Provost Peggy Agouris sent the following message to the campus community on Sept. 5, 2023. – Ed.
I write to share the news that James L. Axtell, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Humanities, Emeritus, died on August 29. He was born in Endicott, N.Y. on December 20, 1941 to Laura England Axtell and Arthur James Axtell, partners in a small public accounting firm. After his parents divorced in 1946, he moved with his father to his paternal grandparents’ small farm in Sidney, N.Y. Two years later, his father was remarried to Mildred “Sally” Lunn, a former schoolteacher. He grew up with an adopted stepbrother, John, and later a half-brother, Robert. After her own remarriage, his mother moved to Phoenix, Ariz. with his younger brother, Ronald.
Jim graduated from Sidney Central High School in 1959, attended the Oxford International Summer School in 1962, graduated from Yale in 1963, and earned a Ph.D. in History from Cambridge University in 1967. His dissertation on “The Educational Writings of John Locke” was published by Cambridge University Press in 1968. An anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement declared it the “definitive edition” of Locke’s writings, “marred only by a remarkably bad index.”
Athletics played a large role during his college years. Recruited to play basketball for Yale, he switched to track in his freshman year and set Yale records in the indoor long-jump and the outdoor triple-jump before graduation. At Cambridge he set the university long-jump record and broke the 41-year-old British Universities long-jump record (held by Harold Abrahams of “Chariots of Fire” fame, who graciously reported the feat for the Times of London.) It would stand for 30-some years. Jim was also chosen for the All-England university basketball team after being the high scorer on the Cambridge varsity for two years. He claimed that he finished his dissertation in only two years so he could return to the U.S. without having to guard first-team All-American and Rhodes Scholar Bill Bradley on the Oxford team the following year.
In 1966, after a postdoctoral fellowship year at Harvard, he returned to Yale as an Assistant Professor of History. After six years, without waiting for a tenure decision in a period of economic constraint, he secured a mid-rank position at Sarah Lawrence College. Three productive years later, he was “let go” on the grounds that he “would be happier at a large research university.” With two NEH fellowships in hand, he moved to the Newberry Library in Chicago after a fourth year in Bronxville. In 1977-78, he was a visiting professor at Northwestern University. In 1978, he and his family moved to Williamsburg, where he became Professor of History at William & Mary and remained for 30 years of distinguished service. While at W&M he was the first faculty member to win a Guggenheim Fellowship and the university’s only elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1986, he was honored with the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professorship in Humanities, and 20 years later with belated but gratifying election to Phi Beta Kappa. In between, he was invited to deliver the prestigious Fleming Lectures in Southern History at LSU and was awarded an Outstanding Faculty Award by the State Council for Higher Education for Virginia.
Deeply involved with both graduate and undergraduate teaching, Jim supervised 30 Ph.D. dissertations, 76 M.A. theses, and numerous senior honor theses while teaching each year at least one freshman seminar, often on “The Age of Exploration” or the history of American higher education (both beginning in Europe). His lecture course on “The Invasion of North America” featured numerous color slides and often artifacts in every class and lots of writing and re-writing of primary-source essays. He was known as a non-inflationary grader; D was not passing in his grade-book and C- was frowned upon, but he never failed a student who made a real effort to improve.
Jim was a prolific and multi-faceted scholar, at home in colonial American history, Native American history, and the history of higher education. He published 71 articles, 6 essay-reviews, 11 monographs, 7 edited works, and 3 booklets. Although a Yale graduate, he wrote an innovative, 650-page history of “The Making of Princeton University” (Princeton University Press, 2006). His major book in ethnohistory, “The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America” (Oxford University Press, 1985), was a History Book Club selection and won three national book prizes. Three of his Oxford books sold more than 13,000 copies, largely in newly offered courses in Native American history across the U.S. and Canada. He lectured widely, particularly during the lead-up to the morally-fraught commemoration of the Columbus Quincentenary, when he also served as chairman of the American Historical Association’s Committee on the Quincentenary. He also served as a consultant-planner-writer for several museum exhibits in the U.S. and Canada.
Between 1981 and 2001, Professor Axtell published seven volumes on Indian-White relations, plus a steady stream of essays in journals and collected editions. His prize-winning 1985 book, “The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America,” established him as the country’s leading authority on Indian-White relations. In 1988 he was elected president of the American Society for Ethnohistory; his presidential address on “Humor in Ethnohistory” is still remembered for its wit and learning. In addition to giving a remarkable number of conference papers and invited talks, Professor Axtell served as a consultant to museum and media projects, including “Sesame Street Discovers America.” He also published two books on the history of education: “The Pleasures of Academe: A Celebration and Defense of Higher Education” in 1998 and “The Making of Princeton University: From Woodrow Wilson to the Present” in 2006.
Professor Axtell retired from William & Mary in 2008. Following his retirement he served three terms (one as vice-chair) on the Williamsburg Regional Library Board of Trustees, a natural continuation of his two separate two-year terms of service on the university’s Library committee and as two-year chair of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences committee on Retention, Promotion and Tenure.
Professor Axtell was pre-deceased by his beloved and loving wife and best friend of 61 years, Susan Hallas Axtell (whom he met on a blind, if arranged, date in college). He is survived by his two sons, Nathaniel and Jeremy; his daughter-in-law Jennifer Serr Axtell; two grandchildren, Clark and Zoe Axtell; younger brothers Ronald of Mission Viejo, Calif. and Robert of Rockville, Md. and their wives, Mary and Pei-Yu; and his favorite nieces, Allison Axtell and Meredith Ransom, both of Los Angeles, Calif. His ashes will be scattered in the lobster-laden Atlantic off his favorite spot on earth, Otter Cliffs, on Mount Desert Island, Maine, where he and his wife vacationed for two weeks a year for more than three decades.
The family notes that memorial gifts may be made to any library, college, university or animal shelter.