Remembering Tony Kaye

The world is quieter now that Tony Kaye is no longer part of it. Anthony E. Kaye passed away May 14 after a brave struggle against cancer. Among Tony’s many scholarly accomplishments was his role in the founding of the Journal of the Civil War Era, for which he served as Associate Editor and which he helped shape through his curiosity, passion, and integrity. Given Tony’s many contributions to the journal, we think it fitting to begin to offer remembrances of him here. This is not a formal obituary but an invitation for others among his many, many friends and admirers to share their own memories of him, in the comments here or on the Facebook page, or via email to us. In lieu of flowers, his family has asked friends to consider donating to the National Humanities Center or the UNC Cancer Center.

With his broad mind, broad shoulders, and booming voice, Tony was a substantial presence in the field and in almost every room—literal and intellectual—he inhabited. After working in journalism—a field he loved both to follow and to critique—Tony turned to history, studying at Columbia University’s fabled department with Barbara J. Fields and Eric Foner, among others. Afterwards, he worked at the equally fabled Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland, where he helped edit Series 3, Volume 2, Land and Labor, 1866-1867, of Freedom: A Documentary Series. From there he joined the Pennsylvania State University’s History Department.

His 2007 book, Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South (UNC Press, 2007) was a Finalist for the 2008 Frederick Douglass Prize given by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, and recast arguments about resistance and community in the slave South. By paying careful attention to the material conditions of slave plantations in the Natchez region, as well as the way ex-slaves talked about their lives in reports and claims submitted after the Civil War, Tony argued that slaves had developed distinctive conceptual geographies rooted in their own relatively constrained worlds. These geographies helped construct the way that slaves saw themselves, their fellow slaves, and their place in the world. Rather than an abstract slave community, Tony sketched powerful but geographically specific slave communities that could serve both to generate common feeling among slaves in particular neighborhoods and to exclude slaves who were strangers. From these parochial views, slaves constructed a rich and meaningful imaginative politics during slavery that in turn shaped their entry into formal politics after the war. It was (with Stephanie Camp’s Closer to Freedom) a part of the spatial turn in slavery, and (with Dylan Penningroth’s Claims of Kinfolk) of the rethinking of slave communities, and (with Steven Hahn’s Nation Under Our Feet) of the reconceptualization of slave politics.

As a graduate student, I read Tony’s book with wonder at the depth of his research and the careful nature of his claims. And, like every graduate student who has lived, I read it with some critique. In my first book, Declarations of Dependence, I drew heavily upon Tony’s view of the imaginative impact of a personalistic, geographically constrained politics and also nudged against his assumption that this view was distinctive to slaves but argued instead that similar imaginative modes shaped black and white Southern visions of politics.

Our friendship—like many of his friendships–was born in argument. We originally met when he asked me shortly after the journal’s founding to submit something (a request I declined!). And at conference bars I enjoyed watching him hold forth on the follies of historians, especially in his riffs on the “Comment and a Question” club. But we became friends when he read my footnotes. Meaningful disagreements fascinated him, not so much for the potential of resolution but for the potential of exploration.

More than any person I have ever known, Tony loved to connect historiography to broader theories of politics. He was fascinated by the New York Intellectuals and by the Old Left—I never remembered seeing him more joyful than when he discussed the Left with Andrew Zimmerman—and could talk for hours about the ways that older theories of social change and the state crept into the historiography, establishing the commonsensical (but not always carefully thought out) associations that shape much of our work. How did the anti-statism of the New Left inspire histories that frequently (but not always coherently) invoked the state at moments of decline or collapse? For Tony thinking our way out of our historiographical impasses required thinking our way through their genealogies, not to get right with any abstract standard—he was too open-minded for that—or even to pay homage, but to understand why we repeated ourselves so often, why our books followed a set of unconscious forms. Because I have published fiction, he wanted me to write about narrative forms, Hayden White, and Reconstruction historiography, and I promised to do so but I never did.

The great lucky break of my intellectual life was a gift of Tony’s love of argument. One day he called and asked me to set up a conference on Reconstruction at the Penn State Richards Civil War Era Center, a conference that aimed to open up historiographic debate in a field that at once burgeoned with good work and also felt tied to frameworks from Eric Foner’s monumental Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, a book he feared was becoming more admired than engaged with. He thought it would be a good idea if I shared the duties with someone who could keep me intellectually honest. He had someone in mind, and I knew whom he was thinking about before he answered: our mutual friend Kate Masur. And so with his sometimes-gentle, sometimes-pointed prodding, Kate and I put together a conference that became our co-edited book The World the Civil War Made, a book that was a product of and tribute to his faith that historiographic inquiry mattered, that we demonstrate our interest in grand works like Foner’s not by paying homage but by paying attention. And Tony, with his eye for people, brought me and Kate together with Bill Blair, who has become a dear friend and mentor and patron to both of us.

The last night of the conference, exhausted and triumphant behind the Nittany Lion Inn, we shared his bourbon after last call, talking about historiography and novelists, about Edward P. Jones and Madison Smartt Bell, and about the way that history and fiction developed in tension and in tandem, acting upon similar, often unacknowledged cultural impulses but denying their common origins, forms, and influences. The next morning, Melissa asked him what he was doing at the conference, and he replied, “Having conversations I could not have anywhere else in the world.” After that, my memories of Tony blur: the two of us sneaking away from the SCWH in Baltimore to go to dinner alone in a restaurant that he announced “would be ruinously expensive,” talking novels and film again in his living room on a different visit to Penn State, chatting about Methodism on the ski lift at Banff in summer 2015. There was always too much talking, and there was never enough time for talking.

In the late spring of 2016, he told me about his condition. We talked and emailed about Cuba, his beloved daughters and his beloved Melissa, California, North Carolina, and about the elephant in the room.

And we talked a great deal about his book. After publishing Joining Places, Tony published a crucial Journal of Southern History essay about Second Slavery, a set of ideas developed by Dale Tomich and Michael Zeuske and others that connected 19th century slavery in Cuba and Brazil to a shifting Atlantic economy and that differentiated it from prior slaveries in terms of capital investment, labor organization, technological development, and financial flows. They understood U.S. slavery as a part of this transformed world, but Tony tied the pieces together in a way no one else had. Since then several U.S. historians of slavery and capitalism have followed these connections, and Tony might well have written a book that contributed to that developing field.

But he had his eyes set on Nat Turner. For years, as he toiled through archives and plotted places on maps, I understood Tony’s Nat Turner project as an extension of Joining Places, as a study of the way that the material and imaginative constructions of neighborhood in Virginia (enslaved and white) shaped Turner’s uprising. Unless I misremember, Tony thought so, too.

In the last year, however, I had the privilege to see chapters and notes from Tony’s manuscript that showed me his mind in motion. He had arrived at an extraordinarily different, and difficult, view of the history, and he had become inflamed with its possibilities. Tony, a secular Jew, had become obsessed with Turner’s Methodism. Turner, seeing himself a prophet, had behaved under a prophetic logic that History ill prepared us to understand but that had shaped the world we study. Instead of looking for secular explanations, Tony wondered what it would mean to place Turner among the prophets, to read other prophets’ lives into the gaps in Turner’s self-narration. In the process Tony read deeply in Methodist practices, theological debates, Biblical accounts of warfare, and the lives of the prophets.

In the process Tony sketched a different Turner, a fearful man as much as a firebrand, a man who tested God, a man who saw his revolt less as an ideological revolution than as a battle, a man who hoped to see a promise of his future and lived with the awareness that he would never see such a promise. A man who doubted and who yet acted. It is, I believe, a new portrait of Turner. And perhaps even a new way of writing historical causation, or of avoiding certain errors in writing historical causation.

Last fall, as his prospects faded, Tony asked if I would take on the work of guiding his raw chapters and notes to completion. Since then, we met in New York and in North Carolina and talked about his hopes for the book and for History. Many people have offered to help, and I plan to take you all up on those offers in the years to come. I consider it an honor to be part of a work of true imagination and depth.

And a pleasure to have heard his voice, reduced in volume but still electric with humor, alive to the possibility in each of our sentences. In my last email to him, I copied out a part of James Dickey’s “The Bee.” “Dead coaches live in the air, son   live/In the ear/Like fathers and urge and urge. They want you better/Than you are. When needed, they rise and curse you they scream/ When something must be saved.”

Though silenced, Tony’s voice lives. We look forward to hearing your memories of a man we will miss, now and always.

Greg Downs

Greg Downs is an Associate Professor of History at UC Davis and an Associate Editor of the Journal of the Civil War Era. He is the author of Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908 (UNC Press, 2011) and After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (Harvard, 2015) and (with Kate Masur) co-editor of The World the Civil War Made and co-author of the National Park Service National Historic Landmark Theme Study on Reconstruction.

9 thoughts on “Remembering Tony Kaye

  1. Thank you, Greg, for this beautiful glimpse into Tony’s mind and heart. I am so sorry I did not get to know him better, but I am so glad that you did.

  2. Thank you Greg for capturing Tony’s life and his passion. I knew him for only one year, at the National Humanities Center. In our last correspondence, on April 20, he wrote this powerful and true sentence. It is how I will remember Tony. “The chance to talk deeply with scholars in the throes of creative work is the best part of this job, perhaps the best part of academic life.”

  3. I never met Tony, but his work was inspirational to me as I wrote my dissertation, and then turned that into a book. He helped me think creatively about how enslaved people used the landscape.

    I was so sorry to hear of his passing, and I extend my condolences to all who knew and loved him. RIP.

  4. Greg, thank you for this lovely tribute. I met Tony at Columbia. He was a few years ahead of me, not just chronologically in the graduate program, but certainly in intellectual breadth and depth, and so he remained. I wish we had spent more time together, but whenever I did encounter him, he was cheerful, smiling, interested, and interesting. The loss is great for all of us who toil at history, but I know it’s far greater for his family and friends.

  5. A mother can never know the depths of the heart and mind of a grown son long gone from the family fold. Greg, your beautiful tribute along with those of other friends and colleagues has allowed me greater understanding of the extraordinary man Tony became; i am forever grateful.
    And i applaud your taking on the enormous job of completing the book Tony was so involved with in the last years of his life. Tony had told me something of his startling original slant. There have been many erroneous representations of Nat Turner.
    I know the completely new one you and Tony will present will find a significant position in the history of American slavery.

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