Sitting across from David Thelen in a favorite Kirkwood Avenue hangout in Bloomington, Derek Larson was frustrated: his paper examining the New Deal had slid sideways into a discussion of the Oregon timber industry. Thelen offered the student a simple solution—ditch the 1930s and stick to the topic that interested him. “I responded with something like ‘You mean I can do that?’” Larson, now an assistant professor of history and environmental studies at Saint John’s University, recalled: “From that day on, my career path was changed.”
Photo by Chris Meyer
In a 1999 article, “The New York Times” noted that Thelen “has been among the best editors of any American historical periodical in this century.”
Thelen has been an intellectual voice coach since his career as an educator and historian began, thoughtfully guiding his students and colleagues onto new paths of thinking. With almost 40 years of scholarly achievement and an international reputation for innovation and leadership, Thelen has earned a place in the American history he has so diligently and enthusiastically examined.
A prodigious author, Thelen has published more than 50 articles and chapters, edited texts and produced countless scholarly papers and lectures in Spanish and English. He has written six critically acclaimed books, on subjects ranging from turn-of-the-20th century Progressivism, to the gap between media and citizens in the United States, to an exploration of the ways history engages—and fails to engage—people in everyday life. Threaded through much of his work is an abiding interest in democracy and an egalitarian approach to academia that encourages public discourse.
According to Jacquelyn Hall, president of the Organization of American Historians, Thelen is “a rare individual who has had a significant impact on the historical profession not only through his scholarship, but also through institutional innovation, each of which reflects a breadth and creativity that would put most scholars to shame.”