A Tribute to Mark Kishlansky

by Scott Sowerby


19 May 2015

He was from an age of giants.  I didn’t know what I was in for when I applied to do a PhD with Mark Kishlansky.  I arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1996 and immediately fell flat on my face.  I came from Canada, where the reigning mode is politeness.  I held my new supervisor in awe.   I sat in his office, waiting for him to instill wisdom in me.  When he asked me to speak, I spoke tentatively.  When he pushed back, I wilted.   I didn’t know how to interact with someone whose reigning mode was combativeness.  One of my fellow graduate students, who shall remain nameless, later said to him, “this is the second time that I’ve wanted to punch you in the nose.”  For weeks afterwards, Kishlansky repeated this expression with relish.  (He also wondered aloud when the first time had been).  He wanted to debate with you, vigorously.  He welcomed dissent and disagreement.  If you took his side of the argument, he would switch sides to have the pleasure of sparring with you.

It took me a while to shed my dutifulness and find my footing.  I spent my first year in seminars with him and three other graduate students.  He would assign us thirty books to read and tell us to come back in two weeks.  We divided the books among ourselves and wrote notes for each other.  We would then spend a bracing afternoon in his office in Robinson Hall, gathered around a small round table.  The low point of my first year was when he asked me who William of Orange was.  The books had been divided among the four of us as usual, and I had mostly read about the trial of the seven bishops.  I had no idea who William of Orange was.  I gave it my best shot.  I said, “he was a ruler.  He ruled Orange.”  This is technically a true answer.  But it was radically incomplete.

In my second year, I had a stroke of luck.  Mark published his great synthesis of seventeenth-century British history, A Monarchy Transformed.  I read the book over and over until I had it memorized.  After that, whenever Mark started an argument with me, I would simply quote his words back at him.  He would ask me about the Treaty of Dover, and I would have a perfectly rounded response.  “That’s not a bad line,” he would say.  “I wish I had written it.”

Gradually, I learned not to parrot his phrases, but to come up with my own.  My sentences had to be sharp and precise to survive his scrutiny.  He was always seeking le mot juste, the aptest example.   He was a restless pursuer of verbal perfection.  He wrote lethal book reviews, but he was equally at home crafting an undergraduate lecture.  He knew the power of words to unsettle old orthodoxies.

He was willing to throw a job away in pursuit of a juicy line.  Years later, I heard that when he was on the market as a young scholar, he had been asked in an interview whether he considered himself to be a revisionist.  He responded, “I’m writing the standard interpretation.  The people who come a decade after me will be the revisionists.”  He didn’t get the job. 

He was, in fact, one of a group of four scholars who reshaped our understanding of the English Revolution and its causes.  (The other three were John Morrill, Conrad Russell, and Kevin Sharpe.)  But, despite the force of his own interpretations, there is no Kishlansky school.  Revisionism proved impossible to hand on to his students.  It was made for a particular moment and its main effects were destructive.  All of his students are now working on different topics with different ends in mind.   He rarely steered our work in any particular direction; instead, he took the thing that we had already decided to do, and he made it better.  As my friend Eleanor Hubbard put it, he let us be weird.  The gift he gave us was nothing less than the ability to think clearly.  He impressed on us the importance of getting it right, of commanding the page with sentences of seamless texture.  We knew that we had done well when he got a gleam in his eye at something we had said, some line that actually caught fire and burned.

He let us speak, and he gave us room to write, and then he dissected what we did.  He wasn’t overbearing.  He didn’t fill the room with his own words; instead, he listened carefully to our ideas.  That was such a huge gift.  It felt bruising to be found wanting, but it was instructive to realize that words carelessly thrown together would be pushed aside, while crystalline ideas would meet with approval.  The fact that he cared so much about our words meant that he cared about us.

Many relationships in life you can replace.  Ultimately, if you lose one friend you can find another.  But your dissertation advisor isn’t like that.  You are bound together for life.  It is a privilege just to have had this relationship at all.  It is one of the best things about getting a PhD.  The consequence is that losing your advisor feels like being orphaned.

He illuminated everything, and now a great light has been put out.   I was a Kishlansky student.  And I still am.