| Making a Difference
The National Humanities Medalists
"History is a moving target. We don't know where it's going to be next," says deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard. Each of the ten recipients of this year's National Humanities Medal, Ballard among them, is dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, and has enriched the lives of Americans with vision and innovation. One medalist infuses children's books with a love of history, while another has brought education and entertainment to children's television with the creation of Sesame Street. One has drawn from "the crucible of composition" to write essays and social commentary that chronicle the times, and another has written novels and literary criticism that help us understand the "the predicament--the bind--of being human." One medal recipient conducts educational deep-sea expeditions in search of remnants from history, while another investigates the lives of blacks in classical antiquity to trace the roots of prejudice. One is a pioneer in women's studies, and another directed an anti-communist organization. One medalist edited a journal that presented some of the most prominent writers in the West to the American public for the first time. And one continues to perform the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain for audiences around the nation.
The National Humanities Medals were presented by President Bush at a ceremony on November 14 at the White House. The medals are awarded to those who have worked to deepen the public's understanding of the humanities. Following the presentation, First Lady Laura Bush, NEH Chairman Bruce Cole, and author Lynne Cheney attended a reception honoring the new medalists.
Robert Ballard: Exploring the Deep
"Deep-sea archaeology is like finding an architectural site on Mars," says Robert Ballard, the man known for finding the world's most famous shipwreck, the RMS Titanic. "You can't buy a ticket to the deep sea; it's as alien and hostile as Mars. You need people who aren't terrified to go to Mars and who have the technology to do it. And those are the oceanographers. They work with the social scientists, the marine geologists. And together we read the chapters."
Ballard has been exploring these time capsules since 1959. At age seventeen he joined an oceanography program for high school students organized through San Diego's Scripps Institute. "We almost sank," he remembers. "But I was immortal and I was hooked on the adventure. All around me were PhDs. I knew if I wanted to continue this adventure, it would be a long haul."
This life-altering experience sent Ballard in pursuit of higher education. After obtaining degrees in geology and chemistry from the University of California, he attended graduate school at the University of Southern California and the University of Hawai'i. He received a PhD in marine geology and geophysics from the University of Rhode Island. He served in the Vietnam War and in the U.S. Naval Reserve as a commander before resigning his commission in 2001.
A flood of letters from schoolchildren after his 1985 discovery of the Titanic led him to found the Jason Project four years later. The project's curriculum allows children in grades four through nine to participate in real-time scientific expeditions, using satellite and distance-learning applications. More than 1.5 million children will participate this year.
"Science used to be a punitive experience--you're going to take this test-- it was a weeding out process, grueling, not for the fainthearted," says Ballard. "But technology has become so pervasive, everyone needs some level of scientific knowledge." Ballard uses his submarine robots and sunken ships to draw them in. "Kids love adventure!" he says. "The difference between an explorer and an adventurer is observation. Explorers keep records--they log everything they do. And exploration is not in our past, it's in our future. This generation is going to explore more of earth than all previous generations."
To do that, they will need math and science, subjects that American children lag behind in when compared with students from other industrialized countries. "You can't sell kids on math," says Ballard. "You have to sell them on something that requires math. Adventure is the game. Math is the mental push-ups that you have to do before the game."
Ballard looks beyond the hard sciences, however. "I've always had a passion for history. I think all humans do. Where did we come from?" This interdisciplinary approach is crucial to his work. "The book I'm reading now is about economy and exchange in the eastern Mediterranean in ancient antiquity," he says. "It's all about the opportunity to keep learning. History is a moving target. We don't know where it's going to be next."
After one hundred and ten deep-sea expeditions, he is enthusiastic about future projects. "The deep sea is a tremendous preserver. Cultural objects are in suspended animation," he says. "The number of shipwrecks approaches one million, and the ships of antiquity are perfect time capsules."
For Joan Ganz Cooney, the business of children's television is a serious one. While the creator of the Children's Television Workshop and Sesame Street is quick to call the show "a collaborative effort," she is the driving force behind this innovative and hugely successful children's program.
After nearly thirty-five years on the air, the influence of Big Bird, Grover, and Oscar the Grouch on preschool children is immeasurable. The show is broadcast in eighty languages around the world. "I thought it was very American," says Cooney, "and was shocked when other countries wanted it."
To Cooney, the most important message of Sesame Street is not teaching the alphabet or how to count. "The aim of the show is really to foster mutual respect for one another," says Cooney. "The show is about warmth and human understanding."
Cooney graduated from the University of Arizona in 1951 with a degree in education. She began her career as a reporter for the Arizona Republic but soon moved to television in New York City. By the early 1960s she was producing documentaries for WNDT-TV--now WNET-TV-- including A Chance at the Beginning, about a Harlem poverty program for preschoolers that predated Head Start, and the Emmy-winning Poverty, Anti-Poverty, and the Poor. She became interested in how television could help educate poor children. At that time children's shows consisted of Captain Kangaroo on commercial TV and Mister Rogers on public television. The rest was cartoons.
She met Lloyd Morrisett, vice president of the Carnegie Corporation, who also wondered if television could be used to educate small children. Morrisett and Cooney soon undertook a study funded by the Carnegie Foundation called "The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education." She spent three months traveling across the country and interviewing teachers, children's television producers, child psychologists, and child development experts. In the end, she proposed a new kind of children's program and formed the Children's Television Workshop to produce it. The show would be fast-paced, repetitive, and use different formats. Television commercials and the hit show Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In influenced the format. The premise was that it would hold children's interest, its characters would become their friends, and it would teach. The first show aired in November 1969, funded by the Carnegie Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the U.S. Office of Education.
"The show was intended to help children get ready for school," says Cooney. "Initially, it was geared for four-year-olds to six-year-olds. But we have one- and two-year-olds watching--children learn so much younger now." The show includes segments for children of different ages. Cooney and the workshop have also developed shows geared toward older children, including The Electric Company, Square One TV, and 3-2-1 Contact.
Sesame Street, together with the Children's Television Workshop, has won ninety-one Emmys. "We change it all the time to keep it current," says Cooney, who is still involved with the show as chair of its executive committee. "We're doing the hard work of history. In South Africa, for example, we have a Muppet character who is HIV-positive, to teach children not to shun children who have the disease."
While developing the show, Cooney brought in Jim Hensen to create puppets. "Jim was already famous in his field," says Cooney. "He didn't want to do just children's shows. But he went ahead and created Muppets just for Sesame Street."
To avoid being dependent on corporate or foundation funding, Cooney has ploughed all the profits from commercial sales of Sesame Street brand products back into the show's production.
For her work, Cooney has received honorary degrees from fifteen institutions, among them Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, and Georgetown. In 1989 she was awarded a Daytime Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award. She was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1995 President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the nation.
"Now there are some excellent programs for children not only on public television but on commercial TV," she says. "I'm happy the show has had an impact. We--I'm just one of a team--made a contribution."
Author, essayist, and social critic Midge Decter has seen both sides of the American political divide. The self-described "ardent ideologue" became a political activist in the 1970s, transforming from a Democratic liberal in her youth to a foe of the left. "By the 1970s there was a new peril in the United States," she writes, "the demoralization brought on by the seizure of national self-hatred that had spread like typhus from the sixties radicals into the major institutions of culture."
Decter has never shied away from controversy, defining feminism as "a kind of legal onslaught against men."
Decter attended the University of Minnesota, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and New York University, but never graduated from college. Her first job was as secretary to the editor of Commentary. She remains a regular contributor to the magazine, which is published by the American Jewish Committee. Her husband Norman Podhoretz was the editor of Commentary and is now editor-at-large.
Her writing has appeared in Harper's, The Atlantic, The American Spectator, and The National Review, and she has published numerous books, from The Liberated Woman & Other Americans (1970), to Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait (2003). Her memoir, An Old Wife's Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War, was published in 2002. From 1990 to 1995 she was a senior fellow at the Institute of Religion and Public Life.
From 1980 through 1990, Decter acted as executive director of the Committee for a Free World, an anti-communist organization. "In the end you cannot defend American democracy without defending the economic system that is its necessary underpinning," Decter writes in her memoir. "And you cannot truthfully defend that system without accepting a number of other propositions, perhaps the principal one being that government should be restricted from interfering in lawful economic activity. Paul Johnson, who is among various other admirable things a great modern historian, has said that once he understood that socialism was wrong, he had to rethink everything he knew, including even what he knew about the Roman Empire."
The organization disbanded after the fall of the Berlin Wall. "When the Berlin Wall came down, some of us literally wept for joy," Decter writes. "And when the communist regime in the Soviet Union gave way, we were beside ourselves with the kind of hope it would be difficult for anyone who had not spent his adult life keeping an eye on the evil uses of Soviet power to understand. Although freedom and democracy were a long, long way from universal, and might never be so, they seemed to me nevertheless to be ideologically no longer in question."
"By going to cultural war and taking no prisoners," she writes, "we seem to have made far more noise in the world than our sheer numbers would have suggested."
"The personal essay is, in my experience, a form of discovery," Joseph Epstein writes. "What one discovers in writing such essays is where one stands on complex issues, problems, questions, subjects. In writing the essay, one tests one's feelings, instincts, and thoughts in the crucible of composition."
A distinguished essayist, Epstein served as editor of The American Scholar from 1975 to 1997, contributing essays under the name Aristides. In his introduction to The Norton Book of Personal Essays, which he edited, Epstein calls the personal essay "the freest form in all of literature. A form that is itself intrinsically formless, the personal essay is able to take off on any tack it wishes, building its own structure as it moves along, rebuilding and remaking itself--and its author--each time out." Epstein himself has taken on subjects that range from the joys of owning a cat to the art of napping to thoughts on aging and the changing times. His essays are known for being personal and familiar, and scholarly yet accessible.
In a recent essay on W.H. Auden, published in The Hudson Review, Epstein writes, "Ought a poet, within his poems, to deal so directly with such opinions, ideas, issues? Everyone will remember the famous reply to Degas, who was trying to write poems, when asked Mallarmé where he got his ideas. 'But Degas,' Mallarmé wisely replied, 'poetry is not written with ideas but with words.' This deceptively simple remark, like so many of Mallarmé's remarks, has great weight and subtlety, speaking about the dangerousness of ideas to poetry. One may end up with ideas but one should never start out with them."
Epstein has published several collections of essays, and has been a regular contributor to Commentary, The New Yorker, Harper's, The New Republic, New York Review of Books and The National Standard. His essays have been included in the annual editions of The Best American Essays. He has also written two collections of short stories--the most recent is Fabulous Small Jews--and several full-length, nonfiction books, including the bestseller Snobbery: The American Version.
Epstein says he became interested in writing at the University of Chicago, where he attended college. "It was an astonishingly serious place," he says. "You could read anything in a serious way." He tried in his early twenties to write stories but "drifted into essays."
Later in life he went back to try his hand at fiction in the form of the short story. "In my forties I also found I could write publishable stories," he says. "I'm not saying good, but publishable. I've now written thirty-five short stories. If I could write another twenty during the rest of my life, I'd be happy."
Epstein taught writing and literature at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, from 1974 to 2002. It was there that he gained respect for young writers of today. "I taught the fundamentals of prose style at the undergraduate level and found some astonishingly good writers," he says. "I never told them you must drop everything and do this. I had a great regard for their talent. There are many contemporary authors I admire, including David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Foer."
Other works by Epstein include: Divorced in America (1974), Ambition (1980), Goldin Boys (1992), The Norton Book of Personal Essays (editor, 1997), Life Sentences: Literary Essays (1997), Portraits: A Gallery of Intellectuals (1997), and Narcissus Leaves the Pool: Familiar Essays (1999). Goldin Boys was named a New York Times notable book of the year.
Joseph Epstein has high hopes for the written word and for future writers in America. "To paraphrase Mark Twain," he says, "reports of the decline of written culture have been greatly exaggerated."
Writer, historian, and lecturer, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese is a pioneer in the field of women's studies, having shaped Emory University's Institution of Women's Studies as its first director from 1986 to 1991. She began her career in the field almost by accident.
"I started teaching at Rochester in 1973, just when women's studies was breaking into the world," says Fox-Genovese, who after receiving her bachelor's from Bryn Mawr, received a master's and PhD from Harvard. "I was one of only three women in the history department and because I had a strong background in literature, it was a logical choice to design a program there."
In 1980 she moved to the State University of New York at Binghamton, which had the first graduate program in women's studies in the country. By then she was a full professor in American studies and women's history. The interdisciplinary field of women's studies was still coming into its own. "Women's studies meetings were a bit disorganized," she says. "Frequently, there were no budgets or agendas." When Emory asked her to start a new program there she accepted, and became founding director of the Institute for Women's Studies.
"I arrived at my office at Emory with nothing in it but boxes of my own books and a telephone I didn't know how to use," she says. Within a short time she had under way an undergraduate women's studies program in which students could minor. Within three or four years the program had a graduate program with stipends, a distinguished lecture series, and the Rosalyn Carter Fellows program.
"Women's studies can unearth a good deal of information about women that would not emerge from a general course," she says. "My goal was to develop a program that was intellectually rigorous and ideologically open."
Since giving up the directorship, Fox-Genovese has continued to teach at Emory as the Eleonore Raoul Professor of the Humanities and professor of history. She also serves as the editor of The Journal of the Historical Society. Fox-Genovese and her husband, historian Eugene Genovese, formed The Historical Society, based at Boston University.
Fox-Genovese is the author of Women and the Future of the Family (2000); "Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life": How the Feminist Elite Has Lost Touch With the Real Concerns of Women (1996); Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism (1991); and Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women in the Old South (1988), which received the C. Hugh Holman Prize for the Society for Southern Literature and the Julia Cherry Spruill Prize of the Southern Association for Women Historians.
Fox-Genovese's interest in the history of the South, and Southern women in particular, stems from her interest in the history of women. "It became clear to me that Southern women were the most interesting," she says. "They went through a tragedy and had close relations with black women." While researching Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South, she explored the relationship between Southern women and slavery in the antebellum era.
"It's studying people who were good people yet terribly wrong on one subject," she says. "There had been slavery throughout history and they were living at the dawn of a new era. What changes and what remains the same? What can you hold on to?
"Slaveholding women and slaves knew each other more intimately than anyone else," she says. "It was an incredible jumble of relations, and it brings to light the ease with which you could abuse your power." Fox-Genovese continues to write widely on women's issues, religion, contemporary culture, and social issues. Her next book, co-authored with her husband and due out in 2004, is The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview.
"History isn't boring, once you get to know the people," says children's author Jean Fritz. "In my writing, I give people their place." In the last fifty years Fritz has written about many of the major figures in U.S. history, from Benjamin Franklin to Harriet Beecher Stowe to Teddy Roosevelt.
Fritz worries that children do not find history interesting because there is too much emphasis on memorizing facts. "You have to learn it all factually," she says, "but you have to feel it, too. So you teach about how Mrs. Madison took down a portrait of Washington, cut it out of the frame and saved it before the British burned the White House."
These are the kinds of stories Fritz includes in her biographies and histories. Shh, We're Writing the Constitution captures the personalities of the Founding Fathers and the difficulties they faced as they met in Philadelphia in the hot summer of 1786 to draft the constitution. In And Then What Happened, Paul Revere?, Fritz helps readers to visualize a blueprint of Boston as it existed in 1775, and takes them along with the patriot from the beginning to the end of his famous ride.
In The Cabin Faced West, Fritz uses a family story about her great-great-grandmother, Ann Hamilton. "I always knew it was a good story," she says. The story is set in 1784 and tells of young Anne, whose family has just moved to the isolation of western Pennsylvania. Anne is feeling lonely and yearns for her old home in Gettysburg when George Washington comes riding down the road, stops by, and stays for supper.
Fritz knows something about childhood isolation. She was born in China and lived there for the first thirteen years of her life, the daughter of missionary parents. She was often lonely and out of place in the international community that surrounded her. Books helped her through her solitude. She read the classics such as The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories. At age five she announced she was going to be a writer.
"I never felt truly American," she says. "When I finally got to America I wanted to put down roots, and did it through history."
She graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 1937 and also studied at Columbia University in New York City. She worked as a research assistant, a children's librarian, and a teacher before publishing her first book in 1954--a picture book about cats titled Fishhead. She has not stopped writing since, and has won many awards and honors, including the Regina Medal from the Catholic Library Association and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award from the American Library Association.
The research is what Fritz likes best: uncovering unknown facts about her subjects. She visited each of Patrick Henry's four homes and visited England and France for her biographies of King George III and the Marquis de Lafayette. An octogenarian confined to a wheelchair, Fritz still goes out pursuing her stories, most recently participating in a dig in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, searching for clues about what befell the lost colony at Roanoke, the subject of her next book.
"The question I am most often asked, is how do I find my ideas?" Fritz writes. "The answer is: I don't. Ideas find me. A character in history will suddenly step right out of the past and demand a book. Generally people don't bother to speak to me unless there's a good chance that I'll take them on."
History is her life's work. "It's important to learn the ideals of the country, and not forget them," she says. When asked who is her favorite figure in history, Fritz replies, "Washington. He was the soul of integrity and he was there when we needed him."
For nearly fifty years Hal Holbrook has been charming audiences with the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain. Twain's outlook never fails to give Holbrook a good show to put on. At seventy-eight, he is eight years past Twain's age as he portrays him in Mark Twain Tonight!
"I chose to do him at seventy because he would have written everything we know," says Holbrook. "It's the image people have of him--the shock of white hair, the white suit, the look of the prow of a ship heading into a storm."
Holbrook was twenty-nine when he first performed as the writer. His original version of Twain sprang from an honors project at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where he majored in theater. World War II had interrupted his college career while he served in the Army Corps of Engineers.
"This is a relationship that developed as my life developed," says Holbrook. "This voice that I have been given is so powerful I can express my deepest convictions in his words and thoughts, far ahead of anything I could come up with."
Holbrook and his first wife, Ruby Johnson, created a two-person show, playing characters from Shakespeare to Twain. After graduation they toured the school assembly circuit in the Southwest, doing more than three hundred shows in thirty weeks and traveling thirty thousand miles by station wagon. After their daughter Victoria was born, Holbrook used the solo version of Twain to support his family.
In 1954 Holbrook landed a steady job on a television soap opera called The Brighter Day. He pursued his Twain character at night in a Greenwich Village night club. In between learning and performing Twain, he memorized his lines for the soap opera. Then one night, Ed Sullivan saw his Twain performance and invited him on his television show, giving him national exposure.
In 1959, after honing the performance in front of audiences in small towns across the country, Holbrook opened at a small theater off-Broadway. His show got rave reviews. "Mr. Holbrook's material is uproarious, his ability to hold an audience by acting is brilliant," wrote a critic for the New York Times.
Although he is continually changing the show to keep up with the times, Holbrook, who does the research and arranging himself, never updates Twain's original material. "He knew this country," says Holbrook. "The audience will first laugh, then many will think about it--he said that a hundred years ago?"
If Holbrook wants to take on media coverage of current events he need only look at a Twain essay that excoriated the "talkers" in the newspapers. If he wants to comment on corporate greed he is ready with a Twain quote: "We should change the motto of our country from 'In God we trust' to 'In money we trust.'"
Holbrook's reverence for Twain's words has not diminished. "He said things that were smart, wise, and incomparably well put," says Holbrook. He quotes Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a Twain scholar, who wrote in the foreword to the Oxford edition of Twain's speeches, "He defined the rhythms of our prose and the contours of our moral map."
Holbrook has kept up an active career performing in movies, on television, and on stage. He remains a member of the original Lincoln Center Repertory Company, while continuing to do Twain every year. In 1966 he performed Mark Twain Tonight! on Broadway and won a Tony Award and a Drama Critic's Circle Award. He also did the show as a ninety-minute CBS special and won an Emmy.
In 1970, after a dozen plays in New York, he went to Hollywood to star in the series The Senator. In the years since, Holbrook has done fifty television movies and mini-series, been nominated for twelve Emmys, and won five. His movie career began with The Group in 1966. Since then he has appeared in more than thirty films, including Midway, All the President's Men, Julia, Wall Street, and Men of Honor. Since 1984 he has been married to actress and singer Dixie Carter.
Throughout his career, Holbrook has taken time every year to perform his Twain show. He has seen audiences come and go, but they continue to develop a passion for Twain and Holbrook's characterization. "Mark Twain speaks to people," he says, "and they continue to find insights today."
From 1937 until it closed in spring 2003, the Partisan Review published the writing of authors such as André Gide, Leon Trotsky, Norman Mailer, Hannah Arendt, Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. "The magazine's intent was to publish the best writing, to feature what now tends to be denigrated as high culture, and not to succumb to the extremes of capitalism, nor to cant and communism," writes Edith Kurzweil, who edited the journal during the last decade.
Kurzweil arrived in the United States as a fourteen-year-old refugee, fleeing the Nazis as war engulfed Europe. A native of Vienna, she arrived in New York speaking not a word of English. Today she looks back on a record of scholarship spanning thirty years.
She regretfully turned down a scholarship to Radcliffe--"my father disapproved"--and embarked on an early marriage that ended in divorce.
Kurzweil studied at Queens College and City College of New York before receiving her PhD in Sociology from the New School for Social Research in 1973. "I knew that I had to catch up," she says. "But I wasn't a kid who had to find herself."
She questioned the single-subject focus common in American academic circles at the time. "Why do Americans talk only in their disciplines?" she asks. "Why don't we branch out and learn from others?" This interdisciplinary approach led to books such as The Age of Structuralism (1983), Freudians and Feminists (1995), and Freudians: A Comparative Perspective (1998).
Kurzweil first began at the Partisan Review as a volunteer. "Partisan Review interested me, played back my own questions," she says. "I wanted to know everything, and the magazine gave me a very good overview of the culture." Partisan Review held on to its anticommunism, and it allowed her to examine issues from many perspectives. "Unfortunately, every subject quickly tends to get polarized too quickly, and at Partisan Review I didn't have to reach foregone conclusions," she says. "It was an intellectual and literary magazine, where you probed the issues. It wasn't politics, where you have to see that you win."
Founded and edited for decades by her late husband, William Phillips, Partisan Review assembled in its pages the writings of some of the most prominent authors in the West, often presenting them to the American public for the first time. Partisan Review kept abreast of new developments in politics and culture, and was one of the earliest English-language journals to publish Nobel prize-winner Czeslaw Milosz.
In the spring 2003 Partisan Review, the final issue, Kurtzweil writes about Phillips's founding of the journal shortly after he met Philip Rahv. "They came to realize that the American Communist Party was directly controlled by Moscow, and then managed to break away. In 1937, Phillips and Rahv restarted the magazine, resolving to stay independent of all factional politics, while holding on to Marxism and publishing the best of modernism. With the wisdom of hindsight, I would maintain that most of the subsequent literary and political disagreements were caused by the contradictions inherent in these two -isms, along with clashes of the strong personalities, and the egos and ambitions, of the bright individuals who joined them."
In its last three decades the journal was instrumental in keeping the intellectual and cultural life of the U.S. open to developments in Eastern Europe, and was an important source for literary work emerging from the former Soviet bloc. Kurzweil has hosted frequent symposia, which were often published in Partisan Review, and has edited numerous anthologies of work from the magazine, such as Our Country, Our Culture: The Politics of Political Correctness (1995) and A Partisan Century (1996).
Kurzweil encourages rigorous thinking in the students in her sociology courses at Rutgers University and Delphi College, and at numerous conferences and panels she organizes on the humanities. "What students don't know about history is appalling," she says. "You really have to spark people, and it's very hard. Consumer culture is overwhelming them. However, I do see pockets that are different. And the humanities aren't something we can give up on."
"Nothing comparable to the virulent color prejudice of modern times existed in the ancient world," writes Frank Snowden Jr. "The ancients did not fall into the error of biological racism; black skin color was not a sign of inferiority. Greeks and Romans did not establish color as an obstacle to integration in society. An ancient society was one that for all its faults and failures never made color the basis for judging a man."
One of the world's foremost authorities on blacks in classical antiquity, Snowden exposes racism as a post- classical condition in his book Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience, which received the Charles G. Godwin Award of Merit from the American Philological Association. Drawing on Herodotus and Pliny the Elder, and studying Africans depicted in classical bronzes and terra cotta figurines, Snowden demonstrates that Africans were valued in the Roman Empire as artisans, athletes, scholars, and military leaders.
"The experiences of those Africans who reached the alien shores of Greece and Italy constituted an important chapter in the history of classical antiquity," he writes. He concludes that racism is not universal, and cannot be traced back to antiquity. "The onus of intense color prejudice cannot be placed upon the shoulders of the ancients."
Other publications include Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks and Naples in the Time of Cholera. He is co-author of The Image of the Black in Western Art I: From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire.
A graduate of the Boston Latin School, Snowden earned undergraduate and doctoral degrees from Harvard University. He taught classics at Georgetown University, Vassar College, and Mary Washington College. He was dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Howard University, and was the first honoree in the Howard University Libraries' "Excellence at Howard" program.
In addition to his academic achievements, Snowden served as a cultural attaché to the American Embassy in Rome, and as a lecturer for the U.S. Department of State in West and North Africa, Egypt, Italy, Greece, Austria, India, and Brazil. He was a Fulbright research scholar in Italy, and was decorated with the Medaglia d'Oro for outstanding work in Italian culture and education. He makes his home in Washington, D.C., with his wife of seventy years, Elaine Hill Snowden.
"My first paying job was at a newspaper," says John Updike. "But there's a lot of legwork, a sort of aggression you need to be a good journalist. Fiction gives more of a chance to use the poet in you. In one sense, fiction has always been a mongrel art. It has to be something else. The root of the word novella is 'news.' Fiction is an account of a lived life."
One of the most prolific American writers, John Updike has published more than forty books, essays, and works of verse. He has twice been featured on the cover of Time magazine, and is only the third American to receive two Pulitzer prizes--the first in 1982 and again in 1991 for Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, the second and fourth volumes of his "Rabbit" saga.
Born in 1932 in rural Pennsylvania, Updike graduated from Harvard in 1954, the same year he sold his first poem and short story to The New Yorker. He joined the staff there the following year and continues to contribute to the magazine today. His first volume of poetry was published in 1958. His first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, followed a year later.
Updike's first work of fiction won a Guggenheim Fellowship, which supported him as he worked on a longer novel, Rabbit, Run. It was published in 1960, and became an immediate bestseller. The saga follows the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a star athlete and average American who provides a glimpse of the social upheavals of America in the second half of the twentieth century.
"The books are not loved by everybody and may be deeply flawed, and there may be limits to my empathy with a man like this, but the Pennsylvania setting helps make me feel like I'm full of material in some odd way," Updike once said. "I haven't lived in Pennsylvania in many years, and when I did live there as a youth there was a lot I didn't know about what was going on around me. I was a schoolteacher's son and had a fairly limited view of the world. But in all of our childhoods we are open to experience in a way we cease to be. . . . A kid is pretty open to whatever shocks and thrills the environment provides. So all of us writers, whether it's Roth's Newark or Bellow's Chicago, or whatever, it's where you somehow feel warmest and seem to have the most to say."
The Humanities Medal is the latest in a string of awards for service to the humanities during the past fifty years. "It's an odd word, humanities," Updike says. "Science gives us so much of our sense of what we are. There still is a territory that only fiction can touch. No scientist can quite describe the sensations of being alive and the predicament-- the bind--of being human."
Asked about literature's relevance to modern society, he says, "Print is no longer the hot medium--it would be hard to think of a post-World War II book that has changed the world. Perhaps Silent Spring. It would be a rare book that would reach enough people to effect societal change. People do still read though, those that read at all. You're writing for a minority, but an influential minority. Maybe the literary medium is somewhat down compared to others in this era, but by no means out."
Updike once compared writing fiction to a person's handwriting. "It comes out to be you no matter what you do," he says. "But you have to feel that you're going off in a fresh direction. You have to be in some way excited, and in a way frightened--can you do this? Without that can-you-do-it? feeling, you can't do it. . . . It doesn't get easier, this setting out again. . . . You have to give it magic. You have to substitute wisdom and experience for passion and innocence."
Humanities, January/February 2004