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David Brion Davis
Born (1927-02-16) February 16, 1927 (age 91)
"Denver, Colorado
Nationality "American
Alma mater "Dartmouth College
"Harvard University
Spouse(s) Toni Hahn Davis
Scientific career
Fields "History
Institutions "Yale University

David Brion Davis (born February 16, 1927) is an American intellectual and "cultural historian, and a leading authority on "slavery and "abolition in the Western world. He is a "Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at "Yale University, and founder and director emeritus of Yale’s "Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. The author and editor of 17 books, he received the 1967 "Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, and the "National Humanities Medal, presented by President "Barack Obama in 2014 for "reshaping our understanding of history." He also received the 2015 "National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction, the 2015 "Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for lifetime achievement in contributions to public understanding of racism and appreciation of cultural diversity, and the 2015 Biennial Coif Book Award, a top honor from the "Association of American Law Schools for the leading law-related book published in 2013 and 2014.

In the White House ceremony in which he conferred the National Humanities Medal, President Obama praised Davis for shedding "light on the contradiction of a Union founded on liberty, yet existing half-slave and half-free." He also declared that Davis's "examinations of slavery and abolitionism drive us to keep making moral progress in our time." At age 89, Davis sat with eight other honorands, including Steven Spielberg, before an audience of 35,000 at the Harvard Commencement on May 26, 2016 where he received an honorary doctorate degree.

A frequent contributor to "The New York Review of Books, his books emphasize religious and ideological links among material conditions, political interests, and new political values. Ideology, in his view, is not a deliberate distortion of reality or a façade for material interests; rather, it is the conceptual lens through which groups of people perceive the world around them.[1]

After serving on the "Cornell University faculty for 14 years, Davis taught at Yale from 1970 to 2001. He has held one-year appointments as the "Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History at "Oxford University (1969-1970), at the "Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at "Stanford University, and as the first "French-American Foundation Chair in American Civilization at the "École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.



Early life[edit]

Born in "Denver in 1927, the son of the journalist, novelist, and screenwriter "Clyde Brion Davis, and the artist and writer Martha Wirt Davis, Davis lived a peripatetic childhood in California, Colorado, New York, Colorado, and Washington State. He attended five high schools in four years but was popular among his peers.[2] Davis was drafted in the U.S. Army in June 1945, and was assigned to the "occupation of Germany in 1945-46. Since he knew some German he was assigned to police civilians.[3] On the troop ship to France in fall 1945 he personally witnessed segregation and mistreatment of black soldiers.[4]


In an essay in the 1968 "American Historical Review entitled “Some Recent Directions in American Cultural History,” Davis urged historians to devote more attention to the cultural dimension to enhance understanding of social controversies, political decision-making, and literary expression. At a time when social history was ascendant, and cultural history was associated with the study of the arts, taste, and popular culture, and intellectual history with the study of abstract ideas largely divorced from specific social contexts, he called for a history that focused on beliefs, values, fears, aspirations, and emotions.[5]

Antebellum American Culture (1979), his panoramic look at the cultural discourse surrounding ethnicity, gender, family, race, science, and wealth and power in the pre-Civil War United States, advanced the argument that American culture needs to be understood in terms of an ongoing “moral civil war.” Diverse groups of Americans debated “what was happening, who was doing what to whom, what to fear and what to fight for.” He suggests that a relatively small group of Northeastern writers, preachers, and reformers in the 19th century United States ultimately succeeded in defining a set of middle-class norms regarding education, taste, sex roles, sensibility, and moral respectability.[6]

Study of slavery[edit]

"University of Maryland historian "Ira Berlin wrote that “no scholar has played a larger role in expanding contemporary understanding of how slavery shaped the history of the United States, the Americas, and the world than David Brion Davis.”[7] In a series of landmark books, articles, and lectures, Davis moved beyond a view of slavery that focuses on the institution in individual nations to look at the “big picture,” the multinational view of the origins, development, and abolition of New World slavery.[8] He is committed to a conception of culture as process—-a process involving conflict, resistance, invention, accommodation, appropriation, and, above all, power, including the power of ideas. Culture, in his view, involves a cacophony of voices but also social relations that involve hierarchy, exploitation, and resistance.[9]


Davis taught more than a generation of students, and advised many doctoral students, including such prize-winning historians as "Edward Ayers, Karen Halttunen, "T. J. Jackson Lears, "Steven Mintz, "Lewis Perry, Joan Shelley Rubin, "Jonathan Sarna, Barbara Savage, "Amy Dru Stanley, "Christine Stansell, "John Stauffer, and "Sean Wilentz. Davis’s students have honored him with two "festschrifts, Moral Problems in American Life (1998), edited by Karen Halttunen and Lewis Perry, and The Problem of Evil: Slavery, Freedom, and the Ambiguities of Reform (2007), edited by "Steven Mintz and "John Stauffer.

Career summary[edit]







  1. ^ "George M. Fredrickson, "The Uses of Antislavery", "New York Review of Books, 16 October 1975
  2. ^ Richard Wightman Fox, "David Brion Davis: A Biographical Appreciation," Moral Problems in American Life, ed. Karen Halttunen and Lewis Perry (Ithaca: "Cornell University Press, 1998)
  3. ^ David Brion Davis, “World War II and Memory,” Journal of American History, 77, Sept. 1990; Davis, "The Americanized Mannheim," American Places: Encounters with History, ed. "William Leuchtenburg (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 79-92.
  4. ^ americanantiquarian.org
  5. ^ “Some Recent Directions in American Cultural History,” American Historical Review, Feb. 1968, 696-707.
  6. ^ David Brion Davis, Antebellum American Culture: An Interpretive Anthology (State College: Pennsylvania State University Press), xxii
  7. ^ Quoted in Goodman (2006)
  8. ^ Davis, David Brion. "The Central Fact of American History,"American Heritage, Feb/March 2005.
  9. ^ Davis, Antebellum American Culture, xxii-xxiii.
  10. ^ "General Nonfiction". Past winners and finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-03-17.
  11. ^ "National Book Awards – 1976". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-17.
  12. ^ Harvard University Gazette["permanent dead link], June 4, 2009.
  13. ^ Alexandra Alter (March 12, 2015). "'Lila' Honored as Top Fiction by National Book Critics Circle". "New York Times. Retrieved March 12, 2015. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

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