Steven Carl Averill, 1945-2004

Stephen Carl Averill passed away in the autumn of 2004. He was what might be called – if it weren’t for the fustian connotations of the term – a gentleman and a scholar. Steve was an army brat who spent some of his formative years in the Far East before his parents settled down to a somewhat more provincial existence in upstate New York. He graduated from Colgate University in 1967 and then, following his dad into the service, was sent to Okinawa. There he began to hone his skills in the Japanese and Chinese languages and in drinking beer. He returned to the United States and earned his Ph.D. in Modern Chinese History at Cornell University in 1982.

His first teaching position was in the History Department at Kenyon College. In the Fall of 1988, he came to MSU. Over the next fifteen years, Steve taught a variety of courses for the History Department. Most were in East Asian history, although he also was not averse to team teaching a course on “The Year 1968″ with another erstwhile rock n’ roller, developing a graduate course on post-colonial studies, and working with a group of colleagues to invent an omni-course for Integrative Studies in the Arts and Humanities on “Europe and the World.” Listing his contributions to the curriculum this way does not begin to express how valuable Steve was to the students he mentored (quite a few of whom earned Ph.D.s under his direction and are now are teaching at colleges and universities throughout the United States) and his colleagues in the History Department and the Asian Studies Center. He read broadly and thought deeply. He was no less conversant with postmodern anthropological theory than most anthropologists. He took voluminous notes on what he read, ten single-spaced typewritten pages from Edward Said’s Orientalism, for example, and prepared meticulously for lectures. He loved to travel to China and Japan and did so frequently. He was proud of his spoken Chinese and acquitted himself well in Japanese too.

Steve’s contributions to the field of modern Chinese history were many. In 1991 he took over the editorship of a moribund journal, Republican China, and single-handedly turned it into a going concern. Eight years later, he expanded its mission, re-titling the journal Twentieth-Century China. He also served in a number of important capacities in the Association of Asian Studies. His own scholarship centered on the Chinese Communist Party in the hinterlands during the 1930s. He was one of two associate editors of a volume of Mao’s political writings for the years 1931-34 that M. E. Sharpe published in 1997. He wrote articles on ethnicity and revolution in South China, local elites and rural education, local elites and the Communist Revolution in the Jiangxi hill country, the transition from urban to rural in the Chinese Revolution, and the Shed People and the opening of the Yangzi highlands. The crowning achievement of his scholarship was his monograph,Revolution in the Highlands: The Jinggangshan Revolutionary Base Area which was virtually complete at the time of his death and which two of the most outstanding Chinese historians in this country (Elizabeth Perry and Joseph Escherick) shepherded through to publication by Rowman & Littlefield this year.

A rather private person (though with a wonderful sense of humor), Steve did not trumpet his scholarly accomplishments. Nor did he let many people know of his profound love of folk music, mountain climbing, and watching sports on TV. When he discovered that he had lung cancer, he took it in stride despite the fact that he had never smoked more than a few joints. He bore the illness with amazing fortitude and even good cheer. Late in his life he met and married Lisa Morrisette who took him with her to Granville, Ohio where she taught art history. There is where he passed away, leaving her and his many friends bereft.

– Lewis Siegelbaum