The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities, broadened our citizens’ engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to important resources in the humanities. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year. A list of all National Humanities Medal winners is available here.
The following individuals received a 2009 National Humanities Medal:
- Robert A. Caro
- Annette Gordon-Reed
- David Levering Lewis
- William H. McNeill
- Phillippe de Montebello
- Albert H. Small
- Theodore C. Sorensen
- Elie Wiesel
“I’m not really interested in writing biographies,” says Robert A. Caro. It’s a strange thing to say for a man who has spent more than four decades writing biographies and is known for going to great lengths to immerse himself in the lives of his subjects. A New Yorker with the accent to prove it, Caro moved to Texas Hill Country for three years to better understand the place where former president Lyndon Baines Johnson was born and raised. Still, his real goal, he says, is much broader than getting the surface details right: “I want to cast light on political power in the twentieth century.”
Before studying power on the national stage in the life of LBJ, Caro examined the invisible machinations of power in New York City and New York State. As a young investigative reporter for Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, in the 1960s, he had noticed that the press releases from a dozen government agencies all bore the same official’s name. This individual, Robert A. Moses, was commissioner of the parks, chairman of the bridge and tunnel authority, chairman of the state power authority, and the key figure overseeing numerous other public bodies. There was something odd about one man having so many jobs. Understanding how that came about and to what ends Moses used this incredible assemblage of bureaucratic authority was a seven-year journey for Caro and his wife, Ina, who serves as his researcher.
Caro found that Moses’s achievements and dubious methods amounted to the great untold story of modern urban development. In a career spanning nearly half a century, Moses had thought up, arranged funding for, and overseen construction of seven bridges between the boroughs, fifteen expressways, and sixteen parkways; he’d added 20,000 acres to the city’s parks, 40,000 acres to state parks and beaches. Numerous other construction projects carried his signature. But Moses had enjoyed absolute discretion in the dispensing of public contracts and shockingly unfettered power to destroy old neighborhoods and arrogate private land. He was more formidable than any mayor or governor he’d worked with, and yet none of his power was elective.
After Caro’s “world’s smallest advance” ran out, Ina decided they should sell their Long Island house so the book could be finished. The Caros moved to a rented apartment in the Bronx, where for years they scraped by. The whole effort must have seemed even more quixotic when Caro finally delivered to Knopf a manuscript over a million words long. A third had to be cut for the biography to be sold as a single volume. But The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and sell more than a quarter million copies. It is now considered the classic account of politics and the American city in the twentieth century.
Caro’s own approach to storytelling then underwent some refinement as he discovered that he could use his narratives to examine common assumptions about politics and furnish answers with all the drama of history. The key word again was power, but this time he was looking into even more discreet aspects of power and its potentially positive effects.
People in Texas Hill Country said they had been grateful to Lyndon B. Johnson for “bringing the light.” This oft-repeated statement was meant quite literally. There had been no electricity in this part of Texas before Johnson, then a young senator, twisted arms in Washington to waive density requirements for rural electrification and lobbied his own constituents to commit scarce resource to the effort. For many months, Caro researched this seemingly tangential story, trying to “see once and for all what is the power of government to change lives.”
He learned how the women of the country washed laundry before they had electricity: pulling water from wells, building fires to boil water, washing with lye, which burned their hands raw, lifting the heavy wet laundry with a stick. The women all had rounded shoulders and bent backs. He learned how Johnson had pressed President Roosevelt for help, then how Johnson met with his constituents and how he collected their signatures, and what brought people with reservations and little money around to the idea. Then Caro examined the details of how the workers built the power lines, and he learned that the rural folks made food for the workers and served lunch on their best linen to show their gratitude. And he told of a woman who from a distance saw, for the first time, light shining in her house and thought momentarily that her home was on fire.
Explanatory and dramatic, revealing and riveting, Caro’s multivolume examination of the life of President Johnson takes readers into the gritty details of Johnson’s 1948 campaign and into Johnson’s years in the U.S. Senate, where he became a master of the legislative process, better able than anyone to shape bills to promote his own agenda. In 2002, the then Senate Democratic leader said he was reading Caro’s third volume to find out how to better do his job.
Caro is currently writing about Johnson’s years in the White House, which he happened to visit recently as one of a group of historians invited to dine with the current president. They ate in the second-floor dining room, technically a part of the first family’s private residence. The location blared with significance for Caro, who knew this was where LBJ had met with his Tuesday cabinet to plan operations in the Vietnam War. A lot has changed, of course, but still he felt an urge to examine the décor of the room and take mental notes on the wallpaper and window drapes.
David Skinner is editor of HUMANITIES.
For generations, evidence documenting the individual lives of enslaved African Americans was regarded as irredeemably lost in the all-encompassing generality of “slavery.” Memoirs of slavery were rare, records assumed to be nonexistent.
No historian has done more to recover the stories of enslaved blacks than Annette Gordon-Reed, whose 2008 book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in History, as well as wide acclaim, for its subtle portrayal of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and the remarkable, multigenerational Hemings family. “It is important to see enslaved people as individuals, which in turn enables us to see their humanity,” says Gordon-Reed, who teaches law at New York Law School and history at Rutgers University. “I want people to see and care about the Hemingses as if they were people they might know personally.”
While it is true that records of enslaved Americans can be frustratingly skimpy, historians often failed to examine the records that did exist. As the property of one of the most famous men in America, the Hemingses left a more visible paper trail than most slaves of their era—a trail which Gordon-Reed followed through years of research into the outermost reaches of Jefferson’s and the Hemingses’ lives in America and in Europe. Her rendering of their stories was further enriched by a subtle and exhaustive combing of source material drawn from the slave-based society of Virginia.
In her writing, Gordon-Reed refuses to settle for easy generalizations about intimate relations between master and slave. Even within the constraints of slavery, she makes clear, slaves made choices. For example, young Sally Hemings and her brother James, who accompanied Jefferson to Paris, could have remained in France, where they would have been accepted as free. Instead, they chose to return with Jefferson to their lives as slaves in Virginia. Gordon-Reed eventually concluded that, for the Hemingses, family trumped freedom. “For African Americans, family was a refuge from the pain of being declared an inferior being,” she says. “They came back to the place where their humanity would be affirmed the way that it was not in the outside community. It was logical for them to return to Virginia.” That said, Gordon-Reed adds, writing about Jefferson and the Hemingses “has given me a greater appreciation for the tragic aspect of life.”
Building on her provocative 1997 book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, Gordon-Reed argues in The Hemingses of Monticello that Jefferson fathered seven children by his young slave Sally Hemings in the course of a relationship that lasted thirty-eight years, until Jefferson’s death in 1826. Gordon-Reed’s investigation and subsequent DNA testing of Hemings’s descendents have convinced most historians of Jefferson’s paternity. Gordon-Reed is also the coauthor of a memoir by longtime civil rights activist and presidential adviser Vernon Jordan, and the editor of an anthology, Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History, illustrating how race has often determined the outcome of American trials.
She is currently at work on no fewer than four books. A biography of President Andrew Johnson will be published in the fall. A sequel to The Hemingses of Monticello will carry the story of the Hemings family into the early twentieth century. An anthology, Jefferson: A Reader on Race, is also in the works. And she has recently embarked on the research for what she anticipates will become a two- or three-volume biography of Jefferson himself.
Gordon-Reed grew up in the racially segregated town of Conroe, Texas, in an era when local African Americans still remembered the 1920s lynching of a black man who was burned alive on the local courthouse steps. In 1965, she was the first child to integrate the town’s all-white schools. “I felt as if I were on display,” she says. “I remember delegations of white people coming to the classroom door to stare at me.” Although the authorities did not obstruct her attendance—her mother was a respected teacher at the town’s all-black school—she later learned that anonymous threats were made against both her and her family.
She went on to graduate from Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, and then practiced law in New York City, where she was also counsel to the New York City Board of Corrections. The law, she found, provided good training for the historian’s craft. “Being a lawyer taught me to pick apart people’s stories, and to walk through cases which are really comprised of competing stories, and to spot problems with them,” says Gordon-Reed, whose husband, Robert Reed, is a family court judge in the Bronx. “History is a wilderness of lies and unstated truths, particularly with respect to slavery. I want to journey through that wilderness.”
Gordon-Reed’s lifelong interest in Jefferson began when, as a third grader, she stumbled upon a young people’s biography of the third president, and learned that they shared a common love of books. At the same time, she was troubled by the book’s portrayal of a slave boy as “a person of no consequence.” At fourteen, she joined the Book-of-the-Month Club, just so that she could read Fawn Brodie’s biography of Jefferson, the first to seriously address the relationship between him and the enslaved Sally Hemings. Asked if she likes Jefferson, she pauses to consider. Finally she says, “I’m not sure that ‘like’ is the right word. I’m fascinated by him. I like his curiosity. And I like that he sets out to be a force in the world, and does it.”
—Fergus M. Bordewich
Fergus M. Bordewich’s most recent book is
Washington: The Making of the American Capital.
“History is a pretty good trade,” says David Levering Lewis. “It’s indoor work and you can go to interesting places.” Of course, this blithe summary hardly does justice to the rigorous work of a scholar whose books are regularly lauded in the academic and popular presses as “scrupulously researched,” “exquisitely detailed,” and, in the case of his biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, “definitive.”
Lewis showed a bent for history early in life, but he wasn’t always sure that he would become a professional historian. In fact, after completing an undergraduate degree in history and philosophy at Fisk University, he thought he would try what he calls “the usual ‘law school after college’ path.” It took him exactly one semester at Michigan Law to realize that he had made a mistake. History, not the law, was his calling. “So I hopped a bus and went to Columbia,” he says, making the life-changing decision sound almost insouciant, “and was very fortunate in being able to talk my way into a graduate program. I have not looked back.” He laughs and adds, “I’ve been stuck in history ever since.”
An M.A. in U.S. history from Columbia was soon followed by a Ph.D. in modern European history from the London School of Economics. After that, Lewis held a series of teaching positions at some of the best-regarded universities in the nation, including Howard, Notre Dame, Harvard, Rutgers, and NYU, where he is currently the Julius Silver Professor and professor of history.
Throughout his career Lewis has brought his dogged research ethic and considerable intellectual gifts to bear on subjects from Martin Luther King Jr. to the colonization of Africa to the early history of Islamic-Christian relations in Europe. He says that each of his projects “follows psychologically, if not logically, from the previous enterprise.” But if anything unites these disparate subjects, it is the consistent originality of Lewis’s perspectives on them. A case in point is his 1979 study of the Harlem Renaissance, When Harlem Was in Vogue. Writing the book, Lewis eschewed what had been the prevailing tack of other historians—which celebrated the visual, literary, and performing arts of the movement primarily as a florescence of African-American cultural expression—and turned his attention to the correspondences carried on between the artists and intellectuals involved. There he found evidence that prompted him to recast Harlem’s Golden Age as a concerted effort to “move a group of people out of a box by using the arts for civil rights purposes.” Other studies by Lewis, such as Prisoners of Honor: The Dreyfus Affair and The Race to Fashoda, present equally innovative approaches to their subjects.
The work for which Lewis is best known is his two-volume life of W.E.B. Du Bois. Widely considered a masterpiece of biography, it is also an important piece of historical scholarship, refracting the conditions, issues, and events of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America through the lens of Du Bois’s life. “Writing about Du Bois,” says Lewis, “is writing about the history of a time.” The two volumes portray, as he puts it, “Du Bois the feminist, Du Bois the elitist, Du Bois the Marxist, Du Bois the paladin of civil rights, and, finally, Du Bois the tragic figure, absent just when he was most needed.” In Du Bois, Lewis says he found “the whole ball of wax—everything significant about becoming an American, and about failing in the highest and best aspects of Americanness.”
Capturing Du Bois’s protean life in ink involved Lewis in a marathon of scholarship: sixteen years of research, thinking, and writing that culminated first in 1993 with the publication of W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868–1919, and again in 2000 with W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963. The long, hard work and its results have not gone unrecognized: Among other accolades, Lewis has been awarded two Pulitzer Prizes (one for each volume of his Du Bois biography), a Bancroft Prize, and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship.
For all the careful study he invests in each of his projects, Lewis manages to wear his learning with extraordinary grace. Through his able pen, the years of research are rendered accessible, engrossing, lively. “I am unabashedly willing to verge on purple prose,” he says. Verge on, perhaps, but never indulge in. Whether Lewis sets himself to profiling the empire-hungry King Léopold II of Belgium, sketching the topography at the Battle of Poitiers, or evoking the poignant scene of Du Bois’s funeral in Ghana, the results invariably strike a balance between poetic vividness and scholarly objectivity.
Asked what keeps him motivated after so many years of being “stuck in history,” Lewis says, “the next project,” and hastens to describe his upcoming role in what he excitedly calls “one of the most venturesome moves in American higher education today”: NYU’s expansion to the Persian Gulf with a campus in Abu Dhabi. This fall, Lewis and his wife, Ruth Ann Stewart, will temporarily relocate to the island capital of the United Arab Emirates, where he will lead an NYU seminar called “When there Were Two Europes: Islam and Christendom.”
James Williford is editorial assistant for HUMANITIES
and a graduate student at Georgetown University.
One day while working in the library at Cornell, William H. McNeill stumbled onto three green-bound volumes of Arnold Toynbee’s The Study of History. As he devoured the books, which were the first of an ambitious attempt to chart the rise and fall of world civilizations, McNeill found himself alternately agreeing and arguing with Toynbee. When he’d finished, McNeill knew that he wanted to write his own history of the world. Twenty-three years later, he did precisely that with the 1963 publication of The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community. The landmark survey won the National Book Award and helped launch the field of world history.
From an early age, McNeill was one of those rare people who could see historical patterns that transcend time and borders. At the precocious age of ten, he tried out on his history professor father a theory explaining the relative development of medieval kingdoms. Although he was raised on Scottish history and literature, it was a class on ancient and medieval history in his sophomore year of high school that really fired up his historical sensibilities. At the University of Chicago, he studied history—always with an eye to patterns—and worked on the school paper, rising to become editor in chief. A class with anthropologist Robert Redfield was an intellectual revelation. Redfield introduced McNeill to the idea that cultures and nations don’t exist in isolation, but engage in exchange with others. It was an idea that McNeill would grapple with throughout his career.
In 1939, McNeill headed off to Cornell to earn a Ph.D. in history, but his studies were interrupted in August 1941 when he was drafted into the army. Over the next five years, he rose from private to captain, serving coastline duty in Hawai’i and guarding an oil refinery in Curaçao. In April 1944, he was sent to Cairo to serve as the assistant military attaché to Lincoln MacVeagh, the U.S. ambassador to the Greek and Yugoslav governments in exile. McNeill had a front-row seat to the German retreat from Greece in November 1944 and the civil war that consumed the country during the winter of 1944–45. He relied on this experience, along with oral histories he collected, to write his first book, The Greek Dilemma; War and Aftermath, 1947. Greece was also where he met his wife, Elizabeth Darbishire, who oversaw the Office of War Information’s library in Athens. A formidable linguist, she is credited in his memoir, The Pursuit of Truth, 2005, with bringing “a new awareness of words” into his life. She became his most reliable proofreader, critic, and collaborator. They also had and raised four children.
After the war, McNeill finished his Ph.D. and headed for the University of Chicago, where he taught for forty years. “Teaching is the most wonderful way to learn things,” he says. “You have to get up before a class at ten o’clock the next morning and have something to say.” McNeill was instrumental in the creation of Chicago’s much-lauded Western civilization module, which was developed after the university realized it was turning out students briefed in social sciences, but unable to place Plato and Tocqueville in the right centuries.
The siren call of his own world history book persisted and, in 1951, he finagled an invitation to work under Toynbee at Chatham House in London. He hoped to learn the secret of his role model’s success in crafting his magnum opus, but was instead put off by Toynbee’s reliance on stale notes. McNeill’s work for Chatham House, where he was tasked with writing a history of Allied wartime relations, taught him how to digest large quantities of information with minimal note-taking. The technique served him well when he finally embarked on writing Rise of the West upon his return to Chicago. Using the portable Underwood typewriter his parents gave him for his twenty-first birthday, he pounded out the 1,110-page manuscript. “It took me nine years to write it and a year to cut it down. I had to cut out about 20 percent. I thought it was important to read from beginning to end, and two-volume works are almost never read straight through,” he says.
Tracing five thousand years of history, Rise of the West shows how China, India, the Middle East, and Europe fostered indigenous cultural traditions, while exchanging crops, warfare techniques, philosophy, art, and disease. It exploded the notion that a civilization or country’s history was a self-contained unit; cultures and people did not exist in a vacuum. The book’s title comes from McNeill’s assertion that the West emerged as the dominant force in the world, because its political and religious restlessness and the advent of industrialization required it to periodically renew itself.
Over the next four decades, McNeill continued to explore world history, writing and editing more than thirty books, many of which helped further define the field. Plagues and Peoples, 1976, looked at how disease molded a culture’s demographics, politics, and ecological resources. The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000, 1982, showed how innovations such as the chariot, crossbow, and iron manufacturing changed military tactics and how those tactics were adopted across cultures. With Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life, 1989, he became a biographer. “That was a painful book for me to write, because some of the things that I discovered about him were not very admirable. I had looked up to him very much when I was young.” He teamed up with his son, J.R. McNeill, an environmental historian, to write Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History, 2003, producing what he regards as “the best intellectual statement of my understanding of world history.”
When asked why he decided those many years ago to literally take on the world, rather than narrowly focus on a country or time period, his answer is simple yet profound. “I felt the world was one. From a very early time, I realized that humans interacted with their neighbors and their neighbors with their neighbors. If you look around the world you always have neighbors. You have a web.”
Meredith Hindley is a senior writer for HUMANITIES.
Philippe de Montebello has been the most significant figure of the last half century in the museum world. At the helm of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for more than thirty years, he steered a path between populism and elitism, attracting both large audiences to the Met and burnishing a gold standard of quality. Along the way, he reinvigorated the museum’s traditional role and made the best possible case for the oldest values of art and humanism.
Born in France in 1936, he received his advanced education in the United States and arrived at the Met in 1963 as a curatorial assistant in the Department of European Paintings. It was a watershed year thanks to another visitor from France: the Mona Lisa. On loan to the Met for just four weeks, the famous Leonardo drew one million people to an institution that was used to about two million visitors annually. The long lines that formed daily pointed toward a new era for art museums, one in which the number of visitors mattered as much as the scholarship of the curators. It was this era that de Montebello came to dominate, not by attracting the most visitors—though the Met often did—but by showing that pleasing crowds did not require diminishing the quality of the works displayed or the rigor of the scholarship that underpinned them.
De Montebello rose quickly through the ranks and then spent four years as director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. He returned to the Met in 1974 as chief curator and became director in 1977. In the decades that followed, the museum was utterly transformed. When he joined the Met in 1963, its endowment was $136 million. When he left, it was at $2.5 billion (down from a high of $2.8 billion in June 2008). Annual attendance surpassed five million in the 1990s. The professional staff of the museum doubled, and de Montebello personally appointed each of the 125 curators at work in the Met today.
Yet his transformation of the Met was no break with the past. Testifying before the House Banking and Financial Services Committee in 1998, de Montebello noted, “The primary mission of the Metropolitan, as a public art museum, is to collect, conserve, and exhibit original works of art, and to make these collections accessible to the broadest possible public.” The key word is accessible. He did not say interesting or inviting. For de Montebello, a museum must never dumb down its mission in hopes of expanding its audience, but rather raise its audience up. Throughout his tenure, he was regularly accused of being an elitist. He gloried in the charge, noting to the New Yorker in 1997, “elitism … is the very essence of democracy, in that it seeks to bring as many people as possible to a higher level of understanding and appreciation.”
One of de Montebello’s most important decisions came in the late 1980s when he stopped the Met from charging a separate fee for special exhibitions—a widespread practice in the art world. “If you have only one ticket, which you’ve paid a lot of money for, you’re only going to see the show once. And, if you can’t come back three or four times, you’re not really seeing the show.” It’s not the experience of the show, he is saying, but the art itself that matters.
Early in de Montebello’s tenure came the famous “Vatican Collections” exhibition. The 1983 show helped establish his public persona thanks to his shuttle diplomacy and the anecdotes told about how back problems had him negotiating with Vatican officials over works like the Apollo Belvedere and Caravaggio’s Deposition while lying on the floor. More important to the director was the nearly simultaneous opening of the renovated Egyptian galleries, the largest display of ancient Egyptian art outside of Cairo. “The Vatican show will come and go,” said de Montebello. “The Egyptian works will remain.”
Space for displaying the Met’s permanent collection doubled during de Montebello’s directorship, and the museum acquired an astonishing 84,000 new objects. One of the achievements that de Montebello is proudest of is that the Met today has the western world’s most comprehensive display of Asian art; although he might take equal pride in each of the eighteen curatorial departments. In just the last few years, the Met opened vastly expanded galleries for Byzantine art, for Greek and Roman, for nineteenth- and twentieth-century European painting, and a gorgeously renovated American Wing.
In 1998, de Montebello cochaired a task force that set the guidelines for how museums deal with claims that pieces in their collections were looted by the Nazis. The guidelines set in motion intensive provenance projects that were among the first successful uses of the Internet by museums. This, to de Montebello, was just another part of the museum’s traditional role: “The fact is,” he told the House banking committee, “as a matter of both policy and routine practice, museums endeavor to conduct research on the history of the ownership of works in their collections. This is an ongoing process to which we bring our energy and our commitment. For us, it is a scholarly obligation.”
A much greater scandal threatened museums in the middle of this decade when the Italian government began pressing claims for the return of antiquities that appeared to have been looted before being legally sold to American museums. As the scandal’s orbit grew wider and the trial of a Getty Museum curator got under way in Rome, de Montebello flew to Italy and arranged to return the objects in question in exchange for a series of long-term loans of equally important antiquities and the support of professional-quality archaeological digs. It was a decisive stroke, typical of de Montebello’s leadership style. The needs of the museum and the archaeological countries were both considered, and the agreement emphasized the importance of showing objects of aesthetic merit to the widest public audience.
Philippe de Montebello proved in three decades at the helm of our most encyclopedic art museum that crowds are drawn just as much by greatness as by novelty. His faith in art has amply rewarded the general public. In 2002, de Montebello was awarded the National Medal of the Arts by the president of the United States. This year he becomes only the fourth individual to have won both the arts and humanities medals, joining Paul Mellon, Eudora Welty, and John Updike—august company for an august man.
Robert Messenger is senior editor for the Weekly Standard.
Philanthropist Albert Small caught the collecting bug early on. He recalls his boyhood acquisitions of cigar bands and milk bottle tops, but it wasn’t until leaving the Navy after World War II and spending some time haunting bookstores in New York City that he stumbled across the volume that would turn him into the type of collector he’s been for over half a century. There, in a book stall, in sophisticated, upscale Manhattan, the young man from the sleepy town on the Potomac that was still Washington, D.C., was surprised to find a manuscript book on his hometown. It showcased two hundred and fifty milestones placed at intervals around the perimeter of the nation’s capital. Small found the author’s project to locate every milestone, and photograph and describe each stone’s immediate surroundings, something very close to his heart.
That physical connection between books and history has stoked his interest all these years. ”I guess I’m old fashioned in that way,” he says. “I like to go to the bookshelf and get a book in my hand and look at it and be able to show it to somebody—something I don’t feel I can do with a CD-ROM or a DVD.”
Small’s solid fifty-year track record as a residential and commercial real estate developer would be enough of an accomplishment for most. Yet his keen interest in manuscript and rare book collecting, his unflagging support of cultural institutions, and his ongoing passion for philanthropy have set him apart from the usual Beltway businessman. His towering presence in the cultural world of the national capital region is the result of his commitment to generously share his belief that books and the humanities can enrich the spirit.
Set foot sometime in Small’s Southern Engineering Corporation office in Bethesda, Maryland—he welcomes visitors to come in groups to enjoy his collection—and you’ll see what a methodical fifty-plus-year career in collecting can add up to: Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of framed rare engravings of Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and the Chesapeake cover the walls of the corridors, conference rooms, and employees’ offices. “I leave each framed print just enough space around for a little bit of elbow room,” he confides, as his practiced eye sweeps over a collection that includes an extremely rare map of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter.
But Small’s collection reaches far beyond the walls of his corporate headquarters. In 2004, the University of Virginia Library put the finishing touches on a special collections library funded by Small and his wife, Shirley, which now bears their name. In addition to its twelve million manuscripts, three hundred thousand rare books, and four thousand maps, it houses a permanent display of Small’s collection of autographed letters of all fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as one of the few remaining John Dunlap printings of the Declaration.
It’s important to Small that the library has supplemented the collection with likenesses of all the signers and has included as part of the exhibit a twelve-minute film emphasizing individual stories and their historical context. “They were all British subjects when they signed. They were committing an act of treason.” The impact for visitors, Small feels, comes from an exhibit’s ability to tell the story of signers such as Caesar Rodney, a delegate to the Continental Congress from Delaware, who wrote to his brother of “riding through thunder and rain … to give my voice in the matter of independence.”
Small’s generosity is deceptively casual at times. There’s the story of an extremely rare J. Benford watercolor of the White House done in 1801. Small found out it would be coming to auction and that there was one other bidder. It turned out the White House was the other interested party. Small picked up the phone and said that if they wouldn’t bid, he’d purchase it and give it to them later. After enjoying it in his own collection for a couple of years, he made good on the promise. It now hangs in the White House, but Small is not sure where. “I think they’ve got it upstairs somewhere,” he chuckles.
Even with his professional responsibilities at Southern Engineering—at eighty-four he continues as president—and his collecting—he studies catalogs daily to keep abreast of what’s coming to auction—he still finds time to serve on the boards of many cultural institutions, including the National Symphony Orchestra, the Foundation for the National Archives, and the Tudor Place Foundation. Additionally, Small is a member of the James Madison Council of the Library of Congress and serves on the Life Guard of Mount Vernon.
In spite of Small’s eclectic academic training—a degree from the University of Virginia in chemical engineering, courses in law at George Washington University, and graduate work in business at American University—those who know him well are never surprised by his abiding and sustaining commitment to the humanities. On a trip to England a few years ago with Librarian of Congress James Billington and historian David McCullough, Small was very impressed with a virtual page turner they saw at the British Library. The device enabled viewers to see all the leaves in a tome without physically handling, and damaging, the fragile pages. Shortly after his return, Small began talking to staff at the Library of Congress and the Folger Shakespeare Library about doing something similar. Thanks in part to a gift from Small, the Folger now has a First Folio of Romeo and Juliet on view using this virtual, page-turning technology, providing a richer experience for visitors who wish to examine the folio as well as the front matter and supplemental information on seventeenth-century typography and spelling.
Is there anything left he’d like to do as a collector? “I’m trying to find a venue for this collection,” he says of the documents and prints gracing the walls of Southern Engineering. But there is one other little thing, too. Small is among the few who have multiple copies of eighteenth-century landscape gardener Humphry Repton’s highly coveted Red Books, each a one-of-a-kind volume bound in red with sketched overlays Repton used to help clients visualize how his designs would transform their landscapes. Small has three. A certain well-heeled collector in Virginia has four. Another has two. One time a dealer from England called, Small says, and told him that another Red Book was coming to auction. This late in a storied collecting career, when thoughts of finding future homes for the treasures he has already amassed are taking more of his time, Small still thinks of that dealer. “He said, ’You wouldn’t want to pay that much,’” remembers Small, who then adds, barely audibly, perhaps thinking of the pleasure he’d have in one day handing the Repton original to someone else, “but I would.”
Steve Moyer is the associate editor for HUMANITIES.
Speechwriter Samuel Rosenman helped coin Franklin Roosevelt’s phrase, “a new deal.” Speechwriter Peggy Noonan assisted Ronald Reagan in drafting his 1984 Pointe du Hoc speech and his farewell address to the nation in which he described his vision of “the shining city.” But no speechwriter and president have been more closely linked together than Theodore Sorensen and John F. Kennedy.
Sorensen began working for Kennedy when he was a senator in the 1950s, and became one of his most trusted confidants and his most talented wordsmith. On the surface, Kennedy and Sorensen were a bit of a mismatch.
Sorensen had arrived in Washington from Lincoln, Nebraska; a Unitarian with a Jewish mother, he was also a progressive activist. He had helped organize a branch of the Congress of Racial Equality in Lincoln and fought to integrate Lincoln’s municipal swimming pool and the dormitories at the University of Nebraska.
Kennedy, an Irish-Catholic Bostonian, had family money, and his father, Joe, had groomed him to run for national office. More cautious and pragmatic than Sorensen, Kennedy nonetheless embraced his young aide’s sharp mind, skilled pen, and fierce loyalty. In 1957, Sorensen emerged as what author and journalist Robert Schlesinger called JFK’s “chief political strategist and main traveling companion.”
Sorensen became a political jack-of-all-trades—building an extensive list of Kennedy’s supporters while laying the foundation for his 1960 White House run. While visiting all fifty states, the men formed an intense bond. As Sorensen later told Schlesinger, when reporters claimed that Sorensen was inside Kennedy’s mind and could finish his sentences, they weren’t completely exaggerating. Sorensen replied, “There is something to that. That’s a tremendous advantage for a speechwriter to know his boss’s mind as well as I did.”
When Kennedy won the White House, he asked Sorensen to assemble suggestions for the inaugural address. Ultimately, the speech, as author Thurston Clarke has argued, represented “a distillation of [JFK’s] experiences, philosophy, and character”; Kennedy was the speech’s chief author and its most important architect. Sorensen, however, also helped shape the address now regarded as one of the twentieth century’s most inspiring pieces of presidential oratory.
He drew ideas from John Kenneth Galbraith, Adlai Stevenson, and others—and provided Kennedy with drafts of the address. More importantly, as Schlesinger astutely says, the inaugural speech had “campaign antecedents” and reflected the influence of Sorensen, speechwriter Richard Goodwin, and their countless conversations with and observations of Kennedy on the trail.
“It isn’t all that important who wrote which word or which phrase in Kennedy’s inaugural,” Sorensen told Schlesinger. “What’s important are the themes and the principles that he laid out.”
Kennedy’s inaugural established Sorensen’s reputation as a brilliant scribe; the language and themes of that address have resonated through the decades down to our own times. Kennedy sketched a vision of America’s idealistic role in the world as the great defender of freedom—a nation eager to “pay any price, bear any burden” to stop communism from spreading across the globe.
Kennedy’s inaugural also included an eloquent call to serve America: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” was the speech’s historic, inspiring line. Kennedy declared that “a new generation of Americans” had taken the torch and would carry it in defense of “freedom in its hour of maximum danger.”
Kennedy and Sorensen’s address featured soaring optimism and a message of national unity and international strength. Sorensen’s historical importance shouldn’t be diminished or underestimated. He was then, and remains now, one of Kennedy’s most loyal defenders—the keeper of the flame. In addition to practicing international law as a senior partner at a private firm based in New York for thirty-six years, Sorensen published a 1965 bestseller, Kennedy, and seven other books, including his memoirs, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, in 2008. He recounts working with JFK on Profiles in Courage, advising him on the Cuban Missile Crisis and other challenges, and observing the president grapple with issues ranging from civil rights to arms control.
But Sorensen’s speechwriting achievements remain possibly his most crucial legacy. Early criticism of mass politics in the 1950s predicted that television would demean the importance of rhetoric in public life. Critics often fretted that politicians’ use of television would weaken the grip of reason and rationality on the body politic; television would prioritize images, artifice, and deception above all else, thereby staining America’s democracy.
Sorensen’s words clearly demonstrate that even at the dawn of the television age, language had the capacity to inspire hope, calm public concerns, frame policy choices, and rally Americans in support of a cause. Television—and other modern communication tools—have heightened instead of diminished the political impact of presidential oratory, and Sorensen’s career highlights this.
Finally, Sorensen’s role as Kennedy’s alter ego and chief speechwriter reveals White House speechwriting as an influential craft. Since at least Sorensen’s time, all presidents have benefited from having close-knit relationships with their speechwriters. Working together, presidents and their scribes have communicated to the American people about wars in Vietnam and Iraq, economic crises at home, the September 11 terrorist attacks, health care, energy, and countless other issues, crises, national challenges and opportunities. As possibly the most successful and influential speechwriter in modern times, Sorensen has inspired his successors in that office, set the bar high for them and their bosses, and provided a model of how a president and a speechwriter can use language to shape the nation’s agenda—and influence the course of history.
Matthew Dallek, a former speechwriter for Richard A. Gephardt,
is a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center and the author of
The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan’s First Victory
and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics.
“What does it mean to remember?” asks Elie Wiesel in his memoir All Rivers Run to the Sea. “It is to live in more than one world, to prevent the past from fading and to call upon the future to illuminate it.” For more than half a century, through his writing, his teaching, and his advocacy, Wiesel has been ensuring that the world does not forget one of its darkest moments. He bears eloquent witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust and has become a committed voice against injustice in the world today.
Born in 1928 in Sighet, Romania, Wiesel grew up in a traditional Hasidic Jewish community, where he studied Talmud every day and hung pictures of famous rabbis in his room like posters of movie stars. He describes it as a tradition that allows one to question God, even complain, while still believing that God is all powerful and all knowing. His quiet life in this small shtetl was shattered on May 16, 1944, when he and his family—his mother, father, grandmother, two older sisters, and little sister Tzipora—were packed into cattle cars with the rest of the Jews from Sighet and deported first to the Nazi concentration camp Birkenau, where his mother and little sister were murdered upon arrival, and then on to Auschwitz. He was fifteen years old. Wiesel managed to survive the next year in the camps. In the winter of 1945 he watched his father die. Weeks later, on April 11, he was rescued when the Americans liberated Buchenwald.
More than ten years later Wiesel wrote about his experience of the Holocaust. He was encouraged to by an unlikely friendship with another writer, French Nobel laureate François Mauriac. After a few years in a French orphanage with other surviving Jewish children, Wiesel studied at the Sorbonne and began working for an Israeli newspaper. As a journalist he was granted an interview with Mauriac. Wiesel’s first meeting with the great writer, and devout Catholic, was commemorated in a 1955 newspaper column by Mauriac, and again in his forward to Wiesel’s first book, Night. “That particular morning, the young Jew who came to interview me on behalf of a Tel Aviv daily won me over from the first moment,” wrote Mauriac. Their conversation that day turned personal—Mauriac sharing his memories of the German occupation and Wiesel confessing that he was one of the Jewish children Mauriac recalled being deported in cattle cars. Mauriac urged Wiesel to write about what happened and then pushed to get it printed by a reluctant publishing industry that considered the book too morbid to sell. One critic predicted that “Elie Wiesel is a one-book writer.” It was printed in Yiddish by an Argentinian press as Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Remained Silent), and then finally in its French and English translations in 1958 and 1960. Since then it has been translated into more than thirty languages and is read as part of high school and college curricula worldwide.
Wiesel has said that “if I had not written Night, I would not have written anything else.” And the world would have been deprived of a great voice. Writing, he says, requires a willingness “to plumb the unfathomable depths of being…. Ultimately, to write is an act of faith.” Wiesel has gone on to write more than forty books, including A Beggar in Jerusalem, a Prix Médici winner; The Testament, a Prix Livre Inter winner; and The Fifth Son, winner of the Grand Prize in Literature from the City of Paris. “All my subsequent works are written in the same deliberately spare style as Night,” Wiesel writes. “It is the style of the chroniclers of the ghettos, where everything had to be said swiftly, in one breath…. Every phrase was a testament.” But invariably, he is most recognized for Night. “Books have their own destiny,” says Wiesel. “I only know that my other books are so jealous of Night. They come into my dreams that turn into nightmares, saying, ‘Why do you favor one book over us?’”
Even as a boy in Sighet, Wiesel was compelled to write. He would run off to the city hall to compose Bible commentaries on the town’s only Hebrew typewriter. Twenty years later Wiesel went back and, remarkably, found his notebook with his commentaries among other books and papers that were taken from Jewish homes and kept in a synagogue. He continued his practice of writing in notebooks and journals soon after liberation. He also continued his studies. “Every day I study Talmud,” he says. “I may be the oldest teacher around, and I might also be the oldest student around.” In fact, Wiesel continues to teach at Boston University, where he has been the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities since 1976, and has never taught the same course twice. “That’s why I have students who come for years and years and take my courses. It is an exchange of gifts, teaching.”
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed Wiesel chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. The result of that commission was the building of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opened in 1993 and has since welcomed nearly thirty million people from around the world. “I was involved in it with every deep fiber of my being,” says Wiesel about planning the museum. The museum has placed remembering the victims of the Nazis at the center of its mission through exhibitions that offer their names, their pictures, and their personal stories, and through its ongoing research on the Holocaust and discussions of subsequent atrocities.
In 1986, Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel committee heralded him as “a messenger to mankind; his message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity…. The message is in the form of a testimony, repeated and deepened through the works of a great author.” Soon after, he founded with his wife, Marion, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, dedicated to combating “indifference, intolerance, and injustice through international dialog.” Recently, the foundation gathered the names of forty-five Nobel laureates in an open letter supporting Iranians who dared to protest the results of their presidential election. The letter was published as a full-page ad in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune last August. He explains, “I thought no one had the right to let them feel that they live in solitude and were abandoned by the whole world.”
Amy Lifson is the assistant editor of HUMANITIES.