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Popkin Awarded Bryan Chair of History

by Gail Hairston

(Oct. 15, 2014) — One would be hard pressed to find a resume with accolades, awards and appointments of the quantity and quality equal to Jeremy Popkin’s. He will be adjusting that resume again shortly, as he has been named the William T. Bryan Chair of History.

Popkin has been a faculty member of the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences Department of History since 1978. Educated at the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard University, Popkin has served as chair of the history department (1996-2000), director of the Jewish Studies Program (2011-12), as well as the current (2007-) prestigious T. Marshall Hahn Professor.

The Bryan Endowed Chair was established by a nearly $4 million gift from William T. Bryan, a 1936 UK College of Engineering graduate, bequeathed by his estate upon his death in 1997. For 32 years, Bryan served Duriron Co. of Dayton, Ohio, as a metallurgical engineer.  His gift was matched by Kentucky's Research Challenge Trust Fund and used to create six endowed chairs in areas across the university: history, fine arts/vocal music, public finance, special education, Spanish, and women's studies/African-American studies.

Karen Petrone, chair of the history department who nominated Popkin for the prestigious chair, said her colleague “is a remarkable scholar, whose breadth of interests is matched by keen skills as a historian and his uncommon facility as a prose stylist.”

His career has been marked by a long and consistent record of achievement, including the National Humanities Center Fellowship (2000-01), the University of Kentucky Research Fellowship (2003-04), the School of Historical Sciences, Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton) (2006) and National Humanities Center Fellowship (2012-13).

He is a prolific author, but his most recent book, “You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery,” is also his most acclaimed, winning the 2011 J. Russell Major Prize, best book in French history by the American Historical Association, the 2011 David Pinkney prize, best book on French history from the Society for French Historical Studies, and one of six finalists for the international Cundill Book Prize for 2011.

Petrone said “You Are All Free” “…overturns conventional wisdom on the causes of the abolition of slavery in France and Haiti — events that would transform not only the Francophone world but slavery worldwide. At the same time, it rewrites the history of the Haitian Revolution, an event that is still under-studied and poorly understood, despite its global significance.

“Most historians find it challenging enough to master one field of scholarship, with its unique linguistic, methodological, and theoretical challenges, and its constantly growing body of historical writing to master,” said Petrone. “Yet Prof. Popkin is maintaining an active research agenda in several distinct fields: the history of the French Revolution, with which he began his career; the history of the Holocaust; the history of historiography, broadly construed to include studies of memoirs, biography and autobiography, and the study of memory; and the field of Caribbean history, particularly Haiti.”

Yet, Popkin greets such high praise with a shy smile and a little shrug, admitting “I’m certainly at my best when I’m busy.”

Popkin will take the opportunities the Bryan Chair affords to return to Europe to complete research on his own history of the French Revolution as well as the Holocaust.

These days, Popkin is dreaming of returning to his much beloved Paris, “a great city built to the human scale,” walking familiar streets, stopping at a favorite street café, before spending the rest of the day in one library or another. He intends to “make the French Revolution approachable for everyone,” even though his editor has already told him it must be fewer than 1,000 pages.

“I’ve reached the point in my career that I can take my time on a large project of a huge topic,” he said.