- Necrology: John J. Appel, 1921–1998
In January 1956, Jacob Rader Marcus, editor of American Jewish Archives, placed a brief notice in that journal asking readers to help a young scholar who was interested in collecting material on the Jews as characters in American fiction and drama. The scholar was John J. Appel, an instructor at the University of Miami, who had just published his first major article—a piece dealing with the image of the Jew in the works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—in the Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society. 1
Over the next four decades, Appel built a career based on the belief that images of Jews and other ethnics in American literary and cultural production were key sources for understanding the impact of the immigrant experience. As an historian with a folklorist’s nose for innovative source material and an interest in a broad range of immigrant groups, Appel was recognized at the time of his death on April 6, 1998 as a leading authority in the field of ethnic representation in American culture.
John J. Appel was born in Weimar, Germany on August 11, 1921. He immigrated to the United States at the age of sixteen, leaving behind a family that would perish in the Holocaust. Appel embraced his adopted country, fighting with the United States Army in the Pacific during World War II, and then delving into the study of American history and literature at the University of Miami, where he received his BA (1949) and MA (1951) degrees. After graduation, he taught at both his alma mater and in the Dade County (Fla.) public schools, and later at Essex Community College in Maryland. He also served as director of adult education at the Jewish Community Center in Baltimore.
Having decided on a career in teaching and scholarship, Appel completed his doctoral work in American Civilization at the University of Pennsylvania in 1960, specializing in the history of American ethnic groups. His dissertation, completed under the direction of Prof. Thomas C. Cochran, explored the founding of the first American immigrant historical societies—including the American Jewish Historical Society—during the late nineteenth century. Appel challenged immigration historian Marcus Lee Hansen’s assertion that immigrant historical [End Page 445] societies were part of a third-generation return to an ethnic identity cast off by the second generation in their quest for Americanization. Instead, he argued, the founders of immigrant historical societies were primarily concerned with revising exclusive definitions of American nationality and improving their own image in American society, rather than with constructing particularist histories of their ethnic communities. 2 By critically examining the motives of these early immigrant historical societies, Appel identified with a new breed of ethnic historian that eschewed filiopietism and hoped to bring the study of ethnicity into the mainstream of American historical scholarship. As an active member of the American Jewish Historical Society, he helped to professionalize the organization, planning and participating in several of the joint sessions between the Society and the American Historical Association during the 1960s.
In 1962, Appel began his long career at Michigan State University, serving as a professor of American Thought and Language for almost thirty years and establishing himself as an important scholar in the field of immigration and ethnic history. While he frequently focused on the experience of American Jews, he wrote with equal authority on groups such as the Irish and African Americans, sometimes using his wide expertise as the basis for comparative analysis. His 1971 source reader, The New Immigration, brought together an impressive array of original documents on immigration history for use in the college classroom. 3 In an era increasingly dominated by social scientific scholarship, Appel’s approach was that of a cultural historian. With his sensitivity to the importance of popular sources and the use of language and visual representations by both immigrant groups and the dominant society, he anticipated in many ways the cultural studies methodologies of today’s academy. As a result, Appel enlivened American Jewish history with explorations of unconventional topics such as the nicknames Jewish immigrants gave to their Irish counterparts, the role Christian Science [End Page 446] played...