Henry May, 1915-2012


Henry F. May, one of his generation’s most distinguished historians, died Saturday, September 29, at the age of 97. May was Margaret Bryne Professor of American History Emeritus at the University of California Berkeley, where he had taught from 1952 until his retirement in 1980. He was a prominent campus citizen throughout his tenure at Berkeley, and served as Chair of the Department of History during the Free Speech Movement of 1964. He was honored by the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate in 1981 as Faculty Research Lecturer.

Two of May’s numerous books still help to define scholarly discussion of the two periods of American history to which they were addressed. The End of American Innocence: A Study of the First Years of Our Own Time, 1912-1917, published in 1959, argued that the cultural rebellions of the 1920s were well underway before World War I and that these rebellions were less dependent upon the that war’s impact than earlier scholars had assumed. The Enlightenment in America, a book of 1976 that won the Merle Curti Prize of the Organization of American Historians, persuaded a generation of scholars that the Protestant culture of late-18th century America rendered the American version of the Enlightenment strikingly different from its European equivalents. May was honored by the Organization of American Historians with its Distinguished Service Award in 1997. He was also an elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

May’s passing triggered an outpouring of appreciations from historians throughout the nation. Bruce Kuklick of the University of Pennsylvania described May as “the most prominent American intellectual historian of his generation, a caring mentor, and a gentleman of the sort that we sorely miss in today's academic world.” According to Charles Capper of Boston University, “May virtually created the field of American intellectual history for the post-World War II era as well as trained more of its practitioners than any other historian of his time.” One of these many doctoral alumni, Berkeley’s David A. Hollinger, remembers May as “indefatigably conscientious and fair-minded.” Another of May’s students, Daniel Walker Howe of Oxford University, said “May's most important and distinctive quality was his intellectual integrity--his determination to be accurate and fair, to get the story right, not only in its factual specifics, but to recreate and convey the authentic spirit, purposes, and values of the people whom he studied and taught about.” 

 May was born in Denver, Colorado, on March 27, 1915, but spent much of his youth in Berkeley. He was a 1937 graduate of UC Berkeley, and a classmate of Robert McNamara, later Secretary of Defense under President Lyndon Johnson. In an autobiography published in 1987, Coming to Terms: A Study in Memory and History, May wrote extensively about his Berkeley youth and his experiences as a graduate student at Harvard in the 1930s, where he was involved in the left wing political activities common in that era. In 1993 May wrote a detailed study of the cultural and intellectual life of the Berkeley campus in the early years of the twentieth century, Three Faces of Berkeley: Competing Ideologies in the Wheeler Era, 1899-1919. A legendary raconteur about local life and times, he liked to tell stories about Berkeley’s great Wimbledon tennis champion of the 1930s, Helen Wills Moody.

May completed his Ph.D. in history at Harvard University in 1947, having first served as a Japanese language translator for the United States Navy during World War II and in the post-war occupation of Japan. He taught briefly at Bowdoin College and Scripps College before coming to Berkeley in 1952. His first wife, Jean, died in 2002. He is survived by his second wife, Louise Brown of Oakland, by his two daughters Ann May of Berkeley and Hildy May of Guerneville, and by three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.