Saturday, July 4, 2009

Let Us Now Praise Pete Daniel

Since 1984, when I arrived at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History as a pre-doctoral fellow, I’ve valued Peter Daniel’s friendship. I’ve also admired him as a historian who is always up for a good fight and a good time. This summer, I learned that I have a lot of company.

The occasion was a conference in June at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, "Region, Class and Culture: New Perspectives on the American South.” Over a weekend that many recalled as the best conference they ever attended, we celebrated Pete’s work and extended the knowledge we gained with him. (So much of this talk has taken place over mugs of beer that one participant described himself as something like an “Irish Times” fellow with Pete, a reference to a splendid bar in Washington, DC.)

Pete’s still a curator at the National Museum of American History; his interests in subjects as varied as Southern history, rural history, photography and popular culture prompted excellent presentations and illuminating discussions. At the same time, Pete has always known the value of blending work and play. Breaks for bourbon, barbecue and a fantastic evening concert called “Petefest” on Beale Street brought much joy to our proceedings.

It is easy to admire Pete for his many attributes: his democratic manner, his craftsmanship, his presidency of the Organization of American Historians, his ability to blend a heartfelt love of Southern culture (and NASCAR) with firm opposition to racism and inequality. At the Smithsonian or in the Irish Times, he’s the same person. I’ve long thought that if you stranded Pete on a desert island, he would still write insightful essays on sharecropping and rock and roll. He’d just send them out as messages in bottles, following his calling as the circumstances allow.

As Pete has observed quoting Thomas Pynchon, and as participants recalled at the conference, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers.” Here’s to Pete’s many years of asking his own questions and providing his own answers. We’re all richer for his work and his friendship.

from left to right: Elvis Presley and Pete Daniel at Presley's home on Audubon Drive in Memphis, where "The King" lived before moving to Graceland.

1 comment:

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