A Personal Farewell to an American Hero

by W.D. Ehrhart

Only recently did I learn that H. Bruce Franklin, the prolific scholar, cultural historian, and passionate teacher, had died back in mid-May. Aside from a June 7th obituary in the New York Times, and brief mentions on a couple of left-progressive websites, Franklin’s death went almost unnoticed by both mainstream and progressive media.

The whole world paid homage when Daniel Ellsberg died eleven months earlier because Ellsberg—by stealing and revealing the infamous Pentagon Papers—had become famous: front-page top-of-the-fold headline news for months and even years. But in his own way, Bruce Franklin was equally committed to truth-telling and exposing the lies and frauds and crimes committed constantly by those in power in and out of government.

A former navigator on Strategic Air Command bombers, Franklin paid a price for his dedication to holding accountable—or at least trying to hold accountable—the powerbrokers who manage to pass themselves off as honorable people. During the Vietnam War, for engaging in very public antiwar activism, he became the first tenured Stanford University professor ever to be fired, and was blacklisted from teaching for a number of years.

I first met Franklin in 1981 at the Newark Public Library Book Fair. He already knew who I was, which startled me because that’s a rare occurrence even now and was unheard of back then, but I was to learn that he paid a lot of attention to Vietnam War literature. He was then teaching at Rutgers University—Newark, where he was to spend the rest of his academic career, and had begun teaching a course called “The U.S. & Vietnam.”

Over the next two decades, he regularly taught my book Passing Time: Memoir of a Vietnam Veteran Against the War, and would have me come and talk to his students every year. He once wrote: “Among the hundreds of authors whose works I have assigned in dozens of courses at American public and private universities since 1961, I have never seen one have the same impact as W.D. Ehrhart. I have not even heard about any other author having the kind of effect I have witnessed.”

He was always incredibly supportive of my writing, including a healthy sampling of my work in his edited anthology, The Vietnam War in American Stories, Songs, and Poems. He included “Making the Children Behave” in Vietnam and Other American Fantasies, and his powerful M.I.A., or, Mythmaking in America, a thorough debunking of the U.S. government-generated lie that the Vietnamese were holding hundreds of living American prisoners decades after the war had ended, contains only one poem: my own “POW/MIA,” which he used as an epilogue. He also wrote a wonderfully generous foreword to the University of Massachusetts Press edition of Busted: A Vietnam Veteran in Nixon’s America.

But his interests were not limited to the American War in Vietnam. His early scholarship began with his doctoral work on Herman Melville, which ultimately became The Wake of the Gods: Melville’s Mythology. I used to teach Melville’s Billy Budd to high school students. Franklin gave me an essay he’d written about the novel that completely altered my understanding of the book, arguing convincingly that while the background of the action in the novel is the British navy mutinies at Spithead and Nore, Melville is actually offering a condemnation of an American Overseas Empire being openly contemplated in the wake of the closing of the western frontier and the completion of continental “Manifest Destiny.”

Franklin also became a recognized expert on—and advocate for—incarcerated convicts and prison literature, publishing three books on the subject: American Prisoners and Ex-prisoners: An Annotated Bibliography of Published Works, 1798-1981; Prison Literature in America: The Victim as Criminal and Artist; and Prison Writing in 20th-Century America.

In addition, he was a huge fan of science fiction, and did much to convince the academic world that the genre was worthy of serious consideration. Moreover, his study War Stars: The Superweapon in the American Imagination demonstrates how 19th and 20th century science fiction helped to shape the beliefs and subsequent policies and decisions of powerful Americans, including multiple presidents.

On top of all this, he was an avid recreational fisherman, as well as an environmentalist. His book The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America led to the introduction of two nature conservation bills in Congress as well as persuading the Department of Commerce to take action to protect menhaden.

And while accomplishing all of this, he taught fulltime at Rutgers—Newark from 1975 until his retirement in 2015. That particular Rutgers campus is largely populated by working-class students, which was a perfect fit for Franklin since he himself came from a working-class family, and had worked as a young man as a photography batch worker, an upholsterer, and a tugboat deckhand. I have encountered several former Franklin students over the years who say that he transformed their lives for the better.

After Franklin’s retirement, he and his wife moved to California to be closer to their children, so I had not seen him for a decade. But we stayed in touch. When Jane died in 2023, after 58 years of marriage, I sent him a letter of condolence and support. I knew he was not in good shape because one of his daughters answered my letter, saying that Bruce could no longer reply to correspondence. He was 90 years old when he died, so the news of his death was not in itself surprising.

But that his passing should be so little noted, not only by mainstream media, but by outlets that should revere and honor him, is deeply disappointing. H. Bruce Franklin was and is an American treasure, and those of us who care about the truth need to remember him, and find renewed inspiration from his life.


W. D. Ehrhart is a retired Master Teacher of History & English, and author of a Vietnam War memoir trilogy published by McFarland.

1 thought on “A Personal Farewell to an American Hero”

  1. Thank you for this fitting tribute. I have been touting Franklin for decades to anybody who I thought might care enough about the issues he wrote about to actually pay attention to him.

    His demolition of American myths about Vietnam was superlative. If only the US electorate had the intelligence and the wisdom to learn from his scholarship
    and his wise counsel.

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