Washington People: Iver Bernstein

Tenacious professor shines light on unspoken, unremembered history 

Iver Bernstein, PhD (left), leads an American Culture Studies graduate seminar in Eads Hall. Bernstein recently was named graduate director of the multidisciplinary American Culture Studies Program. “Whatever the subject, he looks at it from new perspectives and takes me to new places,” says colleague Wayne Fields, PhD, the Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Professor of English and professor of American culture studies, both in Arts & Sciences.

Iver Bernstein’s father was a tenacious man who successfully sold and rebuilt his food brokerage company three times rather than retire; his mother loved literature and was known to read five to six novels a week. Those qualities came together in Bernstein, a historian known for his exhaustive, full-on approach to any topic he studies.

Bernstein, PhD, is a professor of history, of African and African-American studies and of American culture studies. He researches 19th-century U.S. history and, more specifically, the traumatic dimensions of that history, such as race riots, which often are suppressed in national stories. In so doing, he looks beyond historical documents and brings a host of cross-disciplinary sources to bear on his work.

“Iver’s knowledge about race in 19th-century America is broad and deep,” says Gerald L. Early, PhD, the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in Arts & Sciences. “He is astonishingly perceptive on the subject. He is one of the most important scholars we have on the history of the Civil War and on race and slavery during the Antebellum period.”

Early says Bernstein asks probing questions and is able to frame issues well, whether they are academic or non-academic.

Wayne Fields agrees. Fields, PhD, the Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Professor of English and professor of American culture studies, both in Arts & Sciences, has co-taught courses with Bernstein. “We don’t have casual conversations, even about our kids,” he said, laughing. “Whatever the subject, he looks at it from new perspectives and takes me to new places.

“In all of his work, he goes everywhere within that project. Iver has extraordinary intellectual range and integrity. He never takes shortcuts in his work,” Fields says, adding that the amount of reading Bernstein does — and expects those around him to do — is “daunting.”

The ‘gold standard’ for the subject

That enormous amount of reading led Bernstein to write a book Early terms “the gold standard for the subject.” The New York City Draft Riots, originally published by Oxford in 1990, was republished in 2010.

John Stauffer, PhD, chair of the history of American civilization program at Harvard University, calls the book “legendary for its meticulous research” and a “model of interdisciplinary work.”

Bernstein describes the book as somewhat “autobiographical” in that it was an attempt to better understand his hometown of New York City. The grotesque race riot helps to illuminate the city’s backstory.

Bernstein grew up on the edges of the city on Long Island. His father, a child of Russian immigrants, forged ties between U.S. rice growers and the city’s ethnic food markets through perseverance, “flair and a sense for personal relationships.” His mother was a poet who liked to reflect about family and occasionally had work published in The New York Times.

When his parents met, Bernstein’s father was living in the YMCA — a story he didn’t openly share. “In some way, part of my interest in history originated in trying to learn about their (my parents’) history and teasing out a story from a partially revealed past,” he says.

Bernstein said he and his sister grew up with parents who deeply appreciated education. Still, they were shocked when he left Columbia Law School in 1979 to enter the Yale University doctoral program.

“There were no professors in my family,” Bernstein says. “They saw law school as a sure ticket to a secure life versus this speculative venture in academics.”

The academic market was horrendous at that time, according to Bernstein, who said his parents mailed him The New York Times humanities academic job market reports with the words “zero growth” circled in red ink.

However, Bernstein was groping to find something more satisfying after earning a bachelor’s degree in history in only three years from Brown University in 1977.

A history major from the beginning, Bernstein constantly explored other classes — English, art history, political science, philosophy — and found “treasures” in different languages and disciplines.

Bernstein says Brown remains a place with no distribution requirements … a policy, he acknowledges, that could be problematic for some students, but one that he found completely liberating.

He gravitated to teachers with a sense of moral and political purpose and found magnificent mentors in historians Gordon Wood and John L. Thomas. There, he developed the belief that being a historian is a profound moral enterprise.

Upon entering Yale, Bernstein studied with distinguished historian David Brion Davis, who underscored the difference historians make in the world — in the way people think about the past, and by extension, the future. Historian Emilia Viotti da Costa, a “merciless but loving critic,” had a “take-no-prisoners” style when it came to writing or clarity of thought.

While earning a doctoral degree, Bernstein spent time as a lecturer at New York University; after completing his degree in 1985, he taught as a visiting assistant professor at the University of Chicago.

‘Forging new interpretations of the past’

On Valentine’s Day in 1986, he was offered a tenure-track job at Washington University, and he and his wife, Kay Sherman, an intellectual property attorney, moved to St. Louis. The couple has two children, Ben, 24, and Nina, 20.

At WUSTL, Bernstein teaches undergraduate and graduate seminars, participates in team-teaching and was key in establishing the American Culture Studies (AMCS) program in 1999.

The Bernstein family (from left): wife, Kay Sherman, daughter Nina, son Ben and Iver Bernstein.

Co-teacher Angela Miller, PhD, professor of art history and archaeology in Arts & Sciences, says she is pleased Bernstein recently was named graduate director of the cross-disciplinary program.

“I’ve been consistently impressed over the years with Iver’s tremendous investment in ideas, in forging new interpretations of the past that draw on a wide range of cultural and historical sources,” Miller says. “As a historian of visual culture, I’ve also found him unusually receptive to the unique cultural evidence of photographs, prints and paintings.”

Alexis Neumann, a history doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, first encountered Bernstein while a sophomore art student at WUSTL. She says Bernstein “truly and dynamically” changed her life with his contagious enthusiasm for the subject matter.

As she began questioning art as a vocation, Bernstein helped develop an academic plan enabling her to pursue interests in the humanities. “Because I was not a history major or an Arts & Sciences student, Professor Bernstein was instrumental in helping me create a network of professors whose intellectual interests would dovetail with my own.”

His steadfast faith continues to inspire.

“Iver Bernstein galvanized a level of excitement about American history in me that I never thought even remotely possible,” Neumann says. “He enabled me to conceive of myself as someone who could, with a straight face, apply to extremely selective PhD programs, and his influence enabled me to realize my potential as someone who could actually get accepted to some of these programs and pursue meaningful academic work.”

Originality key to scholarship

To help inform his own teaching and writing, Bernstein engages in constant critical conversation with colleagues nationwide. “They are the co-creators of the knowledge base,” Bernstein says. “The fields of Civil War and slavery studies are growing geometrically right now. It’s important to stay humble. It’s about what one doesn’t know instead of smugness about what one thinks he or she knows — which can be an occupational disease.”

Despite his humility, colleagues at WUSTL and around the country say that what Bernstein does know is stunning and they are awaiting his book Stripes & Scars: The Revitalization of America & the Origins of the Civil War, to be published by Oxford.

Stauffer says originality is a key characteristic of Bernstein’s scholarship. “He asks questions no one else has, and he has the vision, patience and familiarity with the sources to answer his questions in irrefutable ways.”

The research is drawn from archives throughout the country, in some cases, involving records that were scarcely available to previous generations of scholars, either because access to them was difficult in the “Jim Crow South,” or because new digitized databases have opened up extraordinary possibilities.

Bernstein is passionate about uncovering history that is unremembered or unspoken.

“Any definition of American nationalism that doesn’t take into account African-American contributions is fictitious and hypocritical,” Bernstein says. “The two are deeply and often uneasily joined. A historian’s job is to ask pointed questions and raise uncomfortable truths about the vexed transactions of the past, which are, of course, still very much present.”

Bernstein says WUSTL has given him the support and latitude to do just that and he’s thrilled about his new formalized “home” in AMCS. “I’ve always felt enormously privileged to work in a community of likeminded people.”

Fast facts about Iver Bernstein

Title: Professor of history, African-American studies and American culture studies
From: Long Island, N.Y.
Research interests: 19th-century U.S. History; American political culture; Civil War and Reconstruction; slavery and race in the Americas
Family: wife, Kay Sherman; son, Ben Bernstein (Brown, ’09); daughter, Nina Bernstein (Tufts, ’14)
Other passions: Clarinet and piano, hiking, long-distance cycling, thrillers, mysteries of all kinds