Sad News: Morton Keller

July 9, 2018

Dear Colleagues, 

I write to share with you the sad news of the death of Morton “Mickey” Keller, the Spector Professor of History emeritus at Brandeis University.  He was born in Brooklyn, New York on March 1, 1929 and earned a B.A. from the University of Rochester in 1950. Mickey Keller then attended Harvard University, where he received an M.A. in 1952 and Ph.D. in 1956. During that period, he also served as a commissioned officer in the U. S. Navy (1953-1956). He married Phyllis Daytz with whom he had two children, Robin and Jonathan. 

Prior to his appointment at Brandeis in 1964, Mickey Keller was an instructor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an assistant and then associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and a visiting lecturer in History at Harvard. He remained at Brandeis for the rest of his career, retiring as Professor Emeritus in 2001. Keller taught many courses on United States history, political history, legal history, and the state in the Western world.

His former student, Julian Zelizer ’91, the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University, said of his former professor, ( “When I was an undergraduate at Brandeis University in the late 1980s, one of the most influential courses that I took was Morton "Mickey" Keller's seminar on American political history. As I think back to the class at Brandeis, I cannot help but be impressed with how much this founder of the field was able to convey—methodologically, substantively, and analytically—in the course of one semester. Looking at the entirety of Keller's career beyond the classroom, it is clear that his contributions to the field make him one of the most important founders and his work continues to influence the new generation of political history.” 

His colleagues in the history department at Brandeis write, “The History Department is saddened by the loss of our colleague and great friend, Morton “Mickey” Keller. Mickey was a vital presence in the department and the university from his arrival at Brandeis in the fall of 1964 through his retirement in 2001, and beyond. During that time, as his longtime colleague David Hackett Fischer recalls, he built and rebuilt the department several times over, making it better each time by recruiting historians “at the front edge of the field.” A proud veteran of the U.S. Navy, Mickey took as his great subject the history of American legal and political institutions, from the founding to the present day. Impatient with grand theories of modernization that did not square with the messier social and political realities of the American past, in his work he chronicled “the complex interplay between old and new.” He published well over a dozen deeply researched books on American public life, bringing his keen mind and lively prose to bear on subjects ranging from the nineteenth-century political cartoonist Thomas Nast to the New Deal state to the administration of Barack Obama (the latter in a book that he titled, in a typical Kellerism, The Unbearable Heaviness of Governing). During his years at Brandeis, Mickey brought the political past to life for countless undergraduates and he trained a truly stellar group of political and legal historians, who have carried the field in important new directions and trained many students of their own. A fine raconteur, he loved a good joke and a fine glass of wine, which he and his wife and co-author, Phyllis Keller, shared freely in their Cambridge and Wellfleet homes with their many colleagues and friends. On the tennis court, Mickey was always driving forward, and his crosscourt forehand could be unforgiving. Of the historian’s craft, he once wrote, “My ultimate purpose is (or should be) every historian’s purpose: to apply present insight and perspective not to make the past more usable but to make it more comprehensible.” That Mickey Keller has done, many times over and very well. We shall miss him.” 

I know that I join all of you in extending our deepest sympathies to Mickey's family. 



Lisa M. Lynch