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Remembering Longtime ASECS Member, Frank Kafker

In memorium Frank A. Kafker (1931-2020)

ASECS and 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 an historian in the 1950s and early 1960s 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 Dieckman. Bowen encouraged Kafker to pursue his curiosity about the relationship of the Enlightenment to the Revolution and recommended him to pursue a doctorate under the direction of Jacues 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 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 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.

Obituary from The Voltaire Foundation. Read more:

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