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HNN Doyen: Walter T.K. Nugent

What They're Famous For

Acclaimed historian Walter Nugent is Emeritus professor of history since 2000 and was the Andrew V. Tackes Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, where he has taught since 1984. Before that he was Professor of History at Indiana University for twenty-one years. As a visiting professor he has also taught and lived in England, Israel, Germany, Poland, and Ireland. He has published 11 books and well over a hundred essays and reviews on American and comparative history. In 2000 he was awarded the Caughey prize of Western History Association for best book in Western history for Into the West: The Story of Its People which has been called "the most comprehensive and fascinating account to date of the peopling of the American West." and an "epic social-demographic history." He lives with his wife, the historian Suellen Hoy, in Highland Park, Illinois.

Personal Anecdote

Demography is destiny, or so it's been for me. My enormous good luck is to have become a historian and to have been a faculty member at two excellent research universities. Good demographic timing helped produce this result, starting with being born in 1935, during the Depression. The birth rate was the lowest ever up to then. Whenever people looked for someone from my small cohort, my chances of being picked were always good.

I was also the fortunate beneficiary of discrimination -- my mother was forced to quit her elementary-teaching job after she became pregnant with me. As a result, her considerable force and talent as a teacher focused on me, so that I was reading, writing, and reckoning at an early age. Two uncles, one a brother of my mother's and the other of my father's, both Catholic priests, also invested in me: one put me through college and saw to it that I learned how to play and sing liturgical music. That let me earn my way through graduate school. The other gave me a spinet piano when I was five and also opened my ears to Beethoven and other great music with his collection of '78s. Benedictine monks, my undergraduate teachers at a small college in Kansas, opened for me a broad universe of history, literature, and philosophy. Most influential were Brendan Downey, a Missourian with an Oxford degree in English; Victor Gellhaus, a Kansas medievalist whose Ph.D. was from Munich; Peter Beckman, a historian of America and the West; and Eugene Dehner, an inspiring zoologist and ornithologist.

In grad school, I thought I would write a dissertation on whether there was a Catholic side to Progressivism. I did such a lousy job on my orals in that field that the faculty member I'd talked to (lengthily) about it said, "forget it." I realized much later that the topic would have been a quagmire; I was extremely lucky to have failed my way out of it. Instead, with some personal knowledge of small farmers on the Great Plains, I decided to see if sources substantiated the then-current idea that the 1890's Populists had been anti-Semites and nativists. I returned to Kansas, and found out that they weren't (though some others were). This produced a dissertation, a book (The Tolerant Populists), and job offers. Again, demography favored me. Baby-boomers were entering college, enrollments were soaring, and the job market for young would-be academics was hotter than ever before or since.

Indiana University became my home for over twenty years. Then and now, it has had strong international programs. For nine years I had the honor and pleasure of directing its Overseas Study Programs. Watching the huge changes in hundreds of undergraduates who went on junior-year programs, from provincials to young cosmopolitans, was probably the most rewarding work I ever did as an educator. Travels to programs also brought invitations to lecture in Europe and Israel. In the mid-1980s, just under fifty (a good age for such invitations), the University of Notre Dame asked me to become dean of its College of Arts and Letters, which brought with it an endowed chair. I wisely decided that I'd had enough of administration and declined. But when they offered me the endowed chair anyway, I accepted and enjoyed a decade and a half of well-supported research and teaching.

After my book on Populism, the next two were in Gilded-Age economic history. Then, while I was a dean at Indiana, I turned to textbook projects. Some collapsed; others became books (e.g., From Centennial to World War, on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era). A long effort to write a text for the American history survey course fizzled out, but during it I became convinced of the great importance of the demographic substrate of passing events. This led me both to quantitative data and to Braudel. American history, it seemed to me, could be arranged into three plateaus, defined by declining rates of population growth. Just then I was invited to give the 1979 Paley lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the three-fold scheme became the lectures, called "The Graying of America," and then a small book, Structures of American Social History (1981). 

Next came migration. Still influenced by Braudel, I wrote Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 1870-1914 (1991), which treated the Atlantic and the lands around it – Europe, North America, South America – as a unified arena of human motion and action in the "age of steam." During those years I also wrote essays on comparative migration and settlement, the processes that formed the American West. People came there from all points of the compass; the traditional east-to-west Turnerian story did not explain it. The result was Into the West: The Story of Its People (1999). About then, I retired from teaching and indulged myself by writing a family history, pulling together about twenty-five years of sporadic archival research into Making Our Way (2003). My current project is to connect the territorial acquisitions of the United States since 1782 to the process of settlement. The continental acquisitions ended in 1854 and the settlement process in the 1920s, but offshore acquisitions continued past 1945 and global empire-building into our own day. The new book will be called The Habit of Empire.

If my luck continues to hold, I will continue writing history through my eighth decade and beyond, as have exemplars such as Ed Morgan, Bob Remini, Bill McNeill, and Bernie Weisberger. If it doesn't, I can always be thankful for an enormously satisfying (as well as lucky) life as a historian. And I haven't even mentioned my family. That's for another time.

Quotes by Walter Nugent

Walter Nugent in "The Tolerant Populists: Kansas Populism and Nativism" (1963)

●  The Populists have been accused of nativism, both of a personal kind and of an ideological kind; instead, they were friendlier and more receptive to foreign persons and foreign institutions than the average of their contemporary political opponents. They have been accused of 'conspiracy-mindedness'; for them, however, tangible fact quite eclipsed neurotic fiction. They have been accused of anti-Semitism, both personal and ideological; instead they consistently got along well with their Jewish neighbors and consistently refrained from extending their dislike of certain financiers, who happened to be Jews, to Jews in general. They have been accused of chauvinism and jingoism, especially with reference to the Spanish-American War; instead, such lukewarm support as they gave collectively to Cuban intervention was based on quite different grounds, and as a group they strongly opposed the imperialism that the war engendered…. In the case of Kansas, the largest of the wheat-belt Populist states, the… principal criticisms of Populism voiced by recent writers… should be replaced with a viewpoint so much in contrast as to be practically the opposite.... [T]he Populists of Kansas ... were people who were seeking the solution of concrete economic distress through the instrumentality of a political party.... This involved profoundly the political co-operation of the foreign-born, and it involved a deep respect and receptivity for non-American institutions and ideas.

Walter Nugent in "Creative History: An Introduction to Historical Study" (1967)

● Anyone who has undertaken historical research or who has prepared a set of course lectures in history knows that these things involve a creative process.... But the beginning undergraduate… does not realize this. History is something fixed on a printed page; how it arrived there he seldom asks, and when he does ask he can find no answer. In his beginning chemistry or zoology course he is treated to something very different…. he finds himself in a laboratory where he must himself become involved.... If it is important for him to know how science is done, shouldn’t it also be worth knowing how history is done?

 Walter Nugent in "Money and American Society, 1865-1880" (1968)

● The subject of this book is the response of groups in American society to changing social conditions in the years immediately following the Civil War.... In order to sketch these group changes… I will relate them here to a question of public policy that was also an economic issue, and a moral issue. This was, in contemporary language, the "money question"... fundamentally the question of what the proper standard of money ought to be. For various reasons, to be described, this was very close to saying what the proper moral standard ought to be.

Walter Nugent in "Structures of American Social History" (1981)

● The central observation of the book [is]... that the rate of population growth, although nearly always declining since the seventeenth century, did not drop steadily or constantly. The decline instead forms a pattern of several sudden drops from higher to lower plateaus. That pattern allows us to divide American history into periods in a new way and on a solid factual base. This book is not a full-scale demographic history, but a framework for a social history based on a demographic observation.

Walter Nugent in "Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 1870-1914" (1992)

●  ...[I]f, as Braudel demonstrated, the Mediterranean was the brilliant center of the late sixteenth-century world, surely the Atlantic was the center of the late nineteenth…. Here… is the demographic mosaic of the transatlantic region from 1870 to 1914.... That region, for present purposes, includes Europe, North America, South America, and to a slight degree Africa. All of the societies of the region experienced natural demographic growth, that is, more births than deaths, but at widely varying rates. They also experienced change through migration, some as donors of people, others as receivers, and a few as both…. The cumulative picture of movement is one of a swarming or churning of people back and forth across the Atlantic highway, fed by growing railroad networks on either side of it.

Walter Nugent in "Into the West: The Story of Its People" (1999)

● Into the West describes how the [American] West got its people: why they came and mostly stayed. What myths, ideals, and dreams drove them there? Who were they? Why did they make the West more urban, earlier, than almost anywhere else in the country? How did it become more ethnically and racially diverse than any other region...? How did the West lead the nation’s profound change from a farming people to city dwellers and suburbanites, for the West was the final, most concentrated cockpit of that transformation?.... This book is not driven by any thesis. But it does have one continuing plot line, which is also a premise and a hope. The briefest way to phrase it is e pluribus unum. ... The national center of gravity has shifted and continues to shift. The worldview westward, from Manhattan to vagueness, no longer suffices. The myth of homesteading has already been consigned to the past, and gold rushing, California dreaming, and the macho cowboy are overdue for overhaul. A new national story, one that must include all the American people, whatever their ancestors' origins, is also overdue.

Walter Nugent in "Making Our Way: A Family History of Nugents, Kings, and Others" (2003)

● If this story has a moral, it may be: don't be shocked at whom your grandchildren marry or how well they do.

About Walter Nugent

● "Conceding that Kansas Populists were sometimes 'confused, ill-informed, and behind the times,' the author nevertheless makes a vigorous defense of their basic rationality and common sense – and this without rudeness or discourtesy to writers of the opposite persuasion. He denies that the Populists retreated to a dream world of 'agrarian Arcadias,' or that paranoiac thinking was characteristic of them.... His book is an even-tempered and valuable contribution to the literature on Populism." –- C. Vann Woodward in Mississippi Valley Historical Review, on "The Tolerant Populists"

● "Its greatest value lies in his demolition of the charge that Populists, at least those in Kansas, were anti-Semitic, anti-alien, and xenophobic." –- Paul. W. Gates in Political Science Quarterly, on "The Tolerant Populists"

● "On the level of the narrative itself, there is no doubt that Nugent has made a solid and fresh contribution to historical knowledge…. His scholarship is generally sound, his prose is vigorous, and he clarifies the internal relationship between the various aspects of the money question in a coherent synthesis. Most important, he keeps the subject more firmly in international context than any of his predecessors, combining his American materials with original work in European archives.... The book is a welcome and useful addition to the cumulative scholarship that is re-shaping our understanding of political and economic developments in the post-Civil War period." –- Morton Rothstein in Political Science Quarterly on "Money and American Society, 1865-1880"

● What gives Nugent's book its distinctive character is the author's use of the money question to explain why the 1870s constituted a 'watershed of the future.' Although well aware that other factors were present, Nugent contends that, in the context of the depression, it was the money question that 'turned Arcadia into a battlefield.' The monetary discourse of the 1870s was to be echoed in the 1890s, and its 'spawn... were hardened rhetoric, class divisions, social antagonism, and the inability to consider a serious, wide, and realistic range of answers to the social concerns of the time.'" -- Sidney Fine in Journal of American History, on "Money and American Society"

● Professor Nugent's rather inexpressive title conceals a study which should be read by all historians of the United States. It may be that a handful of them who have been trained in demographic skills will be acquainted with what he has to say; the rest, if they are honest with themselves, will find that in brief compass he has marshaled an array of facts and figures about America's population which will force rigorous rethinking about the main trends and many of the formative factors in the development of the country. … [B]y relating each and every development in the population story to its social and economic antecedents or consequences it compels a reconsideration of the factors which lie at the heart of the American experience and obliges historians to think again about which of them are significant. -– The Economist (London), on "Structures of American Social History"

● [G]iven the present state of historical research in American demographic development, this small volume is an extremely useful survey of what we know and, by implication at least, of what we do not know about the subject.... This book deserves to be popular among both those seeking a general introduction to the demographic foundations of social history and among historians and graduate students in search of research topics. -- Allan G. Bogue in American Historical Review, on "Structures of American Social History"

● "Nugent's work is the ideal – the only – narrative companion to any quantitative analysis of late-nineteenth century population movements in the Atlantic economy. Crossings is a first, an ambitious and well-executed attempt to condense, synthesize, and re-examine from an international comparative perspective the captivating stories of the millions on the move in the age of mass migration." –- Alan M. Taylor in Journal of Economic History on "Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 1870-1914"

● "This is a well-researched, wide-ranging, and serious study of migration from Europe to America (North and South).... The U.S. experience is compared to immigration to Canada, Argentina, and Brazil and is found to be different but not unique or exceptional. The study emphasizes strong underlying similarities in immigration to North and South America in employment patterns, the effect of the expanding frontier, and the demographic structure of the immigrant population. Nugent... has given us a brilliant analysis of a critical chapter of migration history.... -- Ira Glazier in American Historical Review on "Crossings"

● Nugent's primary purpose is 'to pull together in one place the main contours of population change in the Atlantic region,' 1870 to 1914, and to test the validity of two interpretive concepts, American exceptionalism and the theory of demographic transition, a corollary of modernization theory.... [T]he author succeeds admirably well in achieving his goals.... Nugent’s study, well illustrated and documented, deserves a wide readership and will become a must for courses on migration history. It is analytically incisive and illuminating by its comparative approach. It also stands as a model on how to overcome national narrowness." -- Dirk Hoerder in International Migration Review on "Crossings"

● "Walter Nugent's Into the West is an engaging and important book about "how the West got its people." It is not really a demographic history, nor is it simply a history of migration, although Nugent gives at least some account of virtually every western immigrant group. It is instead an attempt to discern the motives involved in movement: why people came and why they stayed. And since motives do not translate directly into results, it tries to discern the actual results of the demographic churning of the western part of the continent.... Nugent writes compellingly about homesteading and agrarian settlement, a topic that has largely gone out of fashion.... He points to California with its own distinctive tradition of latifundia as another, longer lasting version of rural society and agricultural landholding. -– Richard White in Journal of American History on "Into the West"

Basic Facts

Teaching Positions: 
University of Notre Dame, Andrew V. Tackes Professor of History, 1984-2000; emeritus, 2000-present;
Washburn University of Topeka, Instructor in History, 1957-58;
Kansas State University, Temporary Instructor 1961; Assistant Professor of American History, 1961-63;
Indiana University, Assistant Professor of History 1963-1964; Associate Professor 1964-68; Professor of History 1968-84. Associate Dean, College of Arts & Sciences, 1967-71, and in Central Administration, 1972-76; Director of University Overseas Study Programs, 1967-76; Acting Chair, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, 1968-69; Chair, Department of History, 1974-77. 

Columbia University, lecturer, summer 1966;
New York University, lecturer, summer 1967;
Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Fulbright Senior Lecturer, 1978-79;
Paley Lecturer in American Civilization, Feb. 1979; lecturer summer 1982;
Warsaw University, visiting scholar, spring 1979, spring 1982;
Hamburg University, visiting scholar, summer 1980;
Tel Aviv University, Kenneth B. Keating lecturer, Nov. 1987;
University College Dublin, Mary Ball Washington Fulbright chair, 1991-92;
Pacific Lutheran University, Schnackenberg lecturer, 1993;
Huntington Library, Ray Allen Billington lecturer, 1993; Steinbeck Centennial lecturer, Oct. 2002;
University of Indianapolis, Sutphin lecturer, Oct. 1999;
University of Utah, David E. Miller lecturer, Nov. 1999;
Calvin College, Mellema lecturer, Apr. 2001.

Area of Research: 
American West; Gilded Age/Progressive Era; demographic history, especially migration; comparative history

St. Benedict's College (Atchison, Kansas), A.B. in history, 1954
Georgetown University, M.A. in European history, 1956
University of Chicago, Ph.D. in American history, 1961

Major Publications:

  • The Tolerant Populists: Kansas Populism and Nativism, (University of Chicago Press, 1963).
  • Creative History: An Introduction to Historical Study, (J. B. Lippincott, 1967; Second edition 1973).
  • The Money Question during Reconstruction, (W. W. Norton, 1967).
  • Money and American Society, 1865-1880, (Free Press, 1968).
  • Modern America, (Houghton Mifflin, 1973)
  • From Centennial to World War: American Society 1876-1917, (Bobbs-Merrill, 1977)
  • Structures of American Social History, (Indiana University Press, 1981; paper, 1985)
  • Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 1870-1914, (Indiana University Press, 1992. Revised edition, 1995). 
  • Into the West: The Story of Its People, (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).
  • Making Our Way: A Family History of Nugents, Kings, and Others, (privately printed, 2003).
  • Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:

  • (with Martin Ridge), The American West: The Reader, (Indiana University Press, 1999).
  • (0riginal co-editor with Andrzej Bartnicki), Historia Stanów Zjednoczonych. (History of the United States), 5 vols.; (Warsaw 1995).
  • (co-edited with Malcolm Rohrbough), The Trans-Appalachian Frontier, Book series, Six volumes now in print, since 1996.
  • (co-edited with Martin Ridge), The American West in the Twentieth Century, Book series, Six volumes now in print, since 1991
  • (consultant and co-author), Chronicle of the American West, Forthcoming, 2007.
  • Awards:

    Newberry Library fellow, summer 1962;
    Guggenheim fellow, 1964-65;
    St. Benedict's College, D. Litt. honoris causa, 1968;
    NEH summer seminars, director, 1979, 1984, 1986;
    NEH-Huntington Library fellow, 1979-80;
    Indiana Association of Historians, President, 1980-81;
    Mead Distinguished Research Fellow, Huntington Library, 1985;
    Beinecke Fellow in Western Americana, Yale University, 1990;
    Society of American Historians, elected a fellow, 1991;
    Warsaw University, Medal of Merit, 1992;
    Choice outstanding academic book, for Crossings, 1992;
    U.S. Information Agency, Academic Specialist grant to Brazil, 1996;
    Immigration History Society, elected to executive board, 1996-99;
    Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, President, 2000-02;
    Caughey prize of Western History Association for best book in Western history (Into the West), 2000;
    Western History Association, honorary life member, 1998; President, 2005-06.

    Additional Info:

    U.S.-Israel Educational Foundation (the Fulbright Program in Israel), Board of Directors, 1985-89.
    Organist, St. Bride's Church, Chicago, 1955-57, 1958-61.
    Hadassah Associates (life member).
    Contributor to professional journals since 1962
    Referee or consultant to various publishers and journals; to universities on tenure and promotion cases.
    Member of peer review panels for Council on International Exchange of Scholars (the Fulbright Program), National Endowment for the Humanities, Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education, the Huntington Library;
    Member of various book- and article-prize committees of the Western History Association, United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa, Agricultural History Society.
    Member, Council on Foreign Relations (New York), 1984-99.