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  • Daniel Field (1938–2006)
  • Abbott Gleason

Daniel Field died of a heart attack on 5 October 2006 while on vacation with his wife in Italy. He was 68 years old and a professor of history emeritus at Syracuse University. He received his B.A. from Harvard College in 1959 and his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1969. He taught at Harvard, Barnard/Columbia, and Syracuse University, from which he retired in 2001. He was the author of two extremely important books and a number of major articles, and he edited the Russian Review between 1981 and 1988. He was also an exceptionally generous colleague, in the public arena of scholarship and in 1,001 small ways, most of which will never be known. Some of this generosity was exhibited in the little world of Barnard, Vermont, where I think he was always most deeply at home. He leaves his wife, Harriet Beecher (Holly) Field, and his two sons, Richard Henry Field and Jonathan Beecher Field.

Dan Field was not only a historian but also what we used to call in our quaint, sexist way a "man of letters." I wonder if there is a non-sexist equivalent: "person of letters" doesn't cut it. He was an undergraduate English major at Harvard and the principal theater critic for the Harvard Crimson in the late 1950s. His critical acumen shifted away from the theater, but in his academic scholarship and teaching he was always a serious and exacting but almost invariably generous and helpful critic. He wrote a beautiful, slightly old-fashioned English—and it was an English English—nourished and disciplined by his wide reading. He had something of the wit of Evelyn Waugh, the curmudgeonly straightforwardness of Dr. Johnson, the honesty of George Orwell. He was a bit of a dandy out in the world, but a country squire in Vermont. Dan also had the Sitzfleisch that great historians have to have: a prosaic but absolutely necessary virtue. He mastered the sources, with great labor, but used them with discrimination, style, and imagination. He generally hid the enormous care with which he worked. The surface was clear enough to skate on and you had to plumb the depths only if you wanted to.

Dan understood that history is made up of creatures great and small (although not all historians are wise and wonderful). He knew that it is important to tackle big questions, but he also knew that you generally had [End Page 471] to work very small to get at the closest approximation to the truth. He knew you had to generalize, but he was skeptical of other people's generalizations until he had taken them apart and put them back together for himself. And he was cautious about formulating his own.

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Figure 1.

Daniel Field
Picture courtesy of Carol Leonard.

Both of his two major books reveal these qualities, different as they are.1 The End of Serfdom is a large and uncompromising study of an absolutely central problem, through the study of which one enters into the final, crucial years of the old regime in Russia. Some of my students have considered it dry, but they are wrong. It merely demands that the reader take the subject with some small portion of the seriousness with which Dan Field took it, which entails real effort. I shared an office with Dan while he was writing this magisterial study, and we argued endlessly about certain aspects of his treatment. Dan rejected the various Soviet views, particularly the idea that the government was forced to emancipate by a "revolutionary situation" in which sitting tight was not possible. But he was also extremely reluctant to give Alexander II any credit, regarding him as too limited, inattentive, and bigoted to be regarded as an emancipator. I argued that the government had to be given credit for the emancipation, and that meant some credit was due the tsar. Field bridged our differences with a characteristic conceit: he called it the "Kirby Higby Theory" of the emancipation. Higby, for the small number of Kritika readers who may not know, was a mediocre pitcher for the...


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