A Tribute to Commemorate the Retirement of Professor Charles Capper
It is with a profound sense of appreciation for his many scholarly and pedagogical contributions that the Department of History announces the retirement of Professor Charles Capper. A renowned American intellectual historian, Professor Capper—“Charlie,” as he is known by his colleagues—became a member of the department in 2001. He has devoted much of his scholarly career to an investigation of American Transcendentalism and, more broadly, American Romanticism within its larger transatlantic context. His two-volume biography of Margaret Fuller, one of the preeminent intellectuals associated with the Transcendentalist movement, has received widespread acclaim. The first volume of this biography, Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life, Vol. 1: The Private Years, traces Fuller’s life from her birth in 1810 until her assumption of the editorship of the Transcendentalist journal, The Dial. This work was awarded the prestigious Bancroft Prize in 1993. In the second volume, Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life, Vol. 2: The Public Years, Charlie analyzes the rich tapestry of Fuller’s life and thought from 1840 until her tragic death at sea in 1850. During that relatively brief period, Fuller played an enormously important role in articulating a wide range of ideas central to proponents of Romanticism in the United States and Europe. In luminous and captivating prose, Charlie traces the trajectory of her career as editor of The Dial, author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), and literary editor of the New York Tribune, as well as her involvement in the revolutionary politics of Europe during the late 1840s. He has also provided the reader with a masterful discussion of the discourse of many thinkers in Boston, Concord, New York, and Europe. In his discussion of Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), for example, Charlie shows that Fuller’s work can most fruitfully be interpreted less as a polemic in support of the women’s rights movement than as an eloquent philosophical justification for the liberation of the female spirit in accordance with the precepts of Romanticism. His success in situating Fuller squarely within the complex political landscape of Europe in the years between her arrival in London in 1846 and her participation in the revolutionary events in Italy in 1848-49 has earned him special praise.
Since completing his work on Fuller, Charlie has continued to center his scholarly attention on Romanticism, a worldview, he has maintained, that is chiefly characterized by the conviction that “the life of the subjective mind contains infinite depths of meaning and value” and that “through self-consciousness one could expand that most private of spheres—the subjective self—into the limitless possibilities of intellectual and spiritual endeavor.”
Charlie’s contribution to scholarship has extended well beyond his own impressive series of publications. He is also co-editor of The American Intellectual Tradition, a two-volume collection of primary sources that is now in its seventh edition. This work has become the “go-to” sourcebook in the teaching of many, probably most, American intellectual historians. Charlie has not only served as the primary editor of the first volume of this work, but he has also been, in the words of his co-editor, David Hollinger, of “invaluable” assistance in selecting the sources for the second volume. Charlie, Hollinger has written, is the “perfect coworker”—“flexible and responsive but persistent and exacting.” The well-balanced group of documents found in the collection is conspicuous for having succeeded in resisting the temptation to ignore philosophical, theological, and theological sources in order to give undue weight to texts focusing on political issues.
In his role as one of the founding editors of Modern Intellectual History Charlie has also made a very important contribution to scholarship. That journal, which first appeared in 2004, is arguably the most important in its field. Widely known as a sensitive and astute editor, Charlie played a pivotal role in ensuring that the editorial office of the journal would be located at Boston University.
Graduate students have consistently expressed their appreciation of Charlie’s skill and insight as an instructor. Emphasizing his gratitude for the “learning and support” he received as a Ph.D. student under Charlie’s direction, Jonathan Koefoed, currently an associate professor at Bellhaven University, has written that “the breadth and depth of his learning could not help but inspire any student who studied with him. One always left conversations or classes with Charlie inspired to think more deeply, to press forward in one’s work, and with a deeper appreciation for the intellectual pleasure one could take in the life of the mind. What I will remember most was how he modeled how one could be both erudite and humane.” Another of Charlie’s graduate students, Amy Kittelstrom, a professor at Sonoma State University, has similarly attested to the important role that Charlie has played in her career, noting that “his quick, precise recall of so many authors and arguments dazzled me regularly, and the way he helped me think about historical writing improved my understanding of our discipline and craft more than I can say. Devotion to his students, to the work of learning together, quietly drove him, benefiting how many thousands of us.”
Current graduate students have also attested to Charlie’s skillful mentorship. Jim Williams, for example, has observed that “whether talking in class about the Puritans or the Transcendentalists, or commenting on student papers on the death of God or ‘anti-anti-essentialism,’ Professor Capper always gave us the benefit of his expertise without burying us under its full weight.” Charley Binkow has similarly expressed his appreciation of Charlie’s pedagogy: “I will always be grateful for the lessons I learned in his graduate courses, but more invaluable was the experience of watching an encyclopedic professional address his students (and his studies) with humility, empathy and precision. I’m lucky I got to experience his kindness firsthand, and not just his brilliance.” Chris Stokum, a graduate student in AMNESP, echoes the praise of graduate students in the Department of History, declaring that “Professor Capper’s unwavering insistence on precision and lucidity in argumentation, however daunting at first, speaks to more than his impeccable scholarship. It also speaks to his matchless intellectual generosity: that rare conviction that his students have ideas that are worth expressing.”
Undergraduates have been similarly effusive in their praise of Charlie’s teaching. To cite a representative example, one wrote that “Professor Capper is quite kind, bright, and highly capable of breathing life into American history and intellectual theory. His class was an eye opener and, although difficult, was very fun and often casual. Professor Capper crafted a vision of the 20th Century, especially the first 30 years, that was modern and relatable to our own troubled times.”
The Department of History has consistently been the beneficiary of Charlie’s good counsel and sound judgment. The broad, liberal perspective he has provided his colleagues during their deliberations will be missed. Members of the Department of History are united in extending their best wishes to him and his family as they enter a new phase of life.