Edwin 'Ted' Burrows (1943-2018)
The Gotham Center mourns the recent death of Edwin ‘Ted' Burrows, master historian of New York City, co-author of Gotham, longtime CUNY colleague, teacher and friend.
By Sam Roberts
New York Times, May 7, 2018
Edwin G. Burrows, a Brooklyn College professor who shared the Pulitzer Prize for the magisterial narrative Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, died on Friday at his home in Huntington, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 74.
The cause was Parkinson’s disease, his daughter, Kate Burrows, said.
In 1999, Professor Burrows and Mike Wallace, a fellow professor at the City University of New York, won the Pulitzer Prize for history for their 1,424-page doorstop, which was instantly acclaimed a definitive, populist and novelistic account of the city’s first three centuries.
Professor Burrows, who taught at Brooklyn College for 41 years, was the author of two other books, both delving into neglected chapters of the city’s history: Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War (2008) and The Finest Building in America: The New York Crystal Palace, 1853-1858 (2018).
Professor Burrows’s passion for history was piqued when he was in college. (At least he found it more penetrable than his original major, physics).
While he was not a New York native, at Columbia he developed a fervor for “Gotham” — the name for New York adopted in the early 19th century by Washington Irving, after the English village whose inhabitants had feigned madness to fool the king’s tax collectors.
During graduate school, Professor Burrows explored Upper Manhattan, including the 18th-century Dyckman Farmhouse Museum, whose board he later joined. He also collaborated with Professor Wallace, a classmate, on “The American Revolution: The Ideology and Psychology of National Liberation,” an article published in the 1972 volume of the annual Perspectives in American History, edited by Donald Fleming and Bernard Bailyn.
“The history of the city provides a framework for grasping the whole of the American experience,” Professor Burrows said in a 2012 interview with The Junto, a blog devoted to early American history. “You really can’t say that about any other place in the country.”
In 1,424 pages, Professor Burrows and Professor Wallace chronicled New York City’s first three centuries in 1999.
He added: “Careerwise, New York City has given me so many fascinating subjects for historical research as well as an unequaled array of libraries and archives. The only downside is that colleagues in other fields get to travel to exotic places like Paris or Cairo.
“Me,” he said, “I get to ride the subway.”
Edwin Gwynne Burrows, who was known as Ted, was born on May 15, 1943, in Detroit to Edwin Gladding Burrows, a radio broadcaster and poet, and Gwenyth (Lemon) Burrows, a social worker.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1964 and a doctorate from Columbia University, where he studied under the historians Eric McKitrick, who chronicled the evolution of the American republic, and Richard Hofstadter, who won the Pulitzer Prize twice.
He began teaching at Brooklyn College in 1972. In 1978 he married Patricia Adamski, who is now the senior vice president for planning and administration at Hofstra University on Long Island and a law-school professor there. In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by their son, Matthew, and two brothers, David and Daniel.
Professor Burrows’s first book, drawn from his doctoral dissertation on Albert Gallatin, the treasury secretary under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, was titled “Gallatin and the Political Economy of Republicanism” (1986).
Well before that, he and Professor Wallace, who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the City University Graduate Center, began writing a history of American capitalism.
“We had written hundreds of pages, but had barely gotten out of the 17th century,” Professor Wallace told The New York Times last year. “That’s when we decided to make it more manageable and tell the story through New York City.”
Even the more manageable version, with Professor Burrows focusing primarily on the 16th and 17th centuries, took them nearly two decades to complete.
Professor Burrows at Brooklyn College, where he taught for 41 years.
“ ‘Gotham’ ended in 1898 if for no other reason than because we had surpassed the limits of bindery technology,” Professor Wallace said. (The year also provided a natural endpoint; 1898 was when a consolidated five-borough New York City, including Brooklyn, was born.) “Ted delivered his part, and I just kept going garrulously,” he added.
In an email on Monday, Professor Wallace wrote, “Ted fashioned a masterful synthesis of New York’s colonial and revolutionary history, webbing together a generation’s worth of economic, political, social and cultural studies, into an engaging and mellifluous narrative, hailed by scholars and citizens alike.”
Last year Professor Wallace, on his own, published a sequel, “Greater Gotham: A History of New York City From 1898 to 1919.”
Professor Burrows never viewed history as a dead discipline to be dredged up episodically for anniversary commemorations. Rather, he considered it living, relevant and contextual.
Recalling the thousands of Americans who died on British prison ships in New York Harbor during the Revolutionary War, he wrote in “Forgotten Patriots”:
“I have refrained from drawing parallels to contemporary events, but I will not be sorry if readers find themselves thinking about Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, about the evasion of habeas corpus, about official denials and cover-ups, about the arrogance and stupidity that can come with the exercise of great power.”
He added, “I hope they will also see that once upon a time, when the country was young, our own experience with prisoner abuse led us to believe that we are supposed to do better.”
In 2000, Professor Burrows was elected a fellow of the Society of American Historians.
After he retired from Brooklyn College in 2013, he was asked what he had enjoyed most about teaching there.
“That’s easy,” he replied. “My students. Most of them are the first in their families to attend college, many are first- or second-generation immigrants from all over the world, and they all approach college with well-placed, street-savvy skepticism.
“From them,” he added, “I learned everything I know about teaching.”