However, within the illustrious history department of this university resides a cabal of professors that are dedicated to studying the French presence in North America.
Gitlin’s office in Davenport is enough to make anyone want to study North American history—with a specific unexpected focus on the French in North America. Books like West From the Appomattox, The Franco-American Overview, Buffalo Bill, fill every inch of the room, floor to ceiling. Gitlin’s passion for the subject is equally infectious: within five minutes of speaking to him, I was convinced I wanted him to be my senior thesis advisor.
While history has long been a popular major at Yale, the department has quietly assumed its place as one of the world’s leading institutions in the study of French North America. This is in large part due to the work of Gitlin, John Mack Faragher, GRD ’77, Howard R. Lamar Professor of American History, and Ryan Brasseaux, GRD ’08, dean of Davenport College. This team of academics has published some of the leading works in this field of study. Faragher is the author of A Great and Noble Scheme, a book that documents the expulsion and genocide of the French-Acadian people from North America. Brasseaux, of Acadian descent, will soon publish a work on French influence on 20th-century America culture, which Gitlin assured me “is going to be a big deal.”
“We have now gotten the reputation as the primary place to study French North America,” Gitlin said. This was not always the case. According to Gitlin, In the 19th century, “before Yale became this Canadian studies presence, if you wanted to know about French Canada or French North America, the seat of that knowledge was really at Harvard,” Brasseaux said. There, the expert in the field was Francis Parkman, an American historian known best for his seven-volume France and England in North America.
“The momentum shift[ed], in a way, from 19th-century Harvard to 20th-century Yale,” Brasseaux said, in part due to Robin Winks, who was a prominent history professor at Yale from 1957 until his death in 2003. Winks served as a mentor to Gitlin, who himself majored in history as a Yale undergraduate student. Gitlin first became interested in the subject of French North American history because his roommate in Calhoun was of French-Creole descent and from New Orleans. His senior thesis, titled Forgotten Frontiers, was inspired by Howard Lamar, former president of Yale and expert on the history of the American West. He went on to write his dissertation on French North America, specifically, the French Midwest. This semester, Gitlin is teaching a class titled “Quebec and Canada from 1791 to the Present.”
As Yale’s scholarly prowess in the study of French North America began to emerge, so too did the opportunities afforded to those studying the subject. This began in 1976 when Yale, through the efforts of Winks, received a bicentennial gift from Canada to establish a permanent visiting Canadian professorship. This year, the spot is filled by an expert on the underground railroad in Canada. There also exists a Canadian Studies Committee, which supports research in Canada, as well as a University prize for the best essay written on Canadian history. Yale’s Canadian collection is among the best in the United States, with resources in both the stacks of Sterling Memorial Library as well as the Beinecke.
Needless to say, this appraoch provides a perspective on American history that is different from the norm. “History looks very different from [the French] perspective,” Gitlin said. “It’s a whole different slice of North America.”