It is with great sadness that I announce the death of author Milton Meltzer. He passed away peacefully this past Saturday morning at age 94 in his New York City home. For the last several months, Milton had been terminally ill with esophageal cancer.
Milton was a first-generation American, the son of Benjamin and Mary who were immigrants from Austria-Hungary. Born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, Milton attended Columbia University but dropped out in his senior year. The Great Depression was at its worst, and continuing with his studies seemed pointless. Milton got a job writing for the WPA Federal Theater Project. When he lost his WPA job in 1939, Milton spent several months traveling the country with two friends, like John Steinbeck would later do with his dog Charley. Milton’s experiences living through the Great Depression, working for the WPA, and seeing America profoundly influenced his political views and strong sense of social justice. Milton married his wife Hildy on June 22, 1941, the same day Hitler’s armies invaded the Soviet Union. Drafted in August 1942, Milton was assigned to the Army Air Corps, in which he served as an air traffic controller. After the war, Milton worked as a writer for CBS radio and in public relations for Pfizer. Milton leaves behind two daughters and grandchildren. Hildy Meltzer passed away last year.
For those of you not familiar with the scope of Milton’s long, distinguished career as a writer and his profound contributions to the field, here are some highlights. In the fall of 1956, at the age of 40, Milton published his first book, A Pictorial History of the Negro American, co-written with Langston Hughes. A landmark publication, the book went through six revised and updated editions and remained in print through the 1990s. Milton and Hughes became good friends, collaborating on another book. Milton wrote a biography of Hughes, published in 1968. That book received the Carter G. Woodson Award and was a National Book Award finalist. Three other of Milton’s books were National Book Award finalists.
Milton continued publishing books through 2008. Among his last titles were a biography of John Steinbeck for Viking’s Up Close series and his second historical novel, Tough Times, published by Clarion. Milton’s history books addressed such subjects as ancient Egypt, the Civil Rights Movement, crime, the Great Depression, the Holocaust, the immigrant experience, labor movements, photography, piracy, poverty, racism, and slavery. A personal favorite of mine, The Amazing Potato, chronicled the impact of the potato on civilization through the centuries. Milton also explored the impact of horses and gold in books with a similar approach. Milton’s many biographies included champions of social justice like Mary McLeod Bethune, Lydia Maria Child, Samuel Gridley Howe, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Sanger, and Thaddeus Stevens, and favorite American writers like Dickinson, Poe, Sandburg, Thoreau, and Twain.
Among Milton’s many groundbreaking contributions to nonfiction for young people was his “warts and all” approach to portraying historical figures. He offered young readers the best and least admirable sides of such giants as Andrew Carnegie, Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and George Washington. Equally groundbreaking was Milton’s commitment to presenting history from the bottom up, much in the way Howard Zinn did with the milestone A People’s History of the United States. In books like The Black Americans: A History in Their Own Words and similar titles focusing on Jewish Americans, American revolutionaries, and immigrants, and perspectives of northerners and southerners in the Civil War, Milton helped readers understand the role ordinary people play in the making of history. Milton was also one of the first authors of nonfiction for young people who truly respected his audience. He had faith in the power of young people to reason, to think critically, to draw their own conclusions. We have Milton to thank for setting the standards of excellence and quality we see in the best biographies and history books published for young people today.
Milton could also cause a stir with insightful and provocative essays he wrote for professional journals. One well-known article is “Where Have All the Prizes Gone? The Case for Nonfiction” published in 1976 in Horn Book.
In 2001, the Association for Library Services to Children awarded Milton the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for his substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children.
I am in the process of writing a biography of Milton Meltzer. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview him several times over the last few years and maintain a correspondence. He was and always will be a profound influence and inspiration to me as an historian and writer.
Let me close with one of my favorite quotes from Milton. It is from an article originally published in Wilson Library Bulletin in 1969. It is a good summation of his approach and philosophy as a historian and writer for young people. It resonates as much today as it did 40 years ago.
“You may ask, what is the relevance of all this history to the young? It has the meaning of all true history, the meaning of what it is to be American. We cannot endure as a people, as a nation, unless we can distinguish between that which is true and that which is false about this country. Ours is not a past of sweetness and light, no matter what the textbook tells us. Textbooks avoid conflicts and the disorders that have taken place in our past. No wonder they bore students. In the recounting of our past we have been the victims of censorship, a censorship more disastrous by far than any brought about by the hunters of the obscene and the pornographic. For when we have not learned the truth about our past, we cannot find the truth in the present.”
That’s what Milton’s work was all about, helping young people connect with the truth of the past so they can find the truth in their present.
Milton’s body of work comprised over 100 books. Below are some of my personal favorites, my “Meltzer Top 10.”
- All Times, All Peoples: A World History of Slavery. Illus. Leonard Everett Fisher. Harper Collins, 1980. 0-06-024187-X
- Meltzer shows readers that slavery is as old as humankind and a universal tragedy, and that it persists in some parts of the world. This is a particularly outstanding book for readers middle school age and younger. An excellent, in-depth study of the subject appropriate for high school and adult readers is Meltzer’s Slavery: A World History (De Capo, 1993).
- The Amazing Potato: A Story in Which the Incas, Conquistadors, Marie Antionette, Thomas Jefferson, Wars, Famines, Immigrants, and French Fries All Play a Part. Harper Collins, 1992. 0-06-020806-6
- How can anyone not love a title like that? Meltzer explains the great impact the seemingly unassuming potato has had upon civilizations through the centuries in this entertaining, fascinating, and concise history.
- Andrew Jackson and His America. Franklin Watts, 1993. 0-531-11157-1
- This biography is a perfect example of Meltzer’s “warts and all” approach to writing about historical figures. Meltzer’s compelling portrait reveals to readers that there is much to admire and much to loathe about the seventh President of the United States.
- The Black Americans: A History in Their Own Words, 1619-1983. Harper Collins,1984. 0-690-04418-6
- This collection of individual views and experiences is an excellent example of Meltzer’s approach to presenting history “from the ground up,” much as Howard Zinn did in his groundbreaking work, A People’s History of the United States.
- Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? The Great Depression, 1929-1933. Facts On File, 1991. 978-0-8160-2372-1
- Milton provides readers with vivid glimpses of people from all regions and walks of life who suffered through the Great Depression. Milton also wrote about the Great Depression in Violins & Shovels: The WPA Arts Project (Delacorte, 1976) and the historical novel Tough Times (Clarion, 2007).
- Hunted Like a Wolf: The Story of the Seminole War. Pineapple Press, 2004. 1-56164-305-X
- The war against the Seminoles was the longest of the Indians wars and the costliest in money and human life. Milton portrays white Americans at their ugliest, taking advantage of the Seminoles’ innocence, and driving them from their homeland with greed and treachery. An absorbing, revealing book about America’s violent, racist history. The book was originally published in 1972 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Never To Forget: The Jews of the Holocaust. Harper Collins, 1976. 0-06-024175-6
- An outstanding, unflinching history. Milton uses excerpts from letters, diaries, memoirs, poems, and songs to reveal what everyday life was like for Jews struggling to survive in the ghettos, and labor and death camps. Another excellent Holocaust book by Milton is Rescue: The Story of How the Gentiles Saved Jews in the Holocaust (Harper Collins, 1988).
- A Pictorial History of the Negro in America. Crown, 1956.
- Milton’s first book, co-authored with the great Langston Hughes, was revolutionary for its time. The idea that African Americans had a history worth reading about was a fairly radical one, and most publishers did not think of black Americans as a book-buying audience. With the Civil Rights Movement building serious momentum, however, the timing was perfect for such a book. This landmark publication went through six major editions (the last titled A Pictorial History of African Americans) and remained in print through the 1990s. Milton and Hughes became close friends working on the book. That would collaborate on another, Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment (1967). That book would also go through several revisions.
- Starting from Home: A Writer’s Beginnings. Viking, 1988. 0-670-81604-3
- In this entertaining and revealing memoir, Milton recounts his childhood and adolescent experiences growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts. Milton offers a great deal of insight into what it was like being the first-generation son of immigrants and Jewish in a predominantly gentile city. He speaks vividly of his educational experiences, his friendships, the brutal impact the Great Depression had upon his family, and other events that would shape his view of the world and direction as a writer.
- Tongue of Flame: The Life of Lydia Maria Child. Crowell, 1965. 0-690-04903-X
- Milton says he was drawn to the story of Lydia Maria Child because “hers was an extraordinary life.” Abolitionist, author, Indian rights activist, journalist, novelist, poet, women’s rights crusader–extraordinary indeed! Milton’s admiration for his subject is evident in this lively and vivid portrait of one of America’s greatest champions for social justice. Milton also co-edited a collection of selected letters by Child.