William A. Link. Links: My Family in American History. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012. xvi + 224 pp. ISBN 978-0-8130-3794-3.
Links is the story of the remarkable partnership of two southern-born intellectuals who navigated the rapidly-changing America of the mid-twentieth century. This fascinating portrait charts the lives and marriage of Arthur Link, the esteemed Woodrow Wilson scholar, and his wife, Margaret Douglas Link, sociologist turned wife, mother, and community activist. Author William A. Link, the youngest of the couple’s four children, follows them from separate childhoods in North Carolina, to graduate school at Chapel Hill, to the academic circles in Princeton and Chicago, and to their eventual retirement in the land of their upbringing. Link combines the personal perspective of a son remembering his parents with the historian’s craft of combing primary sources, carefully situating them in the larger milieu of post-war America. Links offers fresh insights into the changes in the post-war South. Like their academic contemporary, C. Vann Woodward, Arthur and Margaret Link maintained their lifelong identity as southerners even as they grew to question and eventually reject the South’s racial norms. The book also provides a compelling picture of the evolving world of twentieth century academia.
The young couple met while both were graduate students at the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the late 1930s, Chapel Hill had become mecca for young southern intellectuals who wanted to harness scholarly activity in the interest of social change. Margaret Douglas initially saw Arthur Link as egotistical and self-absorbed. Over time, however, the two developed a deep and supportive friendship. After Margaret left Chapel Hill to teach at Queens College in Charlotte and Arthur lived in Washington and New York while researching his dissertation, the two engaged in a lively correspondence. Their friendship ultimately blossomed into a romance. They married in 1945, settling first in Princeton, later in Evanston where Arthur taught at Northwestern, and then back in Princeton.
Princeton was not a particularly welcoming academic community to Arthur, and Margaret was lonely there. Her work-obsessed husband was rarely home, and she spent long hours alone. Margaret gave up her teaching career to be a full-time wife and mother. William says his mother was always a “little restless with the role of wife and mother” and that later in life, she “remained an insistent believer that women should seek careers” (113, 112).
Arthur was something of a wunderkind at Princeton, quickly establishing a reputation as a promising scholar and teacher. But his career stalled after the publication of his first Wilson biography, The Road to the White House (1947). Professional jealousies halted his meteoric advance through the faculty ranks, and in 1949, he was courted by Northwestern University. He, Margaret, and their four children spent eleven productive, happy years in the welcoming community of Evanston and one idyllic year in England when Arthur was awarded the coveted Harmsworth Professorship at Oxford. Much to Margaret’s chagrin as well as the frustration of his Northwestern colleagues, Princeton succeeded in wooing Arthur back in 1960 after he was named editor of the Woodrow Wilson papers. He was convinced that Princeton provided the best location and environment for editing the Wilson papers, the endeavor that absorbed him for the rest of his career.
Link says that his parents based their partnership in ideas and belief, particularly a strong Christian practice. Raised a Lutheran, Arthur willingly followed his wife to the Presbyterian church of her childhood after their marriage. Both Links maintained grounding in Reformed traditions throughout their lives. Link says that Arthur remained a religious rationalist whose faith informed his entire life; Arthur believed that “the faith of doing rejected simple answers,” and he was intolerant of faith that was “sanctimonious or self-serving” (193). Margaret Link, heavily influenced by a sermon by Harry Emerson Fosdick of Riverside Church she heard during a 1944 visit to New York City, embraced a Christianity rooted in the social gospel, rejecting the fundamentalist Presbyterianism of her youth.
Both Links were appalled by the rabid racism of the South in the late 1940s and the 1950s, but of the two, Margaret had the more activist bent. She was involved in many kinds of interracial organizing dating back to her work with the YWCA in Richmond. In Charlotte, she was active in local Council of Interracial Cooperation activities, and, during the second stint in Princeton, she was involved in a YWCA campaign to integrate housing Arthur’s activism was quieter and based in his academic career. He counted many African-American scholars among his friends, and John Hope Franklin was one of his closest ones. He raised eyebrows at Princeton by bringing black scholars to speak on campus as early as the 1940s.
Link is unsparing in his presentation of his parents. The reader becomes acquainted with the arrogant, self-absorbed workaholic scholar who felt constantly torn between his work and his family. “Most of the time his work won out,” writes his son (114). Arthur craved the limelight and loved to hold forth. He cleaned the house and gardened for diversion, and he was deeply attached to his wife, often lamenting his loneliness and her absence in his correspondence during their frequent separations due to his work. Margaret was a good partner for him. She was a good listener, who tempered his self-absorption and his relentless drive to work. Link describes Arthur as “an emotional project who would fulfill Margaret’s need to express love through caring” (78).
Links is carefully researched. William Link combed his parents’ voluminous correspondence and papers and interviewed family, friends, and colleagues to flesh out his own memories of his parents. The book emphasizes the couple’s young adult years, in part because their ample trove of courtship letters provides a rich source of data, and I was left craving a fuller picture of the Links in middle and old age. The book’s organization, particularly in the first third of the book, is occasionally confusing. In spite of these shortcomings, the book is a fascinating portrait of a marriage and of two strong-willed, loving people who built a successful partnership.