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Ednote

Editor’s Note

By David Skinner | HUMANITIES, Spring 2018 | Volume 39, Number 2

Two hundred years ago, Frederick Douglass was born into slavery. Around the age of 20, he escaped from Baltimore and set himself free. He became a professional abolitionist, bearing eloquent witness to the horrors of slavery even as he reconciled himself to the nation whose laws had made his bondage possible. He wrote memoirs, orations, and even historical fiction, as scholar Robert S. Levine explains in this issue. No mere literary one-off, Douglass’s novella The Heroic Slave, based on actual events, gave dramatic form to his belief that violence committed in the defense of one’s freedom was right and just.

Mikhail Gorbachev, too, embraced freedom as the path forward, rejecting the secrecy and corruption of Soviet communism. Russia then lurched toward democratic reform while lacking the cultural foundation to support this bold new direction. NEH-supported biographer William Taubman talks with Humanities magazine about interviewing Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, and writing the history of his extraordinary career.

American writer Kay Boyle also took the side of freedom. She wrote about the French Resistance, and worked to bring fiction out of occupied Germany, but her life was not dedicated to any single proposition. Instead, it was a many-splendored thing, trailing famous literary names, lovers, husbands, a large gaggle of children, and a great cache of correspondence as she made her way from Paris in the twenties, through the heart of war-torn Europe, and back to the United States. Sandra Spanier writes of the epic journey that was the biography of this poet, novelist, and short-story writer.

Joseph Horowitz has dedicated his life to the beauty and history of classical music. The author, critic, pianist, and music programmer took me on a ride-along through four days of Music Unwound, his NEH-supported program to bring the humanities into the concert hall. I got to watch and listen as Horowitz and the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra immersed audiences in the history of classical music and the search for American roots. 

In January, Bruce Cole, former chairman of NEH, passed away. A celebrated cultural leader, he showed it was possible for a small government agency to dream big and have a large impact on the nation it serves. In this issue we also take note of one of Bruce’s signature achievements at NEH: a grantmaking office devoted to the digital humanities, known locally as ODH, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary.

*Updated on May 8, 2018, to indicate that Frederick Douglass escaped from Baltimore, not a plantation, before making his way to New York.