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Winners of the 1998 National Medal for the Humanities

By Ronica Roth | HUMANITIES, November/December 1998 | Volume 19, Number 6

They are historians. . . best-selling writers. . . professors and commentators. . . preservers of our heritage. Nine Americans are being honored as the 1998 winners of the National Medal for the Humanities.

Through their work, the nine have enlarged our view of America. The biographers among them have given us The Age of Jackson and Nixon Agonistes and Undaunted Courage. They have taken us to less-travelled America as well -- On the Rim of Mexico, Where the Rich and Poor Rendezvous -- and to America in closeup -- Colored People: A Memoir. We are also offered America through another lens, that of a novelist, whose characters have unlikely encounters with famous figures of the day.

Many in the group are professors as well, passing their learning to a new generation. One winner has taken as her academic charter the soul of America, studying the ways in which the white wooden steeples of the past have given way to a new religious landscape. Another left university life to save a sinking library, and then returned to even greater achievement. Another ventured further afield, helping mothers in prison to learn to read to their children and then expanding the program outside the walls to a national literacy movement.

Taking varying paths, the 1998 winners have succeeded in deepening the nation's understanding and broadening its engagement with the humanities. The nine are to be honored at a White House ceremony in November.

Stephen Ambrose and the American Psyche

As one of America’s leading biographers and historians, Stephen E. Ambrose shapes our national memory of great leaders and the important events of our time.

At the core of Ambrose’s phenomenal success in awakening the historical curiosity of the reading public is his simple but straightforward belief that history is more interesting than almost anything because "history is biography. History is about people, what they have done and why, with what effect. The reason biography is the most popular form of nonfiction writing is that nothing is more fascinating to people than people," Ambrose says.

Now retired, Ambrose taught history for thirty years at the University of New Orleans after graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Ambrose thinks much is lost when academic historians concentrate on social history, movement history, organizational history, or class or race history. Ambrose, sixty-two, argues students and adults still want to know "Who were our leaders? What did they do and how did they do it? What were their strengths and weaknesses, their goals and value structures, their adventures and misadventures?"

During three decades as a historian and a writer, Ambrose has practiced this approach in producing nineteen books while also teaching in New Orleans. After visiting during a spring vacation, "I just fell in love with this old bag of bones of a city," Ambrose has said of New Orleans.

As a young historian, Ambrose set out to write his second biography about a relatively obscure military figure, Henry Wager Halleck, a Civil War general and Lincoln’s military chief of staff. It was this book on Halleck that led Ambrose to the man with whom he is most closely identified in the public mind: General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme allied commander in World War II and thirty-fourth president of the United States.

Ike coincidentally admired Halleck and the book sparked the general’s attention. The former president appointed the twenty-seven-year-old Ambrose to edit his papers.

Given this access to Eisenhower’s papers, Ambrose went on to write his highly acclaimed biography of the former president and later several books about Richard Nixon, a man about whom Ambrose has strong opinions, both positive and negative.

Ambrose described Eisenhower as “a perfectly wonderful person: the greatest man I’ve ever known. I just loved him.” Eisenhower, he says, taught him a valuable lesson as a historian: Never question a man’s motives because you never really know the secrets of his heart. This lesson has stood Ambrose well, allowing him to write passionately but without moral judgement about people and great events.

Ambrose’s interest in the explorers Lewis and Clark came in 1975 when he started reading the journals of their expedition. This kindled a lifetime fascination with the men, the political leaders of the day, and the American West. The resulting book was one of his most popular, the best-seller Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. His love for the expedition, the men, and the country they explored still takes him to the West every year. He served as chief consultant to the PBS series on Lewis and Clark produced by Ken Burns.

Undaunted Courage is a striking example of how Ambrose evokes history with literary allusion. He wrote that at the outset of the expedition, "Lewis knew he was stepping into the unknown…He was entering a heart of darkness. Deserts, mountains, great cataracts, warlike Indian tribes -- he could not imagine them, because no American had ever seen them. But far from causing apprehension or depression, the prospect brought out his fullest talents. He knew that from now on, until he reached the Pacific and returned, he would be making history.. . . He turned his face west. He would not turn it around until he reached the Pacific Ocean. He stepped forward, into paradise."

Following the great success of Undaunted Courage, Ambrose turned to the theme of courage as a common virtue among GIs in World War II.

After writing eight books on the Second World War, Ambrose has become increasingly focused on the lives and trials of the American fighting soldier. His latest book, also a best-seller, has brought him an even wider public acclaim.

Citizen Soldiers: the U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944-May 7, 1945, tells in graphic reality the horror and experience of total war, not from command headquarters, but from the ground, from the perspective of the GI doing the fighting and the dying. The book had a profound influence on producer Steven Spielberg and the making of Saving Private Ryan, the film he wanted to be the definitive statement about fighting to end the war in Europe. Ambrose, who served as a consultant for the film, argues in the book that the American citizen soldier of World War II overcame fear, inexperience, the mistakes of the high command, and the formidable German army to eventually win the war.

The success of Ambrose’s work may be that it reminds us of the human qualities we aspire to: vision, courage, loyalty, and patriotism. And in the process, his books let us touch those who dedicated their lives towards greater goals.

-- Charmayne Marsh

E. L. Doctorow and the American Novel

The writer E. L. Doctorow does not believe in the idea of progress. Nor does he believe in the absolute sanctity of historical fact. “Where mythology and history converge, that’s where I start my novels,” he says.

Above all a novelist, Doctorow has rejected easy labels, political tags, ideological affiliations, and literary descriptions over the past thirty-five years. For him, the artistic commitment of being a novelist is primary. Others may see in his work an ideology or political statement; he does not. He is equally adamant that he does not write documentary fiction or the historical novel.

“To think that I am writing to advance a political program misses the point," he says. "To call a novel political today is to label it, and to label it is to refuse to deal with what it does. My premise is that the language of politics can’t accommodate the complexity of fiction, which as a mode of thought is intuitive, metaphysical, mythic.”

The author of such critically acclaimed novels as The Book of Daniel (1971), Ragtime (1975), Loon Lake (1980), World’s Fair (1985), Billy Bathgate (1989), and The Waterworks (1994), Doctorow learned his artistic vocabulary in his undergraduate years at Kenyon College, then a bastion of the “new criticism.” He studied under the poet and critic John Crowe Ransom who advanced the theory that only the text is the proper focus of literary study. The author’s intent is of little value, Ransom argued.

Doctorow was born in 1931 in New York. He attended Bronx High School and was graduated from Kenyon College in 1952 with honors. Graduate study followed at Columbia University. His early career as an editor at Dial Press brought him into contact with some of the leading American writers of midcentury -- James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Vance Bourjaily, and Tom Berger.

He grew up in a family of second- generation Russian immigrant Jews that venerated books and music. His father, who owned a music store, had a prodigious knowledge of classical music and was often consulted by the leading artists of the day.

Informing much of Doctorow’s work is his concept of history in the context of the novel. He subordinates fact to invention, a recurring theme in his work over the past three decades. He subscribes to the absolute belief that the novelist’s imagination is autonomous, even primary.

For instance, Ragtime, a masterly chronicle of America inexorably moving towards the First World War, is embellished with unlikely "Doctorovian" occurrences. Secret meetings between Henry Ford and J. P. Morgan, Freud and Jung, appropriately enough, boating through the Tunnel of Love at Coney Island, and an encounter between Harry Houdini and the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the ill-fated heir to the Austrian throne, are all part of its fantastical landscape. These same qualities translated brilliantly to the lyric stage, and "Ragtime" the musical is a current Broadway hit.

“I have always been a writer who invents," Doctorow says, drawing a comparison with an artistic observation of Henry James. “I think books are something you make,” he adds. “I make books for people to live in…I lived in it by writing it. Now it’s the reader’s turn.”

Doctorow's contribution to American letters has been his ability to advance the narrative of a story freed from the traditional convention of plot. His works by consequence often take on the feel of music, not unusual since music was an emotional core of his growing up. Rhythms, cadences, and lyricism in his prose often carry the narrative forward as in verse. He likens this achievement to doing the circus high-wire act, without the lights, without the music, without the drum roll, and ultimately without the wire itself.

Doctorow argues that the purpose of fiction as an art transcends the vaunted objectivity of history. He is more concerned with the way a time feels, smells, sounds, the way people move and the way they speak. He studies paintings and photographs more than historical data. “We live in the past to an astonishing degree,” Doctorow says. “Nobody can look in the mirror and not see his mother and father.” It is to these people that E. L. Doctorow gives voice across the distance of time and memory.

--Richard Carter

Diana Eck and Religious Diversity

Diana Eck had been traveling to India to study its religions for more than twenty years. Yet, she never saw a Hindu temple consecration until one took place in Ashland, Massachusetts. The ceremony involved the waters of the Ganges River -- mingled with the waters of the Mississippi, the Colorado, and the Merrimack. For Eck, the ceremony demonstrates how religions once considered foreign and exotic are now part of American culture. As the creator of Harvard’s Pluralism Project, Eck is America’s foremost researcher and educator about America’s new religious diversity. She believes that Americans must learn and care about each other’s religion if our faiths are to coexist peacefully.

Eck, a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University, became interested in America’s new religious culture in the early 1990s. At that time, she noticed how she had more Asian students in her religion classes than ever before. Since the Immigration Act of 1965, which allowed Asian immigrants to enter the United States, Asians have been bringing their religions to America, so that now not only Harvard, but all of America has seen significant demographic changes culturally and religiously. Eck responded by creating the Pluralism Project, a study of the new religious diversity in the United States. She sent some eighty students across the country to document the new infusion of faiths and how those religions and their new country were changing each other.

The students returned with the records of the buildings and other religious resources in America’s major cities. Initial findings led to the publication of World Religions in Boston, A Guide to Communities and Resources (1994). Such findings helped the project achieve its first goal: documenting America’s new religious demography.

According to Eck, most Americans are unaware of how eastern religions have been changing the physical landscape around them. Hindu and Jain temples, Muslim mosques, Buddhist centers, and Sikh gurdwaras sit on once-empty backroads of every major U.S. city. The daughter of an architect, Eck says, “The visual transformation of America from sea to shining sea -- this to me is still an amazing thing.”

Unfortunately, not all Americans share Eck’s enthusiasm for the new religious buildings. Eck’s researchers documented numerous acts of violence upon eastern religious centers. For example, in 1993, vandals damaged a Cambodian Buddhist temple in Portland, Maine. They axed the doors and wrote threatening graffiti on the walls. “There are dozens of such incidents every year,” Eck writes.

Vandalism and violence require communities to do more than merely stress tolerance, Eck believes. Communities must move to an active pluralism, with neighbors becoming informed and interested in each other’s practices. One notable example occurred in April 1993, in Fremont, California. There, “Saint Paul’s United Methodist Church and the Islamic Society of the East Bay broke ground together for a new church and a new mosque, to be built side by side on the same property,” Eck writes.

Public education about world religions is the key to encouraging pluralism, according to Eck. To aid educators teaching religion, the Pluralism Project has created a CD-ROM called On Common Ground: World Religions in America (1997). The award-winning CD-ROM offers multimedia presentations about the fifteen major religious traditions in America. It can be used by students of many levels. Children can learn from the movies and sound clips, while advanced students will find important resources in the texts and maps.

Raised in Montana, Diana Eck received her B.A. from Smith College in 1967, her M.A. from the University of London in 1968, and her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1976, where she chairs the Committee on the Study of Religion in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In 1994 she became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is the author or editor of six books, including the award-winning Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras (1993). Later this year, Eck hopes to finish editing a documentary film for public television titled Becoming the Buddha in Los Angeles.

On a personal level, Eck’s study of the world’s religions has affected her spiritual life. She describes herself as a Christian pluralist, meaning that she is committed to her own tradition, while still open to learning about God from other religions. She sees no religion as superior. Eck recites the Lord’s Prayer with groups of Christians, and meditates with silent Buddhists. She hopes that other Americans will come to see the beauty in the faiths of their neighbors. “You can’t circle the wagons around God,” she says.

--Erik Youngberg

Nancye Brown Gaj, founder of Motheread

Nancye Brown Gaj remembers the first time she entered the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women. It was a cold January night in 1987, and she was accompanied by only one other volunteer. Gaj had never been behind the gates of a prison before, and hadn’t spent time with anyone who lived inside, let alone taught her to read.

“As we approached the prison, the volunteer said to me, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ I said, ‘I don’t know if I can either, but anyway, we’re doing it.’ So we went in. In a matter of minutes, we found a profound connection with these women. We realized that we did hope for the same things, had lost a lot of the same dreams, and held on to similar ones.”

That night, using Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, Gaj and her colleague began to teach inmates skills that would enable them to read not only to themselves, but to their children. For the next eight weeks, Gaj helped women who had rarely picked up a book begin to use classic and multicultural stories to reconnect with their children, and to tell or write their own stories that the kids could take home in remembrance of their visit. She did it using the most fundamental of teaching tools: a good story.

In this way, Nancye Gaj founded Motheread, a national, nonprofit organization devoted to teaching literacy skills to women and men across the country in community settings, prisons, and schools. Since that night in 1987, Motheread has expanded beyond everyone’s expectations. Last year, for instance, it taught nearly one thousand new readers and trained five hundred new instructors. In conjunction with federal, state, commercial affiliates, and partners around the country, Motheread provides training and technical assistance to educators and family service agencies -- as well as prisons -- in thirteen states and the Virgin Islands. Through its partnership with the North Carolina Humanities Council, Motheread teaches its curriculum in fifty-four of North Carolina’s one hundred counties. The organization is fast becoming known as Motheread/Fatheread because it is offering its group-centered instruction in men’s correctional institutions and community organizations as well.

It seems like an idea that anyone would support. What could be more salutary, or more useful, than to teach someone to read? Indeed, after two months, Gaj and Motheread were featured on CBS’s “Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt,” in a segment called “The Reading Room.”

Nevertheless, Gaj’s idea almost didn’t make it. When she presented her proposal to the North Carolina Department of Corrections, “they all thought it was a horrible idea,” says Gaj. Then they asked the opinion of one prison superintendent, who was, incidentally, the only woman in the group. “She took much longer to answer -- in fact, she took forever,” says Gaj. “Then she said it would absolutely appeal to the inmates because of their desire to be good parents. She said, ‘I think it would be perfect.’

“After this, we started with great fanfare -- the governor announced the program in a state speech. The proposal was written for a one-year pilot program. What we started with was very clinical, and ended up being transformational.”

Before founding Motheread, Gaj had been involved in adult literacy training for fifteen years, and was training literacy instructors for the North Carolina community college system. One of her tasks was to collect information on why adults participate in such programs. The reasons were remarkably consistent: most answered that they wanted to learn to read so that they could earn their high school diploma, read the Bible, and read to their children -- often in that order. Gaj realized that current programs were not taking those reasons into account. She believed that teachers had to begin with the traditions and skills of the particular student, to give the student a solid path to follow, like “stepping stones across a stream.”

“We start with children’s literature for a couple of reasons,” says Gaj. “A parent and child can read the entire piece together in one sitting, and the books are full of tremendous lessons that help them to be better parents.”

Gaj graduated magna cum laude from Duke University, and has a master’s degree in education from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. As Motheread continues to grow and send off new shoots, she finds she spends less time teaching people to read and more time teaching others to teach Motheread’s curriculum. But she always stays close to the story.

In her latest Motheread newsletter, Gaj included a photograph of the grandfather she barely knew but whose life, from a distance, affected her deeply. She wrote, “As we find ourselves searching for new ways to connect and find meaning, let’s be reminded that we are who we are because of those who came before us. The telling of our family and community stories is a fitting tribute to their memory and a reaffirmation of who we are.”

-- Robin Herbst

How Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has shaped the American curriculum

Literary and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., thrives on controversy. “I began my career fighting for what we call cultural pluralism,” he once said in a television interview. The battle that began in the English literature department at Cambridge University in England in the 1970s is clearly triumphing: In high schools and colleges across the nation Shakespeare is taught alongside Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright is required reading as well as Plato. Gates remembers when this wasn’t always the case.

“There was no African or African American studies at the University of Cambridge. I mean, I was told in no uncertain terms that I could write about Milton or Shakespeare, maybe even Pound and Eliot, who had just recently been introduced to the canon, but certainly not anything African or African American,” Gates said.

Gates now stands in the spotlight of African American culture and literary scholarship. He got there through research (uncovering the earliest African American novel Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson), an instinct for attention-getting topics (such as when he defended the First Amendment rights of the rap group 2 Live Crew), and a driving vision of what African American studies should become. Since coming to Harvard in 1991 to head its then-faltering African American studies program, he has brought together an academic “dream team” -- drawing upon some of the best minds in the world to work towards his vision.

“What we’re trying to do at Harvard is to create what I hope will be the greatest center of intellection concerning persons of African descent in the Old World and the New World,” he explained. Crucial to the strength of the discipline is acquiring a base of knowledge so each generation does not have to “reinvent the wheel.” To this end, Gates advised the NEH-funded Black Periodical Literature Project that has collected and annotated all the short stories, poems, and literary criticism that appeared in African American periodicals from 1827 until 1940. He also is working on the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which will detail information on twenty-five thousand voyages of the Middle Passage from 1650 through 1867. The first Norton Anthology of African American Literature, which he edited with Nellie McKay, was published in 1996.

But it has never been said that “Skip” Gates, as he is known, is stuck in the past. Although he understands the need for African American studies to be well grounded in history, he doesn’t shy away from analyzing contemporary racial subjects. In the introduction to his 1992 book Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars, Gates writes, “Ours is a late-twentieth-century world profoundly fissured by nationality, ethnicity, race, class, and gender. And the only way to transcend those divisions -- to forge, for once, a civic culture that respects both differences and commonalities -- is through education that seeks to comprehend the diversity of human culture.”

Gates’s trust in education was instilled in him by his parents and a community of adults who nourished the seed of brilliance they saw in young Skip. He grew up in the 1950s in the small mill town of Piedmont, West Virginia, which he wrote about in his 1994 book Colored People. Although he was urged to enter medicine (his brother did become a doctor), Skip’s destiny was transformed during the summer of the Watts riots when his minister gave him a copy of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. “I fell in love with James Baldwin’s use of language. I fell in love with the idea of being a writer,” Gates recalled.

A distinguished academic career followed. After graduating summa cum laude from Yale, Gates studied at Clare College, Cambridge University in England on a Mellon fellowship. It was there that he met his mentor Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian dramatist and Nobel Prize winner who sparked Gate’s interest in West African mythology. In 1979, Gates became the first black American to receive a Ph.D. from Cambridge University. He returned to Yale as assistant professor of English and director of the undergraduate program in Afro-American Studies.

Since then, Gates’s talents have been sought after. First lured from Yale to Cornell, and then to Duke, he was finally swept up by Harvard to become the W. E. B. DuBois Professor of the Humanities, chair of Afro-American Studies, and director of W. E. B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research.

Some of his top honors include receiving a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant at the age of thirty-three, and a George Polk Award for Social Commentary in 1993. His book The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism won the American Book Award in 1989. He ranked among Time magazine’s twenty-five most influential Americans of 1997.

Ultimately, Gates sees a link between academic and societal inclusion. “I rebel at the notion that I can’t be part of other groups,” he writes in his introduction to Colored People. “Bach and James Brown. Sushi and fried catfish.” Nathaniel Hawthorne and Toni Morrison. In an essay noting the twentieth anniversary of African American studies, Gates wrote, “If we have taken black studies for granted as a tool for integrating higher education, we may have only begun to glimpse its potential for integrating the American mind.”

-- Amy Lifson

Vartan Gregorian Fuels the Humanities

“Call me Vartan,” he laughingly insists when addressed as Dr. Gregorian, “‘doctor’ is for dentists!” The man who salvaged the New York Public Library brings a lifetime of intellectual excellence, proven administrative savvy, and, perhaps most of all, a rigorous and joyful respect for humanity to his new venture as president of the Carnegie Corporation.

Friends and colleagues marvel at his enthusiastic love of people and tireless zest for genuine conversation, his informed optimism and complete lack of cynicism. Philanthropist and publisher Walter Annenberg describes him as “easily the most unique individual I have ever known.”

Gregorian’s childhood in Tabriz, Iran, set him on an early path toward learning and teaching and working with others. He was raised by his maternal grandmother, who had a tremendous influence on him. “She had no formal education, but immensely valued it,” he recalls. He frequently quotes from her store of folk wisdom at high-level meetings. With her guidance, Gregorian’s first significant foray into academia came at the tender age of ten when he took a job as a page at the local Armenian library. Going on to complete his secondary education in Beirut, he won a scholarship for study abroad and came to the U.S. in 1956 to attend Stanford University as a history major. There he became an admired activist among international students, winning an award as the student who had contributed the most to international understanding.

After graduating cum laude with a B.A. in history and humanities, he launched headlong into a teaching career that began at Stanford (where he later received his Ph.D.) and progressed on to San Francisco State College, the University of Texas, and the University of Pennsylvania, where he eventually served as dean of the faculty of arts and sciences and then provost and chief academic officer.

In 1984, his life and work took a dramatic shift when he rose to the challenge of leading the then failing New York Public Library. Under his presidency, the library rose from its deathbed to a restored intellectual, cultural, and financial vigor. Gregorian rallied the city’s elite. “We will raise funds everywhere and what we will negotiate is the amount. . .,” he asserted at his debut press conference.

The city’s fiscal crisis in the 1970s had taken a great toll on the library. Library hours and services had been cut drastically and physical repairs postponed. Gregorian’s energy and enthusiasm helped draw influential civic leaders and philanthropists to the library’s rescue. After only three years, the number of donors rose to a record forty thousand, with total contributions of $34 million. Grants and contributions from NEH and other sources enabled Gregorian to undertake the most visible of reforms -- a $45 million restoration of the grand main library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.

By the time he left the New York Public Library in 1989, he had raised $270 million toward a $370 million fund-raising campaign and had persuaded Mayor Edward Koch to restore half of the library’s funds that had previously been eliminated from the city’s budget.

To honor his departure, writer Calvin Trillin wrote a poem that was read at a farewell dinner. It included this verse:

Although it wasn’t always pretty,
He noodged the state, he noodged the city.
Foundations felt their assets fall
The moment that they took his call.
Evangelistic, bold and brash,
He generated more than cash.

In 1989, Gregorian returned to university life as president of Brown University. He played a vital role in the school’s progress toward greater academic excellence, racial diversity, national prominence, and, as a fund-raiser once again, fiscal stability.

For Gregorian, the role of university president gave him what he enjoyed perhaps most of all -- access to students. Through his lecture series, he brought dozens of internationally acclaimed scholars, writers, and artists to the campus, usually introducing them as “my good friend.” Students were drawn to and stimulated by his personality and intellect. “The dinner with Gregorian was the most popular event of freshman orientation,” says one student.

He spent considerable energy speaking on behalf of public universities and testifying to various government officials on issues of education and free speech. During his tenure, the university gained seventy-two endowed professorships, attracted 265 new faculty members, and created eleven new departments.

As for fund raising, Gregorian’s work was unparalleled. He successfully completed Brown’s five-year, $450 million campaign six months early, and then announced a six-month extension to fund further priorities. The campaign closed at $534 million -- 118 percent of the goal.

Now at the Carnegie Corporation, Gregorian finds himself on the other end of the fund-raising challenge -- giving money away rather than seeking it. “Giving is most definitely better than receiving,” he asserts. “Since coming to Carnegie, I’m beginning to understand St. Francis of Assisi’s dictum that it is in giving that we receive.” With grants totaling $59 million annually, and more than $1.3 billion in assets, the foundation concentrates on social issues, child development, education, and world peace.

And so it comes as no surprise that when the New York Times Book Review asked what character in literature he would most like to be, Gregorian instantly replied, “Candide. His deep concern for humanity. His critical rationalism. His healthy skepticism. His realistic optimism.”

-- Susan Graceson

The work of Ramón Eduardo Ruiz

Ramón Eduardo Ruiz, professor emeritus of history at the University of California, San Diego, has spent all of his seventy-seven years living "within hailing distance of the Mexican border, at one time or another calling Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California home."

"You could call me a Mexicanist," Ruiz says. He was born to Mexican parents, living and working in the U.S., but who never became U.S. citizens because they "were very proud of their heritage and instilled this pride in their children." As a historian and scholar of Mexico and Latin America, Ruiz may indeed have been born to his work. Ruiz said his birthplace and experiences inspired him to concentrate his studies on the Mexican border. The border is described in his latest book, On the Rim of Mexico, Where the Rich and Poor Rendezvous, “as one of the longest international boundaries in the world, setting apart two entirely different countries for more than two thousand miles. Nowhere else does a poor, third world country like Mexico share a common border with a wealthy, powerful neighbor.

"The Mexican border," he writes, "brings back memories of my youth and forebears. My mother, her father and mother, and her grandparents, as well as patriarchs before them, were born and matured on the outskirts of Parral, a mining town in the border province of Chihuahua that dates from the early seventeenth century. . . . My mother and two of her sisters were the exceptions; they married, migrated north, and then succumbed on this side of the border."

Ruiz was born September 9, 1921, just a few miles from San Diego where his father worked for the legendary landowner Kate Sessions, one of the pioneers in the development of San Diego. Sessions was an expert on plants and horticulture, and Ruiz's father, Ramón, worked for her, learning the business and then opening his own nursery. His mother, Delores Urueta, worked alongside his father in their own nursery.

"My mother was intent on reminding us of our heritage and we always spoke Spanish at home, even though we all also spoke English," he said.

As the author of fifteen books and numerous articles about Mexico and Latin America, Ruiz’s work is used as standard reference for Hispanic scholars. In addition, he has avidly studied Cuba and, in 1968, his book, Cuba: The Making of a Revolution, was named one of the twenty-one best history books that year by the Washington Post Book World.

His 1980 book on the Mexican Revolution broke new scholarly ground and further enhanced Ruiz’s standing as a historian. The Great Rebellion: Mexico, 1905-1924 disagreed with the view that the revolution was a social change that freed an oppressed people from foreign bosses and military dictatorships and established popular rule and economic justice for workers. Instead, Ruiz wrote, the revolution was "essentially a face-lifting of Mexican capitalism" and "one of the last bourgeois protests of the nineteenth century, and not the precursor of the socialist explosions of the twentieth century." Writing in the New Republic, reviewer John Womack, Jr., called Ruiz's book "the first major statement by an eminent American historian of Mexico that the real revolution was not a triumph of the people at large, but a long, violent, specifically bourgeois reform which crushed other popular uprisings for the sake of better business."

In On the Rim of Mexico, Ruiz has entwined the richness of his own family and remembrances with extensive research, travel, and interviews with the people who live on both sides of the border.

The book transcends the topical issues of the border, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and lurid accounts of Mexican drug lords, killings, and political corruption. Instead, it addresses the economics and personal identity of those who live and die next door to Uncle Sam. "A huge majority of Mexicans depend for their livelihood, either directly or indirectly, on the United States, but just the same, American border cities would slumber were it not for cheap labor and customers hungry for American goods. The exchange of goods and services underlies the dynamics of border economics," Ruiz argues.

Ruiz graduated from San Diego State College (now university), received his masters degree from Claremont Graduate School, and his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. He served in the Pacific as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II.

Beginning his teaching career in 1955 at the University of Oregon at Eugene, Ruiz has also taught at Southern Methodist University and Smith College. In 1970, he joined the University of California and in 1991 became professor emeritus. There he has worked to build a strong Hispanic studies program. Ruiz has held visiting professorships at numerous colleges and universities in the United States and Mexico. A civic and community activist, he was one of the early protestors of the Vietnam War and supported the late Chicano leader, Cesar Chavez, in his efforts improve the lives and welfare of migrant farm workers.

-- Charmayne Marsh

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s Journey

History, it seems, is not only in the facts, but also in the genes. Or so Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., laughingly conceded recently. “I grew up in a household that was saturated with history. Not only my father, but also my mother was a historian. Her maiden name was Bancroft and she was related to George Bancroft, a great American historian of the nineteenth century.” Schlesinger carried on the family tradition, becoming a published historian at the tender age of twenty-two. That’s when his Harvard senior thesis became his first book, Orestes Brownson: A Pilgrim’s Progress. He has been carrying on the family tradition ever since.

Schlesinger is the author of sixteen books published over the six decades since Orestes Brownson appeared in 1939. That book was followed by The Age of Jackson in 1945, a celebrated history that challenged the way the Jacksonian era was previously interpreted by historians. Schlesinger argued that Jacksonian democracy was a dramatic change for the better because it introduced the idea that individuals should be protected from business interests by a strong central government. The Age of Jackson was a best-seller and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, landing Schlesinger an appointment as an associate professor at Harvard despite the fact that he had never earned a Ph.D.

While teaching at Harvard during the forties and fifties, Schlesinger continued to produce important works of history, including three volumes in a series on the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. He was also active in national Democratic Party politics during those years, taking leaves from Harvard to advise Democratic presidential candidates in 1952, 1956, and 1960. This political participation earned him in an appointment as a special advisor to President John F. Kennedy, an opportunity for which Schlesinger resigned his Harvard professorship. His account of his years in the White House resulted in perhaps his best-known book, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, which again brought Schlesinger a Pulitzer Prize.

Throughout his career as a historian, Schlesinger has been committed to the idea that Americans need to understand their history in order to ensure the continued success of the American experiment. “History is to the nation much as memory is to the individual,” Schlesinger says. “The individual who loses his memory doesn’t know where he came from or where he’s going and he becomes dislocated and disoriented. Similarly, a nation that forgets its history is disabled in dealing with the present and the future.” In his most recent book, The Disuniting of America, Schlesinger argues that Americans must focus on what brings them together. He warns against the “cult of ethnicity,” which has the potential to tear the nation apart, much as it has in other troubled regions of the world. “What holds us together is a common commitment to the processes laid down in the Constitution,” he says. “Part of the wisdom of the Constitution is its promise of equal rights for everybody; so even those people who are denied their full constitutional rights are provided with the means by which they can claim those rights.”

After his years in the Kennedy White House, Schlesinger became the Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities at the City University of New York. He taught in New York for the next three decades, retiring two years ago. He hopes to return to his series of books on FDR, picking up where he left off when the third volume appeared in 1960. “I only got up through 1936, the end of FDR’s first term,” Schlesinger points out. “I’ve got a good ways to go.”

Writing about Roosevelt’s additional three terms should manage to keep Schlesinger busy. Hopefully, it will also make him feel content with his contribution to our understanding of twentieth-century American political history. “I feel that I should have accomplished much more in these eighty years than I’ve done, there are more books I should have written,” Schlesinger notes ruefully. “The working title of my memoirs is Unfinished Business,” Schlesinger continues, with a laugh. At the age of eighty-one, Schlesinger has finally been persuaded to write his memoirs, a process he considers “a lot of fun.” “I only hope it’s as fascinating to other people as it is to me,” he says.

Though Schlesinger is characteristically self-deprecating about his career, historian Alan Brinkley wrote that Arthur Schlesinger is one of the most important voices in the historical profession, “not simply because he possesses a literary grace that few American scholars can match,” but also because “he is willing to argue that the search for an understanding of the past is not simply an aesthetic exercise but a path to the understanding of our own time.”

-- Sara E. Wilson

Garry Wills’s Eye on History

In countless articles, essays and books, Garry Wills has shared his knowledge and insight on politics, history, religion, and theater. But if you ask him, Wills, a prodigious writer and voracious reader, will tell you that most of his work has been about one thing -- performance.

“Performance in all its forms has fascinated me from early on,” says Wills. “Performance is a continuum that includes movies, theater, opera, rhetoric.” He adds, “Words and performances describe ourselves and our world.” If we understand how people interpret their world, then we can better explain their actions.

His writing has taken him from Abraham Lincoln to Richard Nixon, from Aeschylus to Shakespeare, and from St. Augustine to the Vietnam War. In his most recent book, John Wayne’s America: The Culture of Celebrity (1997), Wills examines how performance -- in the form of Western movies -- helps Americans describe themselves. Answering the question of why John Wayne remains one of the country’s most popular actors, Wills argues that Wayne is the embodiment of two contradictory American myths: Manifest Destiny and the frontier.

Manifest Destiny is a myth about expanding the nation for the greater good, Wills explains, while the frontier holds the myth about the individual’s autonomy and independence. In the hands of director John Ford (who made more than a dozen Wayne Westerns) Wayne presented both. “Wayne seems cocky and independent, but he’s always serving the troops, the community or the cause,” Wills says. Americans want to see themselves as this perfect blend of the rugged individual and active member of society.

Why write about John Wayne? Because Wills himself is a huge fan. He has seen every Wayne Western, and has even gone through the John Ford archives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There, one can view some of Ford’s early silent Westerns from Germany and Czechoslovakia.

In his 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Lincoln at Gettysburg, Wills examines a performance that changed the course of our nation’s history. He notes that Lincoln’s famous address was not spontaneous but carefully worded and thought out. Lincoln’s 272 words struck a nerve, while the two-hour speech by orator Edward Everett is forgotten. Through that address, “Lincoln changed the way we conceive of ourselves,” says Wills.

Schooled by Jesuits, first as a seminarian studying philosophy at St. Louis University (where he received his B.A. in 1957) and then at Xavier University in Cincinnati (where he took an M.A. in philosophy in 1958), Wills studied both rhetoric and the kind of analysis that infuses all his work. His Jesuit education was capped with a second M.A. and a Ph.D. in classics from Yale University.

To this day, his education never stops. Wills reads constantly -- on planes, walking down the street.

His house in Evanston, Illinois, where he lives with his wife Natalie, is filled with books. We all wish we could say that we have read every book in our shelves. Wills can say that, and he has more shelves than most of us.

At the first landing are American novelists and poets. In the second- floor hall are Greek literature and philosophy. A converted second- floor bedroom, in which he writes, is devoted to English literature. Another second-floor room contains American political thought and Latin literature. In the third-floor hall are books on economics and religion, including four shelves on St. Augustine.

Wills begins each day at 7 a.m. by writing for several hours in longhand. He has plenty of writing deadlines to fill each morning: journalistic assignments for Time, New York Review of Books, Atlantic, and Vanity Fair; a semiweekly syndicated newspaper column; academic essays and lectures; and, of course, books.

Afternoons are spent interviewing subjects for stories and haunting libraries and bookstores. He also continues to teach one course a year at Northwestern University, often on a topic destined to fill his next book. Much of the rest of the time he reads -- newspapers, periodicals and countless books. He takes few notes in his research, relying primarily on his memory.

A performance passion of another kind fills many of his evenings -- listening to and attending the opera. He recalls the enthusiasm with which he listened to the Texaco Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts when he was in high school. Wills believes that the layered complexity of opera first showed him how many layers of expression are possible through performance beyond mere words.