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.
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.