Friday, March 20, 2015

In Eternal Memory

Two weeks ago today, the Harvard historian Edward L. Keenan died. Ned—as he was known to his family, friends, colleagues, and students—was almost eighty, and most readers of this blog will never have heard of him, but for those of us who specialize in Muscovite history, Ned was a major figure in the field. Even historians of Russia who did not have the opportunity to meet him, let alone study with him, knew his name. As Gregory Afinogenov states in his memorial, “Breaking Muscovy’s Silence”: “When Keenan began his blistering career of skepticism and historical heresy in 1971, only two grand narratives existed in the West to explain Russia’s history to students, policymakers, and experts from other fields.” Ned created a third. Afinogenov lays out the details of all three with admirable aplomb, so there is no need for me to repeat them here. But I will reiterate his conclusion that all of us owe Ned a great debt for stirring up the long-dead bones of Muscovy and wiring them together into a new, more intellectually satisfying skeleton.

Ned’s understanding of sixteenth-century Russian society, as developed by his many students, forms the background to my Legends of the Five Directions novels. Indeed, one might say that my series exists in part in response to the uncertainties produced by Ned’s attack on conventional wisdom: since my day job doesn’t permit the extended archival visits and manuscript analysis necessary for academic history writing post-Keenan, I decided to turn what I knew into stories that would communicate the essence of that long-ago society to people both inside and outside the field in ways they would not encounter in textbooks and general literature. I don’t know that Ned ever read The Golden Lynx or The Winged Horse—I suspect not—but he did know about and approve the effort. As he once put it in an e-mail, expressing a passing frustration with the reception of his views, “You may be better off writing honest fiction.”

Ned, you see, was the great gadfly of the field, a self-proclaimed radical skeptic who forced every source to produce its papers and probed the genetic heritage of sacred cows, throwing everything we thought we knew into chaos. In print he could be scathing about the intellectual flaws of his predecessors, but in person Ned was charming and supportive, an amusing raconteur with a phenomenal memory and a grasp of languages that left the rest of us in the dust. He adopted me the year I arrived in Boston, a grad student not yet thirty and fresh from archival research in what was then the Soviet Union, guiding my dissertation and finding a way to get me access to Widener Library at Harvard, where I roamed open stacks filled with the dusty aroma of books, armed with a straight ruler to cut the pages of 150-year-old tomes that no one before me had seen. I couldn’t have finished my doctorate without him.

At the time, he presided over a lunch/study group of historians who specialized in medieval Russia (Harvard must be one of the few places in the world where you can scare up enough pre-Petrine scholars to form a study group). I thought of him as elderly because he had gray hair, but I later realized he must have been in his mid-forties when I met him. While one local or visiting historian after another laid out his or her ideas, Ned held court, pointing out questions the speakers had failed to ask and subjecting their arguments to insightful, unsettling comments. Years later, when I went to see him in his office at Dumbarton Oaks, his breadth of knowledge remained impressive, although by then he occasionally missed a reference or a source. When I heard he had retired to Deer Isle, one of Maine’s most beautiful spots, I was saddened but not surprised. When I heard he no longer had the energy to argue, I knew to expect the end.

So, as the Orthodox say, “May his memory be eternal.” And life to us, who remain behind. Our field is richer, our appreciation of the need to distrust received wisdom greater, and our understanding of the past more complex because he moved among us asking questions. For a scholar, there can be no more fitting tribute than that. 

Image: Konstantin Makovsky, Blind Man’s Buff (1890s), via Wikimedia Commons. This image is in the public domain in the United States because of its age.

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