William McFeely, Pulitzer-Winning Historian, Dies at 89

The author of acclaimed biographies of Ulysses S. Grant and Frederick Douglass, he also helped establish Yale’s black studies department.

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Credit...Associated Press

William S. McFeely, a historian who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Ulysses S. Grant but was also well known for advancing the field of black history, died on Wednesday in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. He was 89.

His son, W. Drake McFeely, said the cause was idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease.

Professor McFeely also wrote an acclaimed biography of Frederick Douglass as well as “Yankee Stepfather: General O.O. Howard and the Freedmen” (1968), a study of the Freedmen’s Bureau, set up by the government at the end of the Civil War to oversee the welfare of freed slaves, and the man who ran it.

These books and other writings established Professor McFeely as a leading interpreter of Reconstruction, the pivotal period after the Civil War.

“Via his books on Howard, Douglass and Grant,” the historian Eric Foner said by email, “McFeely played a major role in the re-evaluation of Reconstruction — seeing it not as an era of misgovernment and corruption as previous scholars too often did, but as a key moment, despite its flaws, in the ongoing struggle for racial justice in this country.”

Whatever his subject, Professor McFeely wrote in a style that was unusually accessible for academia.

“His prizewinning books, and especially his magnificent biographies, have made the past vivid for scholars and general readers alike,” the historian Drew Gilpin Faust, a former president of Harvard University, said by email.

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Professor McFeely graduated from Ramsey High School in New Jersey and earned a bachelor’s degree in American studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1952. He seemed headed for a career in banking, but in 1960, after eight years at the First National City Bank of New York, he enrolled at Yale University to pursue a Ph.D. in American studies, which he received in 1966. His dissertation became “Yankee Stepfather,” published in 1968.

Professor McFeely taught at Yale until 1970, helping to establish the university’s Department of African American Studies and teaching a core course on African-American history. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard scholar, was among the black students in his class.

“Professor McFeely’s riveting lectures brought to life in the most vivid way a world about which most of us had been unaware,” Professor Gates wrote in an email, “a world of black achievement, sacrifice, resistance and attainment, facts and stories that had been edited out of standard American history textbooks.”

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In 1970 Professor McFeely became a history professor and dean of the faculty at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. He wrote “Grant: A Biography” (1981) while there. Others had mythologized Grant, but Professor McFeely’s book did the opposite.

“There are historians who, when asked to contemplate Grant, insist that he must have had some secret greatness, hidden within him, that allowed him to accomplish what he did,” Professor McFeely wrote.

“I am convinced that Ulysses Grant had no organic, artistic or intellectual specialness,” he continued. “He did have limited though by no means inconsequential talents to apply to whatever truly engaged his attention. The only problem was that until he was nearly 40, no job he liked had come his way — and so he became general and president because he could find nothing better to do.”

Professor McFeely took a similar approach in “Frederick Douglass,” published in 1991, five years after he moved to the University of Georgia.

“After all that has been written about Douglass,” Herbert Mitgang wrote in reviewing that book in The New York Times, “including some mythmaking by Douglass himself in three autobiographies, Mr. McFeely’s ‘Frederick Douglass’ has a freshness of fact and boldness of interpretation that is admirable.”

Ishmael Reed, in his review in The Los Angeles Times, found that the book captured not only the man but the era.

“This engaging and well-written work of literature suggests that the Age of Douglass was this nation’s greatest epoch,” Mr. Reed wrote. “People of humble origin transcended themselves. Former slaves rose to greatness and spoke with the eloquence of angels.”

Professor McFeely’s interests extended to other areas as well. After he was called as an expert witness in a legal case in Georgia, he became interested in the death penalty in that state. Immersing himself in the subject, he produced, in 1999, the book “Proximity to Death,” in which he, a death penalty opponent, observed a series of capital punishment cases and the work of the lawyers defending the accused.

“This book is simply a story of a few people living in one corner of the country who carry a large responsibility,” he wrote. “The dry boards of a Georgia courthouse creak into life when one person — a lawyer — in defiance of a society that no longer cares, goes about the tough, unpopular work of trying to keep us from killing his client.”

His most recent book was another departure, a biography of an artist: “Portrait: The Life of Thomas Eakins” (2006).

Professor McFeely’s wife of 66 years, Mary Drake McFeely, died in 2018. They moved to the Hudson River town of Sleepy Hollow in 2013 after living for years in Wellfleet, Mass., on Cape Cod. In addition to his son, he is survived by two daughters, Eliza and Jennifer McFeely; a sister, Jean Ann Kessler; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

During his Yale tenure, a contentious time on American campuses, Professor McFeely sometimes felt the strain of being a white professor teaching black history. In a 2011 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, he recalled turning up to teach his black history class during the May Day turmoil of 1970, when the campus was the site of protests related to a Black Panthers trial.

He wrote an outline of the day’s lesson on the blackboard, but when he turned around to face the students, he got a surprise.

“I found my­self look­ing down at three cam­ou­flage-clad men car­ry­ing au­to­mat­ic weap­ons,” he wrote in the article. “The spokes­man — a black rad­i­cal in town for the ral­ly — said em­phat­i­cal­ly, ‘I’m clos­ing this class down.’”

“With more pres­ence of mind than con­fi­dence,” he continued, “I said that I didn’t think the sta­tis­tics on the board made what we were go­ing to talk a­bout that morn­ing ir­rel­e­vant to events on cam­pus.” On the board he had just written figures on the number of black men lynched in the United States. The three intruders backed down, and the class continued.