UK history professor Jeremy Popkin turns one-year contract into 35 years of elite research

"There's more interest today in history than there ever has been," UK history professor Jeremy Popkin said. "I tend to think it has more of a future than people think."
"There's more interest today in history than there ever has been," UK history professor Jeremy Popkin said. "I tend to think it has more of a future than people think." Lexington Herald-Leader

In 1978, Jeremy Popkin came to Lexington with a newly minted Ph.D. in history and a one-year contract to teach at the University of Kentucky.

The department manager noted, "you won't be here long," and stuck him in a corner seminar room. Thirty-five years later, he's still in that small space as books, some his own, climb the walls around him.

The humble office now houses one of UK's most elite professors, author of 20 books, recipient of numerous academic accolades and the newly appointed William T. Bryan Endowed Chair in History. Although retirement might beckon — Popkin turned 66 this month — he is planning his next project, a definitive history of the French Revolution.

The walls of Popkin's office are stacked with titles that reflect his deep historical interests, namely the Holocaust, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution and the study of history itself.

Karen Petrone, chairwoman of UK's history department, was one of the people who nominated Popkin for the endowed chair, partly because of the breadth and depth of his expertise.

"That's what is so unusual; not only has he succeeded in writing influential books, but writing them in at least three main areas of historical research," she said. "He's the only one in the department who moves across movements and geography like this."

Popkin thinks his life's work might be traced back to when he was 4 years old. In some old letters, his father, Richard Popkin, a famous philosophy professor, described a summer research trip to Paris, where young Jeremy was pestering him about the meaning of death.

"So he took me to Napoleon's tomb," he said. "That may explain everything."

Plus, he notes, "I grew up thinking all adults went to France to do research."

After getting a master's degree at Harvard, he returned to his alma mater — University of California, Berkeley — to get his Ph.D., specializing in the French Revolution and the press.

But when he came to UK in 1978, there was an extra spot for a class, and he asked if it would be OK to teach something about the Holocaust, which at the time was a fairly novel idea.

"Back then, there were some memoirs and some basic histories, but none of the vast tomes of scholarship there is now," Popkin said. "Few students were interested."

A few years later, a big TV series on the Holocaust came out, and the tomes began to be written. "Now," Popkin says, "it has become my most popular undergraduate class."

By 1990, Popkin had written three books and numerous articles about the press and the French Revolution, but he kept thinking about the one aspect of the French Revolution that no one really talked about — the issue of abolition in a French colony where the enslaved sent countless profits back to the same mother country whose revolution produced the 1789 Declaration on the Rights of Man.

Haitian slaves began the Caribbean's only successful slave rebellion in 1791, but very few historians had examined the extremely complicated political and economic relationships between the two upheavals.

"When I first realized this, there was almost nothing to read, so you can make original contributions right away," Popkin said. "I was interested in first-person accounts; very little attention had been paid to them."

So he tracked down the accounts of people who had lived through the Haitian Revolution, which was roughly from 1791 to 1804. In 2007, the University of Chicago Press published Facing Racial Revolution: First-Person Narratives from the Haitian Revolution.

Three years later, Popkin wrote a landmark book on the revolution, You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the First Abolition of Slavery, published by Cambridge University.

Petrone, who nominated Popkin for the Bryan Chair, said in her nomination letter that the book could not be overestimated.

"It 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," she wrote with colleague Gretchen Starr-LeBeau. "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 ... This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the histories of race, slavery, and abolition; of the Atlantic world and transnational histories; of colonialism; and of memory and identity."

The critics agreed with her; the book won the American Historical Association's 2011 J. Russell Major Prize for the best book in French history, the Society of French Historical Studies' 2011 David Pinkney prize for best book on French history, and was one of six finalists for the international Cundill Book Prize for 2011.

Popkin does most of his research in France, at venues such as the National Library and the National Archives. He has been to Haiti once, before the devastating 2010 earthquake, using a map from the 1700s to explore Cap Haitien, then known as Cap Francais.

"That was a lot of fun to explore sites where events I had written about had taken place," he said.

Popkin's research has been aided by numerous prizes and fellowships, 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).

The Bryan Chair comes with a research stipend that will allow him to go to Paris this summer for research on his next project, a seminal history of the French Revolution incorporating all the new scholarship that Popkin and others have done since historian Simon Schama published Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution in 1990.

He hopes it will be a more mainstream book than his others, "one that people will actually pay money for," he joked. "More popular writers, like Doris Kearns Goodwin, are the writers who get people interested in history. If we (academics) only wrote for each other, than we'd really have to worry about the future of the discipline."

In the meantime, he's also working on a memoir about his family, including his father, and his grandmother Zelda Popkin, a novelist in the 1960s.

After 30 years in higher education, Popkin has seen liberal arts degrees get shunted aside in favor of more "marketable" majors like engineering and marketing. But he thinks there's still a future for scholars and students who want to use the past to explain our complicated present.

"Some recent world events have helped us understand how revolutionaries and revolutions start with wonderful ideals but end up in places they didn't expect," Popkin said. "There's more interest today in history than there ever has been. ... I tend to think it has more of a future than people think."