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History and American Studies professor emeritus dies at 80

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian William H. Goetzmann died Sept. 7, 2010, at his home in Austin.

Posted: September 10, 2010
Prof. Emeritus William H. Goetzmann

Prof. Emeritus William H. Goetzmann

Goetzmann won both the Pulitzer and Francis Parkman Prizes in 1967, two of the most coveted in American history writing, for his book Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West. His most recent book was published in 2009, Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought From Paine to Pragmatism.

He earned his master’s and doctor’s degrees from Yale University, where he taught before coming to The University of Texas (UT) at Austin. In five decades, he taught and mentored numerous graduate students with many of them becoming renowned in their own right. He always wore a jacket and tie when teaching class — a holdover from his time in New England.

His book The West of the Imagination, co-authored with his son William N. Goetzmann, was about Western American art. In 1985, it was turned into a PBS series.

“Dr. G., as he was known by the 1990s, demonstrated remarkable, sometimes otherworldly abilities for interdisciplinary thinking — instantly, and with great relish often, pulling together scenes from a novel, painting, overland diary, and his vivid memory into a complex and provocative scene,” recalls former student Dr. Richard Ribb, senior academic advisor for the College of Liberal Arts at UT.

American Studies Professor Mark Smith also remembers this hallmark about Goetzmann. “Bill Goetzmann was the most gifted graduate seminar leader I have ever experienced,” says Smith, who is currently the Bicenntennial Fulbright Professor of American Studies at the University of Helsinki for 2010-11.

“Bill would come into the seminar, which was already buzzing with anticipation, and sit back and watch until something, positive or negative, would spark his enthusiasm. Then he would immediately start talking and making intricate charts and diagrams on the board that would connect the strangest of bedfellows.

Photo of Prof. Emeritus William H. Goetzmann that appeared in the Austin American-Statesman“One I remember convincingly showed the connections between Aquinas, Comte, Emerson, and the space program. It was a spontaneous tour de force. Three-hour seminars would routinely run four, only to be adjourned to Scholz’s [Bier Garden] where he would put his arm around you and give you a new dissertation topic, forgetting that he had given you very different ones the previous two weeks. And then he would pick up the check,” Smith added.

“He was long a Big Thinker, and I respected him for that vanishing trait,” Ribb says. “No question that he sharpened my intellectual skills, if increasingly in opposition. May he rest in the imagination."

Goetzmann served as chair of the Department of History from 1968-69 and was the chair of the American Studies Program, now the Department of American Studies, for 16 years. A trailblazer in more than his writings and classrooms, he was instrumental in integrating the faculty of the university by recruiting some of the first black professors to the College of Arts and Sciences.

There will be a memorial mass on Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010 at St. Austin’s Catholic Church at 2 p.m., 2026 Guadalupe Street, Austin.

Bill Goetzmann remembered by his colleague William M. Stott, Professor Emeritus, American Studies and English

The death of my UT mentor, Bill Goetzmann, is something I won't get over.

I was Bill's assistant director in American Studies from 1971 till 1980, hired because it was thought that having been a propagandizing diplomat in Third World nations, I would be able to help American Studies — which was to say (at that time) help Bill — make peace with the English department. He and I meshed as a team because, though he was hundreds of times better read, more imaginative, and more energetic than I, and loyal and funny to boot, he also had complexities of character that reminded me of my father. I had spent 30 years learning how to get along with my father and had a head start working with Bill.

In the fall of 1971, among the dozens of ideas Bill put forward was one I thought I could carry out: making a pamphlet about our graduate program. I wrote it and had UT designer Tom Johnson prepare a mock-up. Bill glanced at it and said, "It's so dull!" And he transformed the pamphlet into the first of our once-notorious grad posters, with a huge photo of well-upholstered matrons dressed in black in a Model T with a pennant calling for "Votes for Women." Down at the bottom of the poster Bill had us add an armadillo, a salute to the Armadillo World Headquarters, then at apogee.

From Bill I learned the question every inquirer needs to answer (though most don't), "So what?" Or, put more expansively: "What do we know when we know that?" Or, again briefly: "Why does that matter?" From him I learned most of what I know about academic politics and the wisdom of knowing when to stop playing them and start, as Bill would say, "banging on your cereal bowl."

Bill's fear always was that the state was going to turn UT into a monumental junior college. "They don't know what education is," he'd often say about people running the university (The University, as it styles itself). He stood on the bridge to keep the philistines at bay and taught an uncountable number of students who now carry on his crusade.

The crusade is conservative, as was Bill — in most matters outspokenly. In his last years he despaired about America. And yet, just to show his complexity, his 2009 book, Beyond the Revolution, has as its central generative intellectual the despised revolutionary “atheist” Tom Paine, whom Bill salutes for embodying just what is so needed now: “the spirit of revival, constant regeneration, and future-oriented habits of pragmatic thinking.” America has gotten through rough times before, and it is in our character, the scholar William H. Goetzmann tells us, to do it always again.

The photo of Bill accompanying the Austin American-Statesman obituary notice below shows him at his most affable. Likely as not, he was then cooking up one of his sudden, terrifying questions. "What painter would agree with Faulkner's definition of culture?" say. We who were fortunate enough to know him well will never be free of his way of thinking.

Related Links:
Read comments on Austin American-Statesman obituary on William H. Goetzmann
College of Liberal Arts ShelfLife literary blog post on Goetzmann

The following obituary notice appeared in the Sept. 8, 2010, Austin American-Statesman:

Photo of Prof. Emeritus William H. Goetzmann that appeared in the Austin American-StatesmanHistorian William H. Goetzmann, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 and emeritus professor of American Studies and History at the University of Texas, died on September 7, 2010. His book Exploration and Empire, a study of the 19th century scientific exploration of the American West, won both the Pulitzer and Parkman prizes in history in 1967.

His book on the art of the American West, The West of the Imagination, co-authored with son William N. Goetzmann, was the subject of a PBS television series by the same name in 1985. His most recent work, Beyond the Revolution (2009), traced the development of post-Revolutionary American thought.

His writings and scholarly interests ranged widely over his career, from ribald historical memoirs (My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue: Sam Chamberlain, 1993) to definitive contributions in American intellectual history (The American Hegelians, 1973). A consistent theme of his work was the variety and vitality of the American experience.

Bill Goetzmann taught History and American Studies for fifty years, first at Yale University and then at the University of Texas. As the chairman of the University of Texas History Department in 1968-9 and as director of the American Studies Program from 1964 to 1980, he played a key role in the racial integration of the university's faculty and in the development of multicultural studies in the humanities.

In 1968, he recruited the College of Arts and Sciences' first African-American faculty members, Dr. Henry Bullock and Dr. George Washington, and instituted the university's first women's studies course, "The Intellectual Woman in America," taught by Prof. Susan Conrad.

In 1969, he instituted a course in Hispanic-American studies taught by Prof. Raymund Paredes, now Commissioner of Higher Education in the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. He continued his vocal advocacy for minority recruiting until shortly before his retirement from the university.

As an educator, Bill Goetzmann chaired more than 60 doctoral committees and taught 83 different undergraduate and graduate courses over the course of his career. He held the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Professorship in History and American Studies at the University of Texas until his retirement 2005.

The son of Viola and Harry Goetzmann, Bill Goetzmann was born in Washington, D.C., in 1930 and passed away in his home in Austin, Texas. An only child, he is survived by his wife Mewes Goetzmann, three children: William N. Goetzmann, professor of finance at Yale School of Management; Anne Goetzmann Kelley, co-executive director and founder of the Austin School of Film; and Stephen R. Goetzmann, an attorney in Dallas; and five grandchildren, Brooks Kelley, Jr., of Austin, Texas, Zoe Goetzmann of New Haven, and Griffin Goetzmann, Sophie Goetzmann, and Wells Goetzmann of Dallas.

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