Storyteller, Editor, Chairman

An interview with Jon Parrish Peede, NEH's new chairman

HUMANITIES, Summer 2018, Volume 39, Number 3

Nominated by President Donald J. Trump, Jon Parrish Peede was sworn in as the eleventh chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities on May 3, 2018. Peede (pronounced PEE-dee) has worked in university and magazine publishing and at the National Endowment for the Arts, where, under former Chairman Dana Gioia, he servedin numerous positions, including director of literature and counselor to the chairman. After leaving NEA, he became the publisher of VQR, the distinguished literary magazine published at the University of Virginia. Southern-born and -educated, he lives on 20 acres on Short Hill Mountain, in northern Virginia, with his wife and daughter and where he spent the better part of a day talking with Humanities magazine.

HUMANITIES: Let’s start with your childhood. Where did you grow up? And when you look back, what stands out?

JON PARRISH PEEDE: When I was born in 1969, there were a few thousand people in Brandon, Mississippi, a town a dozen or so miles outside of the state capital. By the time I went off to college, maybe 10,000 people. It was small-town life at the end of small-town America, before so many global brands became a part of everyday life.

My father was one of three town doctors, and my mother was director of medical records at the hospital, so we knew everybody in town. You knew the person who owned the gas station and the person who pumped gas. My graduating class had probably thirty or so students. I was one of four sons born in about five and a half years. We had a loud, rambunctious home. We always had friends over. It wouldn’t be strange to have eight or ten teenage boys in the house on a weekend. A couple of them would sleep over. Endless gallons of milk and cartons of eggs to feed all these energetic youth—and my mother’s equally endless love.

Both of my parents were the first generation of their families to go to college. They believed in hard work. In addition to being a doctor and surgeon, my father owned 170 wooded acres under development. Around the age of twelve or so, I started to spend weekends with my brothers clearing land. We had swing blades for the weeds and hoes for the snakes and an unreliable tractor for bush-hogging and diesel to burn the downed trees.

At school, I played varsity football and ran track. I would write poetry at night. I fell in love with drawing and then writing and books. My passion for the outdoors informed my high school reading: Dickinson, Steinbeck, Wendell Berry, Sand County Almanac, Muir, James Agee, Teddy Roosevelt.

I thought I would be a doctor. I even worked in a surgery ward.

HUMANITIES: How old were you when you worked in a surgery ward?

PEEDE: I was seventeen years of age. It was a summer job, and I worked as an orderly with the nurses who delivered me. A nurse said to me, “I was the first person to see your naked body,” but now she was my supervisor. I was the only male among these remarkable middle-aged women, who told stories about their husbands and ex-husbands and the paths of their lives. It wasn’t uncommon for one of them to inject another with a shot of insulin in the hip, mid-story. I was treated like one of the gang.

After surgeries, I would clean the instruments—working loose tiny bits of flesh with a wire brush—and put them in the autoclave to be sterilized. And then I would count out the next set of instruments.

One of the first surgeries I saw was a hip replacement. I remember being stunned by the sheer physicalness of it—the brute force to get the stainless steel ball into the exhausted socket of bone.

I went to college at Vanderbilt the next year, pre-med. I worked in a nephrology lab and then as an orderly at a VA hospital. For weeks I cleaned the body waste from a veteran dying of AIDS. We had to wear full protective gear. We had to tape over our cuts, even hangnails, before gloving up, before entering his room to gather the soiled sheets and take them out in biohazard bags. Storytelling put this vet at ease as we performed our tasks. Ultimately he was moved to the psych ward and died there.

Another summer, I worked in Florida in one of my uncle’s funeral homes in the embalming room. After cleaning nicotine-stained fingernails of the dead with lemon juice, I knew that whatever vices I developed in life, I would not be a smoker.

In the end, I was a poor science student. What I loved was literature. In my senior year of college, I abandoned chemistry and biology, and switched to English. Zora Neale Hurston called research ”formalized curiosity.” I only kept a single ingredient from my time in hospitals and medical labs: my curiosity.

Thirty years later, I am asked as NEH chairman if I will fund experiential learning. I am asked if I look favorably upon the medical humanities. I answer yes because of the academic research in support of it. But the truth is deeper, and it resides in such rooms of my youth.

HUMANITIES: It seems like medicine and a sense of place are linked for you.

PEEDE: Indeed. When I was in my first job after college as a university press editor, my father died of a heart attack at fifty-eight—with a patient’s medical chart in his hand. We eventually moved all his medical charts—15,000 of them in a town of 10,000—into a warehouse: It was a library of a type.

Yes, graduate school taught me history. But, in truth, I came to the terrain of history among the records of all the living and the dead of an entire town across generations. Each of their stories was recorded in my father’s crisp handwritten notes—every infant born to an unwed mother, every young man that my father medically cleared to go off to Vietnam, every quiet alcoholic, every grandmother fighting a private battle, every triumph over tumor, car wreck, chainsaw, weapon. Everything, everyone, every town has a history. And, in my town, my father wrote it, especially catastrophes, even as we lived them.

So, when I was asked by Senate staffers why I wanted this job, I told them, in my long-winded way, that I burned for it. I told them I burned for the humanities, burned for it in whatever capacity and for however long I would be blessed to serve.

HUMANITIES: What does it mean to you to be a Southerner?

PEEDE: Well, I am not just a Southerner. I am a Mississippian. And being a Mississippian, I would see Eudora Welty at a local Greek restaurant, Crechale’s. It was no big deal back then. That’s just our local wonderful writer, but she transformed American literature and world literature. We’d visit with Willie Morris, the former editor of Harper’s Magazine, who helped bring about the start of New Journalism. We’d see Shelby Foote. In 1976, I saw the last concert Elvis ever gave in his home state of Mississippi. I repeatedly saw people from my state who played a transformative role on the world stage.

Once I left Mississippi, I came to understand that our story also included Margaret Walker Alexander, Alice Walker, and, of course, Richard Wright. Some of those writers I had read in high school, and I read a lot on my own too, but at Vanderbilt, I awakened to a deeper, more complex understanding of the South.

HUMANITIES: Tell me about a book that is important in your life.

PEEDE: All the King’s Men, for any number of reasons. I went to Vanderbilt like my father, and Robert Penn Warren had been a student there. I studied under New Critic professors who knew “Red” Warren, and I attended his memorial service on campus.

My relationship with that iconic novel began as a reader, but I’m very much a collector as well. Over the last 25 years, I have collected international editions, letters from Warren, movie stills, film posters from China and France, multiple Russian versions of the novel, German editions, and Mexican movie posters.

I like to study what is emphasized about the story of this book. Why in Germany does All the King’s Men translate to “Der Gouverneur”? Why are the Mexican versions of the film called “Deception”? What’s behind that? Why did the Russians decide to do an abstract typographical book cover twice versus putting women on the cover or the reporter or Willie Stark, the governor?

These editions help me understand how publishing worked in different countries in different decades. Each new cover is a publisher’s idea of how to connect with an audience, whether the book is being sold in a drugstore or to an academic audience.

Above all, I care about All the King’s Men as a work of literature. Robert Penn Warren was a brilliant prose stylist. But the book also became for me a way to interpret twentieth-century literature and the marketing of literature internationally.

photograph of various editions of All the King's Men
Photo caption

A fraction of Chairman Peede’s collection of All the King’s Men editions.

Vincent Ricardel

black and white film still of two men talking, a third man watches the conversation
Photo caption

A still from All the King’s Men, the 1949 American film version, starring John Ireland (in the foreground, wearing a jacket) as reporter Jack Burden.


HUMANITIES: Its subject is Louisiana politics. Did it shape your view of politics?

PEEDE: It deepened my understanding of politics. Some of it is interesting biographically as a fictionalization of Huey Long and the rise of fascism in Europe between the wars. When the reporter, Jack Burden, who works with the governor, observes conduct that repels him, he goes to California. Like Robert Penn Warren, who went to Berkeley to escape the South and the “awful responsibility of Time.”

But Warren—and his character—found out that the American WASP settlement pattern doesn’t work for the white male Southerner. You can’t escape your history. And that is where Faulkner and Warren come together, this idea that in the South the past is never dead.

I hope that when I look back on my full career, as a book editor, as a magazine publisher, and as a grantmaker at the NEA and NEH, I will see that I have helped support those who are trying to tell a more complete story of this region, and that by telling this region’s story better they help tell the nation’s story better.

HUMANITIES: What did you study at Vanderbilt?

PEEDE: I studied in the sciences. The university actually awarded me a Bachelor of Science in English, as opposed to a Bachelor of Arts in English, because I had studied in nearly every science discipline. (And I was defeated by each one, too.)

Classical studies I loved. One of my great regrets is that I don’t have a minor in classical studies because I studied only Latin, and Vanderbilt required both Greek and Latin for a minor. But Greek civ and Roman civ both meant a great deal to me.

Literature, an American history seminar on diplomacy and twentieth-century wars, the history of philosophy: These classes spoke to me. If I could do it again, I would have taken more classes in art history, music, and film.

photograph of a man in front of a black wall advertising the vietnam war documentary
Photo caption

Then Acting Chairman Jon Parrish Peede backstage at the Kennedy Center for an event celebrating the broadcast of Ken Burns’s NEH-supported documentary The Vietnam War.

Photo by Matt Ciepielowski

HUMANITIES: What did you study in graduate school?

PEEDE: Bill Ferris, who a few years later would be named chairman of NEH under President Clinton, offered me a fellowship to return home, to the University of Mississippi, where he had started the Southern studies program. He remains a mentor.

That master’s program is the Southern version of American studies. You had to take history of the South with the PhD students in history, classes on Faulkner with the English graduate students, so forth. It required you to be in multiple graduate departments.

I tended to write straightforward literary essays. On the side, I worked on the staffs of a number of publications, including the Mississippi Folklore Register under Tom Rankin, who later ran the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. I also gained an unexpected fondness for folk art, especially outsider religious artists such as Howard Finster.

Thankfully, we were not encouraged to overspecialize. Southern studies graduates became book editors, curators. Others worked in national parks or as interpretative historians at historic houses and state museums. It created this fascinating group, rich in intellectual diversity. I was the most traditional, probably, in that I stayed in literary criticism, and then began my career at a university press.

HUMANITIES: Do you think specialization is a problem among people with advanced degrees in the humanities?

PEEDE: To be in front of a classroom at the university level, you need to be an expert in a topic, absolutely. You can be an expert through teaching or through publication, but you should be an expert on a worthy topic.

Having said that, we should not get so narrow in our interests that we are no longer focused on conveying knowledge in general. In my own field of literary criticism, I worry that we have spent so much energy dissecting the body that we have failed to tell people how much we love it.

As everyday people, we do not read to unpack metaphors, but because we love to read, because it deepens our understanding of the world. It creates empathy in us, and enables us to go about our lives as more informed citizens. I wish that we would take our finest professors and move them into introductory classes. I wish that we would spend more time talking about how we came to love these works, as opposed to chasing buried messages between sentences.

magazine cover of an older woman sitting in a chair
Photo caption

Eudora Welty on the cover of the Spring-Summer 1999 issue of Millsaps Magazine, whose founding editor was Jon Parrish Peede, then director of publications at Millsaps College.

Cover photo by Hubert Worley

HUMANITIES: How did you come to work for Dana Gioia, former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts?

PEEDE: When I finished graduate school, Bill Ferris recommended me to Mercer University Press for a book editor job. I was about 25, and I became their editor for Southern literature, Southern history, creative writing, Civil War, civil rights.

I was the junior person at the press, and one day they asked me to go to the airport to pick up the visiting writer, Dana Gioia. We became fast friends. We stayed in touch for about a decade. We would exchange our poetry by letter. His poems would later be published in the New Yorker. Mine are unpublished to this day, and that’s a good thing for the reading public. We had a thorough correspondence, which continues today.

When President George W. Bush nominated him to be chairman of the NEA, Gioia recommended me as an appointee. At the time I was director of communications at Millsaps College, and Dana asked me to become counselor to the chairman. So I did. Later, I directed NEA grants for writers, translators, and literary organizations. I remained at the arts endowment for eight and a half years, including two and a half under the Obama administration.

HUMANITIES: What was Operation Homecoming and what was your role in it?

PEEDE: I learned from Operation Homecoming something I want to stress at NEH: Never limit yourself in your vision of what something can become. Fund the project, make the effort, for you have no idea what is possible.

In 2003, Chairman Gioia was at the convening of the 50 state poet laureates, and I was there staffing him. And it was getting late, near midnight, and he was talking to Marilyn Nelson. She’s the daughter of a Tuskegee airman, and she’s a pacifist. And she had been teaching poetry and meditation at West Point, and now her cadets were going off to war in Afghanistan and soon Iraq.

Marilyn had been in college during the Vietnam War, and she thought about how her classmates were treated when they came back. And she said, I don’t want these young men and women I’ve just taught at West Point to experience anything like that.

And so she asked, What can we do to help the troops? And Dana said, We can get other poets like you to come to bases and talk about writing and the history of writing, and we’ll ask Richard Wilbur and other World War II vets to record remembrances. We thought we would do this for some months while our troops were deployed.

Instead, I spent the next seven years of my life running a project that involved 60-something faculty members. We ran therapeutic writing workshops in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Bahrain, and on ships in the Persian Gulf. Thirty domestic bases. We taught at Walter Reed Hospital and at another hospital in Bagram, Afghanistan.

It led to a book, Operation Homecoming, which collects the most notable writing out of the ten thousand pages that troops and military families submitted about their wartime experiences. More than a hundred troops are in that book, which is edited by historian Andrew Carroll.

There was a documentary made about the NEA project, which was a finalist for the Oscar for Best Documentary. Operation Homecoming transformed the lives of many of those troops. All this grew out of a conversation between two poets in a bar, asking, What if?, What if?

Everyone parked their politics. A number of faculty members, such as Tobias Wolff, who served in Vietnam, did not agree with President Bush about that war, but they did firmly agree that, as veterans, they wanted to help these troops get through what they were experiencing.

black and white photograph of a man speaking, gesturing with his hands
Photo caption

Chairman Peede, as loquacious as ever, photographed by Vincent Ricardel.

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Vincent Ricardel

HUMANITIES: What are some of the things that you’ve noticed about your predecessors as chairmen, and how are you different?

PEEDE: The first major difference is generational. I am the only chairman born after the Truman administration. The Internet has existed my entire professional career. So, for example, the digital humanities are just the humanities to me. I am most likely the transition leader into a truly twenty-first-century agency.

Also, I had been a federal grantmaker for nearly ten years before my chairmanship. I led NEH for some eight or nine months before being nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

A more interesting difference is that most of the chairmen were scholars. I am an editor. I have taught college and published about a hundred works and have edited my own two books, but I have spent most of my career promoting other people’s work. In the five years before coming to NEH, I edited at least seven Pulitzer Prize winners and edited interviews with two Nobel laureates. But I also love discovering new talent.

An editor asks different questions than a scholar might, like, Who’s the audience? and, How do we shape this narrative for the widest audience?

It’s mostly an invisible collaboration between an editor and a writer—which is also true about the grantmaker and the grantee. A grantmaker, like an editor, is expressing a point of view through what he or she recommends for funding.

When I was a young book editor, and I would receive a hundred manuscripts, and I could only publish ten a year, I would decide I want this new voice on Faulkner. Or I want this Carson McCullers or Zora Neale Hurston study out in the world. I feel like we need to hear this voice.

An editor is curating, not merely editing a book, but curating a list. And if you’re privileged to do it well at a place with reach, then you can start to shape the field.

My approach at NEH is not so different. I realized within months the absolute need to bring back infrastructure grants. Now, if I’d only considered my own perspective, the infrastructure grants would merely support bricks and mortar. But talking to the directors at the agency, and field leaders on the outside, we came up with a much more expansive idea of infrastructure and capacity-building.

At an art museum, it can mean a project to share collections. In digital humanities, infrastructure might involve migrating data to a digital platform with meta-tagging and so on. This is an editor’s approach in that you bring a vision forward, and then look for the right authors—or, if you are a grantmaker, the right organizations—to work with you and expand that vision.

HUMANITIES: Is there an intellectual or cultural argument you’re hoping to make as chairman of NEH?

PEEDE: The cultural argument I want to make is that the humanities are most relevant when they are in the public sphere. If the humanities are to live only within the campus walls, then that’s an impoverished humanities, and not very democratic.

We should pursue research on esoteric projects, but, at the same time, we should have documentary films that are on PBS, and we should fund museum exhibitions that school-age kids can be enriched by.

Access is really important to me. Coming from a rural state, I cannot overemphasize how important it is to allow people, especially students, to have the arts and the humanities in their lives. And there should be no economic barriers to this.

My great worry is that without the humanities endowment, without national organizations committed to funding this work, culture would reside exclusively in massive institutions in a few wealthy coastal cities. That is not a sufficient vision of American culture.

HUMANITIES: At NEH, I’ve seen you go out of your way to defend the point of view of smaller communities. You’re rather sensitive about what most people call diversity concerns.

PEEDE: I don’t want people left out, so I often frame that in words such as “inclusion” or “diversity.” And here’s what I mean by that.

One of the real pleasures of my career was teaching night community college classes in Mississippi. I was running a small publishing house I had started, and I had just joined a college as the publications director. And, so, honestly, I no longer had time to teach these night classes. It was a great strain, and yet I’m so glad I did.

One day, a younger middle-aged woman asked before class if she could be late either a few minutes every day or every Tuesday or something like that. And I asked why. I generally am kind of a stickler in my classrooms.

She told me she cleaned hotel rooms in another city, and she was juggling her kid’s schedule as well. And sometimes it took longer to clean a room than you expected because somebody left it messier than you expected. I said yes, that would be okay.

She needed my class to get her degree. It was an entry-level class on composition. And if she got her associate’s degree, then she could become a bank teller. That was her goal.

And if the humanities endowment doesn’t serve her, then what’s the point? Literally, what is the point of having it?

I want her to have books in her library that we helped bring about. I want her kids to have high school teachers who had a chance to go to our summer seminars. I want her to be able to go to the museum and see great works that are interpreted by our scholars, that are on the walls because we helped fund that.

I want her children, if they so wish, to go to a college that has a humanities center that we funded, and to develop into scholars and conduct research that we funded. I want her, at the end of a long day, to turn on the TV and be enriched by watching Jazz, a documentary that we funded.

If you say that you’re serving hundreds of millions of Americans, it’s easy to get lost. So you need a North Star. Maybe for me it is this woman who came to my night class who needed to be five minutes late.

Photograph of two men, one has his hand on the head of the other
Photo caption

Peede with Ray Bradbury on set in Culver City, California, in 2007, during the shooting of Muse of Fire, a documentary.

Lawrence Bridges

HUMANITIES: There’s a lively debate going on about proscribed speech on American college campuses. Do you think free speech on campus is in trouble?

PEEDE: I am on the side of free speech in every context that does not physically endanger other people. I agree with the University of Chicago position on freedom of expression. And I strongly believe that we need more intellectual diversity on our campuses.

But I have no interest—as a taxpayer, an educator, a former student, or a parent—in bringing a white supremacist to a campus, for example, to shout provocative, ignorant statements. There is no intellectual grounding in that odious position. I wouldn’t want my time, my tax dollars, or my tuition to be spent on that.

As a grantmaker, my job is, literally, to make value judgments—so, yes, some speech is more worthy of federal investment than others. Tocqueville over trolls.

HUMANITIES: I mentioned the writer Kay Boyle to you once. It turned out that you not only knew the name, you had collected her. Why Kay Boyle, and who else do you collect?

PEEDE: I wish I had a larger collection of Kay Boyle. Most of my focus as a scholar has been on twentieth-century women writers, quite often American writers, quite often Catholic writers. I’m particularly interested in what they did in times of war.

A lot of opportunities for book reviewing opened up during the World Wars. Kay Boyle wrote about war. Edith Wharton did, too. Welty wrote a number of book reviews during World War II, and she would sometimes, as other women did, use a man’s name. The readership still wasn’t ready for female bylines.

I am very interested in Muriel Spark, Katherine Anne Porter, Zora Neale Hurston. Historians, such as John Hope Franklin, whom I interviewed. Barbara Tuchman. C. Vann Woodward on the burden of Southern history. Civil rights ministers, such as my late friend Will D. Campbell. And a number of contemporary writers: Natasha Trethewey, Dana Gioia, Kevin Young, as essayists and poets.

Reading Ernest Gaines made me love his work and want to preserve it. I purchased his handwritten manuscript pages for In My Father’s House, one of his novels, so the pages didn’t get separated.

I gave proofs and first editions of this Gaines novel and his manuscript to the Vanderbilt library, on the condition that they continue to collect him and seek out foreign editions. I wanted to help them build a pathway into African-American literature.

Maybe a university isn’t interested in Kay Boyle, but if you come to them and say, Here are twenty American female writers who wrote in very interesting ways about World War I and World War II, then possibly there is going to be at that institution a scholar able to use those resources in a different way because you’ve helped frame the conversation.

That philosophy as a donor and as a book collector ties into my philosophy as a grantmaker. I believe in catalytic investments and projects to help point someone in a direction.

HUMANITIES: You coedited a book about Flannery O’Connor. Do you feel a special affinity for her?

PEEDE: I do. Her book of essays, Mystery and Manners, is as fine a book of essays as any American wrote in the twentieth century. O’Connor, James Baldwin, and Allen Tate were all remarkable essayists.

I especially appreciate O’Connor’s insights about religious writers. She was quick to condemn pious writing. I agree that it’s important to ensure that on the page you’re a writer first, a person of faith second. She wasn’t a great writer because she was Catholic, but the fact that she was Catholic influenced and transformed her writing. I also like that she has an edge.

I mean an edge in the sense of a firmness, and I can tie that to Eudora Welty, or Miss Welty as we call her in Mississippi. After the assassination of Medgar Evers just a few miles from her residence, she thought that she knew what the murderer would be like. And she wrote this story, and imagined what would go through his head and the type of upbringing he had, and sent it to William Maxwell, her editor at the New Yorker.

She was so close in her imagination to what Byron De La Beckwith, the actual murderer, was like that the lawyers at the New Yorker required her to change certain characteristics that she had imagined. He had been brought in for questioning and was only decades later convicted of the crime.

When a reporter asked her if she was worried about the consequences, Miss Welty replied, “The people who burn crosses on lawns don’t read me in the New Yorker.” That wonderful, witty edge.

HUMANITIES: What kind of programs might you build at NEH to put the humanities front and center before a large public audience?

PEEDE: I had the pleasure of being the director of the Big Read at the NEA for a number of years. I love these big national endeavors, such as NEH’s “We the People” and “Picturing America” projects under Chairman Bruce Cole, but I also love the great projects of only local importance.

As our country approaches 2026, the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, NEH is going to work with other national leaders to develop an initiative that helps us celebrate American ideals and study our nation’s history. One of my deepest concerns is about the lack of knowledge, of civic knowledge, about our country.

NEH will continue to fund works such as Ken Burns’s Vietnam War series. But I also want to tell the story of a historic moment, or a person, that was transformative within a region or a state. Imagine a project that tells the story of the Erie Canal or of one of its proponents or builders. If an independent filmmaker has a vision for a 30-minute documentary, and it’s only going to air in three states, or it might only be on an online platform, I want to make sure that project has a path into the agency.

I believe telling the story of America is telling thousands of small stories. And I want to make sure that our grantmaking reflects that.