The story of historian Natalie Zemon Davis, as she tells it, is largely one about the benefits that have accrued to an outsider. Sidelined during the early years of her career, her husband, the mathematician Chandler Davis, was arrested for creating and distributing Communist literature. In fact, in 1952, as a graduate student, Davis herself had done much of the research and writing for a pamphlet attacking the unconstitutional actions of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which was published anonymously by the University of Michigan Council for the Arts, Sciences, and Professions. As Davis later reflected, “the sexism of the House Committee members worked to my advantage in this instance: like legal authorities in early modern Europe, they assumed that if a married couple did something together, only the husband was really responsible.”
Chandler Davis’ firing from an assistant professorship at the University of Michigan, his trial, and his imprisonment at the Danbury Correctional Institution played out over a six-year period. During that time Natalie Davis was a graduate student writing her own dissertation, isolated from most of her academic peers, and a mother of young children. Not quite so imaginative as their student, most of Davis’ professors could not fathom how—with three children and a husband who was also a professor—the young Natalie Z. Davis, PhD, would have anything resembling an academic career herself.
When I spoke with Davis recently at her Toronto home, she reflected on the combination of luck and stubbornness that eventually brought her a considerable collection of honors, including, most recently, the National Humanities Medal, from President Barack Obama (2012). Earlier in her career, Davis was named Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. She has been president of both the Society for French Historical Studies and president of the American Historical Association and has taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Brown, Princeton, and the University of Toronto. There was always a sense of “feeling my way” through life and career, the 86-year-old said to me. For a pioneer in the field of social history, the talent for improvisation is of a piece with the trailblazing that has been a hallmark of Davis’ career.
“I was impelled by my love of my work, and my sense that it held some usefulness for other historians,” Davis told me about the early years of her career when it was not at all clear if she would ever have a tenure-track position. “That was more important than success, or the worry about pleasing some employer, or getting a good evaluation. I was able to just concentrate on my work, and my sense of excitement about its intellectual value.” That value was confirmed at academic conferences, such as the annual American Historical Association, where Davis presented her scholarship and began attracting the attention of other scholars. Perhaps it is even more evident in retrospect, but Davis sees the upside to being an outsider in the academic system with no tenure hoops to jump through, and only her passion for her work to guide her.
Yet once her husband, who was blacklisted by American universities, found a teaching position in the mathematics department at the University of Toronto, Davis found her career stalled again. Almost entirely white, male, and Protestant in the early 1960s, the history department at the University of Toronto did not quite know what to do with the young historian. Like legions of adjuncts today, in the ’60s Davis cobbled together a teaching career, cared for her children, and published, while not finding tenure-track employment for almost a decade. In 1971, Davis and her colleague historian Jill Ker Conway, both newcomers to Toronto, taught one of the first history courses on women and gender in North America, thereby yanking Toronto’s history department out of its staid past (Davis and Ker Conway were two of a handful of female professors at the University of Toronto at the time) and serving as a model for history departments in North America. Yet for all of Toronto’s conservatism at the time, it was there that Davis was able to do the research and teaching that built her international reputation.
Half a century later, when I was in graduate school in American religious history, one of my Harvard professors would mention Davis as though speaking of one of the gods of the disciplines. I looked her up in the library—Widener, the library where Chandler Davis had once helped carry books back and forth for his graduate student wife. The range of topics of her books was dizzying. They included Society and Culture in Early Modern France (1975); The Return of Martin Guerre (1983), the basis for the feature film starring Gerard Depardieu; Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (1987); and Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (1995); and Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds. Sure enough, when I arrived at the University of Toronto, several years later, posters with photographs of Davis lined the walls of the history department. The nicest conference room in the department—the one that everyone wanted to book for lectures and meetings, was the “Natalie Z. Davis Conference Room”—an unusual honor for a living historian.
“I came from a world of Jewish talkers. Of Jewish women talking!” Davis told me of her childhood. “And I am totally interested in people. I love to talk to people and find out what they think.” One of her great concerns about the move to online education is that students will miss the opportunity of speaking with each other. “We learn in the classroom in several ways,” Davis said, and one of those ways is from fellow students.
A look at Davis’ early life reveals a range of influences, as well as the kind of openness to alternative perspectives that may come more easily to someone who has spent time on the outside. “You are a Jew,” a boy once accused young Natalie Zemon on a 1930s Detroit sidewalk. “So what?” she replied. Intuitively, she knew that there was more than one way to interpret the same fact. Her feelings about Jewishness were forged in the religious anti-Semitism of her youth, wherein non-Jewish peers occasionally confronted Natalie and her brother with their mistaken notions about Judaism and its rejection of Jesus. “I just knew that I was right,” Davis said of her view that—contra the claims of some of her peers—Jesus was not the messiah. Her feelings about the dignity of being a Jew flowed from that sense of intellectual certitude.
Community involvement, through the synagogue and Jewish organizations like Hadassah, was a way of life that young Natalie imbibed in the Zemon home. Other lessons came from the WASP-y Kingswood Cranbrook School for Girls, outside Detroit. There a quota admitted but one or two Jewish girls each year. Davis found a model for civic engagement among brainy girls from well-to-do backgrounds on their way to Smith, Vassar, and Mount Holyoke. She discovered, too, what fun it was to be liked. Field hockey and tennis were sports where Davis could feel part of the team, but becoming student council president was Natalie’s greatest high-school coup.
Her interest in French history launched at Kingswood, Davis lived, at Smith College, in a dormitory transformed into La maison francaise. The young women performed French shows over the radio. During the war, they worked on supporting the French Resistance; in Natalie’s immediate postwar college years, they discussed relief efforts for displaced persons and orphans in France, and students continued to wear red berets commonly adopted by Resistance fighters in southwestern France.
At Smith, Davis was again one of a minority of Jews, and she found herself drawn to leftist political groups that felt familiar after her father’s Democratic Party affiliation and his subscription to PM, but that blossomed with Davis’ growing attachment to Marxist socialism. “Here was a solution to the ferocious competition that set one individual against the other, one nation against the other; here was a way to obliterate crass materialism and allow people to enjoy the work they did,” Davis has written of her political feelings during college. “I imagined a future where changed structures truly transformed human behaviour.” The “relentless materialism” of the Franklin Hills Country Club, where the Zemon family socialized, had repulsed the teenaged Natalie, who found the constant talk of “cars and cashmeres” among Detroit’s Jewish bourgeois stultifying. At Smith, it felt like she was succeeding in finding her own path.
That new path included a non-Jewish fiancé. Davis still speaks of this decision in a way that makes clear that it marked a momentous event in her life. After years of segregated socializing—despite being student council president at Kingswood, Natalie always knew that she was supposed to date the Jewish boys from the public Detroit Central High school—Davis found herself in a predicament when it came to dating. Perhaps it is best expressed in a song she wrote for the Smith College yearbook. “You Can’t Get a Man With Your Brains,” set to the music of Irving Berlin’s “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun.” It included a few Smith-specific lines, but in typical NZD fashion, it was a concise piece of writing that was universally accessible.
You’re sharp as a pen point
Your marks are really ten point
You are Dean’s list, Sophia Smith
But when a man wants a kiss, kid,
He doesn’t want a Quiz Kid,
Oh, you can’t get a man with your brains.
Your French may be flowing
Your Russian just a knowing
You may sprechen the Deutsch with ease
But love for a man is
The Universal language,
Oh, you can’t get a man with your brains.
You know the futility
Of marginal utility
That our enterprise is free
But that’s all irrespective
For love’s a thing collective,
Oh, you can’t get a man with your brains.
Davis speaks now of enjoying her dating years and the many casual boyfriends that dotted her 1940s social life, but if there is any hint of resentment in Davis’ almost unrelenting good nature, it is toward her mother’s Franklin Hills Country Club expectations that clearly did not include a non-Jewish husband for her daughter. Meeting with the approval and praise of those who matter to her is Davis’ usual dynamic in the world. That did not happen when Chandler Davis entered Natalie’s life, and it would take years and grandchildren before Helen Zemon’s frost thawed. After three weeks of dating, the 19-year-old Natalie was engaged. Three weeks later, she and Chandler married at Boston City Hall.
“He was handsome, smart, and liked intelligent women,” Davis noted. “He was also the first radical male student I had met who enjoyed what I considered ‘normal’ activities like tennis and ping-pong.”
Despite the fact that by religion he was not at all what Davis’ parents wanted, in other ways, Chandler Davis was very much what they had groomed her to appreciate. Like most early-20th-century Jewish children of immigrants, Julian and Helen Lamport Zemon cared deeply about becoming successful American Jews. Julian Zemon’s artistic leanings (he had been enrolled in a theater graduate program at Harvard before joining his wife’s family’s Alexander Lamport and Bros. Textile company) had placed Gershwin, Copeland, and Bernstein on a pedestal of achievement in family lore. The success of the family textile business freed Natalie and her younger brother to look beyond the business of making money and toward more intellectual and creative pursuits. (Davis had originally envisioned using her historical training for a career as a documentary filmmaker.)
Remarkably, for all of her individual accomplishments and contributions, to hear Davis reflect on the grand scope of her life and work is to hear her come back, repeatedly, to the decision to marry her husband. For all of the “trouble” that others might see in Chandler Davis’ path, his wife, who is after all a historian of gender and women, sees his feminism—a product of his own Quaker upbringing in a family of female intellectuals—as centrally significant. (It also helped that he understood himself as “marrying into a Jewish family” and as the father of Jewish children.) “We believed in each other,” Davis said of their relationship. “He let me do my thing.” As his recognition of the fullness of her humanity gave space for own dreams and talents to blossom, it became a marriage that changed the course of history.
Rachel Gordan is the Ray D. Wolfe Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.