Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Rhodes Scholar, Eminent Historian, and Pulitzer Prize Winner Lawrence Gipson [otd 12/07]

Historian Gipson.
University of Idaho Archives.
Rhodes Scholar and eminent historian Lawrence Henry Gipson was born December 7, 1880 in Greeley, Colorado. The family moved to Caldwell, Idaho when Lawrence was very young and he later attended Caldwell High School. He left the high school after a year and took preparatory classes for a year at the College of Idaho. Lawrence excelled as a long distance runner at both institutions.

Gipson later recalled his youthful interest in history, but apparently that was not enough to keep him in school. He dropped out and worked at a variety of jobs, including some time in the family’s printing business. Then he enrolled at the University of Idaho and completed a bachelor’s degree there in 1903.

He might then have settled down as a journalist, but his life took a crucial turn. In 1902 and 1903, the Rhodes Trust selected their first Scholars: nine from southern Africa and five from Germany. The following year, they expanded the selection to include candidates from British possessions worldwide, and the United States. Thus, Lawrence Henry Gipson was not just the first Rhodes Scholar from Idaho, he was among the first Scholars from across this country.

He obtained a bachelor’s degree from Oxford University in 1907. Gipson next taught history at the College of Idaho for three years. He received a fellowship for a year of study at Yale University and then became Chair of the History and Political Science department at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana (about 30 miles northwest of Indianapolis). He continued his connection with Yale, however, and received his Ph.D. from that institution in 1918.

In 1924, Lehigh University, in Pennsylvania, asked Gipson to organize their new History Department. He agreed, on the condition that after he had the department established, he would be allowed time to work on a “monumental” scholarly project. He envisioned a comprehensive history of the British Empire Before the American Revolution, spanning roughly the generation before the Declaration of Independence.

He would study, assess, and write for almost another half century. Twelve years passed before the publication of Volume I: Great Britain and Ireland. In this largely stage-setting text, Gipson tried to analyze the general societal factors (economic, political, cultural, etc.) that would “set the tone” for the Empire-building to follow.

Thunder-Clouds Gather in the West,
Pulitzer Prize winner.
After that, he published volume after volume … fifteen in all. Three won important awards: In 1948, Volume 6 won a Columbia University award for outstanding “social science” work. The following year, Volume 7 won the Bancroft Prize, a major award for historical books. Volume 10 garnered a Pulitzer Prize in 1962. Knopf published the final volume just nine months before Gipson’s death in September 1971.

Gipson’s estate provided the core funding for the Lawrence Henry Gipson Institute for Eighteenth-Century Studies, based at Lehigh University. The Institute promotes and funds a broad range of scholarly activities in history and other relevant disciplines.

Sadly, “Gipson was already behind the times when he started his work in earnest,” in the view of modern historian Patrick Griffin. That is, historical scholarship had entered a period that focused on small communities and their day-to-day activities, rather than broad “imperial” forces. Oddly enough, however, he also argues that today the profession again needs “interpretive frameworks that look to reconstruct broad contexts.”

Dr. Griffin sees these as “almost” Gipsonian in scope. He then laments that modern academic and publishing realities make such thoughtful, context-building scholarship difficult: “And the Lawrence Henry Gipsons, unthinkable.” (Which is a shame, if true – and I’m afraid he’s right.)
References: Richard J. Beck, Famous Idahoans, Williams Printing, (© Richard J. Beck, 1989).
Guila Ford, Elizabeth Jacox, “Lawrence Henry Gipson - 1880-1971,” Reference Series No. 1140, Idaho State Historical Society (January 1996).
“Lawrence Henry Gipson,” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale Publishing (1983).
Patrick Griffin, “In Retrospect: Lawrence Henry Gipson’s The British Empire before the American Revolution,” Reviews in American History, Vol. 31, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland (2003) pp. 171–183.
The Rhodes Scholarships.
William G. Shade (ed.), Revisioning the British Empire in the Eighteenth Century, Associated University Presses, Inc. (1998).

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