover the American Revolution or Civil War or World War II. Instead,” she said, “it brings together a great many events, such as the War of 1812, technology and communications, party politics, literature and art, and the rise of many different religious groups.” These broad topics, far from the realm of traditional history, reflect Howe’s desire to write for the general public—to tell a story rather than speak in generalizations. “I hoped to make history as interesting for other people as I’ve always found it to be,” Howe said.

Such storytelling and history reflects Howe’s days at Harvard, where he was a History and Literature concentrator: good preparation for his later career as a history professor, as he would later find out: “When I was teaching at UCLA, I became aware that the UCLA history department had a lot of people in it who’d been to Harvard, but the surprising part was how many of us had concentrated in Hist and Lit,” Howe said.

Though he had never published work that deviated so far from traditional academic norms, Howe had always cherished a sort of Hist and Lit version of history—in lecture courses at UCLA, Howe was known to relive his Harvard Glee Club days by personally demonstrating hymns, when appropriate.

Even the day of perhaps his greatest academic achievement—the day when the 2008 Pulitzer prizes were announced—Howe continued his fascination with historical storytelling. As though he were writing a story—as if he wanted the climax to come at the very end—he wrote in a note to his wife: “Meet me at 6 in the St. Alban’s parking lot.”

“P.S. I won the Pulitzer.”

—Staff writer Mark J. Chiusano can be reached at chiusano@fas.harvard.