Once Upon a Time

Pulitizer Prize-winning historian from Camp Point disappoints QU friar

Allan Nevins grew up on a farm near Camp Point and later became a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a professor at Columbia University in New York. | Photo courtesy of Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
By REG ANKROM
Posted: Mar. 4, 2018 12:01 am

Disappointment spread across the face of Father Landry Genosky, a Franciscan friar who taught history at Quincy College, as he read--and reread--the letter.

The priest was two years into a career at the college that would span 15 years. His study of the history of the Quincy area would make him pre-eminent among local historians. He was editor in chief of the massive "People's History of Quincy" in the 1970s.

It was the opportunity to bring to Quincy College's campus one of the nation's most highly acclaimed historians that excited Genosky and his colleagues. Allan Nevins, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner born and raised near Camp Point, was a famed Civil War historian, biographer, journalist and professor. During the summer of 1962, Genosky invited Nevins to the college for a series of presentations. He was pleasantly surprised by Nevins' answer and began arranging the visit.

"On arriving this morning, I read your letter and the good news," the priest wrote to Nevins on Sept. 6, 1962. "Immediately, the Rev. Julian Woods, our President was informed. He set February 12th as the tentative date, allowing leeway on our school calendar as the inauguration of our ‘Americanism Day' with you as speaker. We will await the announcement of the definite date. Meanwhile, may God bless you."

Nevins' birth on May 20, 1890, put him just two generations from the American Civil War. The proximity to the nation's great struggle, the recollections its veterans recited in Camp Point, and his ravenous hunger for their stories attracted Nevins to Civil War history.

He was the youngest of Joseph Allan and Emma Stahl Nevins' five children. The family was Scot Presbyterian, serious and intense in all they did. Joseph Nevins sold insurance and worked a 220-acre grain and livestock farm near Camp Point. He expected much of himself and of his children, who worked on the farm several hours each day.

Joseph Nevins was dedicated to learning. Educated in Quincy, he became a teacher in Quincy schools, and Emma was one of the students he impressed. They married April 7, 1875. When his mother died, Joseph returned to Camp Point to operate the family farm. The Nevinses were avid readers, and they passed that interest to their children. Allan Nevins remembered that his father only made two books off limits: the family's large, leather-bound Bible and a leather-bound edition of the works of Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns. The family's library contained 500 books. Although most were studies in economics, science and history, Allan recalled they were a diversion from the drudgery of farm life. As a boy, he added to the library with money earned by shooting and skinning rabbits and selling them in town. He told a biographer that the sale of each rabbit meant another book was on the way.

Allan Nevins and five others graduated from Camp Point's Maplewood High School in 1908. By 1913, Nevins was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Illinois. With an advanced degree in English, he joined the New York Evening Post as an editorial writer. He took up history at nights and began to gain a reputation as a historian. He wrote histories of the Post, British travelers' perceptions of America, the American states during the Revolution and a biography of John C. Fremont, western adventurer and the first Republican presidential candidate in 1856.

In 1931, Nevins left journalism for academics. He joined the faculty of Columbia University as a professor of English where his study of history grew more prolific and honored. His biography, "Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage," won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. So did his study of "Hamilton Fish: The Inner Story of the Grant Administration" in 1936. During the decade, he wrote two other histories, one demonstrating an uncommon erudition in banking.

Nevins sought to popularize history. It should be accessible to more than historians, he said, which in 1939 led him to organize The Society of American Historians and publish the American Heritage Magazine.

Among the most important of Nevins' innovations was his "Oral History Project" at Columbia, which produced more than 50 historical works, including books by distinguished historians Arthur Schlesinger, Oscar Handlin, George Kennan and Nevins himself, based on oral transcripts.

Nevins accumulated dozens of honorary degrees and accepted professorships at other universities. During World War II he served with the Office of War Information in Australia and New Zealand and collaborated on "America: The Story of a Free People," published in 1942.

When he returned to Columbia, Nevins began his most ambitious works. First was his eight-volume project on the Civil War, "The Ordeal of Union," each book amassing more than 500 pages. His prize-winning, two-volume "The Emergence of Lincoln" followed in 1952. And his four volumes in "The War for the Union" series were published between 1959 and 1961. Nevins also wrote and co-authored several books on American industrialists such as John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford.

His life's work produced 50 books, 1,000 articles, 75 edited volumes, introductions to some 100 works, including John F. Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage," and supervision of more than 100 doctoral dissertations. He stayed active, even after mandatory retirement at age 65 from Columbia in 1958.

Nevins joined the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., where he continued to research and write. There, he wrote and collaborated on 10 more books and edited 32 others.

On Oct. 15, 1962, Father Landry Genosky reread the letter, in which a nettled Nevins withdrew from the Quincy appearance. "I am under great pressure here, because I have a treble burden," Nevins wrote. "I have constant duties in this Library. I have very exigent duties from time to time in connection with the Civil War Centennial Commission, and I must push ahead with the additional volumes of my Ordeal Series.... You would hardly believe how disruptive any additional engagement, especially one involving the preparation of new speeches and a long new journey can be. It halts all my momentum and wrecks my work for many days."

Nevins died in 1971. His body was cremated and inurned in Westchester County, N.Y.

 

Reg Ankrom is a former executive director of the Historical Society and a local historian. He is a member of several history-related organizations, the author of a history of Stephen A. Douglas, and a frequent speaker on pre-Civil War history.

 

Sources:

"Allan Nevins Honored for History Work," Quincy Herald-Whig, Feb. 25, 1957. Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County, File MS920 NEV.

 

"Allan Nevins Dies, Camp Point Native," Quincy Herald-Whig, March 6, 1971. HSQAC, File MS920 NEV

 

Gerald L. Fetner, "Immersed in Great Affairs: Allan Nevins and the Heroic Age of American History." Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2004, Pages 10-12.

 

The Rev. Landry Genosky, O.F.M., to Allan Nevins, Sept. 6, 1962. HSQAC, File MS920 NEV.

 

Great River Genealogical Society, "Graduates of Maplewood High School, 1885-1922." The Yellowjacket, September 2005. HSQAC, File MS920 NEV.

 

Albin Krebs, "Allan Nevis, Historian, Dies: Winner of Two Pulitzer Prizes." New York Times, March 6, 1971.

 

Mort R. Lewis, "Country Boy at the Huntington," Los Angeles Times WEST Magazine. Jan. 15, 1967. HSQAC, File MS920 NEV.

 

Nevins to Genosky, Oct. 15, 1962, HSQAC, File MS920 NEV.