Alexander Saxton, Historian and Novelist, Dies at 93

Posted in Biography, History, Media Archive, United States on 2012-09-09 01:10Z by Steven

Alexander Saxton, Historian and Novelist, Dies at 93

The New York Times

Paul Vitello

Alexander Saxton, who would go on to become a prominent historian of race in America, summed himself up in a blurb on the dust jacket of his first novel, “Grand Crossing,” published when he was 24.

“At various times,” he said, he had worked as “a harvest hand, construction gang laborer, engine-wiper, freight brakeman, architectural apprentice, assistant to the assistant editor” of a union newspaper, railroad switchman and columnist for The Daily Worker.

Unmentioned were his upbringing on the East Side of Manhattan in a household where Thornton Wilder and Aldous Huxley were frequent dinner guests, and his schooling at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard.

But in his biographical blurb, the young Mr. Saxton accomplished the first of many self-transformations. They included passage from upper-income childhood to working-class adulthood; from Harvard student to Chicago laborer; from novelist to union organizer and Socialist; from activist to academic…

…His contributions as a cultural historian are considered his most enduring.

Mr. Saxton’s first historical book, “The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California,” became a landmark of labor history, describing how 19th- and 20th-century labor unions used racism against Chinese immigrants as a tool for unifying and organizing white union members.

“It challenged one of the foundational stories of the labor movement,” said Eric Foner, a Columbia University professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. “Instead of the story of solidarity and democracy usually told, Saxton showed how racism was one of labor’s most important organizing tools.”

The critical success of the book helped Mr. Saxton establish one of the first Asian-American studies program in the United States at U.C.L.A. in the early 1970s. 

His 1975 paper “Blackface Minstrelsy and Jacksonian Ideology,” [March 1975] tracing the links between blackface minstrelsy and the ideology of white supremacy, is considered one of the early texts in black history studies; and a 1990 book, “The Rise and Fall of the White Republic,” is known as one of the foundations of “critical whiteness studies,” an academic field that examines the assumptions underlying “whiteness” as a racial designation and political organizing principle….

Read the entire obituary here.

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