Professor Peter Parish


Born: 1929, in London

Died: 16 May, 2002, in Cambridge

PETER Parish was Britain’s leading historian of the American Civil War, mainstay of the Glasgow University History Department and subsequently Professor of History at Dundee.

News of his death will sadden everyone who knew him: in an abrasive, not to say backbiting profession, no adverse criticism of Peter Parish can be recalled.

He was one of the most amusing conversationalists in university life, and yet he was utterly deficient in the malice normally an indispensable element in academic wit. He was matchless in inspiration as a lecturer, and if John Smith and Donald Dewar showed some of the ability for cool self-appraisal and cultivated self-mockery characterising Abraham Lincoln, they had learned it from Parish. He was an admirably organised lecturer and administrator, but without the slightest trace of pomposity.

His writing never went for cheap laughs, and yet his eye for comedy was as faultless as the deep compassion with which he saw tragedy. If the historian is a judge, no prisoner could ever ask for one less easy to fool, and one more humane.

Peter Joseph Parish was born in London into a Roman Catholic family, and was educated at Lord Williams’s School, Thame, and at St Bonaventura’s School, Forest Gate.

He graduated with First Class Honours from University College London in 1950, and subsequently studied there under Professor H Hale Bellott, an austere and somewhat old-fashioned figure playing little part in the evangelisation of American history, now beginning to stir as a discipline in postwar Britain.

But Hale Bellottt’s extraordinary knowledge of developments in American historical writing fired Parish’s imagination, and so did what to many others would have been only a grim necessity - his period as a librarian before acceptance for an academic post. He became a true librarian, always conscious of books as living testaments, an aesthete of historical writing without fuss or feathers.

He met his future wife, Norma, at the University of Manchester when both worked as librarians there, and after marriage he became Lecturer in American History in the University of Glasgow in 1958, being promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1972.

Parish worked for many years on a history of the American Civil War, but was famous for a senior honours research course in Progressivism at the beginning of the 20th century. Although serving under two major American historians successively occupying the Chair of History at Glasgow, Esmond Wright and William Brock, Parish quietly established himself as a vital figure in the next generation, loved by students, relied on by colleagues, and increasingly depended on by his fellow Americanists.

A year at the Johns Hopkins University in 1963-64 won him golden opinions from figures on all sides of the bitterly embattled American historians; indeed, few British historians have won so much deference from Americans about US history.

When The American Civil War appeared in 1975, it was quickly recognised on both sides of the Atlantic as a masterpiece, an unrivalled, profound, shrewd, far-reaching, sensible, wise and kind study of the conflict, the best in one volume.

He became a truly popular and invaluable Professor of History at Dundee, in the Bonar Chair, from 1977 to 1983. He launched the British Association for American Studies history series with the first and, so far, the most distinguished of the pamphlets, his Slavery: the Many Faces of a Southern Institution (1979). Once again, Parish had produced the ideal work for a student to start on a topic, and would prove a very good final point of return.

At that time also, while serving Dundee as a Dean, he accepted the presidency of the British Association for American Studies, young for the honour but the obvious choice around whom all could unite.

After a quarter of a century teaching Scottish students, he accepted a post as research supervisor and director of the Institute of United States Studies in London from 1983 to 1992, serving as influential and constructive external examiner for many universities, including Edinburgh.

He published a study of what historians had made of slavery in 1989, and his eye for the heart of a work made him the natural choice for the foremost bibliographical introduction to his subject in his time, The Reader’s Guide to American History (1997), for which he treated Lincoln in an essay of rare powers of appreciation and yet firm dissent where he deemed it needful, from the work of friend or benefactor if need be.

He also reflected his interest in pre-Civil War political, cultural and ideological history with his other essay, on Daniel Webster, but his selections of his fellow-writers showed how well he had kept in touch with younger scholars and how faultless was his judgment of achievement and potential.

He brought out a short, popular study of the Civil War with Peter Batty, The Divided Union, again to general acclaim, and a beautifully crafted monograph, Abraham Lincoln and American Nationhood, having now become Mellon Senior Research Fellow at Cambridge.

He remained in harness to the end, still the liveliest and most eternally youthful spirit among the British Americanists.

He died after an operation for cancer, leaving his wife, Norma, now an invalid whom he nursed with endless devotion, and a daughter, Helen, the delight of their lives.