Saturday, July 21, 2012

Remembrance of a Tough, Brilliant, But Challenging Person

I thought this was quite the remembrance in UChicago's alumni magazine. It's written by Jay Mulberry, AB 1963, and I hope he doesn't mind the re-posting. It's innocuously stuck in the back of the magazine along with all the other class updates. I can't find a copy to link-to online, so I'll post it here:

Mel Thurman came to Chicago in 1959 as a poor boy from St. Louis. Th excitement of learning from great teachers and late night conversations in Hitchcock Hall were a revelation to him, and he remained devoted to the University, it being, after his family, the greatest influence on his life. Mel was a brilliant student of anthropology and a protege of Lewis Binford, who arranged for him to do field study in Nubia and South Dakota while an undergraduate. He received his PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1973 with his dissertation, "The Delaware Indians, a Study in Ethnohistory." For the next 30 years Mel was known as one of the preeminent authorities on the early history of North American Indians.

Those who knew Mel well remember him as incredibly hard working. He mastered several different areas of anthropology and wrote two novels as well as a study of the cinematic work of Terrence Malick. At the end of his life, he was a recognized authority on both the French influence in colonial America and the place of prophetic religions in world history. No one who knew Mel doubted that his ideas were built on the detailed analysis of thousands of documents studied in hundreds of libraries throughout the country. But those who knew Mel also saw another side.

Mel had a seeming compulsion to destroy his professional relationships and thus his chances to attain eminence and position. Beginning with his career as an instructor at Princeton, he systematically offended and abused nearly every scholar in his field until he was forced to live outside academia and support himself as an independent scholar. Much worse, in 1995 his wife, Barbara, perished in an awful automobile crash. She had been both his love and his source of stability; her loss left him emotionally unmoored.

For the last decade, Mel lived in extreme poverty in Ste. Genevieve, MO, frequently ill and nearly deaf. But Mel always cared more about ideas than his physical circumstances, and he continued thinking, working, and writing until the end. In a decrepit car he traveled back and forth across the country, studying what remained to be studied and collecting books and articles that remained to be read. how he did this with resources that could hardly maintain a life is a mystery, but survival had always been one of his skills, and he had learned to live with poverty in boyhood. He was too unwell to give the paper on "Ethnohistoric Analysis of Photographs of Native Americans" that was scheduled for the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association in January.

Mel died in Tucson, AZ, on April 4, leaving behind his two beloved children, Tanya and John. Although he had alienated most of his professional peers over the years, they, along with the devoted friends who remain, recognize that in him they have known someone very special -- a American original.