In Memoriam: Peter Novick, Controversial Historian

U. of Chicago

Peter Novick
March 18, 2012

In his most-noted books, Peter Novick, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Chicago who died on February 17, questioned values held by two groups to which he belonged: historians and American Jews.

His 1988 work, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge University Press), discussed historians' changing attitudes toward that stated ideal. "We should disregard far-reaching claims to objectivity," he said at the American Historical Association in 1991. "We don't have to be definitive; we can just be interesting or suggestive."

In 1999, he published an even more provocative book, The Holocaust in American Life (Houghton Mifflin). In it, he argued that Americans risked trivializing other atrocities by measuring them against the enormity of the Holocaust.

In letters to The Chronicle, scholars took issue with aspects of his book. One of them, Robert Ashley Michael, then a professor of European history at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, wrote that "Novick himself is dangerously close to politicizing and trivializing the Holocaust."

In his own letter to the editor in 2007, Mr. Novick commented on a controversy over another scholarly book on the Holocaust. "There are those who relish the adversarial role," he wrote. "This is not my style, which is much more tentative and cautious." But, he said, the university needed both types of scholars, and it would be "undesirable to have a university composed exclusively of people like me."

Mr. Novick, who earned his doctorate from Columbia University in 1965, was a professor at the University of Chicago from 1966 until his retirement in 1999. He was 77 when he died.