Dr. Adam McKeown

Ryan Dunch's picture

I am sorry to relay the sad news that Dr. Adam McKeown died in an accident on September 10, 2017.

Dr. McKeown earned his PhD in history at the University of Chicago in 1997. His dissertation saw publication in 2001 as Chinese Migrant Networks and Cultural Change: Peru, Chicago, Hawaii, 1900-1936 (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press). A second book, Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalization of Borders, was published by Columbia University Press in 2011.

Adam McKeown taught at Northeastern University before taking a position at Columbia University, where he was tenured. Brief notices of his passing are posted on the Columbia History Department website and that of the Weatherhead Institute.

As those notices attest, he was a pioneer practicioner of and advocate for global and transnational approaches to history. If any of you are longterm members of H-World, you might remember his frequent thoughtful contributions to discussion on that network, a sample of which is found here.

I hope that someone who knew Dr. McKeown personally can post a fuller and more fitting tribute to him on H-Asia, and also on H-World.

Thank you to Ryan for conveying the very sad news of Adam McKeown’s death.

I have known Adam since the early 1990s, when he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago. He was a few years ahead of me in the program, and I always looked upon him as both mentor and model.

Even at the time, Adam was known as a unique creature. He was extremely funny, and modest to the point of self-deprecation. At the same time, he was a sincere and talented intellectual. He displayed no attraction to academic fads, yet read every new author that came his way. Sometimes these two faces were hard to reconcile. While many among us would use a visit by one of the day’s postmodernist stars as an occasion for a public display of academic hero worship, Adam would be the guy in the back of the room joking about the buffet. Yet once conversation started, it quickly became clear that he was probably the only one who had read the author’s work, and certainly the only one who understood it.

Adam’s independence of academic convention translated into a genuinely creative career. His dissertation and first book broke new ground in the study of Chinese migration, and his Melancholy Order is justly regarded as a pathbreaking classic in global history.

Yet even after he had attained career success that few of us could hope to aspire to – full professor at Columbia! – he remained his own man, and always maintained a healthy personal distance from his own, well-deserved fame. When I last saw him in Singapore a few years back, he joked that he had said everything that he wanted to say, so maybe it was time to stop talking. I asked what he would do instead of academia, and he replied, “oh, maybe I’ll go live in an ashram somewhere.”

The next day, I dropped him an email with the subject line, “you magnificent bastard.” His immediate response, “I’m not that magnificent,” made me laugh so hard that I spilled my coffee.

Adam was a lovely human being, and to me will always represent the heart and substance of our profession.