Remembering C. Dallett Hemphill

Today’s post was jointly produced by Sara Damiano and Joseph Adelman.

The commu275_dallettnity of early Americanists is relatively small and close-knit within the larger historical profession. That made it all the more shocking and painful when we learned a few weeks ago of the passing of Dallett Hemphill.

As many of our readers know, Dallett was a fixture in the Philadelphia community for almost thirty years as a professor at Ursinus College, an associate of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, and as the editor of Early American Studies. She published two books: Bowing to Necessities (1999), in which she argued for the central role of manners as a cultural force in early America, and Siblings (2011), an examination of brothers and sisters in American history. (For more information, you can view the obituary published by the Philadelphia Inquirer.)

Dallett will be remembered not only for her own scholarship, but also for her collegiality, intellectual curiosity, humor, and warmth. She demonstrated these qualities toward all scholars, including the most junior members of our profession.

Her kindness toward junior scholars took many forms. She extended friendly welcome to all fellows and visiting scholars at the McNeil Center and showed genuine interest in learning about their research. As an engaged participant in conferences and seminars, Dallett shaped countless projects through her incisive and constructive questions.

Dallett was also a friend of The Junto. She embraced the blog’s coverage of her Fall 2013 presentation about EAS. Our threepart roundtable discussing James Merrell’s Winter 2014 EAS article was her brainchild. Most recently, Dallett contributed her own guest post on article publication.

Finally, this portrait would be incomplete without mentioning Dallett’s support for feminist scholarship and female scholars. A skilled practitioner of gender history, Dallett was intensely committed to integrating its insights into narratives of the early American past. Dallett’s enthusiasm–and her awareness of gender history’s challenges–fortified her junior colleagues working in that field. In part as an extension of this research, she was equally perceptive of the challenges faced by young scholars, and particularly women. Her generosity and intellect remain a model for them, and for us all.

To celebrate Dallett’s contributions to the profession and particularly her mentorship of early-career scholars, we have invited several early Americanists to share their remembrances below. We thank them for their reflections, and we invite you to share yours by commenting on this post.

Sean Trainor, Pennsylvania State University and McNeil Center Dissertation Fellow, 2013-2014

“Dallett was one of the most welcoming members of the historical profession that I’ve ever met. She seemed unimpressed with her considerable accomplishments or her position, and related to junior scholars and graduate students with warmth and unfeigned personal and professional interest. This, more than her commitment to promoting junior scholars’ work through Early American Studies, or her sensitivity to junior scholars’ career pressures – even more than her work on manners or her unfailingly insightful comments and questions in a variety of professional settings – is what I will remember and miss most about Dallett: moments small, kind, and human.”

Jessica Choppin Roney, Temple University and McNeil Center Barra Postdoctoral Fellow, 2011-2012

“I still remember when I first met Dallett eleven years ago at a McNeil Center seminar.  I awkwardly stumbled out that I had read and enjoyed her book Bowing to Necessities and that it had been included on my comps list—I intended this as high praise, but it sounds sophomoric to me now.  She smiled and immediately engaged me in conversation about my work.  And so it went from there.  For eleven years I have been as regular a participant at the Center as I could be, moving in and out of Philadelphia as circumstance and employment allowed—and always, always Dallett was there.  She was one of the pillars of the community around the McNeil Center; one of the regulars who made it the welcoming but invigorating place it is.  It was one of the things I admired so much about her.  She always came.  She always asked “good” questions—that is to say friendly, supportive, but utterly incisive, penetrating questions.  I still remember vividly the question she asked at my own seminar (and this was four years ago now)—it was a question that caused a small explosion in my brain and when the pieces fell back to earth, they were in a different order than they had been before.  That was how good Dallett was at reading and reflecting on other people’s work and helping them move forward.  She read my entire book manuscript and offered the kind of feedback that made the finished product so, so much better.  I would not claim to have known Dallett intimately.  I had no idea she was sick.  But I admired her deeply, and I wish that I had told her so.  Earlier this spring, I was telling my husband what a role model she was; how I hoped that when I was at the same stage of my career, that I could be like her.  I will miss her bold, bright, warm presence at the McNeil Center.  The best I can do to honor her is to continue to hold her as a role model, as a teacher, a scholar, a colleague and community-builder, and a woman.  Thank you Dallett, for all that you taught and gave so many of us.”

Rachel Herrmann, University of Southampton and McNeil Center Dissertation Fellow, 2011-2012

“I presented a paper at the McNeil Center Seminar in early 2013, shortly after Dallett had assumed the editorship of Early American Studies. I don’t remember her questions during my seminar, but I remember my conversation with her during the reception–in which she encouraged me to get on with revisions while letting me know my ideas weren’t quite polished enough to yield a successful article submission. At a time when I had just defended the dissertation and was preparing to move to a new country, I was grateful to her for her candor and support.”

Kenneth Cohen, St. Mary’s College of Maryland and McNeil Center Dissertation Fellow, 2007-2008

“Dallett Hemphill was an incredibly generous and courageous mentor who modeled how to be productive while juggling more and heavier tasks than I’ll ever know. Remarkably, she never presented any of them as burdens. Rather, she always found the time to talk to me about my work and career, even when we hadn’t seen each other for a year or more. Wherever she is, I hope she’s having a beer with her distant ancestor Isaac Mickle and asking him all those questions we have for him.”

Amanda Moniz, National History Center

“It’s hard to imagine the early Americanist community without Dallett Hemphill.   She was a constant presence and, more importantly, an especially welcoming one.  I didn’t know her terribly well, certainly not as well as I would have liked, but whenever I saw her, she always greeted me like an old friend and proceeded to chat at length about history, professional matters, and life in general.  One memory of Dallett I particularly treasure is from a breakfast we shared at a cafeteria at William and Mary.  It was the first time I was attending an Omohundro conference and, still a grad student, I felt a bit nervous as I scanned the room for someone to sit with.  Dallett came up, struck up a conversation, asked me to join her, and acted as though there was no one she would rather be spending time with.  I haven’t, and won’t, forget her lesson in how to be a colleague.”

Sari Altschuler, Emory University and McNeil Center Dissertation Fellow, 2011-2012

“Dallett Hemphill was a truly remarkable person. I knew her best as someone who made me feel welcome at the McNeil Center, especially as an anxious and uncertain graduate student. She was one of the first people to come talk to me, and I saw that generosity repeated over and over the more time I spent at the Center. As I got to know her better, I marveled at her excitement and sharp engagement with a wide variety of historical topics. Currently, Chris Bilodeau and I were really enjoying working with her on a special issue of Early American Studies, and I was already so grateful to her for her wonderful and thoughtful guidance.”

Brenna O’Rourke-Holland, McNeil Center for Early American Studies and McNeil Center Dissertation Fellow, 2014

“My first time on the presenter side of the table at the McNeil Center was as part of a roundtable celebrating Dallett’s second book, Siblings: Brothers & Sisters in American History. I was very nervous, but Dallett was so kind and genuinely valued what I, a graduate student just embarking on my dissertation project, had to say. Reflecting back, largely due to Dallett’s kindness, that roundtable was probably the first time I felt like a real-life historian. That book and Dallett’s insights were the final push that made me commit my research to the early American history of the family. But, just as valuable were the many smaller, but no less significant, kindnesses Dallett offered to me (and so many others) in more informal conversations at the McNeil Center. She frequently offered me advice about research and writing, encouragement about the job market, and even assistance with a particularly difficult translation. Almost exactly three years after the Siblings roundtable, just after defending my dissertation, I was lucky to present on a SHEAR panel with Dallett serving as the chair and commentator. Dallett was brilliant at merging criticism and encouragement, challenging me to be a better historian, and I know my work will continue to benefit from the feedback she gave me over the last several years. I will miss her deeply and hope only to try to model Dallett’s enthusiasm and generosity as a historian and a scholar.”

Sarah Rodriguez, University of Pennsylvania, Early American Studies Editorial Intern, 2012-2015, and McNeil Center Center Dissertation Fellow, 2013-2014

“I worked with Dallett Hemphill for three years as her editorial intern for Early American Studies and what struck me the most about her was her intellectual integrity and honesty.  Lots of people talk about her generosity, her positive attitude, etc., but what struck me about her was how committed she was to producing good scholarship and to advancing the field.  She read each submission with the same degree of attention and care, no matter who it came from, and gave honest and straightforward feedback.  She never privileged senior scholars over junior ones.  She never privileged particular authors over others for any reason.  Everyone enjoyed equal status.  She had high expectations, but they always came from the best place. Finally, her lack of arrogance did not prevent her from  contributing her knowledge and skills or expressing her convictions whenever and wherever she had the opportunity.  In a profession that is so individualistic, she was consummately community minded.  She as a wonderful role model to women scholars.  She taught me how to be humble without being modest, how to be ambitious without being selfish, how to be rigorous but also kind.  I have nowhere near mastered the balance between all those, but she did.”

Catherine Murray, Ph.D. Candidate, Temple University and B.A., Ursinus College, 2000

“So much of who I have become is because of Dallett Hemphill. I could never have imagined that meeting Dallett as a freshman at Ursinus College would be the beginning of an eighteen year relationship in which I always felt indebted to her. Like others, I am a better student of history because of the way Dallett challenged me. Her influence  has extended far beyond historical research and dialogue; she shared so much of herself with me. Our conversations about navigating marriage, career, and motherhood continue to resonant with me, even after fifteen years. As I spent hours and hours meeting with Dallett in her office on the third floor of Olin Hall, my eyes often settled on a photograph of her and her sons on a boat with a clear blue sky in the background. I admired the way she spoke of her love and dedication to her boys, while simultaneously maintaining an identity that was also defined by the reading, writing and teaching of history. As a mother of two boys, I often recall the example Dallett set for me. From Dallett, I learned to shatter yet another gendered assumption. Intimacy is not exclusively held in the relationships between mothers and their daughters. I have always sought Dallett’s approval and unlike any other person in my life, I wanted to make her proud. She has given me so much more than I have given her. And, I can only hope to acknowledge my gratitude by influencing others in the way she influenced me.”

We invite The Junto’s readers to share their own memories of Dallett Hemphill in the comments section of this post.

3 responses

  1. I first came to know of Dallet through her first book, Bowing to Necessities, when I was writing my undergraduate thesis on etiquette in early Washington, DC. That book is still on the central shelf of my bookshelf with the works I refer back to most often. I was excited to meet her in person at the McNeil Center when I arrived at Penn 8 years ago, and like all other grad students, I was impressed by her kindness and interest in my work. Her advice and experience helped steer me towards working with the same editor at Oxford for my book as she had for her second book. Perhaps what I valued most, though, was our conversations about putting family first in our career decisions, whether that be for partners, children, siblings, or parents. That can still feel like a tough thing to do in the profession, and she was so supportive and understanding. As others have said here, she seemed to have found a model balance between great scholarship and a rich personal life. It’s hard to imagine the McNeil Center without her.

  2. I knew Dallett as a colleague at Ursinus for the past 27 years. I am not an American historian–my area is China. But Dallett was a colleague and my department is the less for her loss. We are approved to search for a new “early Americanist,” which is great (and we hope many who read this list will apply!), but we are not “replacing” Dallett, that would be unfair to whomever takes the job.

    We miss her. We feel the hole her loss has created. But we have all benefitted from the years we spent together. And it is so rewarding to know how strongly her legacy lives on

    • Hugh, thanks for sharing your thoughts. One of the oddities of our profession is that within our geographic and chronological subfields, we often don’t know very much about how our colleagues operate on their own campuses or in the classroom. But it’s not at all surprising that Dallett was the same with all of you at Ursinus as she was with us at the McNeil Center and in the world of early Americanists.


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