My memory is that when I applied to graduate schools nearly thirty years ago in late 1990 I sent my applications to five history departments. Of course, when you apply for a doctoral program, you are mainly choosing a dissertation adviser. I was familiar with the work of the early Americanists at four of those universities: Bernard Bailyn, John Demos, Gary Nash, and Gordon Wood. They were all major figures in the field, and I had read their books in my courses. The fifth Americanist was John Murrin. I had probably read John's stunning chapter "A Roof Without Walls: The Dilemma of American National Identity," which was published a few years earlier in a collection of essays co-edited by Rick Beeman, who (together with Richard Dunn) was one of my undergraduate advisers. But somehow, despite being a tenured professor at Princeton, John had not written a monograph, and it is fair to say that he was the least well-known and "famous" of this group. Upon getting accepted, I think I visited four of these five schools, including a flight west to Los Angeles to check out UCLA, which culminated in a dinner (with a good amount of wine) at Gary Nash's amazing home on the side of a cliff in Pacific Palisades. There was no fancy dinner at Princeton. Some graduate students kindly took me to lunch outside of Chancellor Green (there was a cafeteria in the adjacent East Pyne), and I remember a meeting with Murrin in his long, not particularly well-appointed and definitely cluttered, rectangular office in Dickinson Hall. I was used to the slightly frenetic Beeman and his bow ties and the refined Dunn who was always put-together, and I had met the jovial Nash and the very pleasant Demos (who, and I don't think I'm making this up, had an antique chair hanging from the ceiling of his office). On first impression, Murrin was entirely different: pleasant, but awkward and quite hard to read and definitely not well-coiffed - I couldn't quite figure him out. Fortunately, I was told (and I had to be told, because what did I know?) that Princeton had overall the best History Department in the country and that Murrin was the most brilliant early Americanist on the planet.
Murrin died today. My friend Andy Shankman, who arrived in Princeton a year after me, has written the definitive guides to Murrin's work in his introduction to the volume of Murrin essays he edited, Rethinking America, and in his chapter in the festschrift he co-edited, Anglicizing America. In a message distributed earlier today announcing John's death, Andy wrote beautifully and so accurately about Murrin the individual and scholar, and the twitter replies testify further. In his scholarship, John revealed broad trends that others couldn't see or appreciate because his learning was incredibly wide and deep and because he was willing to critically question established ideas. I remember him personally as he was in this photo (for eventually I did figure him out): friendly, open, playful, impish, and completely unpretentious. My own research interests shifted slightly in my second and third years, and I would write my dissertation under the supervision of Dirk Hartog, who had propitiously moved to Princeton. John was characteristically nonplussed, even encouraging about the switch. Under the rules of academic genealogy, I am a very proud Hartog student, but I am also pleased to remember, particularly today, that I had also been a Murrin student.