Editor's Note

Editor’s Note 

HUMANITIES, Spring 2024, Volume 45, Number 2

With Ric Burns’s beautiful, brooding documentary on the life and poetry of Dante Alighieri airing on public television this spring, we asked poetry critic Nick Ripatrazone why Dante is so important. The greatest of Italy’s writers, Dante is notable for several innovations, including the use of vernacular Italian when most poetry in Europe was still composed in Latin. And Dante gave us hell, Ripatrazone writes, or rather a vision of it that would shape Western art and thought for centuries. 

Another poet featured in this issue, Sylvia Plath, is remembered for writing from a different kind of hell. After composing only formal poetry, full of rhyme and hardy structure, Plath studied the art of confessional poetry with Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. The three writers met in a writing seminar at Boston University but had more than poetry in common. Steve Moyer traces the connections among this trio, each of whom explored their inner selves in verse and not one of whom could be described as even-keeled. 

Exploring one’s self and one’s country is easier with a guide, Bob Damron realized as he began, in 1964, publishing travel guides for gay men who wanted to find bars and clubs where other gay men hung out. Damron built a publishing business and a public persona as well. Writer Robert W. Fieseler visits the digital archives of Damron’s travel guides and comes away with a sketch of not only one gay man but a generation. 

Angelica Aboulhosn visits the African side of the Roman empire in an article about “Africa & Byzantium,” which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the fall and is traveling to the Cleveland Museum of Art this April. An exuberant show of sanctified figures and religious splendor, it draws together continents and shows Africa at the heart of the premodern world. 

“Building Stories” is a new exhibition at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., featuring the work of several children’s authors whose books explore architecture and the built environment. David Macaulay is one of the authors. An NEH Charles Frankel Prize recipient with some 30 books behind him, Macaulay revisits in these pages the circuitous path he took to finish Rome Antics, his 1997 picture book about the Eternal City. 

Joseph Priestley was the most controversial man in all of England—then he moved to the United States. Celebrated today for his time charts, which visualize the temporal distance between important individuals and historic events, Priestley was a great polymath who wrote about grammar, electricity, the French Revolution, religious controversies, and how to make regular old drinking water all bubbly with carbonation. Alyson Foster describes this singular figure and his knack for seeing things differently.