Brown University


Brown: The History of an Idea by Ted Widmer

*Available exclusively at the Brown Bookstore on May 7th
--Available through national retailers on September 8, 2015 


Thames & Hudson - Pub. Date: 9/8/15
ISBN: 978-0500252161- $29.95

“Ted Widmer’s history is as lively as it is learned. Brown alumni who read it will be continually enriched by new and fascinating information, and those unacquainted with the university will be impressed—and even moved—by the way Widmer intertwines Brown’s story with the nation’s.”
—Thomas Mallon ‘73, author of Watergate

Founded in 1636, essentially as a refuge for outcasts from Massachusetts, Rhode Island emerged as perhaps the most open-minded of the colonies, emphasizing freedom of conscience and religious tolerance.  Only such a place could produce a university as unorthodox as Brown and, in 1764, it did.  The seventh-oldest college in the United States, Brown has followed its own course ever since it was founded as Rhode Island College.  Building on its forward-thinking legacy, in 1969 the university adopted the student-proposed “New Curriculum,” which allowed students to structure their education with remarkable freedom, and continues as the Open Curriculum to this day.  Over the last two and a half centuries, the university and its graduates have played a notable role in numerous defining moments in the American story, including the legacy of slavery (one of the Brown brothers was a leading abolitionist, the other an “ardent defender and slave trader”), the Industrial Revolution, and education reform.  Although there are plenty of prominent alumni mentioned—among them Horace Mann, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Richard Holbrooke, Janet Yellen, and Edwidge Danticat—Widmer’s is a more ambitious account that weaves its threads into a variegated history of how a university can both mirror and spur the wider culture around it.

"This is by far the most colorful and entertaining history of Brown University ever written, and it is authoritative to boot. Widmer has nicely captured the spirit not only of the institution but of the community and the circumstances in which it thrived and grew. And his writing is as lively as the ‘lively experiment’ of Rhode Island itself. What a wonderful tribute to the 250th anniversary of the university!”
—Gordon S. Wood, Pulitzer Prizewinner and Alva O. Way University Professor, Brown University

“Through the wobbly glass of Brown’s antique buildings, we see the entire pageant of U.S. history, including an unlikely cast: Horace mann, the Marx Brothers, Margaret Mead, and Malcolm X, among many others. I’ve never been so proud to be a Brunonian.”
—Tony Horwitz ‘80, author of Confederates in the Attic and Blue Latitudes

“Widmer deftly guides the reader through the rich history of Brown with the right touch of humor and somber recounting of its evolution from its colonial beginnings to its worldwide presence today. It is a well-researched institutional history, but more importantly, an eminently readable overview which both Brown graduates and others will find informative and delightful.”
—Spencer Crew ‘71, former director of the National Museum of American History
Ted Widmer served as the Assistant to the President for Special Projects at Brown University and the Beatrice and Julio Mario Santo Domingo Director and Librarian of the John Carter Brown Library.  From 2012 to 2013, he also served as a senior adviser to Secretary of State Clinton.  He has written or edited many works of history, including Ark of the Liberties and American Speeches (Library of America).