Lawrence W. Levine: Historian of American Culture, Professor at Berkeley, 1962-1994

Conducted by Ann Lage in 2004 and 2005, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2014.

Lawrence W. Levine (1933-2006) was a distinguished teacher and scholar of American cultural history, a field of study that his pioneering work helped to create and define. He joined the Department of History at Berkeley in 1962, retiring in 1994 as the Margaret Byrne Professor of History. Following his retirement from Berkeley, he spent each fall semester teaching history and cultural studies at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, and continued his research and writing. His scholarly work, with its emphasis on the use of nontraditional sources to understand the history of people “long absent from the historical narrative,” was groundbreaking and widely influential.1 His first book, Defender of the Faith, cast a new light on William Jennings Bryan and the rural society he represented. His second, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, “transformed the study of black experience in slavery and freedom,” digging deeply into previously overlooked sources—folktales, songs, jokes, verbal games, and religious expression—to explicate the culture and lived experience of black Americans. Highbrow/Lowbrow, The Opening of the American Mind, and The People and the President (written with his wife, Cornelia) continued his study of the many facets of American culture.

Apart from his scholarly writings, Levine was known as a creative teacher and generous mentor to undergraduate and graduate students alike; he embraced teaching as a learning experience for himself as well, acknowledging how thoroughly the practice of teaching informed and enriched his own scholarly work. Levine was also an active participant in civil rights and civil liberties struggles in Berkeley and on the Berkeley campus, struggles which he describes as deeply impacting the course of his research and writing. In 1983, he was named a MacArthur Fellow; in 1985, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 1992-1993 he served as president of the Organization of American Historians.

Larry Levine’s oral history provides a window into the life and thought of this eminent scholar/teacher/activist. Full of his wit and love of storytelling, it is in part a tale of his own complex acculturation as a many-hyphenated New York-Jewish-American-Californian-Academic. Born in 1933, the son of an orthodox Jewish family, he grew up during the years of the Great Depression and World War II. As a youth he worked in his father’s fruit and vegetable store and played on the streets of his predominantly Jewish Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Educated in the public schools, as well as on the street, at the movies, and in the jazz clubs, he was, in his words, “a lousy student,” barely graduating from high school. He managed to enroll at City College of New York, where he studied history and began to think of becoming a college teacher. Graduate school at Columbia University, where he studied under Richard Hofstadter, led him into the world and the culture of the academe. In 1961, he “crossed the Hudson River to America,” to a position at Princeton, and the following year he crossed the country to Berkeley, where he taught for the following three decades.

In discussing his family, youth, and education, Levine is ever the cultural historian, reflecting on how his own acculturation experiences contributed to his deep interest in the study of the history of American culture and of the process of minority group acculturation in America. The oral history discusses the genesis, development, and reception of each of his books. It includes his recollections of his involvement with civil rights demonstrations and with the Free Speech Movement and anti-apartheid struggles on the Berkeley campus. As part of the oral history series on the Department of History at Berkeley, it examines departmental culture and several memorable controversies over three decades and recalls many close colleagues and friends.

Our interviews began with three sessions in July and August 2004. We settled quickly into an easy relationship, with Larry holding forth expansively from his rocking chair in the living room of his north Berkeley home. That fall, he and Cornelia left for a semester at George Mason University, where he was to teach a course on autobiography. We resumed our interviews in April 2005 and held seven more sessions, completing the interviewing in August 2005. Session 9 on July 6, 2005, was videotaped; all others were audiotaped. In the meantime, a conference in his honor on “The State of Cultural History” was planned by former students and colleagues, to be held at George Mason in September.

In June 2005, Levine received a diagnosis of cancer and soon began chemotherapy. We scheduled our final sessions between chemotherapy treatments. When he was unable to attend the conference in his honor, we made a selection of video clips from our July 6 session, where he spoke in depth about his scholarly work , his love for teaching, and his final act of civil disobedience in support of the university’s divestment from South Africa. The selections were presented at the conference and are available for viewing on this page. You can click the YouTube button on the lower right of each clip to view them in larger size on YouTube.

Larry had expressed from the beginning of the interview process that he wanted a chance to lightly edit the transcript for clarity, to be sure that he had said what he meant, to correct grammar and remove any untoward personal remarks and unnecessary repetitions. This was not to be. Although in spring of 2006, he reviewed and made corrections to the transcript of session 8 and parts of session 9, in preparation for a new introduction to the thirtieth anniversary edition of Black Culture and Black Consciousness for Oxford University Press, his failing health prevented him from reviewing more of the transcript. He passed away on October 23, 2006.

In 2012, Cornelia Levine took on the task of reviewing the entire transcript. Assisted by her friend Susanne Lowenthal, she listened to the more than twenty hours of tape recordings and meticulously made innumerable significant corrections in the transcript, improved the punctuation, verified spellings of names and Yiddish words, and filled in difficult-to-hear phrases. At the same time, she faithfully followed our request not to alter his wording (or correct his grammar). The result is a written product that accurately represents our ten oral interviews in 2005 and 2006. While not as polished as Larry might have produced himself, had he been able to review and edit, it allows us to “hear” his voice and unique verbal delivery as we read. It is informal and spontaneous and full of enthusiasm and laughter, as well as keen analysis. He makes liberal use of what he called “the Jewish parenthesis,” circuitous departures from the initial subject, but always elaborating on and connecting back to his initial point. And as he anticipated, there are a number of repetitions, all of which have been retained, for they often make a new point in the retelling, or simply demonstrate his love of a good story. The videotapes of session 9 and the complete audiotapes are available in the Bancroft Library.

This oral history is one of twenty-two in-depth interviews on the Department of History at Berkeley; the list of completed oral histories in the series is included in this volume. Most of the interviews can be found online with our oral history series on the Department of History at Berkeley. Copies of all interviews are available for research use in The Bancroft Library. The Regional Oral History Office is a division of The Bancroft Library and is under the direction of Neil Henry. Special thanks are owed to Cornelia Levine and Susanne Lowenthal for their careful work on the transcript. Thanks are also due to Mark Westlye and Linda Norton for their parts in the production process, and to former University Archivist James R.K. Kantor for proofreading the final transcript.

Ann Lage
Interviewer, Project Director
Berkeley, California
March 2014

1Quotes here are from Leon Litwack’s introductory remarks at the conference in honor of Levine, September 2006, published along with other conference proceedings and excerpts from the oral history in The Journal of American History, Vol. 93, No. 3, December 2006, pp. 755-804.

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