Allan Nevins (1890-1971) began life as a journalist but ended it with a reputation as one of the best popular American historians of the day. Although he wrote a number of books on a variety of topics, he is most famous for his eight-volume study of the Civil War.
Allan Nevins was born on a farm near Camp Point, Illinois, on May 20, 1890, the son of Joseph and Emma (Stahl) Nevins. According to Nevins, his father, who was a stern Presbyterian, enjoined him to work hard, an injunction he followed faithfully all of his life.
Nevins received his academic training at the University of Illinois, earning an A.B. in 1912 and an A.M. the following year. His first academic appointment was as a graduate instructor in English while working on his master's degree. While still a student at Illinois he began writing two books, one on Robert Rogers, which was published in 1914, and a second on the history of the University of Illinois, which was published in 1917. Both books are now forgotten, but their very existence demonstrates Nevins' energetic and workaholic ways.
After graduating from Illinois in 1913, Nevins became an editorial writer for both the New York Evening Post and The Nation. Not only did he fill both these positions, but he also continued to do research in the New York Public Library and to write at home in the evenings. His busy schedule continued even after his marriage to Mary Fleming Richardson on December 30, 1916, and the birth of their two children, Anne Elizabeth and Meredith. He did sever his relationship with The Nation, however, in 1918.
The 1920s were a particularly productive time for Nevins. He published a history of the New York Evening Post—The Evening Post: A Century of Journalism—in 1922, a year before he left the paper. His next book was American Social History as Recorded by British Travellers (1923), a collection of eye-witness accounts of American society. The book was highly regarded and was re-issued 25 years later under the title America Through British Eyes.
Nevins became literary editor for the New York Sun in 1924, but left the position after a year to become an editorial writer for the New York World. In 1927 he published The American States During and After the Revolution, 1775-1789. The book, which was a study of conditions in each of the states during the Revolutionary period, became one of the standard works on that era. The same year Nevins took a year's leave from his newspaper duties to teach American history at Cornell University. The trial year convinced Nevins that he should continue to teach, so after he returned to New York City, and to the New York World, he became an associate professor of history at Columbia University. This position entailed teaching two classes each term. Nevins continued, however, as a fulltime editorial writer.
In 1931 Nevins cut his ties to the newspaper world and became, for the first time, a full-fledged academic as professor of history at Columbia. A year after his appointment Nevins published Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage (1932), the first of two biographies of his to win Pulitzer prizes. The book combines careful historical research with literary charm and added considerably to Nevin's reputation. Two years later he wrote a History of the Bank of New York and Trust Company, 1784-1934, which was done at the behest of the company and which demonstrated an interest in business history which was to continue. In 1936 he won a second Pulitzer Prize for Hamilton Fish: The Inner Story of the Grant Administration. A fourth book in that decade, The Gateway to History (1938), was an exercise in historiography, another interest of Nevins.
During the 1930s Nevins began to collect honorary degrees and to accept invitations for visiting professorships at other universities. He held the Sir George Watson Chair of American History, Literature, and Institutions in England in 1934-1935; was visiting professor of history at the California Institute of Technology in 1937-1938, as well as a visiting scholar at Huntington Library; and in 1940-1941 he was Harmsworth Professor at Oxford University, a post he was to fill again in 1964-1965.
During World War II Nevins worked in several capacities to further the war effort. He collaborated with Henry Steele Commager, his Columbia colleague, to write America: The Story of a Free People (1942), an effort to argue that the United States had a valuable historic heritage. He then served as a special representative of the Office of War Information in Australia and New Zealand in 1943-1944 and was chief public affairs officer at the American embassy in London in 1945-1946.
Following his return to Columbia Nevins began his most ambitious project, which was to become an eight-volume series on the Civil War. The first to be published was The Ordeal of Union (1947), which won the Bancroft Prize and the $ 10,000 Scribners' Literary prize. In 1948 he began the Oral History Project, a pioneer effort at collecting the memories of living individuals at Columbia University.
In the 1950s Nevins continued his work on the Civil War, publishing The Emergence of Lincoln, 2 volumes (1952), and The War for the Union, 2 volumes (1959). Two further volumes with the same title were published in 1961. He also began to write the biographies of important American business leaders, believing that these giants had built America's industrial strength and deserved more favorable treatment than that accorded them by the muckrakers. In 1953 he published John D. Rockefeller: A Study in Power, which presented a much more favorable view of the oil magnate than had earlier biographies. The next year he, along with Frank E. Hill, co-authored the first of a three-volume book on Henry Ford called Ford: The Times, the Man, and the Company. The remaining two volumes appeared in 1957 and 1963.
Nevins retired from Columbia in 1958 after an exhausting career in which he had not only taught and published books and articles, but had also supervised over 100 doctoral dissertations. He did not stop working, however, but instead moved to California to become senior research associate at the Huntington Library. There he continued to write. Among the books produced there were Herbert H. Lehman and His Era (1963) and James Trustlow Adams: Historian of the American Dream (1968).
When he died in San Marino, California, on March 5, 1971, Nevins had accumulated a distinguished career of service as well. He had been president of the American Historical Association, the Society of American Historians, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Only he knew exactly how much he had written. Ray Allan Billington has estimated that he wrote over 50 books and 1,000 articles and edited another 75 books, but was unsure of the actual total.
Further Reading on Allan Nevins
The best evaluation of Nevins is the essay entitled "Allan Nevins, Historian: A Personal Reminiscence," written by Ray Allan Billington in his compilation on Allan Nevins on History (1975). The book contains essays by Nevins on a variety of topics and is an excellent introduction to his work. There are several short passages on Nevins' attempts to write history that was at once scholarly and popular in John Higham's History (1965).