Historian Eric Foner Wins Prestigious New York Historical Society Award

It seems to be the job and perhaps the occupation hazard of the historian to remember the past, write about it and remind readers, students and citizens what happened long ago, as well as yesterday -- and who made it happen and why.

For nearly half a century, Professor Eric Foner has been reminding Americans about their own glorious and inglorious history, especially during the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction, though he has also examined the era of the American Revolution. Ever since 1982, he has taught continuously at Columbia University -- he's the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History -- where he received his B.A. and his Ph.D., though he has lectured elsewhere, including a year in Moscow as a Fulbright professor.

The spring of 2016 will be Foner's last official semester at Columbia, though the administration would like to have him on the faculty in perpetuity. He has been a popular instructor with both undergraduates and graduates. In addition, he has published nearly two-dozen books and won at least a dozen awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in history in 2011, along with the Bancroft Prize and the Lincoln Prize the same year.

This April, the New York Historical Society will honor him with its annual award for his most recent work, "Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad," published in 2015. He will also take on the title, "American Historian Laureate," in recognition of his groundbreaking scholarship.

"I'm very gratified," he said, "especially because I have used the collections of the New York Historical Society for research for every book I have written. I have also worked on their pioneering exhibits on New York and slavery, which educated many people about the city's complex history involving human bondage and the anti-slavery cause."

Professor Foner writes mostly about the past, though he also focuses his critical gaze on contemporary issues and politicians. In a recent issue of "The Nation," he pointed out that the United States has a history of socialist movements and organizations. He suggested that Senator Bernie Sanders might acknowledge them and not simply point to socialism in Scandinavia.

This spring, Foner is once again teaching a class on American radicalism that's often packed and that draws some of its energy and appeal from whatever movements and causes happen to be taking place. The last time he taught the class, it was animated in part by the Occupy Wall Street protests.

"Having Sanders running for the presidency enables me to connect our era to earlier radicals' views on inequality and socialism," Foner says. He adds "I also insist that we have to study them in their own contexts, not just as precursors to Bernie."

Moreover, while Foner doesn't tell students who to vote for or why, he doesn't hide his own points of view or aim to portray himself as a neutral with no preferences and predilections.

"Since one's political outlook affects how one views history, it is impossible to keep the two hermetically sealed off from one another," he explained from his home near the Columbia campus where he has lived and worked for most of his academic career.

"I tell students what I believe, and I give time for all sorts of points of view, including ones I hardly agree with." He paused and added for emphasis, "The point is to instill the ability to think critically among the students, not to force them into a mold."

He's not making predictions about the outcome of the 2016 presidential election and he's not forecasting how future historians will remember the Obama years, though he insists that, "the election of a black president will always be considered a symbolic milestone, considering our country's tortured racial history."

One might wait ten or twenty years and ask Foner again about Obama and he might have a more definitive answer.

"Tell me what the economy will look like in 2026 or 2036, what the international situation will be and whether we get a handle on climate change, and then I will tell you how Obama will be remembered," he says.

In the last half-century or so, Foner has witnessed profound changes in the teaching and the writing of American history. In part, the changes are due to his own efforts.

"Our understanding of the past has been enriched by the rise of social and cultural history, the emphasis on the experience of ordinary Americans and groups previously neglected or ignored such as blacks and women," he says. "It has also been altered by efforts to see American history in a global context, and currently, renewed attention to the history of capitalism in the United States."

How would Foner himself like to be remembered? "I guess the one thing that unites my various writings is that I am trying to figure out how and why change happens," he says. "Still, I'd like to be thought of as someone who addressed fundamental problems in our history: the rise and decline of social movements, slavery and its aftermath."

His perspectives on the past have evolved ever since 1970 when he published his first book, "Free Soil, Free Men, Free Labor" which is subtitled "The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War." The story of freedom in the United States has long fascinated him, perhaps because freedom has been contested territory in the historical era to which he belongs. "I'm still intrigued," he says, "by the ways that our ideas have evolved over time, and keep on evolving."

Jonah Raskin, a professor Emeritus at Sonoma State University, is the author most recently of "A Terrible Beauty: The Wilderness of American Literature," a survey of writing about the environment from the Puritans to the present day.