Sunday, December 3, 2006

George Brown Tindall, 1921-2006

I didn’t know George Tindall when I started graduate school at the University of North Carolina in 1980. As an undergraduate down the road at Duke, I had learned the names of some UNC historians, and in the years I was at Chapel Hill (I finally got the Ph.D. in 1988), I never got over my initial sense of awe for some of them. But when I met George Tindall, he was just a nice little man with white hair, a bow tie, and a friendly voice.

By the time I learned about The Emergence of the New South, The Persistent Tradition in New South Politics, and The Ethnic Southerners--books that guided a couple of generations of historians as they researched and wrote about the post-Reconstruction South--I had come to know Professor Tindall as more than merely one of the biggest names in southern historiography. His essays on southern mythology and “the benighted South” were masterpieces and a huge influence on the way historians viewed the region. His dissertation, published as South Carolina Negroes, 1877-1900, along with Vernon Wharton’s similar study of Mississippi, provided the necessary background for C. Vann Woodward’s Strange Career of Jim Crow, one of the most important books in American history published in the 20th century. (I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Tindall, rather than Woodward, had been invited to give the Richards Lectures at the University of Virginia in 1954.) But I didn’t know any of that until later. As a result, my respect for George Tindall as a scholar never surpassed my love for him as a person.

It was because of George Tindall that I decided to study the history of the South. (My undergraduate degree had been in the history of science.) And it was through Tindall that I came to appreciate the importance not only of thorough research, but also of good writing. I think Tindall stressed this more than anyone else at Chapel Hill, and it shows in the students he produced. Check out his “Clio's Decalogue: The Commandments of the Muse,” posted by Tindall student Ralph Luker of Cliopatria. (First Commandment: “Thou shalt smite the Philistines hip and thigh with thy first sentence.” Yes!)

About a dozen years ago, the Georgia Historical Quarterly published an article I had written on Sam Jones, the famous late nineteenth-century evangelist. When I noticed in the page proofs that the phrase “Sam Jones’s Theology” had been changed to “Sam Jones’ Theology” in the subtitle, I wrote to John Inscoe, editor at the Quarterly, asking him to change it back. I reminded him of Strunk and White’s first rule: “Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ’s.” John replied that he had received one similar request before: from George Tindall! (Tindall did love his Strunk and White.) I don’t think I ever told him about that.

I can’t imagine that I’ve had even a fraction of that influence over my own (undergraduate) students.

George Tindall died yesterday, December 2, 2006, at the age of 85. More than anyone else, he shaped my professional life. Other Tindall students will say the same thing. Although it breaks Clio’s Second Commandment (“Thou shalt love the active verb with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thou shalt have no passive verbs before me”), I must say: he will be missed.