Joel Colton

Joel Colton

Fellow: Awarded 1957
Field of Study: French History

Competition: US & Canada

Duke University

A specialist in modern and contemporary European history, Joel Colton taught at Duke University from 1947 to 1989 and chaired the History Department from 1967 to 1974. He is the author of books and articles in French history and became known to generations of students and teachers as co-author with the late Robert R. Palmer of the widely read college textbook A History of the Modern World, of which the tenth edition was published in 2007.  At Duke he served for several years on the executive committee and as chair of the university’s elected faculty body, the Academic Council. On extended leave from Duke, he was Director for Humanities at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York from 1974 to 1982, administering a domestic and international program in support of research and teaching in the humanities.  After retiring at Duke in 1989, he continued his research and writing, participating in conferences at home and abroad, and serving as lecturer for alumni travel groups in Europe and Asia.

Born August 23, 1918, and educated in New York City, to which he remained a frequent visitor, he graduated from Townsend Harris High School in 1933 and 1937 received his B.A. degree from the City College of New York, magna cum laude, with election to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year and with honors in French and medals in Latin and French. Graduating in the Depression years, he began graduate work in history at Columbia University on a part-time basis while working full time as an assistant in the Registrar’s office at the City College.  He earned an M.A. degree at Columbia in 1940.  Preparing himself also for high school teaching at a time when college teaching positions were scarce, he took a master’s degree in education at the City College and taught at the Bronx High School of Science in New York as a teacher in training in 1941-42.

Military service in the Second World War interrupted his graduate studies. Serving in the U.S. Armny from August 1942 to June 1946, he was commissioned in 1944 and served overseas as a military intelligence officer in Europe for eighteen months, in combat and in the occupation of Germany.  In articles he wrote in 1955 and published in Army History and the Duke Alumni Magazine commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe he described some of his wartime experiences, including his crossing of the Rhine at the Remagen Bridge in March 1945.

After the war he resumed his graduate work, began teaching at Duke in 1947, and received his Ph.D. degree from Columbia in 1950.  His first historical publication, Compulsory Labor Arbitration in France, 1936-1939 (Columbia UP, 1951), an outgrowth of his dissertation, received favorable reviews in this country and in Europe.  Close to a half century later, in 1999, Osaka University in Japan published a Japanese translation of the monograph in a series described as "notable books on France and Spain in the 1930s." His second book, more broadly focused on the 1930s, was Léon Blum: Humanist in Politics, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1966, with a French translation following in 1968 published by Fayard, and a second edition and new forward published by Duke University Press in 1987.  Alfred Knopf, who took a special interest in the book, reprinted in the then Knopf house organ, teh Borzoi Quarterly, the blooper in the British magazine Encounter that read: "The modern novel has been in a serious crisis ever since James Joyce’s monumental effort to narrate a day in the life of Leon Blum." Léon Blum was, of course, not James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom but the gifted French intellectual and literary figure in the years before 1914 who came to head the French Socialist party after the First World War.  He was France’s first Socialist, and first Jewish, premier, heading the Popular Front government in the tumultuous 1930s. In the war years he became a prisoner of Vichy and then of the Nazis but survived to head the French government again briefly before his death in 1950.  Charles de Gaulle, who detested all politicians, nonetheless wrote in his memoirs in the early postwar years that if he was compelled to choose anyone as his successor he would select Léon Blum.

The Colton biography won the annual North Carolina Mayflower award in 1967, an award for the best nonfiction book published that year by a resident of North Carolina.  It received numerous tributes.  Professor S. William Halperin, of the University of Chicago, reviewing the book in the American Historical Review in January 1967, described it as "a polished, richly tapestried, and absorbing narrative" and concluded: "I have no hesitation in predicting that it will rank high in twentieth-century historiography." The reviewer in the American Political Science Review in June 1967 called it "solid, comprehensive, and brilliant." Foreign Affairs included the volume in its Fifty Year Bibliography (1972) among its "outstanding books" and "works of scholarship of lasting value" published in the fifty-year period 1920-70. In later years, in April 1988, in a review of the second edition, the French journal Revue de Science Politique described it as "based on a perfect knowledge of the political history of French socialism and a classic from the time of its initial appearance." It has received continuing recognition despite the appearance of more recent studies of Blum.

Colton’s articles and book reviews have appeared in the American Historical Review, Journal of Modern History, Yale Review, New York Times Book Review, and elsewhere, and he has contributed to numerous encyclopedias and collaborative volumes.  For the Time-Life Great Ages of Man series he wrote the volume entitled Twentieth Century, published in 1968, with a second edition in 1980.

His collaboration with Palmer on the previously mentioned A History of the Modern World began in 1956 with the book’s second edition.  Known to generations of undergraduate and graduate studiens as "Palmer and Colton," it was published by Knopf until the closing of its college department in the early 1990s.  Since 1992 it has been published by McGraw-Hill (but with Knopf continuing for several years to publish a trade edition for the general public). It traces the history of Europe and the global influence of the West, with close attention to the global context of modern history in the more recent centuries.  The book has been used in over 1,000 colleges and universities in the United States and abroad and in advanced placement courses in public and private secondary schools.  Over the years it has been translated in its various editions into Arabic, Persian, Swedish, Finnish, Spanish, Italian, and Chinese.  A second translation into Chinese of the 10th edition appeared in 2009. In an article on textbooks in the New York Review of Books published February 6, 1987, the distinguished Princeton historian the late Lawrence Stone wrote: "A truly first-rate history textbook, like that of R. R. Palmer and Joel Colton on modern Europe, can shaped the vision of a whole generation and it is there fore very important that the textbooks used in schools and colleges be accurate, up-to-date, fair-minded, intelligent, and written in such a manner as to stimulate curiosity." The New York Times educational supplement, Education Life, on August 2, 1987, included the book in "A List of the Best," a description of nineteen college textbooks in all disciplines "considered classics in their fields." Eric Hobsbawm in his The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (1995) referred his readers to its "excellent bibliographies." Even a detective novel found occasion to mention it. Ross Thomas in The Fourth Durango (Mysterious Press, 1989, p. 250) writes that his protagonist, when interrupted by his agitated wife while he is reading in his library, "puts down his book, Palmer and Colton, the fifth edition" to listen to her recounting of the murder she has witnessed. For the two most recent editions of the textbook (9th ed., 2001; 10th ed., 2007) Lloyd Kramer, chair of the History Department at the University of North Carolina, was added as a new co-author after the aged Professor Palmer withdrew; Palmer died in 2002.  The authors are now cited as Palmer, Colton, and Kramer.  A new Chinese translation of the 10th edition appeared in 2009.

In addition to his Guggenheim Fellowship, Mr. Colton’s research awards have included fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation (1961-62) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (1970-71). In 1979 he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  For distinguished achievement as an alumnus, the City College of New York awarded him a Townsend Harris Medal in 1980.  He was one of twelve Phi Beta Kappa National Visiting Scholars appointed for the years 1983-84, shortly after the program was introduced, and in 1984 he was elected to the Fellows of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, an honorary organization supportive of the undergraduate society.  He chaired the Phi Beta Kappa chapters at the City colleg of New York and at Duke.  In 1985, at the invitation of the German Federal Republic, he participated in a special program in Bonn and Berlin designed to explore the politics, economics, and culture of contemporary Germany.  In 1986 he received a Duke University Distinguished Teaching Award. In 1994 he was honored by the Western Society of French History for "exceptional contributions to the study and teaching of French history in the United States." In 2005, the Southern Historical Association’s European History Section awarded him on the occasion of its 50th anniversary the Enno Kraehe Distinguished Service Award for his contributions to the teaching and writing of European history and for his service to the Section in its formative years.

David Pinkney, president of the American Historical Association in 1980, in his presidential address cited Mr. Colton’s work as among those that had led to the French scholar René Rémond’s observation in Le Monde: "To Americans we owe some of the best studies of contemporary France." In a paper written for the American Historical Association’s centennial meeting in 1984, "a Century of French History in America," R. R. Palmer observed: "American work has been especially successful on subjects which the French themselves find very sensitive to handle, for example, the biography of Léon Blum by Joel Colton and Robert Paxton’s books on the Vichy regime."

Among other professional activities Mr. Colton has served on the Board of Editors of the Journal of Modern History, French Historical Studies, and Third Republic/Troisième République, and on the advisory board of Historical Abstracts. He has also served as chair or as member of committees of the American Historical Association, as vice president of the Society for French Historical Studies, and as chair of the College Entrance Examination Board’s European History Advanced Placement Committee.  For many years he also worked closely on research and other projects with the International commission on the History of Social Movements and Social Structures headquarterd in Paris, several of whose projects have been published in book form. From 1985 to 1990, he was one of its three international co-presidents.

Over the years Joel Colton has taught as a visiting professor at the Unversity of Wisconsin, at Makerere University in Uganda, and at Cadi-Ayyad University in Morocco, and has lectured at Tübingen University in Germany.  He has resided for extended periods of time during research leaves in Paris, Geneva, and New York.  For many years he was a member of the Century Association in New York and has remained a longtime member of PEN American Center.

His wife, whom he married in May 1942, the late Shirley Baron Colton, a New York University alumna and editor, died in December 2003.  His daughter, Valerie Woodbury, resides with her family in Durham, North Carolina. His son Kenneth Colton, is a managing director of Lazard Asset Management in New York and resides with his family in Upper Montclair, New Jersey.  His five grandchildren are Emelyn Woodbury-Carroll, Marcia and Amy Woodbury, and Clare and Alex Colton.

In August 2008, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, Dr. Deborah Jakubs, Director of the Duke Universities Libraries and Vice Provost for Library Affairs, announced the establishment of the Joel and Shirley Colton Fund for European History in honor of Joel and his late wife.  In her announcement, Dr. Jakubs cited his "profound impact on the field of European history and on generations of graduate and undergraduate students at Duke and beyond." The Colton Fund will help strengthen and support the existing resources at Duke for study and research in European history.

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