“History isn’t rocket science.” I distinctly remember Frank Turner, my mentor at Yale, saying that to me in 1995 over a beer on Charlotte Street in London after a day looking at documents in the Royal Society archive. “What did you see?” What I had seen was a number of documents showing a famous mathematician trying to solve religious problems using equations. “Well, then that’s what you have to write about.”
Frank suddenly passed away today from a stroke at 66—devastating, incredibly sad news. I’ll miss him for so many reasons—most of all, he was just such a nice, caring individual, and so whip-smart about many things. I’m still deeply influenced by his pragmatic view of history, not as a complex theoretical realm but quite frequently as a process of simply recognizing what’s in front of you.
Frank’s body of work showed the power of simply recognizing what was in front of you. His first book vaulted past stale discussions about the war between science and religion in the Victorian era by showing that there were many intellectuals caught between the two supposed poles—something that should have been obvious to any close reader of Victorian thought but which had been denied by decades of “war between science and religion” talk.
A word that Frank used a lot was “unnoticed”—that is, the past is often lying in plain sight, but our preconceptions prevent us from seeing it. In his groundbreaking essay “The Victorian Crisis of Faith and the Faith That Was Lost,” he noticed that this crisis began during an intensification of religion through evangelicalism, the language of which (a return to purity, an emphasis on reform) was soon turned against existing faith. In other works he noticed the strong effect that debt and bankruptcy had on the supposedly detached thought of Victorian thinkers—they were human, after all.
Frank had seriously good taste in the important things in life: ideas (Hume), art (J.M.W. Turner), architecture (Louis Kahn), the landscape (rural New England, the Cotswolds), wine (
BurgundyBordeaux), dogs (English setters). But he approached these pleasures not as landed gentry or a stereotypical Yale professor but as someone who had come from modest means in Ohio and had stumbled, almost giddily, on the joys of history and the senses. He had a historic 300-year-old saltbox in Guilford, Connecticut, that he had tastefully modified (just before the preservationists disallowed such changes) to hold a substantial personal library and writing room, and a large kitchen for dinner parties. Frank had a great laugh, and was not stingy with it. He could tell you rather specifically why a painting was great and then just stand back and smile at its greatness.
Frank was so shrewd about so many things—he had a deft understanding of Victorian history, of modern intellectual history, the workings of the academy, human nature. He also had several major phases to his career, including a stint as provost and more recently the director of the Beinecke rare books library at Yale. Just two months ago he was appointed the overall University Librarian.
I had been talking to him for the last few years about the future of libraries and the humanities in a digital age. A decade ago I think he was slightly depressed that I had veered into the digital humanities. But he called me after seeing Google Books for the first time—what was in front of him—and immediately got that this was something he had to understand better. I have no doubt that he would have been an incredible librarian who would have honored tradition while also moving one of the world’s great library systems forward; yet another facet to this tremendous loss.
This fall Frank and I were having a long back-and-forth about the future of peer review, some of which I may redact and publish in this space. I wish we could have finished that discussion, and that I could have gotten more of his advice, on this and so many other topics.
For now, I just want to honor Frank Turner, may he rest in peace. He was a great mentor, scholar, and friend. I will deeply miss him.