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Pulitzer winner who examined American identity dies at 77

December 6, 2013 - 8:31am

Michael Kammen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at Cornell University whose many books explored the Constitution, the concept of American identity and sweeping views of cultural and social history, died Nov. 29 in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 77.

His death was announced by Cornell, where he had taught since 1965. His family declined to provide the cause of death, saying he had been in “poor health for several years.”

One of the most prolific and distinguished historians of his time, Kammen wrote or edited more than 25 books. He began as a scholar of the Colonial period and later branched out to publish incisive studies of American art and popular culture.

He was known for his thorough research, his stylish writing and his oft-stated belief that, after more than two centuries, the Revolution remained the essential formative event in American life.

“He was an extraordinary scholar and one of the most wide-ranging historians I’ve ever known,” Gordon Wood, a professor at Brown University and a former graduate-school classmate of Kammen’s, wrote in an email.

Kammen won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1973 with “People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization.” In that book, he identified a fundamental and volatile duality that had defined the American character throughout history: “the innocence as well as the evil in our natures.”

Writing in The New York Times Book Review, historian Marcus Cunliffe said that “others before him have been struck by oppositions and doublenesses in American behavior,” but Kammen had “taken the idea further than anyone else . . . shown more intellectual curiosity, and written with greater gusto.”

Another of Kammen’s important works, “A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture” (1986), won the prestigious Francis Parkman and Henry Adams prizes.

In that book, Kammen described how the Constitution had been both revered and misunderstood by generations of Americans, who “have taken too much pride and proportionately too little interest in their frame of government.”

He showed that ignorance of history and the nation’s federal structure was hardly a recent phenomenon. He cited an opinion poll from World War II showing that 60 percent of Americans could not identify the Bill of Rights. In 1975, a quarter of the American people did not know what key historical event occurred in 1776.