Remarks from Tom’s Memorial at NYU
I wish I weren’t here talking at a memorial for Tom, but rather talking with Tom. I thought we would be having conversations in the hallway for a lot longer.
Tom and I had a history, a shared trajectory of sorts in mentors and colleagues we admired. For me, Terry Turner was our chief intersection – through Terry’s work at Chicago with Tom, as a Latin Americanist, and my friendship with Terry as a senior colleague. Many of us in the Anthropology Dept met Tom when he was a candidate in our three-year long search for an anthropologist of Latin America to replace Claudio Lomnitz. When we met Tom, there was enthusiastic unanimity that he was doing a kind of anthropology that was original, rigorous, and ethnographically rich. Tom had by then already passed from his primarily ethnographic orientation to a more historical one; he was, after all, in a history department at the time. Shortly thereafter (in 1998), his first major book was published to considerable acclaim and awards in the fields of colonial Latin American history and ethnohistory. Pathways of Memory and Power: Ethnography and History among an Andean People established Abercrombie as a major figure in this field and defined his presence at the intersection of Anthropology and History.
For those of you who might not know, Tom held a distinguished record of grants and fellowships – a Mellon Fellowship to the Stanford Humanities Center in 1988-89, a Fellowship (Member) at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton in 1989-90, a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Program in Agrarian Studies at Yale in 1996-97, a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the John Carter Brown Library in 2001, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005–06, the last of which set him on course for the book he has recently put into publication. He worked meticulously and with a passion for his research, amassing a range of scholarship that was extraordinary. I’m sure you all know this. His was a tenacious scholarship, at times working against a popular grain. He deconstructed some too-easily held assumptions, most clearly with his identification of many allegedly “indigenous cultural forms” as inspired by or interwoven with Catholic practices in early contact periods. This kind of unpacking was something I deeply admired and he brought an extraordinarily and deeply researched knowledge to it.
We had many conversations, often in the hallway or at the edges of our offices, down the hall from each other. Impromptu, puzzled conversations – about questions of sovereignty in the New World, about saints and shrines, about material culture and what might be a way to build a program that incorporated our related interests. It was always fun, always illuminating to listen to his critical takes on some emerging interests. And we had many more opportunities to converse about ideas because we served on so many PhD committees together. I have lost count, but there were quite a few – many are here now. I think one part of my role was to remind Tom that somebody had come by looking for him. He worked at home, and even when he was in Waverly Place, his office door was usually closed. Mine is usually open. He was a far more private person than I, and his work had a focus that resonated with this contemplative style.
Tom and I were generational mates. Our lives were formed in the same fulcrum of society, of interests in otherness, in a political moment shaped by the Vietnam War, and a certain discomfort with self-promotion and those who practiced it. He shared it with many of our colleagues from that time. There weren’t so many jobs around when we got our degrees and we knew many people who had not succeeded. We also came from somewhat resonating intellectual traditions, a certain sociocultural orientation. These commonalities gave us a sympathetic connection that survived many differences. It was a small world, and we had encountered many people whose reputations were considerable. We knew a lot of people in common; many had a public face quite different from what we knew of them, and what we had perhaps endured with them. These are among the things we shared, experiences of a particular shared history of Anthropology, full of foibles and personalities. I remember particularly when we went to Terry Turner’s retirement conference at Cornell many years ago. A very well-known friend of ours, now very prominent but less so then, gave an impromptu lecture in contrast to those most of us had labored to craft. On the way back to the motel, our colleague asked how he had done. Tom told him honestly it had been a disaster. It was not mean. It was simply true, and a comment passed among friends. Tom did not celebrate fame, or reputation. I like to think we shared this healthy disrespect.
I am happy that Tom’s remarkable new book came to fruition before he left us, and that it was recognized so enthusiastically by the colleagues who reviewed it. Please join me in celebrating his accomplishment even as we mourn his loss. I think Tom would want us to honor his spirit with a toast (or something like that)