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In Memoriam: Professor Alistair Hennessy

Alistair Hennessy 
The University is saddened to report the death of one of Warwick’s founding academics, Professor Alistair Hennessy. Here Professor Tony McFarlane records his achievements, while colleagues from Warwick and other universities share their memories of the man and his times.

Alistair Hennessy joined Warwick’s History Department shortly after the University’s foundation and he retired as one of the Department’s longest-serving members. He began his academic career as an historian of modern Europe, but after writing an important book on republicanism in nineteenth-century Spain, his interest in the Hispanic world broadened to encompass the history of Latin America and the Americas more generally. In the course of a dynamic and fruitful career, he made a great contribution to developing Warwick’s reputation for innovative and engaging historical studies, and to widening the scope of American Studies in the UK.

His own special contribution was to engineer the establishment of the School of Comparative American Studies (CAS), a degree course which received its first students in 1974 and continues to flourish today. CAS was his brainchild and favourite venture, reflecting his desire to challenge conventional intellectual and disciplinary boundaries. He rejected Cold War categories which portrayed the world in terms of East and West and called attention to the significance of relations between North and South; he insisted that American history and American Studies had to be more than the study of the United States; he proposed the study of the Americas as whole, comparing where possible the histories and cultures of Latin America, the United States, Canada and the Caribbean; and, last but not least, he looked to the future by launching a degree which was multi-disciplinary and bilingual, with opportunities to learn Spanish, to take courses across departments, and to spend a year studying at a university in the Americas.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Alistair subsequently developed another branch of American studies at Warwick by playing a leading part in founding the Centre for Caribbean Studies, which in turn became a prominent focus for historical and literary work on the Caribbean. The CAS degree, his book The Frontier in Latin American History, his numerous essays and articles on subjects which ranged from the histories of Cuba and Anglo-Argentine relations to Latin American intellectuals and Chicano culture, together with the Caribbean Studies book series which he created and co-edited, all stand as testimony to the intellectual vision, passion and energy for which he will be long remembered.

Professor Tony McFarlane (Warwick University, History and CAS, 1976-2011)


Alistair Hennessy had a profound effect on the study of the Americas and, particularly, the Caribbean at Warwick and beyond. He recognized very early the significance of the Caribbean for comparative studies and helped to establish the first Centre for Caribbean Studies in the UK. Alistair also founded the Warwick Series in Caribbean Studies, published by Macmillan, which ultimately resulted in the publication of over 40 books. Many of these were crucial in the development of Caribbean Studies more widely.

On a personal level, I felt very fortunate to be involved in the Centre and in the Warwick Series and, even more so, to teach and work with excellent colleagues, especially in Comparative American Studies but also in History. Alistair was responsible for creating Comparative American Studies, a highly innovative and interesting interdisciplinary degree. He was also responsible for bringing together an incredibly lively and vibrant group of scholars and teachers of the Americas.

Professor Gad Heuman (Warwick University, History and CAS, 1976-2010)


I first met Alistair, accompanied by Daphne and their son Mellor, on a sunny May day in 1974 as they stepped from a punt into my garden at Water Eaton Road in Oxford where I was studying for a DPhil. Within four months we had become colleagues at Warwick, where I was appointed to set up the Latin American history component of a new degree in Comparative American Studies. Although much imitated in recent years, in 1974 this hemispheric, North-South, comparative and inter-disciplinary (History, Literature, Politics and Spanish) approach to American studies was unique. Initially, five new posts (2 in English, 2 in History and 1 in the Language Centre) were established for a first intake of 30 students (20 CAS, 10 English/CAS with Spanish/CAS launched in 1975). At first, in the spirit of comparison and inter-disciplinarity, new appointments attended each other’s lectures with the US specialists (Clive Bush and Edward Countryman) even joining Salvador Ortiz’s language class in recognition of “Americas Plural”. Cold War passions – support for Allende’s popular Unity government and other liberation movements in the hemisphere - brought us even closer together while appointments Alistair made in 1975-6 in US foreign policy (Callum McDonald), Caribbean History (Gad Heuman), Latin American history (Anthony McFarlane) and Latin American Literature (John King) put in place an academic framework which has stood the test of time.

Apart from academic leadership Alistair also inspired generations of students with his teaching. His particularly strength was intellectual, political and cultural synthesis. I remember being electrified during the normally soporific (particularly for an overworked new appointment) 2.0-3.0 pm lecture slot by his lectures on the Mexican Revolution, Getulio Vargas and Peronism.

Before moving his research expertise to Latin American history and setting up the CAS degree, Alistair had established an enduring reputation among historians of Spain for his The Federal Republic in Spain, Pi y Margall and the Federal Republican Movement, 1868–1874 (1962). Published ten years before the end of the Franco dictatorship, this remarkable intellectual biography inspired a new generation of historians, such as Clara Lida, Jordi Maluquer and Josep Termes, to break the forty years of silence and to revisit Spain’s nineteenth-century republican traditions, a necessary first step before turning to the more painful and controversial memories of the Second Republic and the Civil War. Alistair enjoys comparable esteem among Spanish historians to that of Raymond Carr, John Lynch, John Elliott and Paul Preston.

Professor Guy Thomson (Warwick University, History/CAS, 1974-2012)


I remember Alistair above all for his boundless enthusiasm and wide ranging interests. Within months of my joining CAS in October 1976, I was off in a minibus with colleagues and students to Exeter University – where Alistair had taught before coming to Warwick – to discuss images of Mexico in the US, alongside Michael Wood and Christopher Frayling. I seem to remember Alistair’s car breaking down on the way home: his cars were always somewhat precarious, though he travelled insistently. He showed kindness and support to Chilean refugee scholars who began arriving in the UK from the mid seventies. In early 1978, he invited the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa to Warwick, where we talked about his newly published comic novel, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Vargas Llosa became a regular visitor to Warwick from that time. In the mid 1980s we were fortunate to spend time with leading scholars from the Hispanic Caribbean, all invited by Alistair, such as the Cuban writers Miguel Barnet and Roberto Fernández Retamar and the Puerto Rican historian Angel Quintero Rivera. In the aftermath of the Falklands-Malvinas war, Alistair organized a major symposium on British-Argentine relations, which later became a book of essays prefaced by the Argentine historian and then Argentine Foreign Minister, Guido Di Tella.

Wherever one travelled in the Americas, people always knew Alistair and his wife and constant companion, Daphne, and spoke of them with warmth and affection. In addition to his skills as a cultural bridge builder, Alistair had an encyclopaedic breadth of knowledge and he wrote with fluency and elegance – he was a splendid essayist – across a wide range of topics. He was an open-minded thinker and he helped to create new intellectual spaces: spaces that we were privileged to inhabit.

Professor John King (Warwick University, History/CAS, 1976-present)


I remember Alistair very clearly from the first day I arrived at Warwick, early in 1968, for an interview. This was before the Humanities Building existed, and History was still housed on the 4th floor of the Library. John Hale, Michael Mallett and the two Henries (Cohn and Kamen) asked the questions, while a mysterious figure- Alistair- silently paced the room with an expression of fierce concentration before announcing that he was off to catch a plane. That trivial episode captured several key qualities- his restlessness, intensity, and mobility, both intellectual and physical. Alistair’s fierce expression could be initially intimidating, but it concealed a warm personality, and the frown often turned into a beaming smile once he registered your presence. His great achievement, of course, was the creation of CAS, the culmination of an emphasis on American history and culture prominent in the Department from from the beginning. The vision of a History syllabus constructed around the twin pillars of Renaissance and Modernity (Venice and America) came from John Hale, but it was Alistair who ensured that ‘America’ should mean all the Americas, a pioneering approach in that era. Alistair had a World War II persona, with moustache and verbal quirks to match- he would talk of ‘getting on the blower’ (the phone). But in his approach to history he was at the cutting edge - full of energy, and always looking for new questions to explore. His preoccupation with ‘the frontier’ in History was an apt reflection of his intellectual approach. Like John Hale, Alistair was drawn to the big picture and comparative analysis. Both were restless visionaries, impatient with the mundane and routine aspects of academic life. But in the earliest days Alistair played a very significant part in shaping our first core module (’Basic I’), he served as an acting Head of Department, in the absence of John Hale, and served for many years as CAS’s first Director. His wife Daphne told me, shortly before he retired, that he knew leaving CAS and Warwick would create a huge void in his life. He had made a huge contribution, in a colourful and idiosyncratic style that rarely survives in modern Academia.

Professor Bernard Capp (Warwick University, History Department, 1968-2010)


I was extremely saddened to hear about Alistair’s death last April. He and I had been speaking on the telephone frequently in the previous months about his books and papers; he was keen to make sure they went to a good home and he wanted to discuss future plans. He was still very much involved in research and he had inspiring ideas for several new projects. Personally I owe Alistair a tremendous debt. His research interests and my own were very similar. I had read his book on the Spanish Federal Republic while studying for my PhD in the 1980s and found it the very best piece of critical thinking on the subject; it was then and it still is. He then became more interested in the Cuban perspective and he and I had long discussions about the 19th C history of Spain and Cuba. Alistair was a historian to the core, always asking the questions that desperately needed answers - irrespective of fashions and fads. He was driven to find out the truth, as far as possible, especially about the circumstances that led to Spain’s loss of Cuba and the Philippines and the impact of Hispanic cultures in the Americas. He was a real pioneer, a trail-blazer in so many ways. Shortly before he died he sent me his study of the Frontier – I book I had never read and which today is so uncannily topical. His work on Argentina, The Land that England Lost, is a milestone in postcolonial studies. His vision of the Americas as a whole entity rather than a collection of separate nation-states, bound up in conflicting histories of Empire and liberation, was well before its time. Alistair knew and recalled so much; he was a veritable encyclopaedia on all things to do with Spain and the Americas and their relation with Britain over the last two hundred years. He was a one-man Wikipedia. But more astonishingly he made meaningful connections between all the random facts. He held the full picture in his mind like a hugely complex website. It is hard to fully grasp that he is no longer with us and that all the knowledge and understanding he held in his head are no longer ours for the bidding, except of course for what he has left us in his writings: a very precious legacy.

Professor Catherine Davies (Hispanic and Latin American Studies, University of Nottingham)


Alistair was long a doyen of both Spanish and Latin American studies in the UK, setting up and, for long, running, the University of Warwick Centre for Caribbean Studies and the School of Comparative American Studies. He was also, of course, one of the pioneers of studies on Cuba in the UK, starting to research and write about Cuban history in the early 1960s. In that, as in everything that he studied and about which he wrote, he proved to be rigorous, always impressively encyclopaedic in his knowledge (and amazingly so in his lectures) and way ahead of the times in his breadth of vision, his imagination and his willingness to bring, and encourage, a genuinely inter-disciplinary approach to it all.

I personally have every reason to be grateful to him, as he gave me the chance year after year to teach on Cuba at Warwick and to participate in the Centre’s activities; however, Cuba specialists more generally also have every reason to be grateful, since it was because of him that the Cuba Research Forum (then the Forum for the Study of Cuba) was established in 1998, with Alistair as guest of honour. That was because he had donated to the University of Wolverhampton (where I then worked and where the Forum was based) the magnificent collection of Cuban newspapers and books which he had acquired through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This research material was the bibliographical heart of the Cuba Forum at Wolverhampton, and now – bearing the name of the Hennessy Collection - has been substantially enhanced and increased to provide a base at the University of Nottingham’s Centre for Research on Cuba. It has been an invaluable resource for work on Cuba and has, since 1998, provided the material for many a masters and doctoral thesis.

Professor Tony Kapcia (University of Nottingham)


I am very saddened, with a sense of a personal loss, to hear of the death of Alistair Hennessey. It brings back to me a moment when the University of Warwick was young, a few buildings in a largely muddy building site, with enough traces of the old Warwickshire farming landscape to hear the larks sing on a Spring morning. I strike the note of nostalgia because Alistair, like me, was a passionate lover of the works of the great Victorian nature writer/ornithologist, W.H. Hudson. The American historical, urban, cultural and ethical-political writer Lewis Mumford (whom he somewhat visually resembled) was another of our mutual passions.

These were just two of the many authors we discussed together. In themselves they point to Alistair’s breadth and depth of intellectual interest and passion, which was always open to, and subject to change, alas unlike the some of the over-theorised theologies of multiculturalism and boundary-mongers of the present time. He could give the impression of being as interested in (wryly) Alan Ginsberg as he was in Che Guevara. From the very beginning I endorsed and assisted his vision of “CAS”, from the literature side: a vision of the “Americas” which was way ahead of its time, and though now needing to a degree modifying is still the bedrock of much that still goes on. The fondest memories are of joint teaching, seminars, in which we could agree with each other, shout at each other, criticise freely without rancour and without having to look over our shoulders to see if we were scoring enough points with the right people to assist something called “a career” with appropriate “citations”.

Others, better qualified, can talk of the breadth of his work on Latin America. For me it was his driving enthusiasm, his old worldly charm, his endless willingness to listen and be excited that I shall remember. I remember one day in his office he had had a letter from an unknown academic from a mid-Western College who wanted to come to Warwick to teach American Studies for a year. After I had read it I looked up puzzled, and he said: “you know, Clive, the CIA aren’t terribly bright.”

Professor Clive Bush (Emeritus Professor of American Literature, King’s College, London)


When I think of Alistair Hennessey, I am taken back to the happiest teaching years of all my time at Warwick, with the CAS team. John King and I taught Latin American Culture and Society and Comparative Literature of the Americas, and Alistair and I taught a course on Chicano literature. Alistair was a brilliant, erudite man, and also one of Warwick's more colourful figures. He and his wife, Daphne used to reside in his office for part of each week, an office crammed with furniture, including a sofa bed, mysterious boxes and enough plants to fill a greenhouse. I well remember being rung up to ask if there was any way they could avoid a move to a north-facing office, because of what this might do to their plants. When Alistair held seminars in his office, Daphne would take a chair and sit out in the corridor, knitting tranquilly and chatting to anyone who came by.

Somewhere in the boxes were bottles of Cuban rum, that would occasionally appear on celebratory occasions. In fact, when I remember Alistair I immediately think of celebrations, because not only was he a brilliant man, with a wealth of experience outside academia that would emerge in entertaining anecdotes, but he loved a good party too. The last time I saw him, he was not well, but the old buccaneering spirit was still there, and we chatted about one of his latest ideas.

I shall always remember Alistair Hennessey, (and Daphne,) with great affection and gratitude for all he taught me, not only about Latin America, but also about how to stay true to oneself in the rapidly changing world of academe.

Professor Susan Bassnett (Professor of Comparative Literature and Special Advisor in Translation Studies, French Studies, University of Warwick)

Alistair Hennessy was instrumental in appointing me as a Lecturer in the Centre for Caribbean Studies in 1984. It was a new Centre, set up largely by his effort, and it was my first academic job. I owe my academic and writing career to Alistair. He was completely supportive of my three-year appointment and it was because of his indefatigable lobbying with the University authorities that my job was made permanent.

Alistair created career paths for many other scholars from the Caribbean, notably Professor Clem Seecharan, who, in 1985 started his doctoral studies under Alistair’s supervision. Clem is now widely regarded as one of the finest historians produced from the region.

The Centre, under his direction, pioneered the study of Caribbean history, Indo-Caribbean Studies, Caribbean Literature and Black British Studies at Warwick. His editorship of the Warwick Macmillan Caribbean Studies publication series enabled many scholars from the region to gain academic recognition. Over the years dozens of Caribbeanists have lectured at Warwick and attended Conferences, as a result of his organizational and fundraising efforts.

The Caribbean is immensely obliged to Alistair for his academic activities and for his stewardship of the Centre for Caribbean Studies. He has made a significant and lasting contribution to the region’s scholarship. He shaped my life, for which I am grateful beyond common words. I have a hundred stories about his passion, his eccentricities, his humour, his thrift and his munificence which I will save up for another occasion.

Professor David Dabydeen (Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Embassy of the Republic of Guyana, and former Director of the Centre for Caribbean Studies, University of Warwick)