Rice’s History Department lost Tom Haskell last week to complications from Alzheimer’s Disease, a terribly sad loss. His Chronicle obituary is here and the accompanying photograph is wonderful, by the way.
It’s hard to know where to start about Tom Haskell but I’ll begin with this: he could be absolutely maddening. To the best of my recollection the only time I’ve ever lost my temper in 26 years at Rice it was with him. But at the same time I cherish the memory of his kind and generous help in untangling some knotted up problems in my own research.
He was an excellent teacher and held students to the highest standards. I once heard him read Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to a roomful of undergraduates (in his black academic robe, no less). Edwards’ words, combined with Haskell’s passionate delivery and formidable bearing, left the room in stunned silence. You couldn’t even hear anyone breathe. I still think about this from time to time, always with a small catch of fear as I dangle over the fiery pit.
Tom was a committed believer in the intellectual values of the academy and in the faculty’s responsibility to protect those values. I could write about this at length, but rather than recount old battles I will only say that he fully did his part to preserve what is worthy in our institution, especially in regard to faculty governance and accountability.
Perhaps above all he was a brilliant historian, clear, subtle and fearless, whose work in American intellectual and cultural history will remain to be reckoned with for many years to come.
When convinced he had gotten hold of the truth Tom would not let go of it for anyone or anything. This was not free. This cost him, and it cost him things of real consequence.
There are few pictures of him in the Woodson. One contact sheet shows a young man in a bad sweater who very clearly did not like having his picture taken. The only other set of images is more fitting. Here is Tom in 1999, speaking on academic freedom as part of that year’s Scientia program on “Rethinking the University”:
Thomas Haskell, rest in peace.