Editor's Note

Editor’s Note

Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. He did, however, explore an extraordinary range of humanity in songs that remained stubbornly American while crossing the state lines of several genres.

In his cover story, folklorist and former NEH chairman Bill Ferris takes us to where Johnny Cash grew up: Dyess, Arkansas, in a housing project on government farmland worked by poor families with few options. Now a historical site, the Dyess Colony has benefitted from NEH-supported preservation efforts led by Arkansas State University.

Michael Crow has given a lot of thought to how modest circumstances can limit a child’s horizons. As president of Arizona State University, Crow is especially eloquent on the mission of public universities to open their doors wide and not just to the uppermost percentiles of high school graduates. Crow sat for an interview with NEH Chair Shelly C. Lowe (Navajo) to discuss higher education, the so-called death of the humanities, and how he has unleashed the creativity of scholars at ASU while more than doubling its student body.

In this issue we honor the National Humanities Medalists, whose august ranks now include writers Richard Blanco, Walter Isaacson, Ann Patchett, Amy Tan, Tara Westover, and Colson Whitehead, institutional leaders Johnnetta Cole, Earl Lewis, Henrietta Mann, and Bryan Stevenson, the radio program Native America Calling, and musical legend Elton John.

As a young man, Ken Martis did not seem destined for scholarly distinction. He was close to flunking out of college until a geography course caught his eye. His other favorite subject was politics. He went on to earn his master’s degree, serve in the military, and work toward his doctorate. One day he stopped by the University of Michigan library to ask for help finding historical maps of congressional districts. The librarian could not find any, signaling to Martis an incredible gap in the scholarly literature, one he would personally close in the years to come.

Angelica Aboulhosn, who writes about art for Humanities, plays Virgil in this issue, guiding us through “Comparative Hell,” which opened at the Asia Society Museum in New York City before moving on to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, where it is called “Hell: Arts of Asian Underworlds.” The show draws on 12 centuries of visual inspiration from four Eastern traditions, depicting an underworld overflowing with strange beings and unresolvable conflict. Hell is a dark subject, of course, but these pictures are brimming with form and color. Enjoy!