Yale '62 - Obituaries - Professor Robert Morse Crunden

Professor Robert Morse Crunden

Born: December 23, 1940
Died: March 23, 1999

Born in Jersey City, Bob prepared at Kent. His father Allan B. Crunden, Jr., was '37 School of Medicine and his mother Marjorie Morse was '37 School of Nursing. Bob was a member of Davenport College where he was soccer captain. After playing intercollegiate Freshman tennis, he contributed his game to the Davenport team. He was also a member of Calliopean, St. Elmo's and the Young Republicans. He majored in American Studies and was on the Dean's List and a ranking scholar. He graduated Magna Cum Laude.

Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Texas at Austin at the time of his death, Bob's illustrious academic career was memorialized in a moving address published by the President of the University. Through the assistance of his classmates and colleagues Bill Stott and Carl Kaestle, pertinent portions are quoted here:

While still an undergraduate, he collaborated with his grandfather on the writing of a self-published mystery, A Chicago Winter's Tale (1960). ...

After graduating, Bob attended Harvard where he received his Ph.D. in 1967 for a dissertation on the Progressive reformer and novelist Brand Whitlock, a study he published two years later as A Hero in Spite of Himself: Brand Whitlock in Art, Politics and War. This project set the tone for much of his later work as a scholar.

Bob Crunden joined the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin at the invitation of William H. Goetzmann, who had taught him as an undergraduate at Yale, to assist in revitalizing the American Studies Program and to teach courses in American cultural and intellectual history. For many years he anchored the undergraduate American Studies major with a two-semester survey course, "Main Currents of American Culture," which was famous for wry sarcasm, pithy anecdotes, unprecedented note-taking challenges, and a refusal to consider public university students any less capable than those of elite private colleges. He adapted these lectures for publication as A Brief History of American Culture (1990), which was also translated into Arabic, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish. In addition, he taught undergraduate seminars on the Progressive era and on religious, political, intellectual, and art history - with perhaps his most popular course being "The Artist in American Society," an interdisciplinary examination of painting, sculpture, music, and literature considered through the biographical approach he had developed in his scholarship.

He served ... as director of the American Studies Program from 1985 to 1990. He ... built the program into a department. The reputations of both departments, American Studies and History, owe much to Bob Crunden's unrelenting devotion to hard work and high professional standards. As a History colleague observed at his memorial service, 'Bob always kept us honest.'

... [H]is scholarly method focused on shared climates of creativity revealed through group biographies of individuals active in diverse intellectual and cultural practices at a particular historical moment. He first experimented with this approach ... in From Self to Society, 1919-1941 (1972). That work traced changing interpretations of the relationship between the individual and society from the Progressives' feelings of common identity, through the alienation of the 1920s, to the communitarianism of the 1930s. He expanded the scope of this biographical method in Ministers of Reform: The Progressives' Achievement in American Civilization, 1889-1920 (1982) and employed it in two subsequent books, American Salons: Encounters with European Modernism, 1885-1917 (1993) and Body and Soul: The Making of American Modernism (2000). Conceived as a trilogy exploring ambivalent American responses to the condition of modernity, all three of these works displayed a talent for broad synthesis of a dazzling array of disciplines and figures. ... Bob Crunden also edited or co-edited [numerous anthologies]. . . .

[He was] "... the inaugural holder of the Bicentennial Chair in American Studies at the University of Helsinki, Finland, in 1976-1977. The first person appointed to a Fulbright Chair anywhere in the world, Crunden defined the position, succeeding so well that he returned in the same capacity in 1991-1992. Among many professional honors, he was especially proud of his election to the Finnish Academy (Suomen Tiedeakatemia) in 1997.... [H]is general text, A Brief History of American Culture was first published in Finland. ... He also served twice as a visiting professor in American Studies at the University of Würzburg, Germany,... as a Senior Fulbright Lecturer at La Trobe University in Australia in 1978 [and as Fulbright Director of American Studies in Hyderabad, India, 1982-1984.]"

Despite Bob's well-deserved reputation for acerbity, his closest academic relationships were with graduate students and junior faculty. Bob was a consummate listener and editor. He was gifted with the ability to recognize and clarify the key points of an uncertain or disorganized argument.... he was also in constant demand as a book reviewer and outside manuscript reader (though authors also awaited with considerable trepidation his frank, sometimes sarcastic notices). Bob liked few things better than to champion an unknown but well-conceived and well-written manuscript, especially one at political or ideological odds with his own opinions. One of the few things he did enjoy more was to talk with a group of graduate students and colleagues over a pitcher of beer. ...

...Physically active throughout the year, Bob was known for his daily swim and for walking to and from the University in any weather. He threw himself into everything he did -swimming, writing, teaching, parenting, mentoring, chamber concerts, movies, debating students and colleagues, holding forth on just about anything. He refused to own a television and acquired hundreds of phonograph albums, mostly classical and jazz, including a collection of Scandinavian composers so unique that the Fine Arts Library was pleased to accept its donation after his death. Bob had no tolerance for obfuscatory prose but infinite patience for reading children's books to his young daughters. He had strong opinions on just about everything, including the value of integrity, scholarship, and friendship. He was one of those elemental individuals about whom everyone had a strong opinion one-way or the other. By his example, Bob Crunden challenged and provoked everyone around him - an experience for which the vast majority remain grateful.

"He earned wide respect as a cultural historian for his understanding of the 'climates of creativity' animating American artistic, literary, and political movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His vigorous intellect, his tireless dedication as a scholar and teacher, and his generosity as a colleague have indelibly marked the fields of American Studies and History at the University of Texas and beyond."

The bibliography of Bob's publications provided by the University fills 8 pages single spaced type.

Bob died suddenly of a heart attack at home. His survivors include his mother Marjorie Morse Crunden and sister Joan Crunden Lewis, both of Boulder, Colorado; and daughters Wendy Eberle-Sinatra of Toronto, Canada, and Evelyn Ann and Rebecca Jane Crunden of Austin, Texas, the latter of whom reside with their mother Sydney from whom Bob was divorced.