Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Emmet Larkin, R.I.P.

Emmet Larkin has passed away. He may have been the finest professor I had in my time at the University of Chicago; he taught me what it means to be a historian: to discover, interpret, and, perhaps most importantly, to maintain mental access to, a massive body of knowledge, and then to synthesize new understandings from that knowledge. It was an old-school sort of history: as Mr. Larkin said, you can't do really good history until you're in your forties; you just can't know enough until then. Such an approach doesn't fit well with the "publish two groundbreaking works by the time you're up for tenure" requirements of the modern academy, it hardly needs to be said.
But Larkin was of a different generation, the one that came to college (for him as for many, the first ones in the their family) on the GI Bill, with an understanding that work was central to life, achievement, recognition, awards were secondary. Ora et labora. He set his sights higher, no, broader, than merely slogging through archives and finding unpublished letters between bishops and cardinals (and translating them, contextualizing them, and, most importantly reading between their lines, knowing whose brother had married whose cousin seventeen years before…)
Today's scholars seek new interpretations, and crunch vast amounts of data in their databases, and do things, above all, quickly--someone else may be working on this and you might be scooped! No, Larkin's project was simple, vast, and, as he foresaw, unachievable: The History of the Catholic Church in Ireland. This was the work of a lifetime and more; even in 1997, he knew that he probably wouldn't finish.
But the inspiration to work, to toil in the library, to learn and to know and to know what you know--This was inspiring to a would-be historian. To think historically and precisely on any topic--to know why you know what you know--this was an achievement beyond the scale of his nine (excellent) books.
He challenged us on every front: "Who was the greatest American President?" he asked us one day (I can't remember the context), "and why?" Larkin's own answer was Lincoln--for he excelled in magnanimity. This story has a classical ring about it, as if from Plutarch or Aristotle; perhaps Larkin was already a Great Man, of the Sort They No Longer Make in his own generation, as much as he was to mine. Virtue and knowledge; ora et labora.


bats left, looks right said...

Nicely done.

Ethan Sribnick said...

I just belatedly came across this sad news. Larkin was my BA thesis adviser and I took several classes with him. He was a great teacher. I think about things he said--about reading, writing, history, and life--all the time.