Died: June 23, 1975 Occupation: Educator, Historian Source

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Louis Reichenthal Gottschalk


Born: February 21, 1899 in New York, United States
Died: June 23, 1975
Occupation: Educator, Historian
Source: Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 9: 1971-1975. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994.

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Biographical Essay
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Gottschalk, Louis Reichenthal (Feb. 21, 1899 June 23, 1975), historian and educator, was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of Morris Frank Gottschalk and Anna Krystall, both Jewish immigrants from Russian Poland. Gottschalk's father, a barber and small shopkeeper of modest means, raised his family in Albany and Brooklyn. After attending local public schools, where he displayed considerable intellectual promise, Gottschalk entered Cornell University at sixteen. He earned his B.A. (1919), M.A. (1920), and Ph.D. (1921) there and was strongly influenced by his teachers, the medievalist George Lincoln Burr, the Americanist George Hull, and the Europeanist Carl Lotus Becker.

Becker interested him in French history, instilling the conviction that historians should strive to incorporate the methodologies of other disciplines into their work. Under his direction Gottschalk completed his doctoral dissertation, "The Political Career and Theories of Jean Paul Marat." Expanded into a full-scale biography and published in 1927 as Jean Paul Marat: A Study in Radicalism, it bore all the traits that would mark his later writings: extensive use of primary sources, both manuscript and printed; critical scrutiny of all the available evidence; and a dispassionate, nonpartisan approach combined with a straightforward narrative style. This objective study of the French Revolutionary earned Gottschalk a favorable reputation on both sides of the Atlantic.

He married Laura Reichenthal, a young Cornell undergraduate, in 1920. Divorced five years later, Gottschalk nevertheless retained her maiden name, adopted in tribute to her father, as his own middle name. In 1930 he wed Fruma Kasdan; they had two sons.

After completing his graduate studies, Gottschalk taught first at the University of Illinois, Urbana (19211923), then at the University of Louisville (19231927). His career at Louisville ended when he and other faculty quarreled with the school's new president, George Coville, over curriculum and academic policy. Dismissed from his position in 1927, Gottschalk left for the University of Chicago, where he rose from associate professor to Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in 1959. After thirty-seven years at the University of Chicago, fifteen of which were spent chairing the history department, he formally retired in 1964, but continued to teach at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle, until his death. Besides teaching, Gottschalk also served as assistant editor (19291943) and acting editor (19431945) of the Journal of Modern History, helping to make it a force in the profession.

He won eminence as a historian of the French Revolution because of his numerous publications in the field. His Era of the French Revolution (17151815) appeared in 1929. A comprehensive and balanced account, it long remained a standard text. He then undertook a biography of the Marquis de Lafayette, a project that would occupy him for some forty years. Conscientiously gathering and analyzing all the materials that could be discovered concerning the French patriot, Gottschalk produced a series of volumes that traced his career in detail: Lafayette Comes to America (1935), Lafayette Joins the American Army (1937), Lafayette and the Close of the American Revolution (1942), Lafayette Between the American and the French Revolution (17831789) (1950), Lafayette in the French Revolution Through the October Days (1969), and Lafayette in the French Revolution from the October Days Through the Federation (1973). He also published a critical edition of the general's correspondence with George Washington in 1944. Gottschalk determined that Lafayette was motivated to aid the Americans less by any liberal ideas than by his dissatisfaction with conditions in France, his thirst for glory, and a traditional French hatred for England. But as a result of his American experience, Lafayette became a symbol of liberty, the "hero of two worlds," who guided the French Revolution during its first years.

During World War II, Gottschalk served on the Committee of Historians to Analyze and Appraise Current Conditions and Prospective Developments in Germany. In late 1943 it produced a secret report providing the Army Air Force with an appraisal of the effects that strategic bombing had on the Third Reich.

From his wartime experience Gottschalk gained a better understanding of the need for historical synthesis. In collaboration he wrote Europe and the Modern World (2 vols., 19511954), which described how European culture had spread around the globe and bound it together. He also coauthored and edited The Foundations of the Modern World, 13001775. Published in 1969 under the auspices of UNESCO as volume four of the "History of Mankind: Cultural and Scientific Development," it incorporated contributions made by historians from numerous countries who held diverse political viewpoints. While not entirely satisfactory as universal history, it did set forth the latest research and interpretations of the time.

Refining the methodology that he had learned at Cornell and infused into his own scholarship, Gottschalk for many years taught a "laboratory course in historical method" along with colleagues at Chicago. He also offered seminars in European historiography where graduate students presented papers that were rigorously evaluated by their fellows and instructor alike, applying his techniques. In this manner he trained several generations of historians, many of whom became eminent scholars in their fields.

Gottschalk explained his methods in a "laboratory manual" written for college undergraduates: Understanding History: A Primer of Historical Method (1950; 2d ed., 1969). In it he defined history as a "three-dimensional" discipline, one that partook of science, art, and philosophy. He observed that "as a method, it follows strict rules for ascertaining verifiable facts; as exposition and narrative, it calls for imagination, literary taste, and critical standards; as interpretation of life, it demands the philosopher's insights and judgments."

But he was concerned not only with the mechanics of historical writing and contended that historians should serve a wider purpose. In a presidential address before the American Historical Association, he declared that those engaged in the profession should employ their training "for the guidance of an unmoored society seeking firmer anchorage." Through numerous public talks and newspaper articles, Gottschalk stressed that, while history taught no "lessons," it did provide useful understanding of contemporary events.

Gottschalk's numerous contributions to his discipline were recognized by his election as president of the American Historical Association (1953) and the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (1971). The French government in 1953 named him a chevalier of the Legion of Honor for his work.

Always conscious of his origins and concerned about anti-Semitism, especially in the academic world, Gottschalk involved himself with Jewish causes. During the 1940's he presided over the Chicago Board of Jewish Education and also became active in B'nai B'rith, especially its Hillel Commission, which he chaired from 1963 to 1969. Reflecting on his heritage and career, Gottschalk mused: "I often wonder what would have happened to me if my parents had remained in Poland." He died in Chicago.

-- James Friguglietti


[Gottschalk's papers are in the University of Chicago archives. The University of Louisville archives hold records concerning his troubled stay there. His quarrel with the school's administration is discussed by Dwayne Cox, "The Gottschalk-Colvin Case: A Study in Academic Purposes and Command," Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Jan. 1987. Richard Herr and Harold Parker, eds., Ideas in History (1965), contains an extensive bibliography of his writings. Gottschalk paid tribute to his teacher in "Carl Becker: Skeptic or Humanist?" Journal of Modern History, June 1946. He discussed his own teaching in "A Professor of History in a Quandary," American Historical Review, Jan. 1954. See also John Hall Stewart, "Louis Gottschalk and Lafayette," Journal of Modern History, Dec. 1970. Obituaries are in the New York Times, June 25, 1975; University of Chicago Record, Nov. 26, 1975; and American Historical Review, Apr. 1976.]


Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 9: 1971-1975. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group. 2001. (http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC)

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