Amherst College, 1954, B.A., History
University of Oxford, B.A. 1956; M.A. 1961, History
Harvard University, 1960, Ph.D., History
James J. Barnes, the youngest of three sons, was born in Minnesota in 1931. He spent his childhood and adolescence in St. Paul, except for four years during World War II when his family lived outside of Buffalo, New York. In his youth, he excelled in football and music. He began teaching at Amherst College, his alma mater, but since 1962 he has spent his professional career at Wabash College, where he is now a Professor Emeritus of History. His interest in British history and culture led him to collaborate with his colleague and spouse Patience P. Barnes on numerous books and articles about the American Civil War from a British perspective, Nazism in the 1930s in England, and Fascism. He currently resides in Crawfordsville, Indiana, but still enjoys summer vacations in Minnesota.
Tell me a little bit about your parents.
My father was a business man. He grew up in Minnesota and my mother grew up in Iowa. They met at the University of Wisconsin.
Did your mother have a profession?
She was a manager of a cafeteria in a building where my father had his business. She had always wanted to try her hand at running a cafe. She did that for a few years.
What kind of business did your father have?
During the ’30s he had a farm equipment and automobile distributorship. Then at the end of 1940 he took a job with a company called Gould National Batteries and that’s what brought him to outside of Buffalo, New York, where he was a plant manager. In 1945, we came back to St. Paul and he was Vice President in charge of sales for the company for the rest of his working career.
How would you describe your parents’ parenting style?
They were inordinately proud of their three sons. We got on pretty well all things considered, but with the usual squabbles. I would not say they were particularly harsh. Strict, but not unnecessarily so. I’d say they were fairly traditional for that period of the 1930s.
Since you were the last son, were you spoiled in anyway?
Oh, of course not. (Laughs.) I don’t think overly so. I got on pretty well with my brothers. There wasn’t a huge amount of tension there.
What values do you think your parents tried to instill in you while you were growing up?
They were pretty progressive to the extent that they thought one should not have undue prejudice about anyone. Take a person on his or her own [merit]. I did not grow up with any obvious prejudices against Jews, African-Americans, or foreigners. Having said that, my parents were fairly conservative politically, but in terms of social equality they were quite liberal. One should appreciate someone as you found that person.
Was one parent more influential than the other?
I don’t think overly so. My father was a good athlete in college first at Carleton College and then at the University of Wisconsin. So there was a natural inclination for me to want to take an interest especially in football. My mother was particularly good at homemaking, cooking, arts and crafts. I suppose of the two, my father was a bit more strict than my mother, but I don’t think there was any sense thatI was a mama’s boy.
How would describe yourself as a kid?
I’ll back up to the extent of bringing up my brothers again. I always thought I was a mixture of the two. My oldest brother Harry was an extremely bright student and I felt I inherited some of his interests in things. He had me learning geography, history, addition and subtraction at a young age.
The middle of our three brothers, By, [Louis Byington] was the athlete. He also liked to sing a lot. I tried to emulate him especially in football. My brother, father, and I formed a homemade trio of singers. By, my father and I were the musical ones, not Harry. Music has come to play an important part in my life and for my children.
What other activities besides football and music did you enjoy?
I loved to read. When we were living near Buffalo, my favorite teacher in seventh and eighth grades helped me come to that recognition. She had said one day that her favorite thing was to read. I wanted to be like her and emulate her, so I did even more reading. But I have always been a very avid reader of all sorts of things. That was enhanced by my secondary school experience at St. Paul Academy. By that time I was competing with very bright students and they liked to read advanced things like Crime and Punishment or Dante’s Inferno. I was introduced to some good literature sooner than I would have been had I not felt the desire to compete. I suppose competition is something I’ve always enjoyed in school and professionally in my career, too. I was gregarious as a child growing up and had a pretty wide circle of friends early on that continued through high school and college.
What was the most challenging aspect of your childhood?
I’ll mention this briefly, but not wishing to dwell on it. I was born legally blind, so this has limited me to certain activities.
How did you approach that or overcome that challenge?
I had to cope with it as best as I could. I’m currently working on my own memoirs and the visual component of my life is what I’ll be dealing with a lot.
At what point in your schooling did you decide to be excellent?
From very early on. I remember in first grade trying to learn how to write with script. When I achieved a good-looking letter, the teacher gave me a nice hug and I felt great. The sad thing nowadays, of course, is teachers aren’t allowed to do that. (Chuckles.) I’ve always felt that encouragement by teachers and colleagues is extremely helpful. Throughout grade school I was competitive, wanting to excel. In seventh and eighth grades when we were outside of Buffalo, my greatest competition and in some ways best friend was an African-American girl named Lillian. Again, it was symptomatic of how I was brought up. I wasn’t thinking anything odd about it, seeing that she was such a good friend as well as a competitor. She could draw better than I could. I could do multiplication tables faster than she could. (Chuckles.)
What kind of teenager were you? How would you describe yourself?
At the time St. Paul Academy and Summit School were not joined together as they are now, so by going to an all-male secondary school I had a fairly quiet social life. I dated some, but never with great success. I hung around with a handful of good friends. We’d often cruise around in a car, go play cards at someone’s house, or go to the movies. I had one particular friend who’s father was at the university teaching and he could get tickets to concerts and things like that. So I was introduced to some very fine music by the Minneapolis Symphony. He also got me into being what they call a supernumerary–an extra–when the Metropolitan Opera came to Minneapolis as it used to do for a week. I managed to be a spear carrier in Aida and take part in the marketplace in Carmen. (Chuckles.) Through my oldest brother especially, I came to have a love for classical music. From my father, I began to learn how to play the guitar and play folk music. So my music has always been pretty broad in interest.
Did you feel any pressure from your parents to excel?
I don’t think so. Of course, they were inordinately proud of all three of us. Naturally if they were going to be proud of my two older brothers, I wanted them to be proud of me, too. It never occurred to me not to try to do well. It just went with the territory.
How do you think you stood apart from the other average teenagers in school?
Probably a bit more retiring. I wasn’t much of an extrovert until I felt comfortable with people and knew them well, then I could be very outgoing. I was a little shy when it came to meeting strangers and I didn’t drink in those days. I had a circle of a few good friends and I didn’t get a sense of not belonging or not being accepted. Playing football at St. Paul Academy also helped socially, because whenever you are involved in a sport you make friends and you have a certain amount respect shown to you by other students.
Did you have any role models either fictional or real?
In addition to my brothers, I wanted to keep up with and emulate the particularly bright students at the academy. There were about three or four of us that spent a lot of time together. They had read more than I had, so I had to catch up on that score. I don’t think there were any fictional characters I wanted to emulate. No Walter Mitty complex.
By the end of high school, were you at the top of your class?
Yes. Mind you, we only had 18 in our class, so that may not amount to much. I was top of my class most of the years I was there.
Did you have someone in your life besides your parents who believed in you and was pretty influential?
I had on my mother’s side an extended family. There were twelve first cousins. I had five aunts and uncles. We spent a lot of time on holidays with them and my cousins. Two of my best friends other than my brothers were first cousins, one on my mother’s side and one on my father’s side. I spent a lot of time with both of them over the years. Family was very important.
In what way did those two cousins influence you? What did you admire about them or learn from them?
I went to camp with both of them for a couple of years and got to know them well. One of them on my father’s side had a particularly good sense of humor and that was always treasured. In my immediate family–my brothers and father–also had a very good sense of humor, full of puns and quipping. From these cousins, too, I learned to do canoe trips, board games, card games, and basketball. The cousin on my mother’s side lived in Evanston, Illlinois, so I didn’t see him as often. The other one lived in St. Paul, so on weekends we’d go try and pick up a game of basketball somewhere.
Were they both older?
No, about my age. One was slightly younger and one was a year older.
While growing up, did your family take a lot of road trips?
Before we moved to Buffalo, the most we traveled to was Burlington, Iowa, where my maternal grandmother’s homestead was. We went there for Christmas and sometimes Thanksgiving. Beginning in 1940 when we moved to Buffalo, we did increasingly travel. From Buffalo we might go to New York City, Toronto, and places like that. I’ve done an awful lot of traveling during my college years at Amherst College and then of course going abroad for the Rhodes and thereafter. My wife and I do a lot of traveling. Travel has become an important component for me.
Besides going to Canada, when was the first time you went overseas and where did you go?
Not until the summer after I graduated from Amherst in 1954. A fraternity brother and I traveled on the Continent prior to my taking up my Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. During July and August of that summer we went to the usual–Britain, France, Italy, Austria, Germany. By then my oldest brother was in the American Foreign Service and he was stationed in Prague. For ten days at the end of that summer I went to Prague at the height of the Cold War. That was fascinating. While at Oxford I did quite a bit of traveling during the long vacations both within the British Isles and some on the Continent including going to Prague at Christmastime in 1954.
How did your travel experience change your viewpoint in any way?
It opened up a lot of new horizons to me. Overall, I thought I wanted to be a history professor by the time I got to college and after graduating it very much reinforced my love of history to actually be within structures like Chartres, Mont Saint-Michel, or the Tower of London. I enjoyed the opening up of my horizons that way. By the the time I was abroad, I was drinking wine and enjoyed that in a way that I hadn’t before. Certainly, I had not experienced all the wide varieties of food as I did once I was abroad.
Is there a story behind how you were encouraged to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship?
It was just a name until the spring of my junior year at Amherst when an alumnus – a fraternity brother who had come back to the college for some reason- brought the subject up. We were at the dining hall eating, and to his great kindness and credit, he asked if I had ever thought of applying for a Rhodes Scholarship. I didn’t know a thing about them, so I looked into what they were and decided to give it a go. I had not planned on it. I was thinking I would go on to graduate school in history somewhere in the United States, maybe Harvard or Columbia. I had a good enough average to probably get in, but once I got the Rhodes Scholarship that entirely changed the course of things, although I eventually ended up at Harvard in graduate school.
Are there any lessons that you’ve taken from your Rhodes experience into your present day life?
There are so many. I made some very close friends while at Oxford. I came to realize from a pedagogical point of view the advantage of the tutorial system. When I went on to teach, eventually I incorporated this idea of giving students individual tutorials. The whole ethos of Oxford – its high standard, and listening to lectures by some of the big names in my field – was very exciting.
You focused on Victorian history. Is that correct?
My Harvard Ph.D. thesis dealt with the Victorian period, the publishing of books in London during the nineteenth century. I was always interested in literature, so this gave me a chance to combine both history and literature. It’s always difficult to know just how books influence readers. It was more manageable to talk about what books were available to be read, and that’s what I was looking at.
Did you enjoy your time at Oxford?
Very much so. Hard not to.
Did you have any rebellious streak in you?
No. (Laughs.) That makes it sound like a very dull chapter. Not so much at Oxford, but in subsequent years as a teacher I could be quite contrarian. I could be stubborn and lead minor crusades, but I never went through what one might call a rebellious phase in adolescence nor an identity crisis where I had to radically depart from the direction I was going. Once I thought I wanted to teach, and that was something I’d thought quite early on in grade school and high school, it was a rather straight (if not plodding) trajectory to finally getting my Ph.D. and then seeking employment as a teacher.
When did you know or why did you want to go into teaching? How did you know?
From an early age I was very interested in historical novels. My oldest brother helped inculcate in me as a very young kid a lot, the explorers of Mexico or Peru and Greek mythology. I thought I could teach well. I had a nimble mind and I liked to discuss and debate. I thought of a career I could do well in. There were a number of careers I just wouldn’t have been that interested in doing or didn’t know if I could do them well. Law would have been my second choice if I hadn’t gone into teaching. And with teaching, you’re always learning new things. You have an excuse to read and expand your horizons.
What qualities that the Rhodes committee look for in scholars do you value?
One of the big qualities they were looking for was a good and sound character. I still believe in that. Of course, equally desirable was intellect, but intellect didn’t place necessarily at the top of its criteria. I’ve been active physically, but not in the organized sense. I haven’t take part in any organized sports for years, but have kept reasonably fit with swimming. At the age of 50, I took up cross-country skiing and have done that ever since. The component of the Rhodes is described as physical vigor more than a fondness for sports. I’ve certainly valued that. Courage is another quality. Stand up for what you believe.
How do you think one builds a sound character?
With a lot of luck. (Chuckles.) You do have to have a certain internal moral compass which is probably what you inherit from your family as much as any. Although I’ve been active in one church or another, I don’t feel that has had much influence on my thoughts as the feeling that I wanted to be true to myself, my family and what I believed in.
After you became a Rhodes Scholar, did you feel any more pressure to succeed?
I don’t think so.
Did you feel an obligation?
Not really. The tendency for so many of us is to use the scholarship as a way of advancing one’s career and gaining a modest amount of notoriety. That’s okay, too. I don’t begrudge any of us doing that. But I don’t feel like I had to live up to anything. I just thought what I wanted to get out of my career, my marriage, and raising my family. The Rhodes Scholarship has provided some very nice contacts over the years and it has provided an excuse to go back to England periodically for reunions. Because I did go to Oxford, it made it much easier a couple of years later to come back to England to do some research for my Ph.D. And ever since we’ve been going to England very often. We go every year now for a month to six weeks to do research and the like. So in that sense it opened up possibilities that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
How did you handle failure as a young adult? What was your perspective on it?
A research fellowship like a Guggenheim. I never got one. On the other hand, I got a lot of other research fellowships. I tried to get employment at a prestigious college and I ended up at a very nice college, but not one that you would call in the top drawer of colleges, but it suited me very well. There may have been various aspirations I had over the years which I could never realize and could accept that. I never got overly depressed. It was more momentary discouragement.
Were you always like that even as an adolescent?
Yes. It was relatively easy to go from St. Paul Academy to Amherst College. It wasn’t easy to get the Rhodes. My way was somewhat paved, so it was not like students today who are dying to get into some particular colleges. It’s such a lottery. It was much easier to get into a good college in those days.
What do you think of students today who are so focused like that?
I feel sorry for them. It’s a terrible pressure they undergo. I still believe it’s worth trying to go to a good place, but there are any number of good places you can go to. To have one’s heart set on a particular place would be a big mistake nowadays.
From your teaching experience, did you see a generational shift in attitude like that?
Not so much that. I’m often asked over the years (and I taught for 44 years) how do earlier students compare with the ones I was currently teaching. I never felt that it was that great of a difference over a decade or so. Sure, there have been cultural changes. The kind of rebelliousness of the Sixties and early Seventies, or complacency or narcissism sometimes of the Eighties and the Nineties. But good students are good students. You prize the good ones and you try to do what you can for the less strong students. One of the great satisfactions in teaching is when you work with a student who seems pretty indifferent, but turns out to be quite a good student if given the right conditions.
What are the three things you like about your career choice?
This gets a little bit back to my competitiveness. I always felt that I wanted to prove myself as a scholar. My wife and I are now co-authors and have been for a while. We’ve had good success in the various publications. We’ve turned out nine volumes and a number of articles. Though I’m not in the top echelon of nationwide scholars, I certainly have racked up a respectable image that way. Even more important, it’s just fun to do the detective work of looking for materials no one’s been able to use or find.
On my publishing side, I’ve always gone for what you call the monograph–very detailed study of something in depth–rather than writing textbooks which are more works of synthesis. Let me illustrate by a research seminar I developed at Wabash for many years. I wanted my students to have experience what it was like to do primary research, but that’s very hard at the undergraduate level. So I organized a seminar in which they would trace the lives of early Wabash students back to the 1830s through the 1850s. Nobody had done this before, so from my seminar students’ point of view they were breaking new ground. I worked with them individually and got together with them on average of about once a week. That was a wonderful experience and obviously going back to the Oxford sense of a tutorial though it was a research tutorial rather than a general one.
A third component of what I have enjoyed about my career is the excuse to do a lot of reading and learning. Nobody should think he knows everything. Continue to learn. There is just an overwhelming amount of new stuff you can do, so you just have to decide to follow what interests you.
What would you recommend to someone no matter what age about leading a meaningful and useful life?
Try to make the most of your talents and minimize your shortcomings. There are any number of things I couldn’t do or can’t do, but there are some things I feel I can do very well. Much of one’s early teaching career should be devoted to ascertaining what it is that you can do particularly well and readily admit there are others who can do other things better than you. There are some things that I could do that most of my colleagues couldn’t or wouldn’t do, so it evens out in that respect.
What do you think is central in understanding your life story so far?
Making the most of what I have in various facets of life.