Humanities, January/February 2007, Volume 28/Number 1
Two Middle East scholars give insight to contemporary conflicts, while the founder of the History Channel brings the past to life for millions through television. They are among ten recipients of the National Humanities Medal who were honored by President Bush at the White House on November 9. The medals are given each year to individuals and institutions that have deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities.
A common theme runs through the work of this year's medalists-that the past is essential to understanding the modern world. One medalist explores the continuity of evangelical Christianity in America and another translates ancient poets into voices that resonate with today's readers. Another classicist explores the role of women in ancient societies, and a historian documents the cultural development of California. An economist argues that economic policy is driven by the same forces that govern all human decisions, and a biographer examines the lives of twentieth-century artists such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Stephen Sondheim. Last, a research center follows its mission to build peace through knowledge of war.
The following individuals received a 2006 National Humanities Medal:
- Fouad Ajami
- James Buchanan
- Nickolas Davatzes
- Robert Fagles
- The Hoover Institution
- Mary Lefkowitz
- Bernard Lewis
- Mark Noll
- Meryle Secrest
- Kevin Starr
"I work on controversial material," says Beirut-born scholar Fouad Ajami. "Sometimes I wish I were working on the Renaissance or some less loaded subjects. But I have the burning grounds of the Arab-Islamic lands as a canvas, and the controversy comes with that."
In his most recent book, The Foreigner's Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq, Ajami says he sought "to chronicle the difficult encounter between Iraq and its American liberators." Ajami has traveled to Iraq six times since 2003 and was granted an audience with Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani. He has also met with the U.S. military. "My book has a more positive reading of the Iraq war, I believe, than other accounts of it," he says. "I found hope and heartbreak in Iraq, and consider this expedition to be a noble war, despite all its frustrations and setbacks. I hold hope for the Iraqis finding their way out of the violence of this war and deciding that they are doomed to live together."
Ajami arrived in the United States from Beirut as a young man, with the assumption that he would return to Lebanon and enter politics. After earning a PhD in political science at the University of Washington at age twenty-seven, he remained in this country and became a U.S. citizen.
"That day in Trenton, New Jersey, when I was sworn in as a United States citizen, was, for me, as for countless millions given this privilege, the gift of a lifetime," says Ajami.
"For me, there would be no return to my birthplace. I would use the material of the Arab world, its language and culture, to seed my academic work."
Ajami is the Majid Khadduri Professor of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies and has been teaching and writing on the modern Middle East and Arab political thought and culture for more than three decades. "I had begun my work teaching and writing on things quite distant from Arab and Islamic subjects-international relations, multinational corporations, all safe and quite abstract," says Ajami.
He says he "backed into" the material of his ancestral culture in the early 1980s when he began writing a book about a Shia cleric who disappeared on a visit to Libya. During that project he received the five-year MacArthur Prize fellowship. "It was a clear bolt out of the sky and when I was informed of it, I thought it was completely astounding, possibly a fond tease," he recalls. Ajami took time off from teaching and finished The Vanished Imam: Musa al-Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon.
Ajami is wistful about his homeland. "I travel everywhere, but not to Lebanon," he says. "That's a journey I have not taken for many, many years now. The Beirut and the Lebanon I knew are irretrievably gone. Perhaps one day I'd like to take all of my family to my ancestral village in southern Lebanon." More than three hundred essays, chapters, and commentaries penned by Ajami have appeared in publications such as the New Republic, the New York Times Book Review, Foreign Policy, and the Wall Street Journal. He has been a contributing editor for U.S. News & World Report since 1989 and is a member of the editorial board of Foreign Affairs magazine.
"My greatest pleasure I derive is when I write essays of intellectual history and appreciation-the great historian Bernard Lewis turning ninety, the craft of V. S. Naipaul, a eulogy of the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, whom I had the privilege to know," says Ajami. "I picked up Joseph Conrad as a young boy in my teens in Lebanon. I return to him repeatedly. His themes-travel and dislocation and the colonial world-are innately and thoroughly mine. Since English was not his first language either, there might be some affinity there."
James M. Buchanan, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Economic Science, developed a program that changed the way economists analyze economic and political decision-making. He examined how politicians' self-interest and noneconomic forces affect government economic policy.
"Public choice is summarized as the extension and application of the tools and methods of economics to the subject matter of political science," he says. "That is, to the behavior of persons in public choosing roles-as voters, representatives, legislators, bureaucrats, political agents generally-and to the functioning of the institutions within which they act in these roles.
"In a shorthand sense, I have referred to public choice as 'politics without romance,' but the program also embodies attention to
prospects for changing the rules with the purpose of getting better results," he says. "In a general sense, public choice proceeds from the presupposition that political agents are just like everyone else."
Buchanan, the advisory general director of the James Buchanan Center for Political Economy at George Mason University, first outlined this theory in a book he wrote with Gordon Tullock in 1962, The Calculus of Consent. "Public choice, as a research program was developed by many scholars over a full half century," says Buchanan. "Its origins are in public finance theory, welfare economics, game theory, rational choice theory, institutional economics, and other areas of inquiry."
Buchanan explained his thinking process in an interview in 1995: "In my own case it was a general sense that people who were supposed to know didn't really know what democracy was about. I started out as a regular public finance economist. Once you start in that direction, you soon come to the question of how it is that taxes and expenditure decisions and budgets get made, so you're forced to think about the political process.
"One of my first pieces goes all the way back to 1949 and was nothing more than asking economists to think about their political models. What model of politics are you assuming before you start talking about what's good taxation? What's good spending? I called for them to clarify their assumptions of politics," he said. "I was influenced by the Swedish economist Wicksell, who said if you want to improve politics, improve the rules, improve the structure. Don't expect politicians to behave differently. They behave according to their interests."
Applying economic analyses to the political arena has had a major impact on public policy. Public choice theory says economists can no longer assume government intervention alone will fix economic problems but that economists must also look at how government actions are implemented.
"Public choice was not a primary cause for the general disaffection with governments that emerged in the last decades of the century," says Buchanan. "But public choice did offer explanatory bases for understanding why governments everywhere failed to meet public expectations."
Buchanan, the son of a Tennessee farmer, received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1948 and has held teaching positions at the University of Virginia, the University of California at Los Angeles, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He says he became an economist "for the simple reason that a small graduate fellowship was available in economics, rather than in either of my other two undergraduate majors, mathematics or English literature."
On winning the Nobel Prize, Buchanan says, "For me, the award was a vindication both of the importance of the program and of my own willingness to follow my own interests rather than the drift of the orthodoxy."
"People often think of history the way they learned it in high school or college: as memorizing dates," says Nickolas Davatzes, founder of A&E Television Network and the History Channel. "One of the wonderful things about television is that it makes things come alive."
When Davatzes launched the History Channel in 1995, he assumed it would be a niche channel with modest distribution. Today, the History Channel has nearly 150 million viewers worldwide.
"History is becoming an ever-more important subject as the world becomes smaller and more difficult," Davatzes says. "We have to understand the past in order to understand the future."
Born in New York City, Davatzes received a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in social psychology from St. John's University, where he now sits on the board of trustees. His interest in history was inspired by his father, who served in the Greek army in the 1920s before immigrating to America and fighting for the United States during World War II. "He saw a lot about the world," Davatzes says. "And, of course, growing up in a Greek immigrant family, I heard a lot about the glories of ancient Greece."
Davatzes's own favorite moment in history is the Battle of Gettysburg, often called the turning point in the American Civil War. In July 1863, the Union and Confederate armies clashed for three days, each sustaining an estimated twenty-five thousand casualties before Robert E. Lee retreated. "We were so close to failure. This wonderful experiment in democracy was going to go down the tubes if we didn't succeed," Davatzes marvels. "I'm inspired by the will and resolve of Lincoln. He made the right decisions when he needed to make them—that doesn't always happen. If he'd compromised, we would have been lost."
Davatzes serves as cochairman of the Board of Directors of Cable in the Classroom, an initiative in which networks and cable providers supply commercial-free educational programming to 250,000 teachers in public schools across the country. "Teachers are looking for tools that pique the interest of their students," Davatzes explains. "The visual format is the chief cognitive learning style these days. By providing free television programs, we increase the chances that teachers and students can be successful."
As television and the Internet become increasingly interdependent, he anticipates that the History Channel will continue to evolve. Currently, History.com, the channel's Web site, provides brief history lessons through video clips and audio links to famous speeches. "One of my favorite sayings is: 'If you don't embrace technology, it'll run you over,'" Davatzes says.
More than one hundred and thirty countries have History Channel programming, but Davatzes hopes to build more collaborative international partnerships. "We believe there are different views of history, not just the American perspective," he says. "This kind of communication is increasingly important in a world that grows smaller and smaller with each technological advance."
One of the projects of which Davatzes is most proud is The Crusades: Crescent and the Cross, a 2005 History Channel documentary chronicling the two-hundred-year struggle between Christians and Muslims for control of the Holy Land. "It speaks to the Mideast conflict and how long it has existed. I think sometimes we in the Western world don't understand the driver on the other side very well.
"History plays an important part in developing win-win situations for both cultures," Davatzes says.
"Every translation is different," says classicist Robert Fagles. "It has to do with the tone of voice of the translator. Each has a distinctive badge, each comes with its own vocal DNA," he says. "I very much hope my translation sounds like me. I wanted it to be in my voice, for better or worse."
Fagles's translations are known for their emphasis on contemporary English phrasing while being faithful to the original. His translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey were both bestsellers. Now, he has tackled the Roman epic, Virgil's Aeneid; his translation of Virgil has just been published. Fagles found the success of these works unexpected. "I was very surprised," he said in a recent New York Times interview. "Because I'm an academic, a lot of hand wringing goes on in the academy about the illiteracy of the public. The great job of this work was to discover that there is in fact a great number of very intelligent, hardworking readers out there."
As a comparative literature professor at Princeton University for more than forty years, Fagles was always involved with the classics. "I shuttled between teaching the epics of Homer and the tragedies of Aeschylus. That was my daily diet," he says. "Translation is an ongoing field of endeavor throughout all of English letters. Finally, there came a time when I wanted to try my hand at it myself."
Fagles translated The Iliad in 1990 and The Odyssey in 1996. "I wanted to bring the epic poem to life. I had done my dissertation on Pope's translation, and I wanted to make it new."
In an interview with playwright Gideon Lester, Fagles described the job of a translator: "It is forever a tightrope act. You look back to the great original behind you, trying to be as faithful to it as possible, trying to convey as much of what it says as possible, but the conveyance takes place in a modern medium that has both limitations and opportunities for a kind of expansiveness. It's a balancing act between the ancient and the modern."
He says his knowledge of modern American poetry helps his translations. "I try to keep in mind what the great poets of our day have found permissible, possible, and helpful in the use of our own idioms," he said.
Fagles believes The Odyssey still offers lessons to today's reader. "I think we learn fortitude is an important virtue. We learn from Homer that adventure and being alive to experience are very important virtues," says Fagles. He quotes the writer Virginia Woolf, who described Homer "as alive to every tremor and gleam of existence."
Fagles won the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award of the Academy of American Poets in 1991 for his translation of The Iliad and in 1996 received an Academy Award in Literature for his translation of The Odyssey. He also received the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for lifetime achievement in translation. Fagles has translated Sophocles's Three Theban Plays and Aeschylus's Oresteia. He has published a book of his own poems titled I, Vincent: Poems from the Pictures of Van Gogh.
For students tackling Homer for the first time, Fagles says the best way to appreciate the ancient epics is to act them out. "Sit in groups and read aloud, and don't stop reading aloud. Find the voice of Achilles, the voice of beautiful Helen. Poetry is meant to be heard, it is meant to be acted out by reading."
"This place has always been about freedom," says John Raisian, director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "It's about the idea of promoting a free society."
As a library and public policy research center, the Hoover Institution supports the study of politics, economics, and international affairs, focusing on the role of individual liberty safeguarded from government intrusion. It was founded by Herbert Hoover after the outbreak of World War I.
"Hoover was interested in gathering materials during times of war and revolution in order to find a way to promote peace," says Raisian. "He thought that scholars could work on these documents and look for solutions that could lead to peaceful coexistence."
Raisian has led the Hoover Institution for the past seventeen years and has seen the number of scholars using its collections grow to seven thousand last year. The collaboration of researchers has led to the creation of journals, research projects, and roles for advising governments. About one thousand opinion pieces are written yearly by Hoover scholars from forty countries, published by newspapers around the world such as the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.
Among Hoover alumni are Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State George Schultz, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, and Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives.
"If you're looking at the community of think tanks, Hoover is unusual in at least one important respect, our vast archival collections," says Raisian. Twenty-five miles of shelf space hold decades of materials on war, revolution, and peace. The content of the library's one million volumes—including sixty million documents and one hundred thousand political posters-spans continents and details political and economic history from China to the United States to Russia.
"There are some real treasures," says Raisian, pointing out a collection of Soviet archives obtained shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. "This is the record of a long run of communism, from rise to fall. We wondered what was going to happen to all that documentation. Over time, we were able to get more than twelve million copies of documents out of the former Soviet archives." This immense collection helps scholars understand the politics and economics of the former Soviet Union. One volume illuminates early Soviet leadership during President Hoover's era.
"There's a document just beyond the turn of the Russian Revolution where a bureaucrat had written something about what do with this offer by Herbert Hoover for food relief in Russia," says Raisian. "Trotsky, Stalin, and Lenin all responded in some different way. These were handwritten, marginal comments on the very same document.
"We have to work hard at preserving what we have," says Raisian. "Revolutionaries didn't print on high quality paper." In 1990, a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities supported the cataloging and preservation of almost one hundred thousand Russian émigré diplomatic, military, and political documents.
"We need to figure out a way to make this material more accessible so more people can get at it," says Raisian. "We're looking at least at putting it on the Internet so that it can be available to the broader group of scholars."
The ability of these scholars to collaborate, Raisian says, is essential to continuing the Hoover Institution's mission.
"One of the things I've enjoyed is to have the community of scholars. I try to find ways for us to work together toward a common interest," says Raisian. "What's great is figuring out ways that we can come together and work together with the principle that the total output of the group is greater than the sum of the individual parts."
"I wouldn't have liked living in ancient times-I couldn't have done the things I have done," says classical scholar Mary Lefkowitz. "But I think ancient women did more things than we imagine they did. They were appreciated when they did things well."
Lefkowitz has written three books on the role of women in ancient societies: Heroines and Hysterics, Women in Greek Myth, and Women's Life in Greece and Rome, which she coedited with Maureen B. Fant and which is considered the standard sourcebook in the field.
"Readers get a negative impression of women at first in ancient literature but when you look a bit harder you see they had an important role, behind the scenes and also sometimes upfront," says Lefkowitz. "Greek and Roman societies gave women—at least the elites did—a lot of influence. Words spoken by women were written by men but women did some writing as well—poetry and prose narratives, the most notable poet being Sappho. And women played an important role in the early church. "Also, the Egyptians wrote quite a lot about women in the Hellenic period."
Lefkowitz says she found her passion for the classics at age sixteen while visiting ancient Roman ruins in Britain, France, and Italy. "I got hooked," she recalls. As a high school student at the Brearley School in Manhattan, Lefkowitz studied Latin and Greek. "It was partly that the language was so interesting but also the idea of understanding your past, and coming into contact with the past of so long ago that was really exciting."
Lefkowitz is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus at Wellesley College, where she received her degree in 1957 and taught for forty-five years. She received her PhD in classical philology at Radcliffe in 1961. Her most recent book, Greek Gods, Human Lives, looks at the role of the gods in Greek myths.
"When we read epics such as The Iliad and The Odyssey, we tend to think more about the human beings in the story. We discount the gods' importance because we don't believe in them."
There is something to be learned from the gods, says Lefkowitz. The myths were fundamentally religious stories, she explains. With no definitive religious text, such as the Bible, it was these stories about the gods that explained the forces of nature to the ancients.
"To the ancient person the role of the gods was much more upfront," she says. "One has to look at the action not from the point of view of what the humans are doing but what the gods are doing."
Lefkowitz has been a leading defender of interpreting the history of ancient civilizations through traditional standards of historical evidence. Her controversial books, Not Out of Africa and Black Athena Revisited, with coeditor Guy MacLean Rogers, examine the factual evidence for an Afrocentric approach to the origin of the ancient world and disputes its plausibility. She argues against the idea that Europeans stole from African culture.
"You can't steal a culture in the way you can steal a piano or a car," she said in a 2001 interview. "If I steal your car, you don't have it, but if I steal your culture, you still have your culture. The perfect example of that is Greece and Rome. The Romans adopted Greek culture. They thought it was better than their culture, and they simply adopted it and did their own thing with it. But, meanwhile, the Greeks still had their culture."
Middle Eastern scholar Bernard Lewis says today's conflict between Christendom and Islam is one that goes back more than fourteen centuries. He describes it as a clash between the relativists and the triumphalists. While some religions accept the legitimacy of other faiths (relativists), both Islam and Christianity in their traditionalist forms hold unbending views. "What they say is, 'We are the fortunate recipients of God's message to mankind, which is our duty not to keep selfishly to ourselves but to share with the rest of humanity, removing any obstacles that may be in our way.'
"The Christian world and a large part of the Islam world no longer hold that kind of triumphalist view," says Lewis, the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus at Princeton. "But what we are dealing with is the triumphalists of the Muslim world and they are setting the terms of the conflict. That's the difficulty. If only the relativists on both sides could get together I'm sure agreement would be possible."
Lewis's career in Middle Eastern studies began with a facility for and a fascination with languages at the age of thirteen. "I started out learning the few lines of Hebrew I needed to know for my bar mitzvah, normally that's what's expected," he says. "To everyone's surprise, especially my parents, I wanted to continue with Hebrew after I completed my bar mitzvah work.
"Fortunately my parents hired a Hebrew teacher who gave me a scholarly understanding of Semitic languages," Lewis says. "Later at university, I took the opportunity to take some Aramaic and then Arabic."
Hebrew and a love of history drew him to Middle Eastern studies at the University of London. His scholarship earned him a prize from the university and soon he was given another opportunity. The university offered him a stipend of 150 pounds to study in the Middle East. "The professor said to me, 'You've been studying the Middle East for years, don't you think you should go there?'" recalls Lewis. He went, and found it fascinating. He returned to London as an assistant lecturer and pursued his PhD.
World War II erupted and he reported for duty. With his facility for languages, Lewis was quickly transferred from a tank unit to one in intelligence and was sent to the Middle East. Lewis still remembers his first trip to Iraq during the war. "It was one hundred and twenty-five degrees in the shade, blistering hot, like stepping into a blast furnace," he recalls.
After the war he retuned to the University of London and continued teaching Islamic history until 1974. That same year he moved to the United States to teach at Princeton and at the Institute for Advanced Studies. He officially retired in 1986. At age ninety he still keeps an office at Princeton, works on projects, and advises an occasional student. Lewis has written more than thirty books, the most recent being From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East, published in 2004.
Lewis believes today's study of the Middle East has become much more politicized as the field emphasizes contemporary themes. There is also a great need, he says, for more students to learn Arabic. Compared to his years of study in the region, he notes the Middle East today is more open to travel and study. "There are several good centers in the Arab world where they do welcome foreign students to do elementary and advanced work in their language and literature," he says.
"I am a historian who happens to be an evangelical Christian," says Mark Noll, the Francis A. McAney Professor of History at Notre Dame. "The two are important to me but it is possible to distinguish these identities. In my work, I'm not an advocate for Christianity but because I'm an evangelical I am drawn to study religion and the history of religion."
As a historian, Noll has established himself as a leading scholar on the history of Christianity in the United States. An author of more than thirty books on the subject, his most recent is The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.
For Noll, the development of the evangelical Protestant church in the United States is a key component of the nation's history. "If you want to understand the early history of the United States," he says, "you want to understand these churches.
"The United States was quite unusual in its founding principle of separation of church and state," Noll says. "After the War of Independence there really is not any established religion. With a few exceptions, notably Patrick Henry, John Jay, and Roger Sherman, none of the founding fathers was evangelical." Religion, especially evangelicalism, however, left its mark on American society. Noll notes that the nineteenth-century historian Alexis de Tocqueville commented that although churches in the United States had no formal connection to the state, they had a strong influence on the state in shaping political life and the underlying moral culture.
"From 1790 through the next one hundred years, these churches played a most active role in civil society," says Noll. "By 1860 there were fifty-five-thousand Protestant churches in the United States that more or less followed evangelical traditions, about twenty thousand being Methodists," says Noll.
In defining the term evangelical, Noll says that generally evangelicals accept the Bible as the supreme religious authority and believe in taking an activist role in sharing their religious beliefs.
In The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Noll says that as the slavery issue heated up across the nation, evangelicals on both sides were able to use the Bible to make their cases. Both abolitionists in the North and pro-slavery advocates in the South drew political ammunition from the scriptures.
"The success of evangelical groups presenting a form of Christianity in which the individual looks to the Bible is shown here," says Noll. "It was instinctive on every side to say we should do this or that on the basis of the Bible."
Noll received his PhD from Vanderbilt University and taught at Wheaton College for twenty-seven years before moving to Notre Dame last fall. He is the founder of The Institute for the Study of American Evangelicalism and the former president of The American Society of Church History. In 2005, Time magazine named him one of the twenty-five most influential evangelicals in the United States.
From the founding of evangelical churches in the U.S. by people such as John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitefield in the eighteenth century, the movement has been framed by democratic ideals. The Protestant churches in the newly created nation, Noll says, were microcosms of democracy, formed by ordinary people with no formal religious training. "The religious movement in the United States did not necessarily rely on laws or traditions," says Noll, "but was decided on by the people who wanted this task."
"I don't like to spend a lot of time with people I don't like," biographer Meryle Secrest laughingly admits. "I always start with a subject I really love. You've got to be passionately interested—if you're doing it as a chore, it will come through in your writing."
Born and educated in Bath, England, Secrest moved to Canada after World War II and began a career in journalism that would eventually carry her to the Washington Post. Although she often wrote profiles of public figures, her first biography came to her unexpectedly. During a visit to the then National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C., Secrest encountered a fascinating self-portrait by the American expatriate artist Romaine Brooks. After writing biographical profiles of her for the Post and the Smithsonian, Secrest was invited to turn her research into a book.
Since publishing Between Me and Life: A Biography of Romaine Brooks in 1974, Secrest has written biographies of Salvador Dalí, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Joseph Duveen, and Bernard Berenson. Of the many intriguing characters she's studied, Secrest says her favorite is Frank Lloyd Wright. "He's one of the few authentic geniuses I've ever had the honor to study," she says. "He had an enormous effect on American housing and environment in a fresh and unusual fashion. He was still inventing himself in his nineties—an extraordinary figure."
"Every story has its own charm," Secrest explains, "but Wright's was on a great, nineteenth-century scale. You don't see too many lives like that." The Wright biography, published in 1992, took Secrest five years to complete. At the end, she was very attached to him. "There was never a dull moment," she says. "I couldn't bear to kill him off, so I created an indeterminate ending."
Secrest describes her writing process as "The Art of the Possible." It is crucial for her to be able to imagine the lives of her subjects. "I have to be there or have photos," she says. "I really must steep myself in the period, become a social historian. You can't judge Frank Lloyd Wright by today's morals, you must judge him by his."
She prefers to write about subjects who have died, but not so long ago that there is no one alive who knew them. "When you're writing about someone who is alive, no matter what you say, they're not going to like it." The exception to this rule, Secrest explains, was Sondheim, who cooperated enthusiastically as she worked on his biography. "He was a dear," Secrest recounts. "He accepted everything I wrote, and I know he didn't like all of it."
Until recently, Secrest taught creative nonfiction as a visiting instructor at George Mason University. She says she often emphasized the importance of accuracy to her students. "There's a kind of honor system in biography—there are no fact checkers," she explains. "Some students of mine thought nothing of putting thoughts into someone's head. If you don't know what happened, you don't say it."
"There will always be great holes in someone's life—their private thoughts—you simply can't invent these things," Secrest says. "The challenge is to come up with a story your readers would want to hear."
Currently, Secrest is at work on a biography of the Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani. In June 2007, she will publish a memoir of her craft called Shoot the Widow: Adventures in Biography.
Secrest has a few candidates in mind for future projects. "I have dreams," she says. But for now, she prefers to keep them a secret.
Kevin Starr is a fourth-generation Californian whose best known work, the multivolume America and the California Dream, chronicles the state's history from 1850 to 2003.
"The more I investigate California, the more American it seems," says Starr. "It's an intensification of the American experience, and it's also the American experience in common. California was made up of Northerners, Southerners, Midwesterners; it incorporates all those different dimensions."
The seven-book series looks beyond California's material progress to examine the state's cultural development. "The books add to California's inner history, the history of imagination in California," says Starr. "It adds to the cultural history of California and how California expanded itself. I looked at the moments in which personal, social, and imaginative experiences intersected in California with lasting results."
Starr's books follow the progress of the state at pivotal moments in California: the Gold Rush of the nineteenth century, the dynamic development of Los Angeles in the 1920s, the struggles during the Great Depression, and the diversification of the population today. Looking at these moments in the context of Californian culture, Starr says, helps our understanding of the state's history.
"California is a very important part of the American formula," continues Starr, who received his PhD in American literature from Harvard University. "I had been exposed to American materials at Harvard, and I wanted to see how California fit in. For the past thirty-five years, I've been trying to find out."
Starr's investigations have led him to several careers—historian, journalist, professor, and librarian. He held the title of California State Librarian between 1994 and 2004, and is currently University Professor at the University of Southern California and contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times.
After penning more than a million words about California, Starr will soon set the subject aside as he wraps up his last volume in the California Dream series. The free time, he says, will allow him to pursue topics he was interested in before the project.
"I have a number of other books I'd like to write," Starr says. "One is a book on Americans in the Asian Pacific Basin from the 1790s to Pearl Harbor. Another book I'd like to do is on the Oxford Movement in America."
Starr says the humanities have the power to pull together different human experiences into a common narrative.
"The humanities have to hold the world together," says Starr. "At a time of extraordinary technological development and at a time when the United States is becoming a diversified, global culture, the humanities help us hold together a sense of human community by striking chords of similarity amidst all the different strains."
He sees the library as a physical representation of the humanities' connective power. "A library is a physical place but the library also has an intellectual and imaginative place," says Starr. "All knowledge, ultimately, is interrelated, and we search for a kind of coherence with the help of the humanities. We don't necessarily find it all the time, but the humanities point the way."
Maggie Riechers is a freelance writer in Potomac, Maryland.
Laura Harbold is a writer in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Sarah Kliff, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis, was an intern at NEH.