Humanities, May/June 2002, Volume 23/Number 3
Making a Difference
The recipients of this year's National Humanities Medal blur the line between the life of the mind and the world of action. One medalist turned a church basement reading program into a national network to teach family literacy. Another laid bricks by day and practiced drawing at night, and went on to document the history of the Southwest through his art. Yet another thought he could reach young people better through writing fiction than teaching middle-school English, and has since published thirty books for adolescents. Eight medalists were chosen--seven individuals and an institution--and all have worked actively to bring the humanities into the lives of Americans. The group includes a child psychiatrist whose work embraces literature and ethics; an organization that preserves historic buildings and neighborhoods; a historian who has provided insight into the last century’s great leaders; a scholar whose work in African American music has changed the academy; and a writer who has given us cultural icons for our time. Their honors are many—among them are Pulitzers, a Medal of Freedom, a Newbery Prize, an American Book Award, an Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, and a knighthood from the King of Spain. The National Humanities Medal was presented to each of them by President Bush at a ceremony on April 22 in Constitution Hall. There was a reception afterward at the White House.
The following individuals received a 2001 National Humanities Medal:
- José Cisneros
- Robert Coles
- Sharon Darling
- William Manchester
- National Trust for Historic Preservation
- Richard Peck
- Eileen Jackson Southern
- Tom Wolfe
“My aim has been to rescue the picturesque characters of our past because they belong to everybody,” says pen-and-ink artist José Cisneros. “The past is the basis of our future.” Inspired by a deep connection to the history of the Southwest, Cisneros has spent a lifetime turning his passions into art. Cisneros’s own background encompasses many places throughout Mexico and the Southwest. “I’ve always been especially interested in the history all along the Southwest and down into Mexico City,” he says. His family lost their home in Durango in 1910 during the Mexican Revolution. Their belongings were looted. “My father lost everything,” says Cisneros. “We wandered for a long, long time. Those were the toughest years of my life.” His family settled in Juárez, Mexico. Eventually, Cisneros arrived in El Paso, Texas, when he was fifteen. “Due to the conditions, I had only had four years of school,” he says, “and I had to repeat those four years when I came to El Paso.” He remembers being fond of books. “I collected clippings from magazines, and drawings from the books I could afford,” he says, “and I went to the library. I was especially interested in Spanish American history. The horsemen became my main subjects.” Cisneros took what he saw back to his own art. He had preferred to work in pen-and-ink because he is color-blind, but armed with a box of colored pencils marked so he could read their colors, he set out to recreate the excitement he’d felt from illustrations created by Norman Rockwell and Howard Pyle. Cisneros’s family viewed his illustrations as amusing. The rest of the world took them more seriously.
Cisneros’s illustrations now grace the walls of the White House; the Texas state capitol; the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Spanish embassies— and a local Texas supermarket. His illustrations can be found in more than one hundred books and publications. The book he considers his greatest achievement is Riders Across the Centuries: Horsemen of the Spanish Borderlands. It contains one hundred full-page drawings, sixteen smaller ones, and the artist’s own text. Recent works include: Borderlands: The Heritage of the Lower Rio Grande through the Art of José Cisneros; Cisneros 2000: Faces of the Borderlands; and El Ratoncito Pequeño, a bilingual children’s book based on a Mexican nursery rhyme. Among his many awards, Cisneros has won a certificate of honor from the King of Spain; a commendation for his art and life from the President of Mexico; a lifetime achievement award from the Western Writers of America; and the Western Heritage Wrangler Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. The Tigua Pueblo Council has made him an honorary Tigua Indian.
“I want to thank all of the fans that were interested in my work and collected it,” the ninety-two year-old Cisneros says. For many years, those collections have provided a vision of the Southwest’s past through the eyes of a remarkable artist.
--Lynn Fabian Lasner
Poet William Carlos Williams had a profound effect on the career of Robert Coles. “His vision about the role of the writer as someone who seeks to understand the world and to become involved in the world in his or her thinking or living, informed my notion of what the humanities are,” says Coles. The two met and became lifelong friends when Coles was studying literature at Harvard. Williams, who was a doctor as well as a poet, was the subject of Coles’s thesis. Williams inspired Coles to pursue a medical degree and to practice medicine among poor and vulnerable populations.
Coles has worked as a medical doctor, a child psychiatrist, a Harvard professor, and a magazine editor. Within each of these pursuits, he has used literature to think, learn, and teach about how humans should live.
He has won two Pulitzers, a MacArthur Fellowship, and in 2000, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Coles began in pediatrics, but eventually turned to child psychiatry. “I became interested not only in children’s bodily difficulties but in their response to them,” he says. He shares his exploration of children’s lives and sensibilities in many widely acclaimed books, including the five-volume Pulitzer Prize-winning Children of Crisis series.
Coles has written numerous articles, reviews and essays, and more than fifty books. He has contributed to magazines such as the New Yorker, the New Republic and the Atlantic Monthly, which published his first piece in 1960, entitled “A Young Psychiatrist Looks at His Profession.”
Coles spent two years as a military doctor, running a hospital at an air force base in Biloxi, Mississippi. His work in the South exposed him to children and families caught in the struggle for desegregation. He wrote about his subjects, “for someone like myself,” he says, “trying to understand the world through books.” His experiences serving the poor and underprivileged led him to champion volunteerism in The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism. In the South, he also discovered the works of Flannery O’Connor, which he later wrote about and incorporated into his teaching.
Coles returned to Harvard to teach and has remained there for twentyfive years, currently as the Agee Professor of Social Ethics. His popular class, “The Literature of Social Reflection,” draws five hundred students each year. Through the class, which is a rite of passage for many, Coles shares the works of his favorite writers: James Agee, George Orwell, Walker Percy, William Carlos Williams, and Raymond Carver, to name a few. Coles has also taught students of medicine, law, business, architecture, and education by finding connections between these disciplines and works of literature.
“It’s about using literature to ask all of us to stop and think about this world, its problems of race and class, of nationality and identity,” says Coles. “When I’m thinking about the world and trying to understand it, I prefer literature to what I see in the professional journals. These writers--novelists and short story writers--understand the nature of human complexities.”
Outside the classroom, Coles still sees young patients and integrates his work in child psychiatry with his literary interests. In The Moral Life of Children and The Spiritual Life of Children, he uses narrative techniques that let the children tell their own stories.
In 1995, Coles launched Double Take magazine. The name derives from its mission, which is a collaborative union of pictures and words. He says, “Double Take is the expression of my life and its commitment to the humanities.”
Sharon Darling never intended to run a nationwide family literacy organization. She only meant to teach adults to read in a Kentucky church basement while their children were occupied in the nursery. “They were so fearful, at first, that someone would find out, so ashamed. But soon, four adults became eight . . . then more and more just kept on coming,” says Darling. In 1986, Darling had an opportunity to look at the literacy challenges facing Appalachia. “That was the birth of the family literacy program,” she says. Today, four thousand family literacy programs inspired by Darling are spread across every state in America.
As president of the National Center for Family Literacy, Darling advises and educates governors, state and national policy-makers, businesses, and foundations. She serves on the boards of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, the National Coalition for Literacy, and the New School for Social Research. She has won the Woman of Distinction Award, the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, and the Charles A. Dana Award for Pioneering Achievement in Education. Her message is that equitable educational opportunities should be available for all families, regardless of race, creed, geography, or social status. To achieve that goal, Darling and her team continue to read and work with different generations within families. “It’s what gets me up in the morning,” says Darling.
“I discovered early on that if we didn’t look at the whole picture, we weren’t going to be successful,” Darling explains. “We can’t keep pretending we can ‘fix’ a kid in a school or just get mom a new, minimum-wage job. But, we really can work with whole families and sustain changes in order to help current and future generations have a better quality of life.”
Darling believes that literacy is a basic human right. She has seen the ability to read change people’s lives: “I met a woman in North Carolina, in 1988, when I was first getting started. She was so shy. Her hair hung in her face. A teacher had coaxed her into coming. Well, a visiting poet’s work really turned her on. She discovered she had the ability to write poetry pent up inside of her. This woman scored a perfect score on her GED literature test. She graduated from college with honors . . . and she’d never even dreamt of setting foot on a college campus! Many times, creativity that we can unleash will help solve some of the other problems in people’s lives.”
Darling also believes that literacy can change patterns that have been embedded in families for generations. In Darling’s words, “Literacy empowers people to be the parents they deserve to be. It’s wonderful to see parents come back to school--to smell the smells of the place where they failed--and succeed, this time. You watch them hold themselves differently. Then, they start asking what they can do for their children.”
William Manchester’s connections to World War II—from his fascination with its great military leaders to his experiences as a soldier—have shaped his formidable literary career.
“The friendships I made in the Marine Corps were longer lasting and more fulfilling than any I’ve ever made in my life,” says Manchester, a veteran wounded twice on Okinawa. The Manchester family has a legacy of service. Eighteen Manchesters served under General George Washington. William Manchester’s father was a decorated World War I veteran, and his brother was a fellow World War II marine. Near the end of the war, William Manchester was shipped stateside to recover, where he met another wounded soldier named John Fitzgerald Kennedy. They formed a friendship that lasted until Kennedy’s death. Manchester went on to write an account of his friend’s assassination at the request of the Kennedy family. Manchester’s book, The Death of a President, sold 1.3 million copies. It became a best-seller and James Michener declared it “a book that will be used by historians for the next two thousand years.”
Manchester’s life has been showered with awards. He was valedictorian at the University of Massachusetts. He received the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, and two Purple Hearts for his time as a marine. From four decades of teaching and writing at Wesleyan University, he produced eighteen books that reveal his gift to evoke history--plain, simple, alive, and jumping from the page. His characterizations compel readers to understand past events and appreciate lessons learned over time.
The first two volumes of his Churchill biography, The Last Lion, Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory, 1874 - 1932 and The Last Lion, Winston Spencer Churchill, Alone, 1932 -1940 provide insights into the enigmatic leader. “Churchill,” he writes, “was not a public figure like, say, Roosevelt, who thought and spoke in the idiom of his own time. He was instead the last of England’s great Victorian statesmen, with views formed when the British lion’s roar could silence the world.”
Manchester wrote poetry at age seven, short stories at age eleven, and found Shakespeare at age fifteen. He took up theater in high school, but decided not to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts when his father told him, “Actors are bums.” Later, in the middle of an already established literary career, Manchester shared his views on actors who had portrayed two of his biographical subjects. He said, “Actors who have tried to play Churchill and MacArthur have failed abysmally because each of those men was a great actor playing himself.” Manchester’s biography, American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880- 1964, won critical acclaim for its powerful depiction of the general. Among his other works are Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H. L. Mencken, The Arms of Krupp, A World Lit Only by Fire, and his wartime memoir, Goodbye Darkness.
History is typically conveyed through books or in a classroom, but “history can also be conveyed through place,” says Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Protecting the history embedded in those places is the mission of the organization.
The Trust has worked for more than fifty years to keep historical preservation on the national agenda. In 1999 it became the lead partner with the National Park Service in the White House’s Save America’s Treasures initiative. The initiative has so far sponsored 722 projects nationwide including the preservation of Angel Island Immigration Station in Marin County, California. Located in San Francisco Bay, Angel Island was the holding point for thousands of Chinese and Japanese immigrants between 1910 and 1940. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, it became difficult for Chinese immigrants to enter the country; some were held weeks or months waiting for their entries to be accepted. The walls of Angel Island still display the poems they inscribed. With help from the Trust, the buildings of Angel Island have been restored, the poetry preserved, and the site reopened to the public.
Americans ought to develop the same ethic for preserving the best of the built environment as they have for preserving the natural environment, says Moe. “Eighty percent of Americans think of themselves as environmentalists. We want to achieve that same level of support for the historic environment.”
Created in 1949 by Congress, the Trust began its work by rehabilitating important historic places and opening them to the public. It currently oversees twenty-one sites across the country, including Montpelier, the family home of James Madison in Virginia; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio in Oak Park, Illinois; the Decatur House in Washington, D.C.; and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York.
Over the years, the Trust’s emphasis has evolved from assisting individual sites to tackling broader issues in preservation--promoting public policy discussions, working with state and local preservation organizations, and focusing on historic areas. “If you save an entire block, you save all the buildings within it,” says Moe. “We focus on the context of historical sites as well as the sites themselves.” The Trust’s Main Street Center program has helped some sixteen hundred communities revitalize their downtown areas through preservation. The Community Partners Program helps cities turn neglected historic properties into affordable housing.
“As more people see what preservation can do to bring back older neighborhoods and downtowns, they see the value in it,” says Moe, “not just economic but aesthetic. Wherever preservation has played a significant role, people become believers and supporters. It’s almost contagious.”
An NEH Challenge Grant has assisted the Trust in raising an endowment that will allow it to continue to support the efforts of local and state preservation organizations with funding and technical advice. When the Trust was founded, there were only seventeen state preservation organizations; today, there are forty-eight.
The Trust has focused on educational initiatives to fulfill its mission. Each historic site relays the story of its preservation along with its traditional history. Each year, the trust releases an “Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places” list, which reveals threats to historic places. The list usually has an enormous local effect, bringing attention and funding to the projects. “We’ve only lost one place that we’ve listed in twelve years,” says Moe proudly.
Richard Peck, a Newbery Award winner and best-selling author of young adult books, wrote his first line of fiction the day he quit his junior high school teaching job. The year was 1971 and Peck was thirty-seven years old. Teaching had reacquainted him with the challenges of being young: “As adults, we want young people to start looking for themselves, but they only want to look for leaders.”
He remembers when life was different. “When I was young, we were never more than five minutes from the nearest adult, and that solved most of the problems I write about for a later generation living nearer the edge.” In fact, he remembers the year when everything changed. “I was teaching. It was the second semester of the 1967-68 school year. The change was due to many things: the collapse of family structure, the politicization of schools. . . . But, the authority of the peer group began to replace adult authority, and children quickly learned that they dare not be better achievers than their leaders in the peer group,” he explains. “You only grow up when you’ve walked away from those people. In all my novels, you have to declare your independence from your peers before you can take that first real step toward yourself.”
Peck calls the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. “the only historic event that had ever happened” in the lives of his current readers. While the event briefly registered with them, he doesn’t see much difference in their lives or attitudes six months later. “This was not an attack on their peer group. When it didn’t impact them directly, then that was all. For these reasons--and so history does not repeat itself--there’s a real need for a greater sense of history in our schools.” Speaking and visiting in schools has inspired him to write historical fiction. “I am nudged by the ignorance of the young about the past,” he says. His newest book, Fair Weather, concerns a family that has to leave their farm and everything they know to find their futures at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair. “I think the origin of history begins with your own roots,” he adds. With extended families often living miles apart, he makes sure to provide grandparent figures for his readers: “I try to include an elderly person in each of my books. These characters are tough, they’re fun, they’re outrageous, and they have survived. They’re what we wish for in our grandparents.”
Peck was born in Decatur, Illinois, attended the University of Exeter in England, graduated from DePauw University, and served in the U.S. Army before becoming a teacher. His books include the 2001 Newbery Medal winner A Year Down Yonder; The Ghost Belonged to Me, winner of the Friends of American Writers Award; Are You in the House Alone?; winner of an Edgar Allen Poe Award and one of five Peck books that have become television movies; and Close Enough to Touch, an American Library Association honoree.
Thirty-one years and thirty books after beginning his career as a writer, Richard Peck drinks coffee each morning with a table or two of teenagers. Well, he’s not actually at their table. “I can sit right next to them, with my notepad open, and they have no idea . . . “ he confides. “I have to start the day with the rhythm of their voices so I can get rid of my own.”
Before Eileen Jackson Southern began her work, black music was not considered a serious academic discipline. Students could not formally study it and major music journals published very little research about it. Today, both the American Musicological Society and the Society for American Music recognize African American music as worthy of scholarly study. “I think she single-handedly did it,” says Josephine Wright. Wright is Southern’s longtime friend and colleague, and a professor of music and black studies at Wooster College in Ohio. “She challenged the musicological community in the U.S. to look seriously at itself and the racism that existed there. And she showed that the writing, the research, and the scholarship of black music could be held to the same standard as any other academic field.”
Her landmark publications include Readings in Black American Music and African American Traditions in Song, Sermon, Tale and Dance 1600s–1920. Her 1971 publication, The Music of Black Americans: A History, was designated by the American Record Guide as “the first serious, scholarly effort to document the entire history of black music in the United States.”
In 1973, she founded the quarterly journal, Black Perspectives in Music, which she edited until 1991. The journal provided an opportunity for scholars to publish in the field and elevated the discipline in the eyes of the academy. For many of Southern’s colleagues, who needed to publish in order to earn tenure, the journal was a lifeline.
Southern assisted colleagues who were trying to gain legitimacy in the academic mainstream. “She was my lifelong mentor,” says Wright. “She taught me a great deal about scholarship, about the academy and how it worked, at a time when women and minorities were few and far between. She mentored a lot of people. She wanted to help a lot of people.”
Southern earned her bachelor’s degree and master of arts from the University of Chicago, and then studied with Gustave Reese at New York University, where she completed her Ph.D. in historical musicology in 1961. She taught at Harvard University from 1975 to 1987 and was the first African American woman tenured there in the College of Arts and Sciences.
After retiring as professor emerita of music and black studies, Southern continued to write, edit, and co-edit books, including Images: Iconography of Music in African-American Culture (1770s to 1920s). It was the first time this kind of scholarship had been applied to black American music, and it filled in gaps in the available knowledge, says Wright, who cowrote the book with Southern.
In March 2000, Southern won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of American Music in appreciation of her service in furthering the study, research, and understanding of African American music. “She helped transform the field of musicology into a more inclusive discipline . . . and championed the intellectual viability and legitimacy of research in all areas of African American music through her writings and other activities,” the society’s citation notes.
Upon Southern’s retirement in 1987, she was presented with a book of essays by individuals who had helped build the field of musicology and whose research reflected Southern’s broad interests. Although she is retired, as is her journal, Southern’s legacy remains in the altered landscape of college campuses, where students can now study and contribute to the scholarly assessment of the music of black America.
“I would hope that I have given readers a fresh understanding of how life is lived in different areas,” says author Tom Wolfe, “whether it’s the world of test pilots, or hippies, or people with highly urban ambitions of the sort you always encounter in New York.” As a newspaper reporter, a magazine writer, and a novelist, his in-depth reporting provides details of his characters and their worlds.
Wolfe became a leading figure in the New Journalism movement after he came to New York in 1962 to work as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune. He noticed newspaper colleagues Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin applying techniques associated with fiction—long stretches of dialog, detailed descriptions, use of theme and point-of-view—while adhering to the rules of journalistic accuracy.
“I figured, I’d like to get in on this, too,” Wolfe recalls. So he tried his hand at the new approach to nonfiction. His facility with the style led some to designate him “the father of New Journalism.”
After a newspaper strike left him jobless, he launched a magazine-writing career, beginning with the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test for Esquire magazine. He went on to write The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. His stories, written for Esquire and New York, capture the chaotic spirit of the sixties and are still widely read in anthologies.
Wolfe has always sought to reveal the context of his characters, in the belief that social status shapes the psychology of each individual. He provokes discussion and some disagreement from his literary peers with his assertion that the future of the American novel lies in realistic social observation.
Wolfe’s nonfiction work reflects his interest in social interaction. The Painted Word, an account of the contemporary art world, was not a critique, he says, but a history of status battles. The Right Stuff, about the U.S. space program, was “not so much about space, but about competition among military pilots to reach the top,” he says. The book became a best-seller and won the American Book Award for nonfiction, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Harold Vursell Award for prose style, and the Columbia Journalism Award.
Wolfe turned to novel writing late in his career. In 1987, he published The Bonfire of the Vanities, which he hoped would “show New York high and low.” Wolfe offered a tale about Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street bond trader whose moneyed existence clashes with the impoverished world of the Bronx. The novel leapt to the top of best-seller lists and became one of the top ten bestselling books of the decade. Just as Wolfe’s magazine pieces epitomized the sixties, The Bonfire of the Vanities became the defining novel of the eighties. Wolfe’s goal as a writer is to inform the reader about how life is lived. “I think the great purpose of novels or nonfiction is to discover something,” he says. “I’ve never been interested in getting across a political or moral point. I’ve always wanted to discover something I didn’t know about before.” Now seventy-two, Wolfe is working on a novel about college life, which is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2003.