J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Meeting William Pencak

Yet another historian of early America who died this fall was William Pencak, who spent most of his career at Penn State. He wrote on a great many topics, including Pennsylvania’s Revolution and Jews and Gentiles in Early America, 1654-1800, but also the American Legion and Icelandic sagas.

In War, Politics, and Revolution in Provincial Massachusetts (1981), he looked at the Revolutionary unrest with a long lens:
Before 1760, it had been customary for men to marry before the age of twenty-five, usually between twenty-one and twenty-three. After 1760, marriages of men in their late twenties became more common. When the Revolution broke out, weddings by men over thirty became the rule rather than the exception. . . . During nearly two decades of war, migration had been primarily female and predominantly local. Beginning in 1765, migration not only increased phenomenally but became primarily male. The newcomers now came not only from Massachusetts, but from other colonies and overseas. The end of warfare, the disbanding of the army, and a postwar depression reinforced in Massachusetts by the catastrophic drought of 1763 to 1764 accounted for the presence of so many single men in Boston. They undoubtedly swelled the size and added to the vigor of the “Boston mob.”
He also co-edited a volume titled Riot and Revelry in Early America.

I met Bill this spring at the “Revolution Reborn” conference in Philadelphia. He sat in the balcony and boomed down comments, but he was also happy to engage with non-academic “buffs” like myself. He had retired from Penn State and seemed to delight in shocking academic colleagues with the news that he’d taken a position at the University of South Alabama.

Bill was also part of a panel on the Treaty of 1763 at Faneuil Hall a few days later, and afterward we walked over to the Old State House together. Or rather, we tried. It was raining hard, the path was uphill, and Bill finally begged off, saying he was exhausted. He really didn’t look well, and I worried about whether he could get back to where he was staying. (Not that Bill let me walk him further than the T stop.)

So I can’t say I was shocked to learn of Bill’s death during heart surgery at age sixty-two. But I was definitely sad. He was still working on at least two big projects, a Jewish Studies program at his new university and a biography of Philadelphia’s first Episcopal bishop, and clearly still enjoying his work.


lizcovart said...

He also had a major project on the Jay Family that he had worked on for years in fits and starts. It's a shame he never finished it.

J. L. Bell said...

I appreciated your remarks on Pencak at Uncommonplace Book, Liz. You obviously got to enjoy a much longer acquaintance.