Remembering Joyce Appleby: “Sailing the Ocean of Knowledge”

Dedicated scholar Joyce Appleby's contributions to studying the fabric of America's history will be missed.

Remembering Joyce Appleby

Look at the above. It’s Joyce Appleby, and the video is of my interview with her in 2013, when she was 84. She looks as if she’s imploring me to heed her argument, her eyes lit with intensity, her face mischievous and set with conviction. And notice how she is dressed — in shades of orange, from earrings to bracelet — compelling for the camera and altogether fitting for an octogenarian to whom… well, to whom attention must be paid. What a woman, I kept thinking as we talked. What an intellect! What a legacy she leaves upon her death last weekend.   
My wife Judith, who had been deeply moved by Joyce’s early book, Inheriting the Revolution, had urged me to interview her about what would turn out to be Joyce’s last book: The Relentless Revolution — A History of Capitalism. I did, and so together we sailed across the ocean of knowledge Joyce Appleby had traversed in a long career of looking at how capitalism had taken hold in the early days of the United States and was shaped by forces peculiar to a new people who couldn’t be sure which they valued most — freedom or money. 

She was a liberal, but joyfully wrestled with the contradictions of liberalism as it confronted the often mightier force of money. She broke ground as a pioneering woman in the study of history, and if you read the comments we have borrowed from History News Network below, you can glimpse the respect with which other scholars held her. Joyce Appleby’s curiosity prowled the library stacks, a tiger alive and resolute that the stories she told were backed by the evidence she discovered, and determined that a semester would not end without her students having seen the light that the past sheds on the present.
Watch the interview above and see for yourself what we will miss from her passing.



The following roundup of remembrances of Joyce Appleby first appeared at History News Network.

Lynn Hunt

Lynn Hunt is the Eugen Weber Professor of Modern European History at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Among the many things that could be said about Joyce Appleby — her incredible loyalty to family and friends, her unfailing elegance (she could make a plaid shirt shine), her ability to set and reset historical agendas, her wonderful cooking, her boundless energy — I want to emphasize just one: her remarkable gift for conversation. When you talked to Joyce, no matter who you were or where you stood in the world in the eyes of others, she was all yours, in the moment, a passionate, sometimes irritating, but always insightful dialoguer. She loved the back and forth, whatever the topic, and she made the most of this perpetual engagement in her life and in her work.

James M. Banner Jr.

James M. Banner Jr., a historian in Washington DC, is a co-founder of the National History Center. His latest book is Being a Historian: An Introduction to the Professional World of History.

Although initially scholars and teachers of the same subject — the history of the early American republic — Joyce Appleby and I didn’t meet until we were both in our 50s. The occasion was some lunchtime meeting where we found ourselves sitting next to each other. We hit it off immediately with gossip, laughter and serious talk about the state of political history, then as now being best and most inventively pursued by historians of the first century of American politics after 1765. Joyce being on one coast, I on the other, that single meeting seemed fated to be it. But when, as president of the American Historical Association, Joyce called for new efforts to convey historical knowledge to the general public, I answered, “How about an op-ed service to place current events in their historical contexts?” Her response was swift: “Let’s you and I do it.” Thus was born, in 1996, the History News Service (HNS).

With the help of many others, we made HNS up as we went along. In the heyday of op-ed pages, HNS proved a quick success. Shaping, editing, AP-styling and distributing pieces written by historians to well over 100 metropolitan dailies and wire services in North America, HNS elicited submissions from and developed the skills of countless historians, most of them young and not yet practiced in the op-ed arts. Of this altogether satisfying endeavor, the most fun and greatest success we had — embarrassingly enough — was our own, which was really Joyce’s doing. After George W. Bush’s 2000 election thanks to the Supreme Court, she suggested that we try twinned op-eds — one against, one in favor of, the framers’ Electoral College. “I’ll take ‘against,’ you take ‘for,’” she proposed with characteristic slyness. Game, for having been a high school debater, I gave the “pro” position a brave shot but only obliquely by arguing that it would be impossible, given political realities, ever to get three-fourths of the states to ratify an amendment ridding the Constitution of its strange electoral mechanism. Out went both pieces; at our insistence, they had to appear together or not at all. To our astonishment, they ran next to each other in more than 50 papers — a record for HNS. Joyce’s idea!

Joyce and I were also frequently in touch with each other about scholarly matters and often exchanged drafts of our writings. But from a collegial, professional, business-like relationship, ours progressed into a deep, trusting friendship. To whom could this superb scholar of simple bearing not be appealing? Of a beauty that only changed but never diminished over the years, she was always stylish in her own way but never à la mode. Tough and firm of view, she was also breezy, light-spirited and, in her often brilliant written history as well as in person, always informal. Pure California! Whenever we could, we sought each other out, she western and with a light touch, I eastern and more formal, an unlikely but quick and easy fit. She came to know my wife and daughter, I her son, and we visited her Westwood home, and she our Washington one. Throughout our friendship and exchanges (sometimes numbering ten or more a week at the height of HNS), we always signed off “Joyce” and “JMB.” No need for more. Three or so years ago, I closed impulsively with something new: “Affectionately.” Quick came the reply: “Affectionately. I like that.” And so it became as it long, unacknowledged, had been. While deeply saddened by her death, I’m also deeply gladdened that, nature having taken its inevitable course, we parted from each other in this warm key.

Margaret C. Jacob

Margaret C. Jacob is Distinguished Professor at UCLA, where she and Joyce were colleagues from 1998 until Joyce’s retirement in 2001. Along with Lynn Hunt, Joyce and Peg wrote Telling the Truth About History.

Joyce Oldham Appleby died peacefully in her sleep on Dec. 23, 2016. Born in 1929, Joyce knew the Depression as a girl growing up first in Omaha, Nebraska. Her family had been among the lucky few, yet she never forgot the lessons learned in the 1930s. They informed her life as an activist for social justice and she became a leader in the movement for a living wage for workers in Los Angeles. After graduating from Stanford in 1950, her early career took her to Mademoiselle magazine in New York, where she honed writing skills that served her well throughout her long academic career. Like so many women of her generation, Joyce came to scholarship later in life after having had her three children. Her historical career also took her back to Claremont Graduate School, where she earned her Ph.D. in 1966. It would be true to say that she burst upon the academic scene in her 40s. When I served as first reader for her book manuscript she was totally unknown, at least to me. A year later when we were both on sabbatical in Cambridge, England, we formed a close friendship that lasted these many years.

Throughout Joyce’s intellectual life, capitalism gave her a focus. Its contradictions and its allure, and the variety of responses to both — from Marx to Weber — led to her first book, Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth-Century England (1978). It was controversial but widely praised by reviewers from C.B. Macpherson to Christopher Hill. Although trained and first published in American history, Joyce made an almost unprecedented move for her first book, and ventured into the lion’s den of 17th-century English history. Almost every great British historian had made his reputation (then an almost entirely male set of luminaries) by tackling aspects of its political history. Yet when Joyce wrote, almost no one had sought to recreate the intellectual history of capitalism’s impact, to assess how contemporaries made sense of wealth and the market, how they naturalized both.

Stephen Aron

Stephen Aron is professor and Robert N. Burr Department Chair at UCLA and the current President of the Western History Association.

Joyce Appleby enjoyed occasionally going to the racetrack. Not that Joyce was much of a gambler. In fact, I remember on our first trip to the track together, Joyce beaming about a wager she had made on a winning long shot. But then, I discovered that she had only bet the horse to show. And so I chided her that at the racetrack, one needed to have “the courage of one’s convictions.” There was, of course, more than a little irony in this criticism, for Joyce Appleby was the most principled and resolute person I have ever known.

She was also exceptionally curious, which is why it’s so fitting that her last book, Shores of Knowledge, dealt with the human imagination that prompted “new world discoveries.” Like the scientists and explorers about whom she wrote in that book, Joyce possessed a broad imagination. All who read her books, articles and op-eds know Joyce was a remarkable scholar with a deep commitment to bringing her vast historical knowledge and perspective into the public realm. Those who were privileged to be her students know what a transformative teacher she was. And we who were fortunate to count her as a colleague will forever miss her dazzling intellect, her passion for spirited debate, her immense integrity, her grace, her generosity, her hospitality, her kindness, her wit and, let’s not forget, her perfect posture. Indeed, by her example, she inspired us all to stand straighter, both literally and metaphorically.

Joan Waugh

Joan Waugh is a professor of history in the UCLA History Department and researches and writes about 19th-century America, specializing in the Civil War, Reconstruction and Gilded Age eras.

The death of my cherished friend Joyce Appleby has brought a flood of memories dating back more than three decades. In 1978 I enrolled in her US Colonial History and Early Republic classes at UCLA, an experience that changed my life. Her elegantly constructed lectures, her brilliant career as a scholar and her style of leadership provided me with a needed role model in an academic world still unaccustomed to striving women. She was an incomparable mentor, but also a close friend to whom I turned again and again for advice, consolation and intellectual comradeship. Significantly, Joyce was a wife and a mother, and she helped me to navigate some of the inevitable clashes of career and family. It was not easy to measure oneself against her, and I confess that I came up short! Joyce has been described as a “contrarian,” and that label fits her scholarly style, but also her sharp and sometimes painful observations delivered with gusto regarding sloppy thinking or other missteps. It’s difficult for me to do justice to the many powerful intersections of my friends, my colleagues and my family with Joyce. She nourished a community within the UCLA history department that will never be equaled. I miss her terribly.

Bill Moyers

For more than half a century, Bill Moyers has been listening to America as a journalist, writer and producer. You can explore his body of work on the Bill Moyers Timeline. Follow his work on Twitter at @BillMoyers.