David Lowenthal

I went to the much-postponed conference organised to commemorate the late, great David Lowenthal, a geographer by profession. He studied geography at Berkeley, California, was employed for a long time by the American Geographical Society, before migrating to University College, London as a Professor of Geography. But he was someone whose range of intellectual interests deliberately evaded all disciplinary boundaries. He got a degree in history from Harvard (only a BS because he couldn’t read Latin), his PhD was in history at the University of Wisconsin, and he is a father figure in heritage studies, following his books, The Past is a Foreign Country (1985) and Possessed by the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (1997).

What I hadn’t realised is what a big figure he is, also, in Caribbean Studies as the author of West Indian Societies, funded by the Institute of Race Relations and published by Oxford University Press in 1972, a book which sounds like a combination of history, geography and social sciences.

What I learned, much of which I did not know was:-

1. His father, Max Lowenthal was an important New York lawyer, who supported workers’ rights and got into trouble with McCarthy for writing a book critical of the FBI. David’s writing was similar to his father’s: present the written evidence as far as possible and leave the reader to interpret it.

2. He was introduced to the Annales School by the first of his mentors, Jean Gottmann, in Paris after his service doing topographical studies of Eastern Europe for the Intelligence Photographic Develooment Project (IPDP) in the last year of the Second World War. Of course. So much of his technique is that of the Annales School. Look at the environment. Look at everything. Don’t treat history as events.

3. Because much of his life was spent as a researcher at the American Geographical Society, he could choose what he worked on and so wasn’t an orthodox academic. He wasn’t especially good at playing the academic game and was encouraged to take early retirement from University College in 1985, the year of his magnum opus.

4. He was a great man, of boundless intellectual enthusiasm and generosity, who made a multitude of friends, many of whom were there to honour his memory.


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