October 27, 2003

Introducing Cornell's Newest History Book

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During a time in which Cornell is looking ahead to its future under a new president, Carol Kammen has released a comprehensive history of the University dating back to its founding. Kammen, a senior lecturer and historian at the University, wrote Cornell: Glorious to View during the administration of former President Hunter R. Rawlings III, but was able to include more recent information on President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77. A small shipment of the book arrived at the Cornell Store just in time for the inauguration.

Kammen was handpicked to write the book, said Tom Hickerson, associate University librarian for special collections and information technologies. In response to an offer of financial support for the project by William Kay ’51, Hickerson and Elaine Engst, University archivist, searched for potential authors. Journalist Keith Johnson took on the task in the late 1990s, focusing on “big issues of the last half of the 20th century in higher education,” Hickerson said.

Johnson left the venture while still researching and the book was never completed. Starting the search again, Hickerson and Engst soon realized that “Carol Kammen was the ideal choice,” Hickerson said.

The author of choice said she wanted to write an overview of the University rather than focus on particular colleges or leaders. “I tried to write about the flock and not the birds,” Kammen said. One of the things that stood out in her research, she said, was “how, in every period, leadership has made a difference.” She cited the upheaval of the late 1960s at Cornell as an example, as President James Perkins “show[ed] the importance of leadership, and how it fail[ed]” during that time.

Kammen has been involved in teaching local history and methods of historiography at Cornell since the 1980s. She took advantage of the extensive archival holdings found in Cornell’s library system in writing her book, able to research both Cornell history and town-gown relationships with Ithaca. “The records here are extraordinary,” Kammen said. “It is the most wonderful archive to work in.”

Kammen drew from presidential papers and reports from the Board of Trustees from the past 150 years in compiling facts for her book. This all-encompassing book allows readers to “get a sense of the intimate details of the institutional history,” Hickerson said.

Cornell: Glorious to View has been compared to one of the other authoritative histories of the University, Morris Bishop’s 1962 A History of Cornell. Bishop’s book, Kammen said, is “very literary and very expansive. It was written for a reading public that had more time.” Her new book is much briefer, reading just over 300 pages.

“It will be received as well as Bishop’s book was,” despite many stylistic differences said Walter F. LaFeber, the Marie Underhill Noll Professor of American History, Emeritus. LaFeber, one of the University’s most notable historians, wrote the preface to Cornell: Glorious to View.

“In a much shorter span of pages, I think [Kammen] deals with … the problems that various presidents had [and] the problems that Cornell had with some of the surrounding cities in central New York,” he said. LaFeber commended Kammen on discussing the importance of Ithaca in Cornell’s history, as well as Cornell’s influence on the city.

Kammen asked LaFeber to write the preface because “he has, in many ways, been present at almost everything that’s happened here,” she said.

LaFeber agreed and said, “I’ve been here 43 years and have seen a lot of Cornell history firsthand.”

Kammen is currently working on another book about Cornell’s history, this one based on student life from the time of the founding. Including a letter written on the first day of the University’s operation, Kammen said her book will use excerpts from letters, diaries and even e-mails. “There is marvelous continuity and change over time,” Kammen said about student opinions and their relationship with the administration. Writing this new book is “more fun than anything,” she said.

Kammen is again relying quite a bit on the University’s library holdings and archives for her new writing endeavor. “I’m really excited about her second book. It will be a beautiful companion piece,” Hickerson said.

Archived article by Melissa Korn