David Brion Davis, the celebrated historian whose works challenged the accepted wisdom about slavery, radically repositioning the brutal practice at the very heart of Western development, died Sunday at the age of 92. Yale University, where Davis taught for decades, said Monday that the scholar died of "natural causes."
"Over the course of his prodigious and extraordinary career, Professor Davis transformed the study of slavery and abolition and inspired generations of historians beyond his own field," university President Peter Salovey said in the statement. "His willingness to ask new questions and seek larger truths inspires us still."
Davis wrote or edited 16 books — none more influential than his seminal trilogy, The Problem of Slavery, an opus that took 38 years from the publication of the first volume to the last. All told, the series — which broadly examined slavery's central role and complex legacy in the West — earned Davis a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award, among many others.
By the time Davis concluded the trilogy, with the publication of The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation in 2014, he had achieved the feat of "reshaping our understanding of history." That's according to the citation for the National Humanities Medal, the highest honor awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which Davis received from President Obama the very same year.
"A World War II veteran, Davis has shed light on the contradiction of a free nation built by forced labor," the citation explains, "and his examinations of slavery and abolitionism drive us to keep making moral progress in our time."