Jan 052012
In memoriam

First page of the memorial

After Binkley’s sudden death in April, 1940, he was memorialized in the various communities in which he participated. A committee of his colleagues at Flora Stone Mather College wrote a memorial of his career, which is reproduced below. The copy I have is stenciled and bound in a duotang folder; I don’t know whether or how the text was circulated at the time. It covers the phases of Binkley’s career in briefer form than the introduction by Max Fisch to the Selected Papers, and it testifies to his style and effectiveness as a teacher. His relationship with his colleagues can be judged from the remarkable closing paragraph. Three at least of the four members of the committee were personal friends of Binkley’s as well as colleagues; partial as I am, I take this paragraph as an attempt to convey the depth of their respect for him, though it could be read in other ways.

In Memoriam


Born in Mannheim, Pennsylvania, December 10, 1897, the first of the eleven children of Christian Kreider Binkley and Mary Engle Barr. Married Frances Williams at Stanford University, California, September 13, 1924. Died in Cleveland, Ohio, April 11, 1940, aged 42 years and four months. Survived by his wife and two sons, Robert Williams, aged 10, and Thomas Eden, 8. (A daughter, Barbara Jean, had died February 14, 1926, aged eight months.)

Academic biography as printed in the Catalogue of Mather College, December 1, 1939:

Robert Cedric Binkley, Ph.D., Professor of History

A.B., Stanford University, 1922; A.M., 1924; Ph.D., 1927; Instructor in History, New York University, 1927-29; Associate Professor of History, Smith College, 1929-50; Acting Associate Professor of History, Stanford University, 1950; Professor of History, Harvard Summer School, 1932; Lecturer, Harvard University, 1932-33; Visiting Professor of History, Columbia University, 1937-38; Acting Professor of History, Flora Stone Mather College, 1930-32; Professor of History, l932-

The career of Robert Cedric Binkley took its bent from early exposure to history in the making, immediately followed by experience in collecting, organizing, preserving and making accessible to scholars the documentary material upon which the record and interpretation of that history was to be based. In June, 1917, when he was a student of nineteen at Stanford University, he enlisted in the U. S. Army Ambulance Service and served in France for the duration of the war. He was wounded in action and cited for distinguished and exceptional gallantry at Fleville. In the spring of 1919 he studied art at the University of Lyons. In June Professor and Mrs. E. D. Adams of Stanford arrived in Paris to begin a collection of research materials on the War and the Peace Conference, for which a fund of $50,000 had been placed at their disposal by Herbert Hoover. In July Mr. Binkley was discharged from the Army to join Professor Adams as assistant and interpreter. Their first task was to secure from the delegations to the Peace Conference their memoranda, propaganda material, and such records as they were willing to surrender. At Mr. Binkley’s suggestion they began collecting the war-time publications, particularly pamphlets and posters, of patriotic, religious, academic and trade associations and societies. He himself did most of the work on the French societies, and on all but the women’s organizations in England. More than a thousand societies were eventually represented. He also played an important role in securing from the British Foreign Office a large part of the library and the enemy-propaganda collection of the Ministry of Information. These and similar collections from other countries, along with files of various army and civil newspapers, and the records of the food administration and relief commissions headed by Mr. Hoover, formed the nucleus of the Hoover War Library endowed by Mr. Hoover in 1924 and now housed in a separate building on the Stanford campus. Mr. Binkley continued in the service of this Library while completing his work for the bachelor’s degree. During his five years of graduate study he was its reference librarian. He began at that time to experiment with film copy and other techniques for meeting the problems of space and of paper deterioration involved in preserving and making accessible this vast collection of research materials.

To understand the war in which he had fought, the Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles, Mr. Binkley went back for perspective to the Congress of Vienna and the events that led up to it. His master’s thesis in 1924 was on The Reestablishment of the Independence of the Hanseatic Cities, 1813-1815. While working on it, he collaborated with Malbone Graham on a book on The New Governments of Central Europe, published ln 1924. In the same year he married Frances Williams, who was to be his collaborator in so many enterprises, and to whom he gladly attributed many of his most fruitful ideas. His doctor’s thesis in 1927 was entitled The Reaction of European Opinion to the Statesmanship of Woodrow Wilson. From 1927 to 1929 he was instructor in history at New York University. He soon began experimenting with the use of source materials and research methods in the teaching of undergraduate students, and settled upon the Calendar of State Papers and other documentary collections for Elizabethan England as best suited to the purpose. The plan there worked out of having each student reconstruct a month’s history from all the available sources, was later to be the distinguishing feature of the freshman history course in Mather College.

While still at Stanford the Binkleys had begun work on an essay in domestic theory which they published in 1929 under the title What is Right with Marriage. After a summer in Italy, Mr. Binkley went to Smith College as associate professor of history in the fall of 1929. The next year he published a contribution to the prohibition controversy called Responsible Drinking. He was acting associate professor of history at Stanford University for the summer quarter of 1930. In the fall of that year he came to Mather College as acting professor, to become professor of history and head of the department in 1932. In 1935 appeared his major publication, a history of Europe from 1852 to 1871 under the title Realism and Nationalism.

While still at Smith College he was elected in February 1930 a member of the Joint Committee on Materials for Research of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council. His special responsibility was the problem of reproduction of rare or unique materials. In September of that year, just after joining our faculty, he become secretary of the Committee, and from 1932 until his death he was its chairman. In 1931 he published for the committee a manual on Methods of Reproducing Research Materials, which he revised for a second edition in 1936.

When the Works Progress Administration was set up in 1935 with a place in its program for unemployed “white-collar” workers, Mr. Binkley saw at once the potential value of this group in preparing for the use of scholars materials hitherto seldom touched because the volume to be sifted was out of all proportion to what it would yield for the purposes of any single specialist. He proposed a coordinated set of projects for the inventorying, indexing and digesting of local public archives and selected newspaper files, including the foreign language press. It was largely due to his initiative and perseverance, and the able assistance of his secretary. Miss Adeline Barry, that Cleveland became a national center for this phase of the W.P.A. program, and that the Annals of Cleveland set the standard for similar enterprises in other centers. He gave freely of his time and counsel, without salary, and without office until just before his death, when he was appointed a member of the National Advisory committee of the Historical Records Survey.

There was a larger strategy in which his work for the Joint Committee and for W.P.A. was brought to a common focus. On the one hand, the materials made available by W.P.A. were widening the range of possibilities for amateur as well as professional scholarship, especially in the field of local history. On the other head, inexpensive methods of reproduction and distribution were bringing publication within the reach of amateur scholars with limited private means or none. These methods were also opening the way to the large-scale use of amateur scholarship in the work of translation, especially from languages not ordinarily included in the professional scholar’s equipment. As a result of his initiative, W.P.A. workers are now translating documents and treatises from the languages of central and eastern Europe, and Mather College is national headquarters for supervised volunteer translation of Latin American literature.

Mr. Binkley had urged for years the rescue, by purchase or microfilming, of unique and important materials in the war danger zones of Asia and Europe. His active interest contributed to the salvaging of a Hongkong collection of records invaluable for the history of western business enterprise in China since 1782. Now that the American Council of Learned Societies has called for June 5 and 6 a “Conference on Microcopying Research Materials in Foreign Depositories,” there is at last some prospect of his efforts coming to larger fruition, though only after the destruction of much that he had hoped to save.

Only those who knew him best realized how completely all these enterprises were subordinated to his work as a teacher in this University, how scrupulously he exacted of them all a promise of contributing to the enrichment of its teaching program. Though his primary devotion was to Mather College, he not only took active part in the reformulation of its status as a coordinate college within the University, but served the University at large in ways of which his work on the Advisory Committee of the University Libraries may be taken as an example. He conceived the regional union catalogue, and collaborated with Dean Hirshberg throughout in bringing it to fulfilment. He was also the initiator of the campus inter-library loan plan, whereby materials belonging to any library within the University are temporarily transferred to any other according to need and regardless of ownership.

No complete account can yet be given of the work on which Mr. Binkley was engaged at the time of his death, or had planned for the future. He left a typescript of four chapters and part of the fifth of an institutional history of modern Europe, employing an original conceptual analysis and embodying more fully than anything he had yet written what may be called his philosophy of history. It is to be hoped that this may be completed from his notes by some sympathetic hand, and published soon, along with a volume bringing together the best of his scattered essays and reviews. He had contracted to write a biography of Napoleon III. Probably his chief work would have been a history and reinterpretation of the Paris Peace Conference and Treaty of Versailles in the light of the preceding century of European history and as sowing the seeds of the second World War.

Younger historians influenced by his ideas may perhaps do most or all of the work he would have done as a scholar, and the pioneering causes to which he devoted himself have gathered momentum enough to continue without his leadership. But the teaching strength of Mather College and of Western Reserve University has suffered irreparably. The testimony of his present and former students begins almost uniformly: “He was the most stimulating teacher I ever had.” The following may serve as samples of the more specific things they go on to say: “He is the only teacher under whom I took lecture notes which grow warmer instead of colder with the passing of time.” “He had a directness of approach to every problem; he did not have to go through the usual academic warming-up exercises.” “At the end of nearly every meeting he would formulate with dramatic vividness some question for us to take away, as if he were less concerned about our reviewing the things he had said than about our going on for ourselves from the point at which he had left off.” “He made us believe that what we found ourselves wanting to do was worth doing and that we could do it; but then he made us see possibilities in it that hadn’t occurred to us, so that what we did in the end, if not always recognizable as the thing we had set out to do, seemed always to have grown out of it.”

Without subscribing to pragmatism as a general philosophy, Mr. Binkley exhibited to an extraordinary degree the pragmatic temper. There was for him no question which might not be reopened at any time, and there were no constants with a clear title to be carried over from problem to problem. It was for thought to determine in connection with each problem as it arose what had best be taken as constants for the purpose of solving that problem. With a mind untouched by the academic idolatry which pays to ideas and propositions the reverence and devotion that is due only to persons, he brought to every problem an extraordinary fertility of suggestion. Fortunately he had also a counterbalancing power of concentration. He was able on a moment’s notice to drop the matter in hand and shift his whole attention and energy to a fresh problem, and when that was disposed of to return to the previous task as if there had been no interruption. Thus it was possible for him to do most of his work in his office, and yet to give himself so completely to the students who called upon him at all hours of the day. The door was always open.

It would not be honest to omit the confession that it was with very little encouragement from us that he dreamed his dreams of amateur scholarship, W.P.A. organization of research materials, and a renaissance of local history in the republic of letters. We curled a deprecating smile before the vision of every Mather graduate her own historian. If we find it possible now to take a more generous view of his enterprises, that is in part because the prospect of others still to come has been removed. He had ideas, and nothing is quite safe with a man of ideas about, especially if he will go on having them and neither we nor he can guess what the next will be. Let us confess it humbly, he was a gadfly to our sluggish academic society, and we are as little disposed as ancient Athens to pray that God in his care of us should send us such another.

Respectfully submitted,

(Summerfield Baldwin III)
(Meribeth Cameron)
(M. H. Fisch)
(J. C. Meyer) Chairman


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