Professor Charlotte Erickson: Meticulous historian of migration

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:31

Charlotte Erickson was a superb historian, a marvellous person, a great teacher and a very influential exponent of American society, past and present, to a British audience. For two years at Vassar College in New York State, for 27 years at the London School of Economics and for a further seven at Cambridge University, she enthusiastically taught history as a social science, with special reference to the Anglo-American experience.

From 1952, she lived primarily in England, acquiring a very English husband (actually half-French) and subsequently two distinctly English sons, but she always retained her unmistakably American characteristics. Interestingly for a historian of migration – her central specialism – she thought it important for her children to be brought up in one settled place, and for many years they lived in the same north Islington house, not far from Highbury, the home of Arsenal Football Club. From her mother she acquired her passion for music; her passion for Arsenal came from her sons.

Erickson was born in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, in 1923, where her father was a Swedish Lutheran minister. She once said, with great perception, that the date of one's birth was the most important factor in one's life, far more important than class, gender, place of origin, or even parentage. Erickson herself was born into a generation of women who were coming onto the job market just as vast numbers of men were occupied elsewhere during the Second World War. Academic openings for women also expanded, with part-time job opportunities and graduate assistantships on a new scale enabling them to pay their way through graduate school.

Erickson was a student at Augustana College at Rock Island in Illinois, largely studying music, and graduating in 1945. She then went on to Cornell to hone her quantitative history, taking her MA there and her PhD under Paul W. Gates, who was an important influence. She later contributed to his Festschrift, published as The Frontier in American Development (1969). From Gates, she learnt clarity in posing questions, the order of types of sources, and meticulousness in dealing with the business of academic life.

She did as much agricultural economics as Gates required, but she devised a thesis topic that might take her out of Illinois, and even New York State. The turning point came in 1944, when she attended the summer seminar of the Institute of World Affairs, a wonderfully original institution, then recently settled in deep Connecticut. She became convinced that there was indeed life outside of Illinois. Migration had created the Midwest, and the study of migration was, for Erickson, the way out.

In her last year at Augustana, Erickson's focus shifted from music to history. At Cornell, her original idea of studying the French Revolution gave way to research into migration and immigrants. This took her to the London School of Economics, where she spent two years, between 1948-50, devouring economic history under the guidance of Professor T.S. Ashton and sharpening her knowledge of demography under Professor David Glass. She fell in love with the LSE.

She went back to the US for two years to teach at Vassar while she was completing her Cornell PhD thesis, later to be published as American Industry and the European Immigrant, 1860-85 (1969). But she returned to England in 1952 to get married to Louis Watt, who was later to become headmaster of a large north London comprehensive school, but then known for his intellectual Communist sympathies along with the historians George Rudé and Max Morris. Watt's views did not shock anyone at LSE, but many were taken aback when Erickson took to arriving at the school in a large antique Rolls-Royce.

Her first job in England was ideal for her. She was employed by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research to work on a historical study of the background and careers of businessmen in two contrasting British industries. Her detailed prosopographical work involved much reading of obituaries in dusty newspaper offices all over Britain (as indeed had the research for her thesis). The resulting book, British Industrialists: steel and hosiery, 1850-1950, published in 1959, was immediately recognised as a pioneering unification of economic, social, demographic and business history.

By the time it appeared, she had joined the very distinguished staff of the Department of Economic History at the LSE. From 1955 to 1982 she taught there with panache, rising through the whole gamut of academic ranks to become Professor of Economic History in 1979. She never, though, accepted the advice that Professor Nora Carus-Wilson had pressed in a tight-lipped grande dame manner about the correct way to hold a knife and fork in England.

Erickson's Invisible Immigrants: the adaptation of English and Scottish immigrants in 19th-century America (1972), commanded much attention. The Journal of American History said the work was "unique – part source, part biography, part interpretation".

Erickson was, naturally, also active in the organisation of the British Association for American Studies from soon after its formation in 1955, editing its newsletter, serving as its secretary and treasurer and becoming its chairman in 1983. She continually criss-crossed the Atlantic, spending 1966-67 as a Guggenheim Fellow in Washington DC and 1976-78 as Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholar at the California Institute of Technology.

In 1982 – after her husband had left her (as she always put it) – she was tempted away from LSE to become the first holder of the Paul Mellon chair of American History at Cambridge, the first of its kind in Britain, and she also became the first female Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Cambridge, she admitted, plunged her into "culture shock". She did not take to its masculine clubbiness, preferring the international social-science camaraderie of the LSE. But she set to and put American history firmly on the Cambridge academic map, attracting interest among undergraduates as well as graduate students. And she stayed in Cambridge after retiring from her productive tenure of the Mellon chair.

In 1990, as an Emeritus Professor, she was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship by the MacArthur Foundation of Chicago, one of the so-called "genius awards" which brought a lot of money for five years which the recipient could use as he or she saw fit. Erickson used it for research, and to encourage and support research students. The enduring quality of her own work is shown in the articles gathered together in Leaving England: essays on British emigration in the 19th century (1994).

Charlotte Erickson was still poring over migrant lists of one sort or another as her sight was fading. She was sustained by her love of opera, the love of her two sons, and the deep affection of her former students. As a teacher, she inspired her students with motherly, down-to-earth encouragement combined with fizzing ideas, constant practical support with continual intellectual questioning, and a contagious enthusiasm which never flagged.

Negley Harte

Charlotte Joanne Erickson, economic historian and scholar of migration: born Oak Park, Illinois 22 October 1923; Instructor in History, Vassar College, New York 1950-52; Research Fellow, National Institute of Economic and Social Research 1952-55; Assistant Lecturer in Economic History, London School of Economics 1955-58, Lecturer 1958-66, Senior Lecturer 1966-75, Reader 1975-79, Professor 1979-82; Paul Mellon Professor of American History, Cambridge University 1982-90 (Emeritus); Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge 1982-90, Life Fellow 1990-2008; married 1952 Louis Watt (two sons; marriage dissolved 1992); died Cambridge 9 July 2008.

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