Davis, Natalie Zemon

views updated

DAVIS, Natalie Zemon

Born 8 November 1928, Detroit, Michigan

Daughter of Julian L. and Helen Lamport Zemon; married Chandler Davis, 1948; children: Aaron, Hannah, Simone

Long admired for bringing the lives of obscure people to life, Natalie Zemon Davis is a historian with an international reputation. Her books are published in multiple languages, and The Return of Martin Guerre (1983) had more than 78,000 copies in print at the end of the 1990s, and she served as historical consultant for the film version of Le retour de Martin Guerre. The recipient of many awards and fellowships, including 20 honorary degrees, Davis served as president of the American Historical Association in 1987. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the British Academy. In July 1996, Davis took early retirement from Princeton and moved to Toronto, where her husband lives and where she is a research associate in the Comparative Literature Department at the University of Toronto.

Of Polish Jewish and Russian Jewish ancestry, Davis was influenced by growing up a Jew in a neighborhood where only two Jewish families had homes. In an interview with Roger Adelson, Davis recalled, "The ability to identify anti-Semitism became a part of my life without anyone sitting down and giving me a lesson in it." Davis' father was a successful businessman in the Detroit textile industry. He was also an amateur playwright and an avid reader and writer. Davis' mother was a homemaker and businesswoman.

Davis attended elementary school at the Hampton School in Detroit. She then went to Kingswood, a private girls' school in suburban Detroit. Davis quickly learned what it meant to have outsider status, because she was one of only two Jewish girls in her class. She turned her attention to her studies. She received outstanding grades and developed leadership skills, serving as president of the student council. And most important she learned that she loved history, "especially the Enlightenment and the American Revolution." Davis attended Smith College and continued to not only take her intellectual pursuits seriously but her student activism as well. She applied questions raised by her political work to her honors program in history. She received her bachelor's degree in 1949, a year after she eloped with Chandler Davis, a graduate student in mathematics at Harvard University.

Davis and her husband Chandler remained committed to and active in political work. They protested the Korean War and the work of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Davis continued her education at Radcliffe and completed a master's degree in 1950. She found her intellectual interests turning more toward the history not of elites but of merchants, artisans, laborers, and peasants. Without neglecting her political work, she pursued a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, completing the dissertation in 1959. Her first academic appointment at Brown University coincided with her husband's six-month term in Danbury Prison for charges brought against him by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Chandler Davis was black-listed in U.S. universities after serving his term, and consequently both Davises took jobs at the University of Toronto, he in 1962 and she in 1963. Natalie went on to teach at the University of California at Berkeley and at Princeton University, where she was named Henry Charles Lea Professor of History in 1978.

Arthur Quinn in the New York Times Book Review noted, "Ms. Davis' published work is…modest. She abstains from the big book, the grand synthesis, on which academic historians usually make their reputations. She prefers instead to produce exquisite miniatures whose scale reflects the lives she seeks to represent." Over the course of her career, Davis has helped to transform our understanding of both the common people and the elite. She argues that "lower-and upper-class worlds were reacting and reflecting on each other and even sometimes sharing rules and readers." While Davis' early work focused on class dimensions in early modern Europe, particularly in France, she went on to explore both literary and anthropological materials and approaches. She tries to exemplify in her work what she calls a multidimensional view of society.

This approach is well represented in Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (1995). Davis uses diaries, letters, and a rich array of supporting documents to illuminate the very different lives of three women. Glikl bas Judah Leib is a Jewish businesswoman in Hamburg, Germany; Marie de L'Incarnation is an ascetic nun and missionary among the Huron Native Americans; and Maria Sibylla Merian joined a radical Protestant sect and illustrates texts on insects. This book brings together Davis' reverence for history as narrative and, as Lorna Sage noted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "its patient and imaginative narrative." As a triptych of 17th-century women, Davis presents a multilayered history where her three subjects come alive. The women's lives may have indeed been lived on the margin, but their history is far from marginal. Like her other books, Women on the Margins will be translated into several languages, including Italian, German, and Finnish.

Davis has received tremendous scholarly acclaim, yet her focus remains on the common people, both in history and contemporary society. She contends, "I think that people simply want to know more about the common people of the past." With incisive analysis and challenging scholarship, Davis brings the pleasures of reading history to new readers.

Other Works:

Society and Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays (1975). Frauen und Gesellschaft am Beginn der Neuzeit (1986). Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth Century France (1987).


Reference Works:

American Women Historians, 1700s-1990s: A Biographical Dictionary (1996). CA (1997).


About this article

Davis, Natalie Zemon

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article