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 2010 National Humanities Medal:
- Daniel Aaron
- Bernard Bailyn
- Jacques Barzun
- Wendell E. Berry
- Roberto González Echevarría
- Stanley Nider Katz
- Joyce Carol Oates
- Arnold Rampersad
- Philip Roth
- Gordon S. Wood
Daniel Aaron, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of English and American Literature Emeritus at Harvard, has experienced and examined much of America in his ninety-eight years. From a childhood spent among the stars and impresarios of early Hollywood to a career unhindered by academic and political boundaries, Aaron is an Americanist of both mind and heart.
Aaron was born in Chicago in 1912 to successful Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father’s business interests brought his family to Los Angeles in 1917, but he returned to Chicago in 1924, shortly after both his parents died. He matriculated at the University of Michigan in a premedical program in 1929, but the literature he was exposed to there set him on a new academic course. Soon after Aaron graduated in 1933, he was accepted to an English program at Harvard.
“Harvard University had not been my first choice for graduate English studies, and I wouldn’t have gone there had the University of London admitted me without time-consuming conditions,” wrote Aaron in a recently published memoir. But, ironically for someone who’d intended to study in England, Aaron ended up immersing himself in his native country, becoming the first graduate of Harvard’s program in the History of American Civilization.
His shift from English to what’s now called American studies was motivated in part by the upheavals of the 1930s. “Until enrolled in the new degree, I had kept my studies and my politics in separate compartments. Now the twain converged.” Political concerns weighed heavily in Aaron’s first major work, Men of Good Hope (1951), a study of a diverse set of writers united, as Aaron says, by their “faith in the possibilities of democracy”—a faith that Aaron shared. More than just an academic study, he wrote in the book’s introduction, Men of Good Hope was “an attempt to rehabilitate the progressive tradition, currently under attack by both liberals and anti-liberals, and to show that progressivism was not always the shabby thing it is now made out to be.”
Aaron’s political commitments found more prosaic expression during the Second World War, when he worked on a farm to help overcome labor shortages and served as a volunteer policeman in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he taught at Smith College for thirty years. After the war, he found a higher political vocation as a U.S. cultural ambassador, a role for which his academic studies had unwittingly prepared him. Under the auspices of both private foundations and the United States Information Agency, Aaron taught American culture and history for decades at universities in Europe, Asia, Australia, and Latin America. “The State Department never told us what to teach,” he says. “I went to these places not to ‘sell’ the U.S.A. but to ‘explain’ it, not to palliate its blemishes but to contextualize them. All the same, I pondered the ambiguities of my position as a cultural explicator of my country.”
Aaron’s masterpiece of literary criticism, Writers on the Left (1961), a study of American literary communism commissioned by the Ford Foundation at the height of the red scare, navigated those ambiguities with both erudition and warmth. The book, a “surprise success” to Aaron, garnered an admiring lead review in the Sunday New York Times. The reviewer, Irving Howe, claimed that although Aaron had never shared the communist beliefs of those he had written about, he “never merely dismisses them, for he knows that often they were deeply concerned with human suffering.” In his introduction to a thirtieth anniversary edition of Writers on the Left, Alan M. Wald called it “the pivotal text establishing U.S. ‘literary radicalism’ as a distinctive field in academic as well as popular scholarship.”
Aaron later penned another influential volume, The Unwritten War (1973), about how writers during the Civil War failed to come to terms with racial hatred. In 1979, Aaron and a group of other scholars founded the Library of America, a nonprofit publisher devoted to keeping the works of America’s finest writers permanently in print. Since selecting Herman Melville's novels Typee, Omoo, and Mardi for its first book, the Library has published hundreds of authoritative volumes. Aaron was president of the Library from its founding until 1985 and a member of its board of directors.
“In Aaron’s last published work, a memoir entitled The Americanist (2007), he describes himself as a “native son neither estranged from the collective American family nor unreservedly clasped to its bosom.” For the gifts he has bestowed to his native land, Aaron’s fellow citizens may unreservedly clasp him to theirs.
Nick Serpe is the Online Editor of Dissent.
Historians inevitably speculate about the relevance of their work to today’s world. Take the early modern period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Historian Bernard Bailyn, who as a young scholar explored medieval and German history, as well as other times and places, eventually became fascinated with this era. “You could see the turn into modernity—you could see the way ideas and changing circumstances worked together,” he says. “The intersection of intellectual and social history interests me greatly, and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, modernity becomes recognizable. We talk all the time about things that emerged then—constitutions, entrepreneurship, race relations—they are part of the modern world, we live with them now. If you look back at the sixteenth century, people’s lives were much more different from ours.”
For more than five decades, Bailyn has plumbed that epoch with an unquenchable curiosity and perhaps greater effect than any of his peers. For example, his most famous book, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967), is the kind of watershed work that influences all subsequent scholarship. It won both the Pulitzer Prize and Bancroft Prize in 1968, and the New York Times Book Review flatly declared, “One cannot claim to understand the Revolution without having read this book.” In it, “Bailyn uncovered a set of ideas among the Revolutionary generation that most historians had scarcely known existed,” wrote his former student Gordon Wood in the Wall Street Journal. “These radical ideas about power and liberty, and deeply rooted fears of conspiracy, had propelled Americans in the 1760s and 1770s into the Revolution.”
The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution begins with a declaration both wry and highly pertinent: “Whatever deficiencies the leaders of the American Revolution may have had, reticence, fortunately, was not one of them.” Bailyn’s analysis establishes that republicanism and liberty were not merely rhetorical tropes or propagandistic devices: The patriots believed that the British monarchy intended to impose a tyrannical political order that would usurp their freedoms. “The colonists said all this very clearly,” he says. “They believed they were entering a period in which they couldn’t control their own destiny, and that resistance was necessary.” Ideological Origins finally and conclusively demolished the argument that an earlier historian, Charles Beard, had advanced in 1913, to the effect that economic interests guided the votes of participants in the Constitutional Convention.
Bailyn’s The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (1974), a biography of the last Royalist governor of Massachusetts, won the National Book Award in history in 1975. “To get a rounded picture and understand the Revolution properly, you also need a sympathetic understanding of those who opposed it,” he says. “Hutchinson’s career and fate were quite moving. He was a very intelligent man who was right on many technical constitutional questions, but he didn’t have the right response to the times, and in the end he was defeated and left in exile. Yet he loved this place as much as John Adams, who hated him.”
Bailyn has also done extensive work on immigration to the Americas; one of his books on the subject, Voyagers to the West (1986) won the Pulitzer Prize in history. “The Atlantic world had distinctive characteristics, especially the scale of land possessions of Europeans and, of course, the great slave population,” he says. “For every European who came to the Western Hemisphere in the colonial period, there were four Africans who crossed the ocean. North America had a significant part of it, but the West Indies, with their great sugar plantations, drew the major part of the slave population.”
Atlantic history, aimed at encouraging the view of America’s history in its formative years as part of a greater regional world, has been a focus for Bailyn over the past fifteen years. For this he organized an annual seminar for young historians from around the world at his institutional home, Harvard University, where he is Adams University Professor. After earning his bachelor’s degree at Williams College, he served in the Army Signal Corps in World War II, and then came to Harvard, completing his PhD in history in 1953. He has remained on the Harvard faculty ever since. Recipient of a plethora of honorary degrees and awards, Bailyn was named the Jefferson Lecturer by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1998, and delivered the first Millennium Lecture at the White House.
Doing history “is as much a question of setting the problems as solving them,” he says. “You need to see what the great issues are.” For him, the people of the early modern era have never ceased to provoke engaging questions. “They gave us the foundations of our public life,” he avers. “It doesn’t seem to me there is anything more important than to find out how that happened and what it was. Their world was very different from ours, but, more than any other country, we live with their world and with what they achieved.”
Craig Lambert is deputy editor of Harvard Magazine.
Jacques Barzun is many people’s idea of a scholar and intellectual. He is a cultural historian, and was, indeed, an early leader in that field. What is cultural history? For one thing, it is not political history. Barzun is an American of European origin. (You might say that America is a country of European origin.) He gives you worldliness and refinement without airs.
He was born outside Paris in 1907. Those born the same year include W. H. Auden, Frida Kahlo, and John Wayne. The Dreyfus affair had come to an end the year before. Barzun’s parents were intellectuals and aesthetes, at the center of the Modernist movement. Everyone came by their home: Apollinaire, Duchamp, and Pound, just to name three. Apollinaire taught little Jacques how to read a watch. In an interview last year, Barzun said that he grew up thinking that “writing was the only career. It had a naturalness that nothing else held for me.”
An important influence on him was his great-grandmother, born in 1830. To Jacques, 1830 seemed as distant as the Middle Ages. Every day, he would stop at his great-grandmother’s apartment on his way home from school. She would give him a piece of chocolate and a bun, and talk about history: the recent history of France. She was a wonderful talker, never boring her audience (of one). Barzun says that she planted in him the historical bug.
He came to America at the age of 12 to attend a prep school. He had read James Fenimore Cooper, and “more or less expected to see Indians and cowboys riding down Broadway.” At age fifteen, he started Columbia College, where he would spend the next fifty-plus years. He was valedictorian of the class of 1927. Barzun and some friends ran what he would call a “perfectly legal and honest tutoring mill”: Ghosts, Inc. “No subjects were barred. If a retired minister came who wanted to read Hamlet in Esperanto (one did), we supplied an instructor.”
Barzun became a professor, a dean, and a provost. He taught a famous Great Books course with Lionel Trilling, who had been an undergraduate with him. They did not know each other well in college, but became fast friends on the faculty. Before they published their books, they exchanged each other’s manuscripts to read.
Norman Podhoretz, the intellectual and writer, recalls Barzun as an excellent and demanding teacher. “He seemed to know everything. He was incredibly learned.” Barzun appeared on the cover of Time magazine, no less. That was in June 1956. The magazine described him as a “tall, slender, willowy man,” and a “brilliant, courtly, unruffable scholar.” After he retired from Columbia in 1975, Barzun served as a literary adviser to Charles Scribner’s Sons. In 2003, George W. Bush hung the Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck.
Barzun has written about forty books, from The French Race in 1932 to his summa, From Dawn to Decadence, in 2000. Actually, there have been a few volumes since then. His books cover an unsurprisingly broad range of subjects. In the 1940s, Marx, Darwin, Wagner was a bestseller. In the 1950s, The House of Intellect was. He is a particular expert on Berlioz, a composer he all but revived. For years, the tastemakers had little time for Berlioz. They had little time for Romanticism in general. Barzun, the child of Modernists, explained, defended, and elevated Romanticism.
He also had a serious taste for baseball and detective novels. In 1961, he edited an anthology called The Delights of Detection. And probably the most famous words he ever uttered are these: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” They are inscribed on a plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
When Marxism engulfed academia, he would have none of it. “They deplored my blindness,” he said of his more with-it colleagues. He shook his head, gently, at those who were blasting away at America. “They forget that the true creator’s role, even in its bitterest attack, is to make us understand or endure life better. Our intellectuals do neither when they entice us to more self-contempt.” He never stopped believing that Western civilization, for all its faults, was a great and glorious thing. And he had a particular admiration for his adopted country. He once remarked that Americans were “too busy to brood.”
In his centennial year of 2007, there were many tributes—including one from the critic John Simon: “That Barzun has reached age one hundred is further proof of his ability to pack some of his immortality even into his mortality.” He was a master and delight in the classroom. And, thanks to all those books, and his voluminous articles, anyone can enroll.
Jay Nordlinger is a senior editor at National Review.
Few men of letters speak in as many voices as Wendell Berry; none has more successfully escaped categorization. To poets, Berry is a colleague who has written more than twenty-five books of poetry, while novelists cite his series of novels chronicling life in the fictional rural community of Port William, Kentucky (widely held to be a stand in for Berry’s own longtime home, Port Royal).
Environmentalists claim him for his essays written in criticism of policies and cultural trends that have poisoned the American landscape and hollowed out rural life—though Berry, typically, is often critical of environmentalists and their lack of support for farmers as integral elements of country life and ecology.
Berry himself is likely to describe himself first as a farmer. Having grown up on a tobacco farm in Henry County, a region of northern Kentucky that his family helped settle in the early nineteenth century and has inhabited ever since, Berry completed both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English at the University of Kentucky before accepting a Wallace Stegner Fellowship to study writing under Stegner himself at Stanford University. There Berry joined a remarkable writing workshop that also included Edward Abbey, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Ernest Gaines, Tillie Olsen, and Ken Kesey. In 1960, Berry made his mark with the novel Nathan Coulter, the first of his Port William narratives. The following year, with the support of a Guggenheim Fellowship, he traveled to Italy and France, returning to the United States to teach at New York University.
But then, in 1964, the budding literary star went home. Berry joined the faculty of the University of Kentucky and, more crucially, purchased what he at first believed would be a weekend retreat near Port Royal and the birthplaces of his parents. Berry recalls that it was his wife who recognized first, as they were rebuilding the derelict farmhouse, that this was to be their full-time home. More than forty-five years later they are still in residence, and though Berry has continued to write and teach, he has also, throughout, farmed the 125-acre property, working the land for the most part with horses, much as his ancestors did.
A sense of rootedness became the touchstone of Berry’s life and work. “Every day,” he explains, “I cross the tracks of people I love and people I have only heard of, who are gone. So I’m reminded of them all the time. The people who are gone from this world are always here in my mind.”
Berry’s attachment to his community includes not only his human neighbors and their lives but also every aspect of the local terrain, animals, and vegetation. This connection came naturally to him—Berry walked and hunted these fields as a boy—but he recognizes that he is an oddity in contemporary America. “It is a rare experience [these days]; I didn’t realize for a long time how rare it is. But that experience is what I think I have been entrusted with as a writer, to understand and write about.”
Life in Henry County pervades Berry’s fiction and poetry, even his scholarship. Responding to a critique of the Georgics, Roman poet Virgil’s celebration of rural life, Berry points out the soundness of Virgil’s advice to find out where you are, to know a place and its weather before you plow—a directive “generally disregarded [today] by industrialized agriculture, but it’s excellent advice.”
His essays (collected in volumes such as The Long-Legged House and The Unsettling of America) arose, Berry says, from his concern about ways in which modern economic policy and culture were destroying communities such as his. Even the Kentucky River, which gave Port Royal its name, was suffering from the effects of destructive coal-mining techniques. “So I had to become an advocate of good land use, good agriculture, and I had to become an opponent of land abuse. In short,” he adds with a laugh, “I became a patriot.”
When asked if he is an optimist, Berry responds with an emphatic “No.” Optimism and pessimism are both programs, and he won’t live according to a program. Besides, he adds in a characteristically wry touch, “optimists never get good surprises.”
Thomas Christopher writes about horticulture and environmental issues from
Connecticut. His work has appeared in Garden Design, House and Garden, and the New York Times.
When Roberto González Echevarría was a young boy growing up in Cuba, his world teemed with “epic elements, with heroes, fables, and [the] lore” of baseball. Playing the sport year-round, González Echevarría and his friends threw pebbles, fruit, and stones at any nearby object, competing with one another, developing their accuracy, dreaming about playing professionally. And they “revered the great players we heard about and whose pictures we saw in the newspapers and magazines, no matter what their nationality or race.”
After his family emigrated to the United States in 1959 at the advent of the Cuban revolution, González Echevarría eventually came to study and write more formally about “epic elements.” He attended Yale, earning his doctorate in 1970. Except for six years at Cornell University, he has taught at Yale, where he is currently the Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literatures. His first work in English, Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home, surveyed one of the towering figures of Latin American literature and the inventor of the term “magic realism,” while his next, The Voice of the Masters: Writing and Authority in Modern Latin American Literature, explored how writings by Carpentier, Cortázar, García Márquez, and others were shaped by a distinctive Latin American ideology of what literature is and how it should be read.
Both works were marked by erudition, verbal grace, and creative thinking—elements even more in evidence in his Myth and Archive: A Theory of Latin American Narrative, which won the 1989–90 MLA’s Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize and the Latin American Studies Association’s 1992 Bryce Wood Book Award. Described by one reviewer as the “prime-moving intellectual force for [the] comprehensive project” of Latin American literary and cultural historiography, González Echevarría sought in Myth and Archive to show how authors employed the language of science and law to legitimize their own writings.
Throughout his career, González Echevarría has brought his wide reading and considerable intellectual talents to an ever-expanding range of subjects, including Cervantes and the law (first addressed in his 2002 DeVane Lectures at Yale and then later in Love and the Law in Cervantes) as well as the baroque in Spanish and Latin-American literatures. He has served as editor or coeditor of The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories, Don Quixote: A Casebook, and The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature, among other collections. An international symposium was held in his honor at the Universidad de Puerto Rico, Arecibo, in 2002, and two years later an issue of Encuentro de la cultura cubana was published in his honor.
The last decade has witnessed even more divergent directions for the critic, who has returned to the early scene that shaped his sensibilities. The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball chronicles the sport from the nation’s first amateur leagues in the 1860s to its present centrality and its vexed political relationship to the United States. The book, which won the Dave Moore Award for the Best Baseball Book of 2002, is a rich admixture of social and sports history, explaining, among other things, how baseball assumed national dominance with the rejection of Spanish bullfighting and how Fidel Castro shrewdly associated himself with the sport in order to advance his revolutionary aspirations.
But it is the personal evocation of an earlier time, when childhood and the communal activity of baseball were synonymous, that is most striking about The Pride of Havana. Warm recollection mixed with compassionate analysis also inform González Echevarría’s most recent book, Cuban Fiestas, a discussion of how this elemental cultural event has kept Cuban society together for more than two centuries. Examining the fiesta cubana as portrayed in novels and paintings as well as in his own memory, González Echevarría manages that most difficult task: fusing art, criticism, and memoir into a startlingly original form.
As Harold Bloom has remarked, “Roberto González Echevarría is the leading critic of Hispanic literature—American and Iberian—now living. His synthesis of contemporary critical modes with the classical and romantic traditions of interpretation is original and influential.” Turning his attention to Cuban baseball and the tradition of fiestas, the eminent scholar and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has brought to life for his readers a world they might otherwise never have known.
Randall Fuller is associate professor of English at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri.
“I only have one aim in life, to do what I can to improve the quality of democracy in the United States,” says Professor Stanley Katz. He has worked toward this lofty goal through decades of teaching, as well as writing and speaking on ways to make our academic institutions better.
As a young man from Chicago, Katz knew that he didn’t want to run his father’s egg-breaking business, supplying thousands of freshly cracked eggs daily for bakeries such as Sara Lee. Instead, he headed to Harvard College. “I entered college in 1951, right after the war,” he recalls, “the resident tutors were either assistant professors or graduate students who were World War II vets. They were among my closest friends. It was that experience that transformed me; I wanted to be like them.”
One of the young, war-vet professors was Bernard Bailyn. Although Katz was planning a career in English history, a graduate seminar with Bailyn helped ignite a passion for American history. Among his classmates were others on their way to becoming prominent scholars, including Gordon Wood, also one of this year’s medalists. Bailyn “trained the cream of the crop of the next generation of American historians,” says Katz.
Katz followed the path of many a talented academic: a Fulbright, research and teaching fellowships, professorships, law school, deanships, publications. He taught at Harvard until 1965, when he took a position at the University of Wisconsin. “It was one of the top two or three history departments in the country. It was paradise,” says Katz. But with the Vietnam War raging, it was also a tense time to be on American campuses. “Classes were disrupted for weeks at a time. I lectured with tear gas in the room on several occasions,” Katz wrote in his essay “Autobiographical Ramblings.” For a couple of years, Katz says no one turned in term papers. “It was a great time to be a teacher because students were encountering challenges of all kinds, and helping them pull through was my job,” he says.
“The war forced us to think through the relationship of politics to teaching and to higher education,” wrote Katz. “There is a moral quality to great teaching,” he explains. “That’s an aspect of the liberal arts that is sometimes ignored. If we reduce it to content and technique, then it may be great scholarship, but it isn’t great teaching.” He went on to teach American history, legal history, and public policy at the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton. He is editor in chief of the recently published Oxford International Encyclopedia of Legal History and editor of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise History of the United States Supreme Court.
Eventually Katz’s varied academic interests led to a focus on education policy. “At Harvard I was really intrigued by the general education curriculum. What was it about that program that worked? What was it about the structure that made it effective?” Early in his career, he says “I knew that institutions were consequential.” He was president of the Organization of American Historians, and has served as a leader for more than sixty influential American humanities organizations, such as The Papers of the Founding Fathers, Inc. When he became president of the American Council of Learned Societies in 1986, it propelled him onto the national and international stage of higher education. In that role for eleven years, he led the ACLS, a group of organizations devoted to promoting American scholarship in the humanities, through the minefield of the culture wars, a time when funding for the humanities was scarce but intellectual opportunities were opening up all over the world. In his report as president of ACLS in 1997, he wrote “I have taken it as a principle of our international work that scholarship be insulated from politics and that the Council advance academic principles by practical work as well as by advocacy.” Under his leadership, the ACLS led scholarly exchanges with China, Vietnam, and Cuba, and with newly liberated institutions in Eastern Europe. For the bicentennial of the Constitution, the ACLS developed a new focus on the study of constitutionalism, promoting international conferences and exchanges, and supporting new scholarship. This led to the 1993 publication of Constitutionalism and Democracy: Transitions in the Contemporary World, which Katz coedited.
These days Katz uses his public voice to improve undergraduate education in the U.S., speaking all over the country on the subject and publishing a blog for The Chronicle of Higher Education. In this age of benchmarks and vocational training, Katz says, “I think it’s right to worry about what value we add to an undergraduate over four years. But to measure the progress a student makes in a liberal education is hard to do. What’s important is that institutions are now challenged to ask themselves, Are we doing the best we can for our students?”
Certainly, Katz continues to. Although still active in education policy, as director of the Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at the Woodrow Wilson School, Katz makes sure that he teaches at least one undergraduate class each fall, such as Civil Society and Public Policy. Which sounds rather wonkish, but for Katz the overriding goal remains the same: the improvement of our civic culture.
“What I’m concerned about with the undergraduates is not what they’re going to do when they are forty,” he says, “but that they acquire the tools so they can be generally good citizens when they grow up.”
Amy Lifson is the assistant editor of Humanities.
To the delight of her legions of devoted readers, with the admiration of scores of critics and reviewers, and to the astonishment of all, Joyce Carol Oates has been writing and publishing short stories and novels for more than five decades. Throughout that entire time her content and writing style have changed frequently, nearly as rapidly as her breakneck rate of production.
In her essays, she has taken up subjects both literary and nonliterary, including, most famously, boxing, and has added to her corpus plays, poetry, and a published journal. To some, she seems obsessed with writing—a charge she’d be unlikely to deny—but to nearly all, she’s one of the U.S.’s leading women of letters. Critic Harold Bloom observed that she is “our true proletarian novelist.” Book reviewer Marian Engel said, “It has been left to Joyce Carol Oates, a writer who seems to know a great deal about the underside of America, to guide us—splendidly—down dark passages.”
Regarding her lifelong love affair with reading, Oates said, “Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass with its fluid blend of dreamlike narrative and surreal fantasy, and its courageous, curious girl heroine, has probably been the book that most influenced my imaginative life. And I read it when I was so young, eight years old, I had no ‘critical’ reservations whatsoever.”
Born in 1938 in a small town in western New York, her life was touched at times by the hardships and violence that characterize much of her fiction. While teaching and living in Detroit during the unsettled times leading up to the 1967 riots, she wrote several novels and many short stories with violent themes, in particular them, set in the slums of Detroit in the 1960s. At this time she also wrote a play that was performed in 1965. A headline over the newspaper review spoke volumes about the sentiment toward women writers at the time: “Detroit Housewife Writes Play.”
She won the National Book Award in 1970 for them, and has been nominated for the award five other times. She received the Rosenthal award from the American Academy–Institute of Arts and Letters, and received the Rea Award for the Short Story in 1990.
She also penned a trilogy of mystery novels, in addition to four psychological suspense novels, written under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith. Her late husband of forty-eight years, editor Raymond Smith, with whom Oates founded The Ontario Review, died suddenly in February 2008 of an infection while recovering from pneumonia. She later met Princeton neuroscientist Charles Gross at a dinner party, fell in love, and remarried in March 2009.
Oates graduated from Syracuse University, valedictorian of her class, in 1960, went on to earn a master’s from the University of Wisconsin, and taught later at the University of Detroit and the University of Windsor in Ontario before arriving at Princeton University to teach writing in 1978. She currently teaches creative writing at Princeton.
It is in her collections of essays where Oates shows her great range as an empathetic reader and sympathetic and erudite critic. In an essay on Edgar Allan Poe, in which she calls him a “navigator of Gothic landscapes,” she plumbs the depth of her own and America’s fascination with the master of the macabre. But her interests as a writer are wide, and she can go ten rounds on nearly any subject, applying her literary acumen in unexpected corners. Tall, yet of slight build, she surprised and won praise from men writers such as Norman Mailer on her essays about boxing. “Contrary to stereotyped notions,” she wrote, “boxing is primarily about being, and not giving, hurt. . . . To move through pain to triumph—or the semblance of triumph—is the writer’s, as it is the boxer’s, hope.”
Oates has a passion for the other core disciplines of the humanities. On the influence of specific philosophers on her current world view, she explained, “William James has always seemed to me the most likely of philosophers—most people are pragmatists, no matter how idealistic they may wish to be perceived. James said that truth is something that ‘happens’ to a proposition—this is a curious, quirky, controversial notion—but in the course of a lifetime, perhaps it turns out to be the most plausible of ideas.”
Writing, reading, teaching, and editing are responsibilities Oates continues to carry, with no signs of easing up. She is currently editing the forthcoming Oxford Book of American Short Stories as well as an anthology of suspense and mystery stories called New Jersey Noir. As a reader and writer who came of age entirely during the time of print culture, she remains remarkably fluid in these days of the digital revolution, writing in an e-mail that “it scarcely matters what anyone thinks about these enormous social/cultural/scientific/technological revolutions—they sweep over us like tidal waves. If we are fortunate, we are not drowned by them and might even find our lives enhanced, if, at times, terribly complicated.”
Steve Moyer is the associate editor of Humanities
It may come as a surprise to some that one of the nation’s premier biographers was born and raised outside the country. “Growing up as a schoolboy in Trinidad, I received an education in literature that some people might dismiss as ‘colonial,’ ” Arnold Rampersad recalls. “It nevertheless served me well in dealing with the complexities of American biography.”
Rampersad’s career as a biographer began at Harvard, where he wrote his dissertation on W. E. B. DuBois. “I thought that DuBois was extraordinarily important and complex,” he says. “My life was changed in a basic way by my first reading of The Souls of Black Folk. And while the historians who had written about him had done good jobs, I believed that they had missed his genuine essence—which is, in my opinion, the grandly poetic imagination he brought to the business of seeing and describing black America and America itself.”
After the dissertation was transformed into the magisterial intellectual biography, The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. DuBois, Rampersad was approached by the executor of Langston Hughes’s estate to write a biography of the poet. Delving into the enormous archive left by Hughes, Rampersad soon discovered that the life of this key figure of the Harlem Renaissance “was a revelation as well as a mystery—the mystery being the source of his amazing drive to establish himself as a writer at a time when few blacks dared to think in those terms, and to do so with black America as his primary, though not exclusive, subject. I wanted to explore the complexity of his intelligence and sensibility, as well as his art (despite its surface simplicity), and in that way to explore the complexity of black American culture at the leadership level.”
Rampersad’s two-volume The Life of Langston Hughes was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and is widely considered the definitive biography of the poet. He next turned to writing about two very different figures from the world of American athletics—Arthur Ashe and Jackie Robinson, both of whom helped destroy the color line in their respective sports.
Rampersad has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He also has taught at some of the nation’s premier institutions, including Princeton and now Stanford, where he also served as senior associate dean of humanities. Throughout his career he found himself “drawn to biography because I saw the African-American personality as a neglected field despite the prominence of race as a subject in discussions of America. African-American character in all its complexity and sophistication was, and still is, by and large, a denied category in the representation of American social reality.”
In 2007, Rampersad returned to literary biography with the first work to cover the entire life of the contrarian, prickly, and brilliant author of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison. Driving his interest in Ellison were some of the issues he’d first encountered in his Caribbean childhood. Having “come of age just as my native country was marching toward political independence from Great Britain,” Rampersad increasingly saw black American artists as “colonials in their own country, struggling against a greater power for political and cultural independence—relatively speaking—and for freedom of expression.”
Ralph Ellison was published in an era when, according to Rampersad, “the life of the African-American writer has changed dramatically. In part through holding positions at programs in creative writing and departments of English at universities, the black writer has gained a solid presence on the literary scene that has replaced the fugitive nature of expression and publication forced on blacks over the centuries, especially in the slave narratives but continuing into the twentieth century. That presence does not guarantee fine writing but it has led, in my opinion, to an assurance that bodes well for the future. Black literature was described a long time ago as a ‘literature of necessity’ rather than one of leisure. That element of necessity still exists but it does not dominate as it once did. Black American literature as a cultural phenomenon has reached a level of stability and maturity that the circumstances of American life once routinely denied it.”
Randall Fuller is associate professor of English at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri.
“Who were you before the publication of Goodbye, Columbus?” I ask.
“I was nobody,” says Philip Roth.
In the army he had written short stories. Living in Chicago and working toward his master’s while teaching freshman comp, he sold one story to Esquire for the impressive sum of $800. “I made a proposal to myself to come to New York and live on $100 a month.” In 1959, his debut novella was published with a handful of other stories, and it won the National Book Award. Not bad for a twenty-six-year-old nobody.
His subject became Jewish-American life. A student of British literature, he was inspired by Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, he told an interviewer recently, “who had taken the Jewish world that was near at hand and turned it into distinctive fiction.” Roth began looking to Newark and his own life for fictional material—eventually leading all readers to wonder, Which is which?
In 1969, Portnoy’s Complaint made Roth into a celebrity and a figure of controversy. The book sold 400,000 copies in hardcover. Using the first-person confessional intimacy of psychoanalysis to unbelt a torrent of sexual urges, Roth made scatological comedy of adolescent longing, forever linking his name to behaviors that betray the stereotype of a nice Jewish boy. The book also became a lens through which too many readers, he thinks, still view his other work.
“If you take out Portnoy’s Complaint, it’s a very different career,” he says.
It was not as if Roth had invented the sexually explicit American novel. That honor belongs to Henry Miller, says the on-and-off college professor, praising Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn and their author as a kind of “Whitman of the twentieth century,” though not as good. Still, Miller “broke the ice.” He found a way to “look straight at sex,” and “not from the point of view of a moralist or a physician.”
Unadorned and unromanticized would be equally good ways to describe Roth’s fluid, unpoetic prose. Although it’s changed over the course of fifty years, one thing that remains constant is his aim “to get as close to the actuality as possible.”
His novels are heavy with the presence of an uncensored self and details unmistakably real. From Roth’s use of his own life as a platform for building characters and his own hometown as a recurring setting to his actual experiences as a son and a husband and, above all, a well-known writer, his fiction tracks his life. And his nonfiction benefits from the modes of storytelling worked out in his fiction. The Philip Roth of Patrimony, a nonfiction book about his dying father, and The Facts, a kind of autobiography that opens cannily with a letter from Roth to his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, is indivisible from the Philip Roth of Letting Go and The Professor of Desire and Zuckerman Unbound and so on.
Even as his work expands beyond the boundaries of his own life to engage and reconsider key episodes of American history, Roth’s historical novels “come out of a period I lived through.” I Married a Communist takes on McCarthyism, some of whose victims he knew personally. The Plot Against America rewrites the 1940 election to have FDR losing to Charles Lindbergh, ushering in an era of rabid American anti-Semitism. Nemesis, one of his recent compact novels, revisits the polio epidemic of 1944. Philip Roth’s America is one in which the vivid and the literary are not the enemies of the real and the actual, but their interpreters.
Warm and polite in conversation, Roth is exacting in his comments. Every word seems lit up by an alertness that makes you chary of speaking casually. He is concerned about the future of novel-reading precisely because the activity demands so much attention, attention he thinks our digital-age culture seems less willing to lavish upon the written word and imaginative literature especially.
He has published thirty-one books and has received enough prizes to make a town of Jewish mothers proud: two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle awards, three PEN/Faulkner awards, the PEN/Nabokov award, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. The Society of American Historians awarded him the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction for The Plot Against America. In Britain as well, he has collected numerous literary awards. Several of his novels rank very high in readers’ and critics’ polls of the best twentieth-century fiction. And he is the only living author to have his own edition of Library of America books.
Roth, who started out as a welcome addition to America’s roster of fine Jewish novelists, is now thought of, more simply, as an American great—comic and brooding, a register of his own life, his own people, his own time and place, but also of his own country in the twentieth century and beyond.
David Skinner is editor of Humanities.
In his Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood wrote, “There is a time for understanding the particular, and there is a time for understanding the whole.” This sentence is a window onto why Wood’s scholarship has had such an impact on scholars and nonspecialists alike.
Wood has devoted his career to incorporating the shifting ideas and social and political developments defining the early American Republic into a convincing and riveting whole. His scholarship is distinguished by its grasp of the monographs about the Founding era as well as his extensive use of primary documents. His writing fuses social, intellectual, and political history seamlessly together, and his books are exquisitely written, armed with the power of the best historical narratives.
His scholarship, from the Bancroft-winning The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787, which appeared in 1969, to his 2009 Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815, provides readers with a sweeping panorama of early America.
The Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University, Wood “read and reread nearly every pamphlet, sermon and tract concerned with politics that was written in the Revolutionary era” while researching The Creation. Wood’s scholarship has profoundly influenced colleagues in his field and attracted a larger audience, who want to read serious studies of the Revolutionary era that move beyond the standard, often hagiographic biographies of the Founding Fathers.
His themes are guided partly by the idea that the Revolution was “the most radical and far-reaching event in American history.” The Revolution achieved numerous things. As he writes in Radicalism, it “made possible the antislavery and women’s rights movements of the nineteenth century and in fact all our current egalitarian thinking.” It “destroyed aristocracy,” inaugurated “an entirely new kind of popular politics,” and “made the interests and prosperity of ordinary people—their pursuit of happiness—the goal of society and government.”
Wood didn’t know that he would become a historian as an undergraduate. In fact, he wanted to pursue a career in the Foreign Service. After graduating from Tufts, he joined the Air Force “to fulfill my ROTC obligations.” While stationed in Japan, he concluded that a PhD in history was a better fit for him than a career in government. History was “a subject that I had always loved,” he told the History News Network.
As a graduate student at Harvard, he took a seminar with a young historian of early America named Bernard Bailyn and “became immediately attracted to the field.” Beyond his stellar research and quiet and arresting prose, Wood has repeatedly demonstrated a subtle open-mindedness that gives his scholarship an almost revelatory feel.
While researching Creation, he concluded that the world he was studying was far more different from his own age than other historians had been able to grasp. He explained in his introduction how his “reading opened up an intellectual world I had scarcely known existed.” That sense of discovery—and the ability to convey the drama of the period—infuses his research, writing, and lectures.
Wood hasn’t shied from the fray either, as he has weighed in on several debates about the role of historical memory and the uses of the past in contemporary American politics. He has praised professional historians for producing countless monographs in the last half-century that have opened up new worlds about the lives of women, African Americans, and others who had been neglected in historical literature.
At the same time, he has encouraged his colleagues not to leave popular history writing to the non-academics. Professional historians, he argued, should “try more often to write for a general public” in order to explain the complex subtleties and provide a more accurate rendering of the past to more Americans.
Wood recently pointed out in the New York Review of Books that historical “memory is as important to our society as the history written by academics”—shaping popular perceptions while informing political and policy debates about government’s role in American society. He affirmed the view of Bernard Bailyn, saying that history, as Bailyn argued, “may be kept alive, made vivid and constantly relevant and urgent by the living memory we have of it.”
Through his teaching, scholarship, and popular articles, Wood has reached a wide audience, keeping alive one of the most revered periods in all of American history. It is his skills as a researcher, his fresh and passionate insights into the shifting character of Revolutionary-era society, and his uncanny ability to capture the sense of turbulence and vast transformation that defined early America that have made him one of the most influential historians of his generation. His writing and teaching will remain paragons for the profession for years to come.
Matthew Dallek, an associate academic director at the University of California
Washington Center, is the author of The Right Moment:
Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics.