John Merriman, history professor known for his lively lectures, dies at 75


John Merriman, who spent much of his career researching and teaching modern French history at Yale, died earlier this year.

Staff reporter

Yale News

John M. Merriman, professor of history and former principal of Branford College, died earlier this year. He was 75 years old.

Merriman, loved by his colleagues and the many students he taught and mentored during his 50 years at the University, spent his entire professional career at Yale. He first came to Yale as an assistant professor in 1973 and remained at the university until his death in May.

Merriman became something of a local celebrity for the way he delivered his lectures on French and European history with detailed narration. Merriman was also a colorful character outside of the classroom.

“I was always amused by the way he inserted French words or phrases into everything he said at department meetings,” said history and religious studies professor Carlos Eire. “I couldn’t tell if he was assuming everyone in the room knew French or if this was some kind of joke or test of our collective erudition. Every time he started to speak, I waited for something in French to appear, and, sowithout fail, it would be there, hovering over everyone’s head, like an exotic butterfly suddenly released from captivity.

Merriman was born in Battle Creek, Michigan on June 15, 1946. His mother, Sally Mustard, was a painter, and he never knew his father, who divorced Mustard when Merriman was still a baby. Merriman grew up in Portland, Oregon, and later attended the University of Michigan, where he received his BA in 1968 and his Ph.D. in 1972. It was during this time that Merriman began to develop what would become a lifelong passion for French culture and history.

Soon after, Merriman came to Yale. During his nearly five decades at the University, he was popular with students and received two undergraduate teaching awards over the years – the Harwood F. Byrnes-Richard B. Sewall Award for Excellence in teaching in 2000 and the Phi Beta Kappa Devane medal for excellence. in teaching and scholarship in 2019. Merriman also received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Scholarly Distinction from the American Historical Association in 2017 in recognition of his contributions to the discipline.

Merriman also served as Branford College’s seventh principal in 1983. He served for eight years and resigned in 1991.

He is remembered by his students as a dynamic character who gave lively and humorous lectures.

“He would walk in with a few crumpled up pieces of paper, walk back and forth, jump from topic to topic, and after two or three hours you really got somewhere,” said Judith Coffin, former student and later a history teacher. New York Times. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who watched Merriman’s lectures online, remarked to The Times that he sounded like a “freestyle rapper” when teaching.

Merriman’s online courses as part of the Open Yale Courses project – “European Civilization, 1648-1945” and “France Since 1871” – have reached thousands of students worldwide. They were recorded in the fall of 2007 and 2008, respectively, and have since been freely available on the OYC website.

Merriman was also a prolific historical writer. His books include The Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in Fin-De-Siecle Paris Sparked the Modern Age of Terror (2009) on the French anarchist Emile Henry; Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune (2014) on “The Bloody Week” and the Paris Commune of 1871; and Ballad of anarchist bandits: the criminal madness that gripped the Belle Epoque Paris (2017), which concerns the Bonnot Gang, a French criminal anarchist group.

Merriman formed many of his political views during the Vietnam War. In a 2006 interview with The News, he described himself as “vehemently anti-establishment”, and his writings often focused on people and movements that were also “anti-establishment”. Merriman said his favorite band, The Rolling Stones – icons of the 1960s counterculture – had a strong influence on his writing.

“[I’ve] never wrote anything unrecorded,” Merriman said.

Merriman is also well known for writing “microhistory,” a historical method first popularized in the 1970s that focuses on presenting historical narratives from scratch. In addition to these more focused writings, Merriman also wrote A history of modern Europe since the Renaissancean investigative text for undergraduate history lessons that has been used by over a quarter of a million students to date and reprinted in three new editions.

Merriman died of complications from bladder cancer and multiple myeloma at his home in New Haven. The University is currently hosting a memorial service at Branford College which will take place in the coming months.

Merriman is survived by his children Christopher Merriman ’11 and Laura Merriman ’08. His wife Carol predeceased him in 2016.


Evan Gorelick covers professors and scholars. Originally from Woodbridge, Connecticut, he is a freshman at Timothy Dwight College majoring in English and economics.


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