David Pinkney, French Historian

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[David H. Pinkney]
David H. Pinkney

David H. Pinkney was an internationally renowned scholar of French history, noted for his books Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris (1958), The French Revolution of 1830 (1972; translated and published by the Presses Universitaires de France in 1988), and Decisive Years in France, 1840-1847 (1986). He served on the faculty of the UW history department from 1966 until his retirement in 1984. Pinkney's three major books "together show an uncommon mastery of French history in the mid-nineteenth-century years…they represent the work of a master craftsman," affirms his colleague, Gordon Wright, in a memorial for Pinkney in 1993.

Although Pinkney's scholarly work encompassed the French Revolution of 1789 through modern times, his particular emphasis in his later years was France in the early and middle 1840s. "Those were the most formative and seminal years in the nation's history in the century and a half after the Revolution," he wrote. "In the latter 1830s France was still agrarian, rural, dominated by landed gentry, populated largely by peasants whose behavior was shaped by an antiquated economy and by folk customs, a nation whose national language was originally spoken by only a minority of its people.

"In the first half-dozen years of the next decade forces emerged…that turned the nation's course decisively toward urban, industrial, bourgeois, and culturally- unified France of the twentieth century," he observed. "Four men who came upon the scene in Paris in these years--Labrouste, Courbet, Flaubert, and Baudelaire--revolutionized French architecture, painting, fiction, and poetry." Those were years "of unprecedented change in industry, in transportation and communication, in the distribution of population, and in conceptions of the role of government in the economy."

Pinkney's many years of professional service distinguished him as an "anchor," not only of the history department at the UW, as former UW history department chairman Donald Treadgold once pointed out, but of his entire field. Wright reflects: "From the founding of the Society for French Historical Studies until his death…, Pinkney's professional career was intimately interwoven with the life of the Society--more closely, indeed, than that of any other American historian of France." footnote 1

Pinkney was one of 29 "intrepid pioneers," notes Wright, who were the Society's founding fathers. When the new organization was launched, Pinkney served in the key role of secretary-treasurer and continued in that post for seven years. He served on the editorial board of French Historical Studies from the very beginning when the first issue of that journal rolled off the press. "More impressive, however, was his uninterrupted service on that Board for the next twenty-seven years, including the nine years from 1966 to 1975 when he was elevated to the post of Editor-in-Chief," emphasizes Wright. "No other member of the Society could approach that remarkable record of editorial leadership." Furthermore, Pinkney served as president of the Society for French Historical Studies from 1975-76.

Pinkney's preeminent role among American historians of France brought him wide recognition in the field of history. He served on the blue-ribbon panel of the American Historical Association (AHA) that drafted a new constitution for the Association. In 1980, he was elected president of the AHA.

  1. "In Memoriam: David H. Pinkney," Gordon Wright, French Historical Studies, 1994.
  2. "Professor's 'French connection' ranges from history to cooking," The University Report, September, 1977, p. 3.

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