Humanities, November/December 1999, Volume 20/Number 6
Eight Americans-including a folklorist and a journalist, a librarian and a philosopher, an oral historian and a filmmaker, and two Pulitzer Prize-winning writers-were honored at a White House ceremony in September when they received the National Medal for the Humanities.
Through their work, the eight have enabled people to see the past more clearly and be touched by it more closely. An oral historian records the Southern voices of our near past-voices often lost in the writing of history. Their stories show us a world separate from stereotypes and offer us forgotten heroes who tried to fight an unjust system. Another also examines the near past, by writing about the energy and determination of the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr.
A film director goes to the history books to expose some of humanity's worst episodes-the Holocaust, the slave trade, and a world war. His collaboration with scholars, survivors, and veterans give his movies credibility. His directing skills and instincts make these stories accessible and have imprinted them onto the American memory.
Although they follow different paths, these eight medalists have in common a drive to share their knowledge and passions with the world. The following individuals received a 1999 National Humanities Medal:
- Patricia Battin
- Taylor Branch
- Jacquelyn Dowd Hall
- Garrison Keillor
- Jim Lehrer
- John Rawls
- Steven Spielberg
- August Wilson
Her peers call her a pioneer and a missionary, a visionary and a leader. But, even after years of national and international achievements, perhaps the title that Patricia Battin feels most at home with is still simply, "librarian." After all, in a thirty-year career that began as a library intern and eventually led to her directing a digital communication project, Battin's driving force has always been the desire to help the folks at the library find what they need.
In 1964, as a mother of three and a faculty wife, Battin took a job as a library intern at State University of New York, Binghamton. She soon moved into more advanced library work. By the time she left SUNY Binghamton she was the assistant director for reader services.
In 1974, Battin joined Columbia University as the director of the Library Services Group. "It was around this time that I began to realize the intense impact the technology boon was having and would continue to have on libraries," says Battin. Columbia boasted (and still maintains) twenty-six libraries. In 1978, Battin was one of the first librarians to combine library administration with technology services when she took on Columbia's dual post of University Librarian and Vice President for Information Services. At a time when libraries were becoming more and more technology-driven, the new position gave Battin the opportunity to view the technology world close-up. She was somewhat alarmed. "I saw that library information systems of the future were being conceived and built by engineers, who, as university librarians know, rarely use libraries." This realization fueled what became and still remains Battin's loudest wake-up call to humanities professionals. "The central concern for the humanist in a technologically driven society must be a willingness to influence actively, persuasively, and eloquently the design of information systems."
When she left Columbia University in 1987 to become the president of the Commission on Preservation, Battin began what she would later describe as the most satisfying and perhaps most important work of her career--preserving books. "It has always been clear to me that the library of the future does in fact contain actual books," she asserts.
She successfully lobbied congress for increased preservation funding in the U.S. and worked with overseas groups to champion international efforts. Of her work with the Commission, a former president of the Council on Library Resources said, "In a very short time, she was able to bring together many different, diverse, and interested groups as well as bring the problem of preservation to the attention of many organizations that hadn't really thought of it as a major problem demanding attention."
Battin launched full-scale into the technology world when she became the planning director for Emory University's Virtual Library Project in 1994. The three-year project explored new ways of managing and sharing scholarly information using the capacities of digital technology and communication networks. It sought to achieve "an unprecedented collaborative structure," writes Battin. Dynamic in its goals and scope, the virtual library project was a trailblazer for the electronic library. Among many noteworthy goals, the project accomplished the development of programs to educate managers about digital information systems, the construction of the Center for Library and Information Resources to house both library and information technology activities, and the creation of long-term collaborative partnerships between institutions. Emory Chancellor Billy E. Frye said of Battin, "She will stand out as one of the key figures of the last half of the twentieth century because of the leadership she has brought to the area of information management in the country."
Having been retired for a few years now, she still keeps a very active hand in both library and preservation efforts. In 1998, she co-wrote The Mirage of Continuity: Reconfiguring Academic Information Resources for the Twenty-first Century, about the need to expand access to resources. In her leisure time, she enjoys traveling and her four grandchildren.
One university president used these words to describe Patricia Battin's work, "adapting old customs and habits to a new technology." May all of our old customs and habits be in such good hands as hers.
-- Susan Q. Graceson
In May 1963, more than one thousand young black protesters-many of them children-gathered at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. What was supposed to be a peaceful march against segregation turned violent after police used fire hoses and dogs to disperse the marchers. Among the millions watching the events unfold on national television was Taylor Branch, then a teenager living in Atlanta.
"You see authority behaving like that, it seems that the whole world is upside down," says Branch, now fifty-two.
These and other images of the Civil Rights Movement got Branch interested in the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other key figures from the period. In Parting the Waters, his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the movement's rise, Branch goes beyond the stock imagery of news stories to put the reader right in the middle of Birmingham in the spring of 1963:
On command, the officers handling the dogs rushed forward to gain close quarters. Where the crowd was too tightly massed to flee cleanly, the growling German shepherds lunged toward stumbling, cowering stragglers. They bit three teenagers severely enough to require hospital treatment. Other targets, screaming with terror and turning in confusion, either disappeared into the Negro section to the west or took refuge in the church.
Last year, Branch published a second volume, Pillar of Fire, detailing the years from 1963 to 1965, during which the passage of federal civil rights legislation was offset by clashes within the movement, ongoing FBI efforts to damage King's credibility, and other obstacles. Branch is currently working on At Canaan's Edge, which covers the period from 1965 until King's assassination in 1968.
Branch's history of the King years has been praised for the way it crafts exhaustive research into a forceful narrative. Branch says this approach arose from the awkwardness of being a white Southerner trying to understand the black struggle for equality, and from his dissatisfaction with previous work on the subject.
"I found most of the literature overly analytical," says Branch, who began studying the movement out of personal curiosity during college. "It was like a chess match."
Branch has never been content with letting the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement fade into abstractions. After college, he did graduate work at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. For a summer project aimed at encouraging voter registration, he was assigned to write a short policy memorandum on the project's implications for economic development. Branch's experiences trying to gain the trust and interest of skeptical blacks in southern Georgia-including his arrest at a poker game-led him to submit a diary as part of the finished assignment. Portions of the diary were published in the Washington Monthly, where Branch worked as an assistant editor after finishing graduate school.
In 1972, Branch turned to politics, working in Texas for George McGovern's presidential campaign. As a state coordinator, Branch was hoping to do something about racial discord and the Vietnam War. But he most keenly remembers settling disputes like who got to sit where in the McGovern motorcade.
"We got clobbered by Nixon in the campaign," he says. "We lost and people were petty." Disillusioned, Branch decided to return to writing.
He has since held staff positions at Esquire and Harper's Magazine and has written for numerous other publications. Before turning to the King project, Branch co-authored several books and wrote a novel. He served as ghostwriter for Blind Ambition, former White House counsel John Dean's 1976 account of his years in the Nixon White House.
When not working on the third volume of his trilogy, Branch is collaborating on a planned ABC miniseries based on the first two parts. He lives in Baltimore with his wife and their two teenage children.
Branch hopes that Americans will remember the sacrifices of King and countless others to further social change. "I'm worried," he says, "that if people don't really immerse themselves in what it means, they'll take it for granted."
-- Pedro Ponce
Oral history, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall's way of recording the past, captures voices that otherwise would fade. She says that oral history is motivated by the fact that "only certain people, and usually the victors and people who have access to publicity, have power over historical memory. Even people who have that often are lost because fashions change."
Last spring, in a seminar on women's history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Hall's students completed oral histories involving three generations of women in their families. Most interviewed their great-grandmothers, their grandmothers, and their mothers. "I've noticed that grandchildren often will hark back to their grandparents," she observes. She says the assignment helped these students put their lives in historical context.
Using personal perspectives to enrich-and sometimes contradict-popular views of history has been her job since 1973, when she was hired out of graduate school to direct the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina. Last year marked its twenty-fifth anniversary.
Unlike some other programs, Hall's flourished despite tight humanities budgets in the 1980s and early 90s. "The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation have been among our major supporters," she says. The charged, personal aspects of oral history certainly keep the program bounding forward. And Hall's enthusiasm radiates energy.
From stories of white female activists to tales of laid-off Southern textile workers, from the taped voices of African American civil rights leaders to collaborative written histories-the range of Hall's work shows that for her, discoveries never cease.
Because oral history offers myriad voices giving multifaceted accounts, it reinforces a positive uncertainty, she says. "The tug between listening to our critics and forging our own vision-are what keep us honest and keep us alive," she wrote in Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World.
That book, which won the Alfred J. Beveridge Award from the American Historical Society and the Philip Taft Labor History Prize, among others, developed out of a project supported by an NEH grant in the early 1980s. "We recorded the voices of Southerners who were the first to go from farm to factory," relates Hall. "The stories were so compelling that the group concluded that we had to write a book." The pluralistic history, written by Hall and five others, gained her larger audiences for her work.
At the same time, it surprised Hall that "there was so much resistance to it, mostly on the grounds that we were too sympathetic to white, working-class Southerners.
"It's almost that people were saying that at the end of the day, the only thing to tell is of their pathologies and racism. It's not that white working-class southerners didn't buy into the racism, because many did," she says, "but the same story is told over and over again in every media."
As a doctoral student in American history at Columbia University, Hall tried to run away from the South. She first chose the history of New England and then the impossibly broad history of black women in America, before the South drew her back. Observing this pattern in other expatriates and exiles, she says: "You see this all the time in southern history-'She wasn't really Southern,' or 'She wasn't typically Southern.' It's problematic to categorize people as regional characters."
After she completed qualifying examinations at Columbia, Hall took a position with the Southern Regional Council, an Atlanta organization that succeeded the moderate Commission on Interracial Cooperation. There, she found records of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching and of its director from 1930 until 1942, a white Texas woman named Jesse Daniel Ames.
"Writing about her made it possible to write about women, the South, and race," says Hall.
As she developed a framework for Ames, Hall resuscitated other stories from the early Civil Rights Movement. "The students in the movements of the sixties thought of themselves as the first, so part of my motivation was to encourage a longer, deeper history of dissent-particularly for white Southerners-to argue against the notion that they'd been unified."
Hall identifies with and admires early activists because that is when, she says, "Southern intellectuals and writers emerged as critics of their own region."
During anticommunist scares in the late forties and early fifties, these pioneers became suspects-spied upon and silenced. These "lost" activists have a lot to teach us, Hall says.
She also observes, "Even when stories end tragically, the struggle will plant the seeds for something to come later. Writing about people keeps them alive; it keeps the seeds alive."
-- Elizabeth Gibbens
A Prairie Home Companion: Millions of radio listeners look forward to it week after week after week. For the past twenty-five years, host Garrison Keillor has drawn them in with stories and songs and quips about home, family, little-league, and church socials. hat voice that draws them in, melting away cruel cynicism, is the "ruined baritone" of Anoka, Minnesota's own son, Garrison Keillor.
The character, if one exists, and the man are virtually indistinguishable. Both his writings, journalistic and otherwise, and his public speaking engagements leave audiences with the same sense of intellect, humility, and hometown sensibility as the radio show.
Probably the only mainstream entertainer who gets laughs by poking fun at "humanities majors," he himself was perhaps born one. "The Minneapolis Public Library of my boyhood was a stone castle a few blocks up Hennepin Avenue from the pool halls, penny arcades, bars and burlesque house," he recalls. "It was worth a long bike ride to get there, and I stayed as long as I could, and then pedaled home with a bag full of books. Everything else-softball, fishing, swimming, basketball, lawn-mowing-paled alongside the experience."
His career in radio began when he was a freshman English major at the University of Minnesota. "There was a fine humanities program there-Saul Bellow had taught in it-in which history and literature was combined in the study of ideas, an exciting escape from the strictures of the English department, and I enjoyed it," he says. "Even read War and Peace."
Shortly after graduation, Keillor took a job with Minnesota Public Radio. On July 6, 1974, he hosted the first broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion in front of a small audience at Macalester College in St. Paul. The show has since played such renowned venues as Radio City Music Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, and the Fox in Atlanta. Keillor is ever humble when discussing the program's success. "The miniaturization of radios has made the show more appealing to people who like to hike and bike and ski," he muses. "And the edginess of comedy nowadays, the need of comedians to be dark and cynical and insistently profane, has created a large niche for comedy that isn't."
A Prairie Home Companion may be known for its celebration of traditional values like families, gospel music, and local gossip, but the program is technologically hip. Since 1996 it was been delivered live over the Internet and direct to worldwide satellite. It goes out over Armed Forces Radio.
Since starting the program twenty-five years ago, Keillor has written eleven books, been inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame, and has won a Grammy Award and two ACE Awards, among other notable accomplishments.
His most recent works include the book Me: By Jimmy "Big Boy" Valente as Told to Garrison Keillor, a humorous tribute to his state's new governor, and an advice column "for lovers and writers" in the popular online magazine Salon. Here he covers topics such as the dissertation blues, writer's block, step-parenting, and true love. "They wanted me to do a column and I thought that an advice column would be an ingenious way to get the readers to do half the work," he says. Marriage and fatherhood in his fifties make him particularly qualified to dispense such advice. He and his wife are the proud parents of a toddler daughter. Describing his home life in a recent Time magazine essay, he writes, "This is the life of a man who knows grandeur."
Keillor is currently working on four books simultaneously with the belief that "the great blessing is to have work that is satisfying, and that's enough.... You just keep going to work. You do your piece. You hoe your row. You try to make yourself useful to the audience."
-- Susan Q. Graceson
Americans old enough to remember the Nixon administration became acquainted with journalist Jim Lehrer during the Watergate scandal. His face, his voice are inextricably linked to the dark days of Watergate because it was he, along with colleague Robin McNeil, who monitored the hearings day after day, solemnly reporting live on the ever-mounting evidence and ultimately on the resignation of a president.
Watergate-and the nation's hunger for news of the hearings-tilled the soil for the role Lehrer would later play on what is perhaps best known as PBS's McNeil/Lehrer Report, then a half-hour week nightly news show that provided in-depth analyses of the issues of the day. Today, Americans still seek out Lehrer on what is now The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer for insights and information on the issues of the time that are unavailable on traditional news programs.
Known for his journalistic integrity and thorough knowledge of the issues, Lehrer has won numerous awards for his journalistic contributions, including several Emmys, the George Foster Peabody Broadcast Awards, the Allen White Foundation Award for Journalistic Merit, and the University of Missouri School of Journalism's Medal of Honor. In addition, he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1991.
As a teenager, Lehrer decided he wanted to be both a journalist and a creative writer. After graduating from the University of Missouri and serving three years in the Marine Corps, Lehrer pursued his journalism career, working as a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, and later working as a reporter and editor for the Dallas Times-Herald.
In the late sixties he left print journalism, but his transition to public broadcasting was not immediate. Lehrer had written a novel, Viva Max, which was made into a film. "I left the newspaper business to write novels full time," he says, but KERA-TV, the public television station in Dallas, offered him a job as a public affairs consultant. There, Lehrer wrote a proposal for an experimental news program, to be called Newsroom. "We got the Ford Foundation to fund it, so I was suddenly back to working and I was suddenly in television," Lehrer says.
In 1972, Lehrer took a job with PBS, where he first began working with Robin McNeil, with whom he would later co-anchor the McNeil/Lehrer Report.
In 1974, Lehrer and McNeil covered the Watergate hearings and, a year later, the Robin McNeil Report-with Lehrer as the Washington correspondent-was born. Six months later, PBS picked it up, changed the name to the McNeil/Lehrer Report, and the show went national. The program gained national acclaim, winning more than thirty awards for journalistic excellence. In 1983, it expanded from thirty minutes to an hour, and renamed the McNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. With McNeil's departure in 1995, the show was again renamed, this time The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, a title that is likely to be around for a while if Lehrer has anything to say about it.
"I plan to always do the NewsHour. I have the best job there is in journalism right now. There is nobody who has the freedom to practice journalism the way that I am able to in a medium that has so much potential impact," he says.
Throughout the many years of his journalism career, Lehrer has continued to write creatively. Among his many creative writing accomplishments are eleven books and several plays. His books include Purple Dots, The Last Debate, two memoirs-A Bus of My Own and We Were Dreamers-and a series of mysteries. Lehrer's plays include Chili Queen, Church Key Charlie Blue, and, most recently, The Will and Bart Show, which was produced in 1992 at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts.
But it is in-depth, informative journalism that Lehrer is best known for and it continues to pave the path for the country to follow. He is a partner in MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, which has produced programs for public, commercial and cable television. Lehrer has hosted two of these. My Heart, Your Heart, a one-hour program on heart disease, received the American Heart Association's Howard Blakeslee Award and a national News and Documentary Emmy for Outstanding Cultural, Historical or Informational Programming. The Heart of the Dragon, a series co-hosted by Lehrer and MacNeil, won critical acclaim for its exploration of contemporary and ancient China.
Perhaps Lehrer's greatest reward for his many years of journalistic service is his satisfaction with his own life. "I can't imagine having done anything else with my life other than having been a journalist," he says. "I have been present for every major news event that's happened for the last forty years. Because of my job, I have been forced to stay up on what's going on in the country and in the world and, in the process, I have met and interviewed every conceivable kind of person there is. It has been glorious."
-- Marlis C. McCollum
John Rawls is one of the most influential political philosophers of the twentieth century. But from his colleagues' descriptions, he doesn't give it away in his demeanor.
"He's famously modest as a person," says Professor T. M. Scanlon, a former student of Rawls who now teaches in the Harvard University philosophy department. "He's never expected any special treatment for his accomplishments and eminence in the field."
Rawls's eminence is indisputable. Says Scanlon: "He was instrumental in reviving political philosophy, raising it to a new level in the English-speaking community."
Rawls, 78, grew up in Baltimore. His father was a prominent lawyer. The example of his mother, at one time president of the League of Women Voters' Baltimore chapter, helped inspire his long-standing interest in women's rights.
After attending private school in western Connecticut, Rawls enrolled at Princeton University in 1939. "I don't think we know really how we become interested in something, or why," he told The Harvard Review of Philosophy in 1991. "We can only say what happened when. I went to Princeton and eventually became a philosophy major."
Following graduation, Rawls served army stints in New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan during World War II. He returned to Princeton in 1946. During the final years of his doctoral studies, he met and married his wife, Margaret. Since their marriage in 1949, they have raised four children.
In 1950, he joined the Princeton faculty as an instructor. Drawing from his own work in moral theory and from close readings of economists like J. R. Hicks and Frank Knight, Rawls turned to the question of how people can arrive at reasonable principles of justice.
Rawls eventually conceived of a hypothetical state of equality, the original position, in which people did not know their own gender, race, religion, and other personal particulars. Rawls believed that, ignorant of such information about themselves, they would shape principles of justice that accommodated a broad range of individual rights.
As he developed his theory, Rawls held teaching posts at Cornell University and then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined the faculty of Harvard University in 1962. After his official retirement in 1991, he continued teaching until 1995.
Harvard law professor Charles Fried taught a course based on Rawls's research just before it was published as A Theory of Justice. Fried says he was compelled by "the fact that rigorous philosophical theory was being deployed in a way that led to quite determinate concrete applications, that it wasn't analysis of concepts merely but really that philosophy somehow had answers."
During the 1969-1970 academic year, Rawls intended to finish his book at Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. The year almost ended in disaster when the Rawlses received an early morning phone call informing them that the Center had been bombed.
"Jack's first reaction," says Margaret Rawls, "was to turn pale and say, 'I can't do it again.'" But the manuscript, while soaked, was still legible.
Since its publication in 1971, A Theory of Justice has been translated into two dozen languages and sold more than two hundred thousand copies. Last April, the Modern Library named it one of this century's one hundred best nonfiction books in English.
Rawls has continued to expand on the theory explored in his first work. In Political Liberalism (1993), he tackled the question of how a society could be both stable and comprised of members with reasonable yet contradictory beliefs.
This year saw the publication of a new edition of Theory and a volume of collected papers. The Law of Peoples, in which Rawls applies his theory to questions of international relations, appears this month, and a book of lectures on moral philosophy is slated for 2000.
The attention paid to his 1971 debut belies an ongoing preoccupation with how to shape a just society. In his preface to the Collected Papers, editor Samuel Freeman, a past student of Rawls who is currently associate professor of philosophy and law at the University of Pennsylvania, says Rawls's career is "guided by a reasonable faith that a just society is realistically possible."
-- Pedro Ponce
Filmmaker Steven Spielberg is a man captivated by history. "I have a deep rooted fascination in the Second World War because my father fought in that war, and an interest in the Holocaust, because my parents spoke openly and freely about it. These were stories that were painful, yet compelling to me," he says. While his movies 1941 and the Indiana Jones trilogy take a spirited approach to World War II, the period is also the subject of Spielberg's more sobering films-Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List, and Saving Private Ryan.
Born in 1946 in Ohio, Spielberg was raised in the suburbs of Haddonfield, New Jersey, and Scottsdale, Arizona. He started making amateur films while in his teens and later studied film at California State University, Long Beach. In 1969, his twenty-two-minute short Amblin was shown at the Atlanta Film Festival, which led to his becoming the youngest director ever to sign a long-term deal with a major Hollywood studio. Spielberg's subsequent directing credits read as a bibliography to American popular culture: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Color Purple, Jurassic Park, and Amistad.
In addition to founding Amblin Entertainment in 1984, Spielberg joined Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen to form the multi-media venture Dreamworks SKG in 1994. Spielberg is also the chairman of the Starbright Foundation, which brings together pediatric health care, technology, and the entertainment industry to improve the lives of seriously ill children.
A hint of Spielberg's historical sensitivity appeared in 1987, with Empire of the Sun, a coming of age story set against the backdrop of Japan's occupation of China. With Schindler's List (1993), Spielberg told the story of the Holocaust through the eyes of Oskar Schindler, a wealthy German industrialist. Filmed in stark black-and-white, Schindler's List earned Spielberg his first best director and best picture Oscars. "At the time, I felt that I wasn't making a movie, I was making a document based on the tragic facts of history. It was the first time that I put my imagination on vacation."
With the profits from Schindler's List, Spielberg established the Righteous Persons Foundation, a grant-making organization committed to strengthening Jewish life. One outgrowth became the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which records firsthand accounts of Holocaust survivors, eyewitnesses, liberators, and rescuers. The impetus for the Shoah Foundation came from Spielberg's experiences with Holocaust survivors during the making of Schindler's List. Many of the survivors who shared their stories with him had never told their own families. "It's a lot easier to talk to a stranger about something painful than it is to your own grandchildren or daughter," he says. "That's what gave me the idea to create a body of living history."
Spielberg was also concerned about people denying the Holocaust. "I thought the best way to put that controversy to rest forever was to let the victims speak to us in their own words." More than fifty thousand people from fifty-seven countries have recorded their stories. The testimonies are currently being indexed to allow keyword searches and will eventually be disseminated by fiberoptic cable to Holocaust museums and archives around the world.
Five years after Schindler's List, Spielberg returned to World War II with his battlefield epic, Saving Private Ryan (1998). Spielberg describes the film as "a morality story about the ultimate question: to what end do you sacrifice young boys to save a single life of a similar young boy." Instead of a bloodless Hollywood adventure, the film opens with a gut-wrenching portrayal of the D-Day invasion. The movie's gritty portrayal of the GI experience resonated with World War II veterans, who finally felt comfortable talking about the darker side of the "good war," and sparked public interest in the conflict. Spielberg took home a best director Oscar for the film, but awards came from other places too, including the U.S. military's highest civilian honor, the Medal for Distinguished Public Service.
Spielberg emphasizes that personal interest, rather than promoting a cause, dictates his decision to direct films such as Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and Amistad, which chronicles an 1839 slave mutiny. But he is pleased that his films have stirred up public interest in history. "What so often happens, when filmmakers tell stories that are based on the past, is that people look for the popcorn picture and there is no public interest. There's only apathy. So the fact that the public was discussing history again was one of the most fulfilling things about those projects for me personally."
Getting the public and his own children interested in the past is a challenge that Spielberg continues to embrace. "History is the one thing that my children tend to think that they can live without, but I don't think they can. We have to get our children to understand why who they are is who everybody else was first. That's a tough lesson to give a kid, because a kid is interested in what they are going to get now and what is going to happen tomorrow. When you start talking about what happened a long time ago they look at you like you're really a boring dad."
-- Meredith Hindley
In just fifteen years, American playwright August Wilson has become one of the most important voices in modern theater. He has won acclaim from literary and theater critics for his plays, which portray the African American experience in the twentieth century, one decade at a time.
Born Frederick August Kittel in 1945 to a white German-American father and an African American mother, Wilson took his mother's name in the early 1970s. He grew up in Pittsburgh's ethnically diverse Hill District, where he was surrounded by the sounds, sights and struggles of urban African American life that would later fuel his creative efforts. But Wilson's appreciation for the culture in which he had grown up did not bloom fully until he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, in his early thirties. From that distance, he gained an appreciation of the richness of the culture and the language of the place where he had spent his youth.
"In the Hill District, I was surrounded by all this highly charged, poetic vernacular which was so much part and parcel of life that I didn't pay any attention to it. But in moving to St. Paul and suddenly being removed from that environment and that language, I began to hear it for the first time and recognize its value," he says.
Originally a poet and short-story writer, Wilson's first experience with theater wasn't until 1968, when he and a friend started Black Horizons Theatre Company in Pittsburgh. There, Wilson learned to direct plays, but still didn't consider writing them. It wasn't until 1977 that he converted some of his poems into a play. Called Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, the production was a success, but Wilson doesn't count that play as part of his playwriting career. Instead, he says, his career began in 1979 with his work on Jitney.
"Before that, I couldn't write dialog because I didn't value and respect the way that black people talked. I thought that, in order to make art out of it that, you had to change it. With Jitney, I decided I was just going to let them talk the way that they talked, and that was the beginning."
Since Jitney, Wilson has cranked out an award-winning play every year or two. In 1982, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was accepted for a workshop production by the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center's national Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Connecticut ,and, in 1984, the play opened at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.
In 1983, Wilson wrote Fences, which opened on Broadway in 1987 and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best play of the year.
At this point, having already written three plays, each set in a different decade of the twentieth century, Wilson set for himself the task of writing seven additional plays, one for each of the remaining decades in the century, each illuminating the African American experience of that time.
Before the 1980s were over, four more of Wilson's plays won New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards, and one of these plays-The Piano Lesson-won Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize. In the 1990s, two more plays won Circle awards. Two Trains Running was cited as the best American Play of 1991-92, and Seven Guitars was recognized as the best new play in 1995-96. August Wilson was taking the theater world by storm.
In addition to these creative efforts, Wilson sought to strengthen and promote African American theatre. Following a public debate with critic/producer Robert Brustein in January 1997 in New York City concerning race, culture and theatre, Wilson convened a conference on African American Theater at Dartmouth in 1998. As a result of that meeting, the African Grove Institute of Arts was born as a home for African American theatre, and August Wilson serves as chairman of its board of directors.
To date, Wilson has written eight of the plays he will include in his ten-play series. The eighth, King Hedley II, is scheduled to premiere on December 15 in Wilson's hometown of Pittsburgh. The premiere will inaugurate the newly built Pittsburgh Public Theatre.
The last two plays in the cycle-which will cover the first and last decades of the century-are yet to come. The process of writing these plays, Wilson says, will begin with a single line of dialog that surfaces from his creative depths. Gradually, characters will begin to reveal themselves and Wilson will come to know them and the story they wish to tell.
-- Marlis C. McCollum