Alan Trachtenberg, pioneered new ways of understanding American culture
Alan Trachtenberg, the Neil Gray Jr. Professor of English and professor of American studies emeritus, scholar of the cultural history of the 19th and 20th centuries, and one of the leaders in establishing the pre-eminence of American studies at Yale, died at his home in Hamden on Aug. 18. He was 88.
“In a remarkable career that spanned five decades at Yale, Alan Trachtenberg pioneered new ways of understanding history and culture, exploring artifacts and areas of study that others had overlooked,” said Peter Salovey, president of Yale and the Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology. “His discoveries influenced students and thinkers from across disciplines and opened up a new field of scholarship. Yale has lost a towering figure, but Alan’s legacy — as a scholar of the American experience, as a teacher, and as a valued colleague and member of this community — will endure.”
Trachtenberg is best known as one of the most distinguished and authoritative interpreters of what photographers have shown about history through the camera lens. His landmark book, “Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans, a study of American Photography from 1839 to 1938,” which won the Charles C. Eldredge Prize for outstanding scholarship in the field of American art, was the first to elaborate the argument that historians should treat photographs as historical evidence. In this and in others of his books, including “Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol” and “Lincoln’s Smile and Other Enigmas,” and in dozens of essays in leading journals on a wide range of figures and topics, his writings demonstrated how photographs, literary works, and other cultural objects illuminate the world, and frame our national identity. The books are not merely analyses, but captivating stories, which help the reader understand how culture both records and shapes the society and economics of an era. Taken as a whole, they are a fundamental contribution to the historiography of the United States.
Kai Erikson, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus of Sociology and American Studies, noted that “what Trachtenberg taught us is that the study of history should not be confined to what the written word can convey or what the reader's mind can absorb but should also include what the eye can see. To him, photography was not only a very special art form — he was a gifted photographer himself — but an essential source of historical knowledge on what the past looked like — and, in that sense, felt like.”
Laura Wexler, professor of American studies and of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, added, “He demonstrated how photographs help actively to produce, not merely to reflect, U.S. history and contemporary political life. His groundbreaking use of photographs as historical evidence changed the shape of the field and made Yale an indisputable center for the study of photography and culture.”
Trachtenberg was born in 1932 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As his mother and her neighbor, the mother of future longtime dean of student affairs in Yale College, Betty Glassman Trachtenberg, wheeled their children through Philadelphia’s Fairmont Park they discussed how wonderful it would be if Alan and Betty married. They eventually did, beginning 67 years of life together. He attended college at Temple University in Philadelphia and received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, where he first taught. He spent eight years teaching at Penn State, and after a year at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, came to Yale in 1969.
Trachtenberg joined the program in American studies as its first permanent appointment and played a central role in its establishment as the leading program in its field. In the 1970s he served two terms as the department’s director of graduate studies and one as department chair. Along with such figures as Norman Holmes Pearson, Charles Feidelson, Charles Davis, R.W.B. Lewis, and Sydney Ahlstrom he was present for a first period of great flourishing, when the department became the center of the modern field of American studies. During that time he wrote “The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age” (1982), an analysis of the expansion of capitalist power in the last third of the 19th century, and “Shades of Hiawatha: Staging Indians, Making Americans, 1880-1930” (2004), a consideration of how Native Americans and immigrants preoccupied public attention at the turn of the 20th century, which won the Francis Parkman Prize for the best book in American history that year. Both books are deeply revealing studies of the formation of the social fabric of the United States, representative of the kind of transformative work being done in the department of that era.
“Every essay Alan wrote,” said Jean-Christophe Agnew, professor of American studies and history, “was a gem of scholarship, lucidity, and grace, and when he brought all these gifts to the inspired 'critical cultural history' that was ‘Incorporation,’ he showed just how American studies could move from its myth-and-symbol era toward a new and compelling engagement with social history, labor history, and political economy, We are all in his debt.”
Trachtenberg was a particularly influential graduate teacher, a mentor to scores of students now teaching at other colleges and universities. His influence extended well beyond Yale: He lectured frequently at universities around the nation, and across the globe, bringing his understanding of literary figures like Melville and Whitman, and of the cultural importance of photographs, to academic and popular audiences. He received numerous honors, including Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships, and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. After his retirement in 2001 he joined the initial group of fellows of Yale’s Henry Koerner Center for Emeritus Faculty, where his activities included an exhibit of his own photographs. With his wife, Betty, both widely recognized presences at many Yale College and university events, he was an integral part of the intellectual and social fabric of the university for nearly 50 years. His retirement tribute appropriately paid honor to him as a signal contributor to America’s “democratic vistas.”
Trachtenberg is survived by his wife, Betty; his children, Zev (Christina Kambour), Elissa (James Baker) and Julie; and four grandchildren, Naomi, Benjamin, Anna, and Isaac. The funeral will be private and a memorial service will be held after the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, when people are free to gather again.
Editor’s note: Betty Trachtenberg died in 2023. A joint memorial service for Alan and Betty Trachtenberg will be held on Sunday Oct. 15, 2023 at 1:30 p.m. at the Elm City Club.