John Higham, 83, author, Hopkins history professor, American culture expert


John Higham, a retired Johns Hopkins University history professor and nationally known authority on American culture, immigration and the historical aspects of ethnicity, died of a cerebral aneurysm Saturday at his North Baltimore apartment. He was 83.

Dr. Higham, who was born and raised in Jamaica, N.Y., earned his bachelor's degree in history from the Johns Hopkins University in 1941.

During World War II, he served with the Historical Division of the 12th Army Air Forces in Italy. After his 1945 discharge, he served for a year as assistant editor of American Mercury, an intellectual review that had been founded by H.L. Mencken in 1925.

He earned his master's degree in history from the University of Wisconsin, where he also earned a doctorate in history in 1949. Before returning to Johns Hopkins in 1971, he had been chairman of the American culture program at the University of Michigan. Earlier academic posts included teaching stints at UCLA and Rutgers and Columbia universities.

At the time of his appointment to Hopkins, he was described in The Evening Sun as "one of the five most influential historians in the United States."

In an academic career that spanned more than half a century, Dr. Higham confined his work to three fields of historical interest.

George Fredrickson, writing in The New York Review of Books last year on Dr. Higham's final book, Hanging Together: Unity and Diversity in American Culture, identified those fields as "ethnicity and race in American life and thought since the Civil War; the history of American culture (both popular and elite) in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and the history of historical interpretation."

"John Higham has resisted the trend toward greater specialization, while at the same time showing deep understanding of the plight of the oppressed or marginalized groups that have sought higher status both within historical memory and in society at large," Mr. Fredrickson wrote. "He has focused his main attention on those immigrants who have been victims of xenophobia, but he has also responded sympathetically to the situation of African-Americans."

It was Dr. Higham's first book, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, that secured his reputation as a serious scholar. It had a profound impact in interpreting the immigration movement when it was published in 1955.

"It was a comprehensive study of nativism during its heyday in the United States. It was republished in 1963, 1975 and 1989, and it remains the classic work on the hostility native-born Americans showed toward immigrants outside the Anglo-Saxon fold," said Dorothy Ross, a Hopkins professor of American intellectual history.

"He was also a pioneering student of American cultural history. With his comprehensive view of American culture, he insightfully linked high culture and low," she said.

Dr. Higham enjoyed writing thoughtful and provocative essays.

"His preferred form of writing was the essay, and he was a master of it," Dr. Ross said.

Published compilations of his essays included Beyond Consensus, Send These to Me, Ethnic Leadership, Civil Rights and Social Wrongs and Writing American History.

Even though Dr. Higham had retired in 1989, he continued researching and writing. At his death, he had just completed an article on immigration, race and ethnicity, colleagues said.

"Reading one of his essays while I was in graduate school, at a point when I was unsure about whether or not to continue, helped me understand what I like about history and why history matters. For that, I will always be grateful," said Ron Walters, who teaches American history at Hopkins.

A longtime resident of the Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood near the Homewood campus, Dr. Higham had lived at the Cambridge Apartments on North Charles Street since 2001.

While he enjoyed collecting Japanese woodcut prints, scholarship remained the focus of his life.

"He was a total historian from head to toe, inside and out. He was always interested in the world of ideas," said his wife of 55 years, Eileen Moss, a clinical psychologist who survives him.

Dr. Higham was a member of the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation.

Services are private.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Higham is survived by two sons, Jay Higham of Sandy Hook, Conn., and Daniel Higham of Baltimore; two daughters, Margaret Higham of Winchester, Va., and Constance Vidor of New York City; and seven grandchildren.

Sun staff researcher Elizabeth Lukes contributed to this article.

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