In Memoriam: William J. Rorabaugh, 1945-2020

William J. Rorabaugh, 1945-2020

Anyone who met Bill Rorabaugh immediately liked him.  He had an infectious smile and a wonderful way of asking you about what you were doing.  Only with some coaxing would he turn to his own work.  Generations of SHEARites have had this experience since Bill always seemed to make a point of meeting the newest crop of scholars whenever he attended our yearly summer gathering (which he did with incredible frequency).

I met Bill at SHEAR in 1980, although I am fairly certain that he had also attended the inaugural SHEAR the year before.  By the time I met him, Bill had already published his first book, The Alcoholic Republic (1979), only three years after he had completed his PhD at the University of California at Berkeley.  This work remains a classic in the field since it combined what was then  the new social history with a popular flair that still makes the book a pleasure to read.  Bill was not simply interested in how people drank in antebellum America, but also why they drank.  For Bill, understanding the patterns of drinking was important because “each pattern can tell us something about life in the young republic and about various facets of its culture.” (149)  Bill’s second book, The Craft Apprentice (1986) was more impressionistic and dependent on personal reminisces.  He traced a decline in the practice of apprenticeship not just connected to the changing means of production, but also to the emergence of a cash nexus and a new egalitarianism.  Most importantly, the reader gets a sense of what it must have felt like to grow up as a young man in a world undergoing rapid change.

Bill’s career took what seemed to me at the time to be a surprising turn after The Craft Apprentice.  Although he remained an avid SHEARite and even served as president of the organization in 1993, he abandoned research in the early republic.  Instead, he turned his attentions as a scholar and as a teacher to the turbulent 1960s.  Only two years after The Craft Apprentice, Bill published Berkeley at War: The 1960s (1989), an in-depth examination of the complex upheaval that helped to spawn the student rebellion that rocked Berkeley and the United States.  Nor was Bill finished with the decade of his formative years, publishing thereafter two books on John F. Kennedy, Kennedy and the Promise of the Sixties (2002), and The Real Making of the President: Kennedy, Nixon, and the 1960 Election (2009).  Subsequently, Bill published a synthetic study of the counter-culture of that era, American Hippies (2015) and, in a work that may have been presaged by his first book, Prohibition: A Concise History (2018), a survey of the movement to limit alcohol consumption in the twentieth century.

The reason for Bill’s modern turn became clearer to me the more I got to know him.  As he would explain, there were parallels between the upheaval and call for reform in the antebellum era, and the disruption and effort to remake society in the 1960s and 1970s.  There was also a connection between his interest in alcohol and young apprentices explored in his first two books and the drug culture and youth rebellion of more recent times.  But there was something deeper at work here.  As a historian, Bill thought analytically and was trained in using documents to patch together complex narrative about the past.  Awed by what he personally witnessed in the 1960s and early 1970s, it made all the sense in the world for Bill to apply his skills in an effort to explain that world.

Besides, Bill loved San Francisco, the locus of so much of the action of his later works.  I found this out personally when I ran into Bill at an American Historical Association meeting in that city in the mid 1990s.  When I told him that I had never been to San Francisco before, he insisted on taking me on a private tour.  We hopped into his car, which had already been safely ensconced in the hotel basement, and he drove me through the city, showing me Haight-Ashbury, of course, and to give me an insider look at the San Francisco of the 1960s.  It was an experience I will never forget.  Neither of us attended any sessions that day, but I gained a lasting knowledge of the history of the city, and a deeper appreciation of the good heart and warm friendship of Bill Rorabaugh.  I know that all of us who knew Bill, will miss him dearly.

Paul A. Gilje