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Editor’s Note

By David Skinner | HUMANITIES, Summer 2017 | Volume 38, Number 3

One of my favorite types of stories is about how an apprentice becomes a master. It’s usually a tale of pure reversal—from ignorance to knowledge, from struggle to success. “Who were you before you wrote Goodbye, Columbus?” I asked Philip Roth years ago as he received a National Humanities Medal. “I was nobody,” he said.

Henry David Thoreau was nobody as well, a Harvard graduate, a friend of the well-known Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a budding littérateur, but certainly not a name. In an excerpt from Laura Dassow Walls’s brand-new, already-touted NEH-funded biography, we encounter Thoreau as it begins to dawn on him that, yes, he could make money by selling articles about literary figures, but the words of his that were drawing the most attention were his observations as a committed student of nature and life. 

Jack Benny was another kind of artist. A master of the self-deprecating aside, he played the violin and became a successful vaudeville performer. Then, as Kathryn Fuller-Seeley tells us, he tried his hand at radio, where he encountered a major problem. Benny could write jokes all right, but not nearly as many as he needed to fill out two half-hour slots week after week. Two weeks in, he was already running out of material. So he needed help. But he also needed to reimagine the comedy format from the ground up. In doing so, he helped change American entertainment forever.

The United States was going through its own transition one hundred years ago as the war in Europe bled onward, locking England and France in a protracted struggle with Germany and its allies. Two stories in this issue look back to the American entry into World War I, finding an incredible record of social and political change wrought by Woodrow Wilson’s belated decision to have America join the fight. Meredith Hindley discusses a new Library of America volume, edited by A. Scott Berg, collecting a variety of contemporaneous writings on this underestimated war. NEH has supported the volume along with public programming around the country to help people engage with this fascinating history. And in Connecticut people are coming together to share personal connections to the Great War through family diaries and other artifacts. Tom Christopher recounts some of their amazing finds.

The other half of the typical rise-to-fame story is an equally precipitous fall from grace, like the one recounted in Danny Heitman’s essay on Truman Capote, whose fame and notoriety seem to be all of a piece these days. As writers and editors debate issues of evidence and accuracy in quality nonfiction, the liberties Capote took in In Cold Blood seem especially relevant. But his life and work also offer a timely cautionary tale on the price of celebrity as the transactional currency of our age.