Delmer Myers Brown
Professor of History, Emeritus
Delmer Myers Brown died, following a stroke, on November 9, 2011. He was approaching his one-hundred-second birthday with the physical grace, mental vigor, and cheer of spirit that he brought to every aspect of a storied career. As a scholar, teacher, campus leader, and builder of the field of Japanese studies, Delmer met ceaseless challenges with ceaseless wisdom (and laughter that hit every note from chagrin to joy). Tributes to his achievements include the Berkeley Citation (1977), the Certificate of Gratitude from the Fulbright Commission in Japan (1985), and the Japanese Imperial Decoration of the Order of the Sacred Jewel, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon (1997).
Born on a farm near Peculiar, Missouri, and raised in Kansas City and Santa Ana, California, Delmer studied American history at Stanford in preparation for law school (B.A. 1932). That goal made sense for a young man destined to become one of Berkeley’s most judicious arbiters, but it shifted shape when Delmer seized an opportunity to teach English at the Fourth Imperial Higher School in Kanazawa, Japan (where the principal and staff greeted him at the train station in full morning dress). There he remained until 1938, discovering a lifelong zeal for pedagogy (focused on student passions rather than curricular plans), a life-giving love for Mary Nelson Logan (the salty daughter of American missionaries), and a life-altering interest in Japan (then a place, Delmer notes in his oral history,(1) of nurturing friendships menaced routinely by the military police, the kenpeitai). While in Kanazawa, Delmer learned Japanese and developed sufficient mastery of classical forms of the written language to undertake research on the history of the daimyo family that had governed the region in the sixteenth century.
Embarked as a scholar, Delmer returned to Stanford in 1938 to begin doctoral study. But in the face of mounting international conflict, he entered the navy in 1940, served throughout the war in Honolulu as an intelligence officer, and retired as a lieutenant commander in December of 1945. Then he resumed work for his Stanford Ph.D. at Harvard. Therein lies a story. Committed by his research in Kanazawa to the discipline of history, Delmer had declined to apply to Harvard’s graduate program since (as his friend E. Herbert Norman counseled him) literary studies prevailed there in a faculty without a trained historian of Japan. But if Stanford originally looked better, their presumptive specialist in Japanese history (the justly fabled Yamato Ichihashi, in truth an economic historian of the U.S. and a founding genie of Asian-American Studies) proved to have scant interest in Delmer’s work. So, despite his reverence for Lynn White and other Stanford historians generative to his thinking, Delmer headed to Cambridge to read sixteenth-century documents with Serge Elisseeff. Ph.D. degree in hand, Delmer accepted an appointment in 1946 in Berkeley’s Department of History. He retired in 1977.
At Cal Delmer’s remarkable independence was yoked to an exemplary devotion to institutions. Intimated by his take-off to Kanazawa, the independence deserves emphasis. Delmer was nearly alone among pioneers in the field as a largely self-taught linguist who chose his calling in the absence of family or military ties to Japan. (Overwhelmingly, his scholarly peers were missionary children raised in Japan and officers assigned to wartime language schools.) Delmer was also nearly alone among the pioneers in embracing the study of early history (first, the sixteenth century; later, the medieval and classical eras). Although the exceptional Reischauer brothers (Edwin O. and Robert K.) worked on the classical experience, serious research on historical documents prior to the Tokugawa and modern periods was otherwise thin to invisible in Delmer’s generation of American specialists on Japan. And, notably, Delmer was nearly alone in insisting that future specialists be trained in disciplines rather than “area studies” programs (then and still, particularly at the Ivies, the site of much formation).
Determined to build at Berkeley what he had missed at Stanford, Delmer helped recruit the starriest talent in the East Asian field to the department, the history department, which he and other “Young Turks” were transforming into a national powerhouse. So, too, he formed campus alliances to develop the East Asian Library (which now holds the largest Japanese collection of any academic institution outside Japan) and ensure the growth of the Department of Oriental Languages (now East Asian Languages and Cultures). And the students came. Delmer ran the only shop in the country where graduate historians of early Japan gathered in significant numbers, preparing for careers that helped make premodern history a foundation of Japanese studies in the post-war period. He supervised 20 dissertations, including those of Ronald Anderson (appointed at Michigan and Hawaii), Hilary Conroy (Penn), Janet Goodwin (Aizu), Richard Miller (Davis), and Charles Sheldon (Cambridge).
Delmer’s own scholarship ranged widely, from his still unrivalled study of the Money Economy in Medieval Japan (1951) to an analysis of Nationalism in Japan (1955), which was provoked by his observations of wartime chauvinism. Increasingly crucial, however, was the religious history that he explored in Studies in Shinto Thought (a joint translation of major studies by Muraoka Tsunetsugu, 1964) and his two-volume masterwork, The Future and the Past: A Translation and Study of the Gukanshô (in collaboration with Ichirô Ishida, 1979). The latter, focused on a devilishly difficult and fundamentally important historical text of the thirteenth-century, examines the systematic working of Buddhist principles (dôri) in political change, with the promise that human understanding of those principles can allay decline. Among Delmer’s other publications is The Cambridge History of Japan, Volume 1: Ancient Japan (1993), which he edited, introduced, and disproportionately wrote (authoring or co-authoring four of ten chapters). The signature of his spirit as well as his mind is all over the volume: “Arising from life-affirming belief and behavior,” he writes in a characteristic passage that all friends will recognize as vintage Delmer, “vitalism was a powerful nonphysical force affecting Japanese attitudes in all areas of life in ancient times and in later periods as well” (p. 13).
Delmer’s devotion to the Herculean (and Sisyphusian) ordeal of the Cambridge History found counterparts in numerous other projects of institution- and field-building. He served as Director of the Asia Foundation—first in Hong Kong, later in Tokyo—from 1953 until 1955 (when he resisted pleas to remain indefinitely). He helped establish and lead the Cal Abroad Program in Japan (serving at the International Christian University near Tokyo on three different occasions). Following retirement from Cal, he assumed the directorship of the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies in Tokyo for a full decade (from 1978 to 1988). And then, intrepidly, he helped initiate the Japanese Historical Text Initiative (now administered by the Center for Japanese Studies), which is generating a database of historical texts from the eighth century forward, hyper-linked to English translations. In addition, Delmer served in “retirement” as Executive Director of the Center for Shinto Studies, as Adjunct Professor of Shinto at Starr King Theological Center in Berkeley, and as Chairman of the Board of Directors of Tsubaki Shrine America, in Stockton.
Much of the above is likely to come as a surprise to his large crowd at Cal, since Delmer’s role in the Japan field, however taken for granted as formidable, was doubtless a backdrop for many colleagues to his campus activity. Twice and by acclaim he served as chair of the history department (1957-61, 1972-75), the longest tenure in that office since versions of lifetime incumbency were booted after the war. He headed the state-wide Budget Committee in 1965-66 and the Academic Senate in 1971-72. He was on the selection committee that nominated Roger Heyns as chancellor in 1965.
There were plenty of big moments in Delmer’s Cal story—famously his alliance with the “Young Turks” to make the history department a meritocracy in the late ’50s and his interventions during the Free Speech Movement to avert a general student strike in 1966. But for all of us fascinated by the wonkish details of this place, Delmer’s oral history is replete with the marvelous nitty-gritty: his efforts to increase the staff of the history department from a single secretary; to install telephones in faculty offices; to open a library and lounge for grad students; to reduce faculty teaching loads (then at three courses per term); to link the curriculum to faculty interests rather than obsolete models; to introduce seminars for undergraduates (and let them choose their own research projects); to film great lectures (especially Charlie Sellers’s US history survey) so that ceilings could be lifted on enrollments; and to develop interactive computer programs for mastering language skills. Always at the front of his mind was the need for a more diverse faculty. The first women in the department were hired on Delmer’s watch and never did he flag in support of them and their successors.
Delmer Brown was preceded in death by his wives Mary Nelson Logan Brown in 1987, Margaret Young Brown in 2003, and Louise K. Weamer in 2010; by his brothers Clarence Brown in 1919 and Harvey Brown (married to Ruth) in 2009; and by his only daughter, Charlotte Brown Perry (married to John), in 2011. Survivors include his sisters Margie Windsor (married to Jack) of Chico, CA and Mary Ashcraft of Texas; his son D. Ren Brown (married to Robert DeVee) of Bodega Bay, CA; his two granddaughters Mary Louise Perry Rognlie (married to Richard) and Carolyn Perry Robbins (married to Geoffrey); his six great grandchildren, three step-children, and his dearly loved companion Pauline Howland of Walnut Creek, CA.
Mary Elizabeth Berry (chair)
1 Delmer M. Brown, Professor of Japanese History, UC Berkeley, 1946-1977, an oral history conducted in 1995 by Ann Lage, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley (2000). Available on the site of UCB’s Regional Oral History Office: http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/ROHO/collections/subjectarea/index.html