With his usual directness, Professor Lawrence Goodwyn told his doctor to tell the truth. How long did he have? Weeks, months, the doctor said. My old friend and Nell Goodwyn, his wife, shared the news. A great historian was dying, I realized, the teacher who has been my lodestar for more than a generation. I told Larry I needed to say some things, in case we didn’t get another chance. Glad that I did. He died a month later on September 29. A memorial celebration will be held on November 9 on the Duke University campus where he taught for thirty-one years.
I was swimming in warm memories and I reminded him of some of our best moments. I didn’t go to Duke myself. I met Larry through his classic history of the agrarian revolt, Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America, published in 1977. I was then a young reporter at The Washington Post and it was a liberating encounter for me. His book reordered American political history as it is conventionally taught, actually turned it upside down. What I learned from Larry and his books is reflected in every book I wrote myself.
The Professor, as I liked to call him, gave me an empowering way of thinking about our country—both critical and loving, both sternly unsentimental on the facts but sustained by what I call Goodwyn’s radical optimism. He believed democracy is possible, not more than that, and only if people learn how to organize themselves and demand it from the powerful forces that dominate their lives. Larry liked to say this idea of democracy is “unsanctioned” by the established authorities who run things. That sounded like solid ground to me, given the deformed and decayed condition of the American governing system.
We began a long-running conversation that stretched over thirty years in which we frequently exchanged ideas and understandings and he sometimes gently upbraided wooly digressions (sometimes not so gently). He gave me the language and the nerve to write seriously about the idea of democracy, to reject the dominant culture’s cynicism and self-congratulations, to tune out the mass-market propaganda that passes for political speech. What a wonderful gift.
Goodwyn pushed students to recognize that by his measure Americans have never realized authentic democracy, not even close. Yet their unfulfilled thirst for voice and power endures despite the hostile circumstances. Democracy is hard to do, always has been. Genuine social movements are rare, he taught, and frequently fail. But if people persist over years, even generations, their activated consciousness can become the core force driving progress and justice, not the machinations of political parties or powerful leaders.
I think Goodwyn’s singular accomplishment was to rescue this idea of democracy from the indifference of worn-out elites. At least he convinced me. I happen to know he convinced a lot of the young people who had taken his course on social movements. Some of them are organizers now, having learned what Goodwyn himself experienced in his younger years. Before he was a historian, he was a reporter and editor. He learned about democracy and power as a civil rights organizer in the South and campaigning for liberal candidates in Texas.