Top Young Historians: 19 – Kevin Boyle


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

19: Kevin Boyle, 5-8-06

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Humanities Distinguished Professor of History, Department of History, Ohio State University
Area of Research: Twentieth century American history, with an emphasis on class, race, and politics.
Education: Ph.D., History, University of Michigan, 1990.
Major Publications: Boyle is the author of Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age (Henry Holt and Company, 2004; paperback edition, 2005); Muddy Boots and Ragged Aprons: Images of Working Class Life in Detroit, 1900-1930 (with Victoria L. Getis) (Wayne State University Press, 1997); The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968 (Cornell University Press, 1995; paperback edition 1998). Kevin Boyle JPG Boyle is the editor of Organized Labor and American Politics, 1894-1994: The Labor-Liberal Alliance, (State University of New York Press, 1998).
Works in progress include: The Splendid Dead: An American Ordeal (to be published by Henry Holt and Company).
Awards: Boyle is the winner of the 2004 National Book Award, the 2005 Chicago Tribune Heartland Book Prize, the 2005 Simon Wiesenthal Center Tolerance Book Award, and the 2005 Society of Midland Authors Book Award; finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in History, the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award, and the American Bar Association’s 2005 Silver Gavel Award all for Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age. Arc of Justice was named a 2004 New York Times Notable Book and a Best Book of 2004 by National Public Radio’s Fresh Air,, The Christian Science Monitor, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, The Baltimore Sun, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Detroit Free Press, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Portland Oregonian, The Seattle Times, and the State Library of Michigan; chosen as a History Book Club and Quality Paperback Book Club selection.
The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968 was named a Choice Outstanding Academic Book for 1996.
Boyle has also received a number of fellowships including: John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship (2001-02, deferred to 2002-03);
American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship (2001-02);
National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for University Teachers (2001-02);
Bordin/Gillette Research Travel Fellowship, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, (2000);
Mary Ball Washington Chair (Fulbright Distinguished Chair Program), University College Dublin, Ireland (1997-98);
National Endowment for the Humanities Travel to Collections Grant (1991);
Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in the Humanities, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI (1990-91).
Henry Kaiser Travel Grant, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs (1986).
Additional Info:
Formerly Assistant to Associate Professor (tenured 1997), Department of History University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1994-02, and Graduate Program Director, 1999-2001.
In 1997-98 he held the Mary Ball Washington Chair in American History at University College Dublin, Ireland.
Boyle’s articles have appeared in Diplomatic History, The Journal of American History, Labor History, The Michigan Historical Review, and various anthologies. He has also published essays and reviews in The Baltimore Sun, The Chicago Tribune, The Detroit Free Press, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.
He serves on the advisory board for the Walter P. Reuther Library, and on the editorial boards of Labor History and Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas. He is also a Fellow of the Society of American Historians and a member of the PEN American Center.

Personal Anecdote

I was desperate. I have to admit that at the outset.

It had started out as one of those years academics long for. Thanks to a few fellowships, I could take a break from teaching and work exclusively on my book manuscript. For months on end, I’d been doing nothing else. Day after day I sat at the computer, sweating out every sentence, revising relentlessly, trying to make the book do what I wanted it to do. Now I was at the mid-point — the fifth of a proposed ten chapters — and I was stuck.

Seven times I’d tried to write the chapter: seven starts, seven approaches, seven drafts abandoned in desolation. The problem was analytical; I had to explain some technical material without disrupting the narrative I’d painstakingly built. The problem was structural; I’d organized my story in a way that made the chapter exceedingly hard to write. The problem was personal. I had no ideas, no talent. I was a fraud and a failure.

Because I couldn’t think of anything else to do, I began to piece together the eighth draft. A month passed. The pages piled up. The end came into sight. Then the doubts returned. This version wasn’t working either. For one long day I paced through the house, trying to solve the problems I was seeing, trying to fight off panic. I thought of two possibilities – but neither seemed right. By mid-afternoon I was tumbling into despair.

At 3:30 my daughter Nan walked in the door. “Sit down,” I barked at her. “We have to talk about my chapter.” She took a seat on the couch while I dashed into the study to get my laptop. I would tell her my two alternative, let her weigh them, get her counsel. Maybe that would turn the situation around.

Did I mention that Nan was in second grade at the time?

She sat quietly as I talked, her face set in concentration. When I was done, she told me she liked one of the alternatives better than the other. The story sounded right that way, she said. And she was right. A couple of days later the chapter was done.

Historians tend to think of themselves as working in splendid isolation. We spend huge swaths of time sitting alone in archives. When we write we shut ourselves away, banning the kids from our studies, locking office doors. When we get the courage to let others see a chapter or an essay we’ve been laboring over, we often restrict its distribution to a tight circle of associates with the stern warning, “Do not circulate” typed in capitals on the cover page. Our work is our own, after all, our singular creation.

But of course it isn’t. Many of us – most of us — couldn’t make it through the profession’s incessant demands without the support of a vast network of people. I owe an incalculable debt to the friends who pulled me through grad school, despite my mediocre performance. Again and again colleagues have offered me their time, their connections, and their advice. It’s impossible to count how many times my wife – a far better historian than I am – carried me through one crisis or another. And I like to think that I finished that chapter, that book, because my eight year old was willing to pass up her after-school snack so she could listen to her daddy’s problems.


By Kevin Boyle

  • “Ossian [Sweet] raced through the living room, pulled open the French door that led into the vestibule, unbolted the front door, and threw it open.
    Arc of Justice JPG And there it was, the scene he’d dreaded all his life, the moment when he stood facing a sea of white faces made grotesque by unreasoned, unrestrained hate – for his race, for his people, for him…. The people on the other side of the street were screaming, ‘Here’s niggers!’ ‘There they go!’ ‘Get them! Get them!’ Stones were raining down from across the street, smashing into the lawn, crashing onto the painted wooden floor of the porch, and skittering under the swing where Henry and Latting had been sitting a few hours before.” — Kevin Boyle in “Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age”

About Kevin Boyle

  • “One of the most compelling crossover books by an academic historian to appear in years.” — The Chicago Tribune reviewing “Arc of Justice”
  • “Kevin Boyle’s vivid, deeply researched Arc of Justice is a powerful document that reads like a Greek tragedy in black and white. The lessons in liberty and law to be learned from it are color blind.” — David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of W. E. B. Du Bois reviewing “Arc of Justice”
  • “Arc of Justice perfectly illustrates why W.E.B. Du Bois insisted that a keen sense of drama and tragedy is the ally, not the enemy, of clear-eyed historical analysis of race in U.S. history. By turns a crime story and a gripping courtroom drama, a family tale and a stirring account of resistance, an evocation of American dreams and a narration of American violence, Boyle’s study takes us to the heart of interior lives and racist social processes at a key juncture in U.S. history. — David Roediger, Babcock Professor of African American Studies and History, University of Illinois reviewing “Arc of Justice”
  • “What a powerful and beautiful book! Kevin Boyle has done a great service to history with Arc of Justice. With deep research and graceful prose, he has taken a single moment, the hot September day in 1925 when Ossian and Gladys Sweet moved into a bungalow on Garland Avenue in Detroit, and from that woven an amazing and unforgettable story of prejudice and justice at the dawn of America’s racial awakening.” — David Maraniss, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author of “They Marched Into Sunlight and When Pride Still Mattered” reviewing “Arc of Justice”
  • “Arc of Justice is one of the most engrossing books I have ever read. It is, at once, a poignant biography, a tour-de-force of historical detective work, a gripping courtroom drama, and a powerful reflection on race relations in America. Better than any historian to date, Kevin Boyle captures the tensions of the Jazz Age: a period that witnessed the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and the flowering of the Harlem Renaissance; the clampdown on immigration and the emergence of an ethnic insurgency; the crystallization of racial segregation both north and south and the rise of the modern civil rights movement. The troubled and exciting history of America in the 1920s comes alive in his vivid portraits of striving black physician Ossian Sweet, charged with murder; Sweet’s brilliant legal team led by the incomparable Clarence Darrow; his tireless advocates James Weldon Johnson and Walter White; and trial judge and future Supreme Court justice Frank Murphy. Arc of Justice is a masterpiece.” — Thomas J. Sugrue, Bicentennial Class of 1940 Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania reviewing “Arc of Justice”
  • “Kevin’s a great teacher! Really makes class worth going to. I highly recommend him if you need a history class.”…”Best professor at OSU”… “Kevin Boyle is no doubt the best professor I have had at OSU. He offers visuals that compliment his lectures while making lecture fun. My two hour lecture flew by as I was transfixed by his differing perspectives.”… “He’s amazing….I enjoy going to class because he tells the stories like we are there! He’s the best professor I’ve had so far.”…”He is very passionate about history which makes his lectures very interesting and fun.” — Anonymous students

See also Interview with Kevin Boyle, Winner of the National Book Award

Posted on Sunday, May 7, 2006 at 1:14 PM

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