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Richard Maxwell Brown, RIP


Richard Maxwell Brown, the nation’s preeminent historian of violence, former president of the Western History Association, and my undergraduate honors’ thesis advisor, died in September, seemingly without other historians knowing. The WHA, a close knit organization, has made no announcement, and I only stumbled across it by chance last night when discussing him with someone on a different site. Brown was the author of, among other books, No Duty to Retreat: Violence and Values in American History and Society, which among other things, contextualized the violence of the post-Civil War West as what he called the Western Civil War of Incorporation. In other words, if you look at the gunfighter battles of the West in the 1860s-80s, you see almost invariably that the “outlaws” were Democrats and ex-Confederates or their children whereas law and order types were Republicans and Union soldiers. The territorial era and its appointed officials combined with the corruption of the Gilded Age to create battles for resources, which placed those with access to power into conflict with their ex-enemies also trying to access land. Combine this with people who are struggling with PTSD and have already learned to solve problems through violence and you have plenty of fuel for killings. He then took the justifications of self-defense made in these gun battles and connected it to the long history of American violence, particularly of the extra-legal variety. No Duty to Retreat still is an important book today.

Professor Brown was also an incredibly kind gentlemen. I took his American Biography writing seminar my sophomore year and turned that project into a not horrible honors thesis. This class was so popular that he taught an extra section without extra pay. I was probably annoying, taking up his precious time, but he never showed the slightest bit of annoyance. Rather, he talked me through the idea of historiography in his office. We discussed the Sand Creek Massacre after I visited the site during Spring Break in 1996. He told me stories of being Arthur Schlesinger, Jr’s TA and how Schlesinger could look at the written page for about 1 second and understand the entirety of everything on that page. He remembered working as a clerk during the Korean War and growing up in South Dakota. And he always asked about my parents and my father’s work in the plywood mills. In other words, this was not just an undergraduate advisor, but a man who gave of himself in a personal manner, as well as professional.

We continued to meet occasionally when I returned to Oregon to do research. We’d talk shop for a couple of hours, discuss my dissertation, and the like. By this time, he was long retired and I think he liked getting out of the house and talking shop every now and again. Of course, he had good advice for me. I hadn’t seen him in quite a few years though, probably since 2006 or so. I wasn’t surprised he had died–he was 87 after all–but I was bummed that no one had noticed. So I wrote this so that maybe someone will.

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