I Went Up To Amiens Today

John Merriman

I went up to Amiens today, out of nostalgia. Chuck and I had gone there long ago for some research in the Archives Départementales de la Somme. I write from Rouen, where I teach in May, and although I am often around here, I had not been up to Amiens for a long time. Thus, after hearing the sad news that Chuck had died, I wanted to go back. Of course, going on the road with Chuck was not the typical road trip of my college days. For one thing, he got up terribly early—it seemed like 3:00 a.m. but was probably closer to 4:30, and began to do sit-ups. Then he read and thought for what seemed like hours. I, too, had thoughts at that time in the morning, since I suddenly found myself awake, but my thoughts, such as they were, concerned what I would eat for lunch that day. Chuck and I were very different.

When Chuck first went off to Angers to begin his research on the counter-revolution in the West of France that has come to be called the Vendée, after one of the key départements in the conflict, he knew little French. Back in the late 1950s, he was one of the very first generation of U.S. scholars to work in French departmental archives. Entering, he encountered the classically grumpy, blue-clad gardien. Slightly intimidated, Chuck froze when the man asked him what he wanted to see. He could not say anything. Finally, when the irritation of the gardien had become anger, Chuck was able to blurt out, “Montrez-moi un document (show me a document)!” The archival employee did just that, and then, when Chuck had conveyed the fact that he was interested in the counter-revolution during the French Revolution, hundreds and hundreds of documents followed.

In 1968, I started graduate school at Michigan in history, for not very compelling reasons. I was playing baseball in Ann Arbor in the summer and needed an excuse to stay around, so I took a history course. Still clueless about what I wanted to do, I enrolled in a seminar in the fall that seemed to focus principally on what French generals such as Marshall Soult thought about Louis-Philippe’s July Monarchy. Someone—I cannot remember who—told me that I should read Charles Tilly, The Vendée. I did, one Saturday afternoon. Suddenly, it seemed that one could explain important events by looking at the bigger picture. Rebellions, indeed revolutions, had causes, and were part of change. Moreover, Chuck had just arrived at Michigan. I took his seminar the second semester of my second year. He was so nice and encouraging. I had become interested in the Revolution of 1848, and Chuck had on microfilm much of the relevant archival series, BB18 and BB30. He suggested that interesting things were going on in Limoges and the region of the Limousin during the Second Republic. I wrote a seminar paper on the dynamics of police repression there. Several months later, following my oral exams (I had met Chuck so recently that he was not even on committee for my orals), I was off in France for research on my dissertation, with Chuck as the director.

Chez Tilly on Hill Street in Ann Arbor was the setting for now legendary Sunday evening seminars. Natalie Davis and Maurice Agulhon were among the speakers, but one could also hear graduate students discussing their dissertations. This was a perfect kind of apprenticeship, and the most important thing about it was that Chuck tolerated no kind of hierarchy, and everyone’s ideas (even not so good ones) were equal. Wayne Te Brake, Bob Schwartz, Mike Hanagan, Miriam Cohen, Ron Aminzade, M.J. Maynes, and Bill Roy were among the participants in those days. And of course from the very beginning, Chuck was always just plain Chuck, not professor or doctor or some other pompous title, and most of the rest of us have kept that tradition alive.

Chuck worked almost all the time. He was so busy—and yet so generous, always, with his time. (This made it very difficult to imagine ever turning in a paper late; if he could work like that, we should be able to do so as well.) But he did not like to waste time. He always received so many letters, phone calls, and visits. (He once explained to me his “neutral corner” strategy for dealing with visitors, which would be to suggest not to meet in his office, but in some other place, so that he could decide when the talk was over after a reasonable amount of time and return to work.) Then with the computer age he always had hundreds of messages. He had almost no patience with small talk, and certainly not by e-mail. To get a response, one had to pose a specific question, “What is good on Albanian collective violence?” or “How are you?”, and then he always wrote back, immediately.

He was so loyal to his students, colleagues, and friends. He claimed that the only time he ever wore a tie was when he and Louise flew out to Carol’s and my wedding in New Haven in 1980. (That was about my case, too.) Their presence obviously meant a great deal. When we took up permanent residence in France, in Ardèche (a challenge as I teach at Yale and go back and forth), he came to see what our village was like. Though he seemed to enjoy himself, when he left I could tell he was thinking, would I really be able to get enough work done there. For about nine or ten years, Chuck had the lease for a tiny apartment in the second oldest building still standing in Paris on Rue François Miron in the Marais. I served as something of the agent for the apartment, and was there much more often than Chuck. We had very different standards of maintaining the apartment. Once, when Chuck arrived after my departure, he described it as looking like the last days of Pompeii. He could be a bit compulsive: on one occasion, he spent the last 20 minutes of his visit tying pieces of string together so that they could be added to the apartment’s ball of string. After France became much less of a focus for his research, he really did not return here very often.

Chuck remained committed to virtually same day service when it came to reading manuscripts—thousands and thousands of them over his career—especially those of his colleagues, former students, and students. Within the past six years, my editors at Oxford and Norton contacted him to see if he would have time to write a blurb. In both cases, they each called me in astonishment to say that he had read the book and provided a wonderful blurb the next day. He was like that.

Last year, Chuck agreed to give the keynote talk at a conference in Washington. He was not feeling well and was very tired, but was there all the same. I had been invited to introduce him, and he told me that he was very tired, and would speak only 35 minutes, so I introduced him for 10 or 12. He was fantastic, brilliant, cogent, compelling. It was vintage Chuck. It was the last time I ever had the chance to hear him speak.

Chuck’s 51 books, by latest count, and hundreds of articles have of course had enormous influence on history, as they did on sociology, political science, and one should probably add anthropology and economics as well. He once described himself as working in the no-man’s land between sociology and history, but what he did basically was to create historical sociology. In my case, as an historian, he has influenced all my books on France in important ways (including the one I dedicated to him in 1992). Examples of what I learned from Chuck include: how to think about the revolutionary process; the need to keep the dynamics of economic, social, political, and cultural change up front—to “put this in neon,” as he once said—within the context of the narrative history I sometimes do; the need to appreciate the complexity of cities and towns and relations between city and country; and much more.

Chuck once wrote, “It is bitter hard to write the history of remainders,” and that has always stuck with me. For The Red City, I first got the idea of pulling the comparison between the corporation of butchers based in the center of Limoges and the porcelain workers in the faubourgs from something once said. When I wrote A History of Modern Europe from the Renaissance to the Present and the subsequent edition, indeed the new one I am now concluding, I have always kept in mind something that he told me long ago—that history should not be seen as a series of bins that one opens up and then closes, moving on to another, that such big themes as statemaking and capitalism provide a way of understanding and presenting the past.

Whenever as a student (and beyond) I came to a snafu in what I was working on or writing about, I would go to Chuck to seek his advice. He invariably said, “Look, there are three aspects to this,” while holding his hands somewhat off to the side, oddly enough, in what seemed to be the shape of a box, one that suggested four aspects—but with Chuck, three or four was a simplification for the rest of us, because he could imagine about a hundred at any one time. (There is a photo of him on the inside jacket of one of his books, if I remember correctly, of him in that pose.)

Well, there are (at least) three ways of thinking about Chuck Tilly. He was the most brilliant person any of us will almost certainly ever know. His great influence on the social sciences will continue, through his own work and hopefully through his colleagues and former students. And he was a wonderful human being, someone of great good will and good humor, who cared about people and the human condition. And he was the perfect mentor and colleague, a wonderful friend. How we will miss him.


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