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In memoriam Frank A. Kafker (1931-2020)

Thursday, 16 April, 2020
Frank A. Kafker (1931-2020)
Frank A. Kafker (1931-2020). Picture courtesy of the Kafker family.

The Voltaire Foundation learned with regret last week of the passing of Professor Frank Arthur Kafker on April 1 due to complications arising from Parkinson’s disease. Kafker figured among the luminaries of eighteenth-century studies, specializing in the French Enlightenment, the Revolution, and the relationship between the two.

Born in Brooklyn to a family of Russian Jewish immigrants during the Depression and coming of age just after the Second World War, Kafker entered adulthood and academic life at a time of expansion of the American academy and professoriate, and he became a historian in the 1950s and early 60s during a tremendously fertile moment for the discipline, when intellectual and social history, and French studies, came to the fore. Across the four decades of his career, he made signal contributions to the broad renewal of historiography of the French Enlightenment and French Revolution in post-War American research universities.  He became a pioneer in his pursuit of manuscript sources, his deployment of social historical methods, and his abiding interest in humanistic inquiry as a collaborative endeavor.

Educated in New York City public schools in the 1940s, he met in high school Serena who became his wife, intellectual collaborator, co-author, and lifelong companion. Kafker studied History at Columbia University (BA, 1953; MA, 1954), where he first discovered the French Enlightenment and French Revolution in a course taught by Ralph Bowen. Bowen at the time was writing on Denis Diderot, whose manuscripts had recently been unearthed by Herbert Dieckmann. Bowen encouraged Kafker to pursue his curiosity about the relationship of the Enlightenment to the Revolution and recommended that he pursue a doctorate under the direction of Jacques Barzun, then the Seth Low Professor of History at Columbia.

Benefitting from the then newly established Fulbright grant program, Kafker and Serena (who served as his research partner and became his co-author, before launching her own scholarly career) pursued a year of research in provincial archives, documenting the identities, backgrounds, social origins and political orientations of 139 of the contributors to the Encyclopédie.  He completed his doctorate in 1961 for a dissertation entitled ‘The Encyclopedists and the French Revolution’, and acquired teaching experience at a community college in upstate New York, before taking up a position at the University of Cincinnati, where he served on the faculty for 36 years, retiring as Professor of European History in 1998.

Kafker was a thoughtful and careful editor of historical scholarship. He co-edited two widely influential compendia, The French Revolution: Conflicting Interpretations (with James Laux and Darlene Gay Levy, first published in 1976 followed by four subsequent editions, the latest in 2002), and Napoleon and His Times (1989, with James Laux). He also served as editor of the journal French Historical Studies (1985-1992).

Kafker’s most cited and intellectually ambitious works were his books on the encyclopédistes and the publication of encyclopedias in the age of Enlightenment. He published five books on these topics with the Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century. Two were studies of the predecessors and successors to Diderot’s and D’Alembert’s great work, Notable encyclopedias of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: nine predecessors of the Encyclopédie (1981), and Notable encyclopedias of the late eighteenth century: eleven successors of the Encyclopédie (1993). He also co-edited, with his colleague Jeff Loveland, and contributed to a volume on the first editions of another important encyclopedia, The Early Britannica: the growth of an outstanding encyclopedia (2009).

Kafker in SVEC

Certainly, though, his greatest intellectual contributions were two books that set forth the fruits of his years of archival research and sociological analysis on the contributors to the Encyclopédie, The Encyclopedists as individuals: a biographical dictionary of the authors of the Encyclopédie (1988) with Serena L. Kafker, and The Encyclopedists as a group: a collective bibliography of the authors of the Encyclopédie (1996). The former of these remains among the two most widely circulated books in the history of SVEC, and its capsule biographies are now available in direct proximity to the relevant articles on the ARTFL edition of the Encyclopédie.

Kafker in SVEC

The latter, in many ways the culmination of the original research query that launched his dissertation, remains an influential model of historical prosopography and the social history of ideas. His biographical and sociological approach, and the unmatched precision of his research, on the encyclopedists and their networks has found new use in digital humanities such as in the aforementioned ARTFL edition of the Encyclopédie and in Mapping the Republic of Letters, as seen in the article ‘The French Enlightenment network’. Melanie Conroy has discussed further the significance of Kafker’s findings for the study of Enlightenment social networks in two peer-reviewed blog posts, published on the Age of Revolutions website.

Beyond his own teaching and scholarship, Kafker also made important contributions to the scholarly community of eighteenth-century studies and French history. He was part of the trans-Atlantic efforts of the 1960s and 70s to establish new scholarly societies to study the Enlightenment in an international, interdisciplinary environment that would foreground the philosophes and their contribution. Accordingly, he was an active member over many years of the American, Scottish and International Societies for Eighteenth-Century Studies; the Sociétés Diderot and Voltaire; the American Historical Association; and the Society for French Historical Studies.

Kafker is survived by Serena, his sons Scott and Roger Kafker, their wives, four grandsons, and a sister.

– Gregory Brown (Voltaire Foundation / University of Nevada, Las Vegas), Melanie Conroy (University of Memphis), Jeff Loveland (University of Cincinnati)

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