Books by NHC Fellows

Books by Fellows

Between the Covers, Fall 2020: Fellows Discuss Their Recent Publications

NHC Fellows have produced a wide assortment of fascinating and award-winning books this year. We asked six of them to share a little about their new publications and to reflect on the process of writing them.


Sarah Farmer (Fellow, 2008–09)

Rural Inventions book cover

Rural Inventions: The French Countryside after 1945

Oxford University Press, 2020

From the publisher’s website:
“In post-World War II France, cutting-edge technological modernization and explosive economic growth fueled an exodus of rural populations and the collapse of peasant society. And yet, this book argues, rural France did not vanish in the sweeping transformations of the 1950s and 1960s. The French devised new ways of inhabiting the countryside, making it a site of change and adaptation. Rural Inventions explores the rise of restored peasant houses as second residences; utopian experiments in rural communes and in going back to the land; environmentalism; the literary success of peasant autobiographies; photography; and other representations through which the French revalorized rural life and landscapes. The peasantry as a social class may have died out, but the countryside persisted, valued as a site not only for agriculture but increasingly for sport and leisure, tourism, and social and political engagement; a place to dwell part-time as well as full-time; and a natural environment worth protecting. The postwar French state and the nation’s rural and urban inhabitants remade the French countryside in relation to the city and to the world at large, not only invoking traditional France but also creating a vibrant and evolving part of the France yet to come.”

What are the most important things you want people to take away after reading Rural Inventions?

Largely by default, many people think of cities as the place of possibility, where things happen (they’re fast-paced, modern, innovative) and the countryside as unchanging, stable, and traditional. I would like readers to appreciate the dynamic qualities of rural space and rural life. In post-World War II France, technological modernization and explosive economic growth uprooted rural populations and eroded village traditions. The French lamented what they saw as the “end of the peasantry”, expressing nostalgia for vanishing rural ways. Nonetheless, the French of all classes devised new ways of inhabiting and imagining the countryside. For example, dwelling at least part time in the countryside became desirable in the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1980s it had become an international fantasy and practice in an increasingly globalized world. In the wake of the social and political unrest of 1968, young people went into the remote back country to found utopian communes and collectives, hoping to remake human relations and shape the future. In short, postwar rural France was a site of inventive modernity as well an object of nostalgia. In the United States, people often refer to “flyover states” to mean places between the coasts that are too boring to warrant a visit. I would love it if my book sparked interest in understanding those American places, most of them rural, on their own terms and for their relationship with urban areas.

As you were working on this project, what did you discover that you found most surprising?

I was astonished by the speed of modernization in the 1950s and 1960s. That, and postwar prosperity, had huge consequences for rural France. High-rise housing, superhighways, power lines, fast trains, and the expansion of big agriculture radically changed French landscapes. Wages rose, and families could buy cars and washing machines. Small-time farmers got their first tractors. Peasants left en masse for jobs in the city. Entire hamlets were abandoned. Younger peasants who stayed in the countryside were eager to become modern farmers. The public responded to these changes in paradoxical ways. On the one hand, they embraced consumer society and cutting-edge innovation. On the other hand, they remained deeply attached to the nation’s peasant past. Boarded-up houses that peasants left behind were snapped up as vacation homes by city people. Memoirs and life stories by peasants became bestsellers. Some of these authors appeared on television talk shows and became nationally known celebrities. One, a country washerwoman, became the star of a famous advertising campaign for washing machines. These cultural responses to the collapse of peasant society contributed to the rise of French environmentalism and to a green sensibility in the 1960s and 1970s.

Producing a scholarly manuscript involves innumerable details, minutiae, and references. Could you please point us to your favorite footnote and tell us more about it?

Footnote 69, chapter 5, documents a conversation I had with the renowned photojournalist and filmmaker Raymond Depardon, whose autobiographical work I discuss in a chapter that explores landscape and memory. Born in 1942 on a small family farm, Depardon left for Paris at the height of the postwar rural exodus determined to make it as a photographer. He ultimately became a member of Magnum Photos, the prestigious international photographic cooperative. In 1963, the Paris-Lyon superhighway came through the Depardon family’s farm, taking the best fields and sinking his father into despair. In 1982, Depardon photographed his childhood home, producing an extraordinary photographic essay that he has returned to in books, films, museum exhibitions, and interviews. I was fascinated by the way his work made visible the personal impact of postwar modernization and disruption of rural landscapes on the people who had worked the land in the same place, over generations. I was fortunate both to interview Depardon at length about these pictures and to gain his help in procuring the rights to reproduce them in an insert of 16 color and black and white plates. My work on Depardon was my first foray into a sustained engagement with visual sources for writing history and I found it enormously stimulating.

What was the most difficult thing to leave out of the final version of your book?

In one chapter I discuss rural utopias: communes and collectives founded in rural backwaters by radical youth in the early 1970s. Though most of these projects were short-lived, some participants stayed on to join “back-to-the-landers” who aimed to live, at least partially, from agriculture. For this chapter, I did extensive work on a collective established on a mountainside in Provence in 1973 by a charismatic Frenchman and a group of younger Austrian, Swiss, and German followers. The collective, which still exists, attracted an international membership and created affiliated agricultural cooperatives in France, Switzerland, Austria, and Costa Rica. Its critics accused the group of being spies, terrorists, and members of a sect led by a megalomaniac. After I’d spent time in Provence, in Switzerland, and in Austria interviewing many current and former members, I decided that an in-depth study would need to address the tangled legacy of leadership and power dynamics in these experiments in collective living. Unfortunately, there wasn’t room for me to take this on while still keeping a balance among the many themes and subjects of my overall study.

You worked on this project during your fellowship in 2008–2009. How did your fellowship experience affect the ultimate work you produced?

Like others, I learned so much from scholars in other fields in the course of daily interactions at the Center. I have distinct memories of particular conversations—on photography with a scholar of film; on the concepts of time deployed in anthropology with a historian; on the relationship of text and image with an expert on medieval literature. Such wide-ranging discussions underscored the value of addressing different audiences and drawing on the approaches of a full range of disciplines in the humanities. This experience encouraged me to write a book in which each chapter is based on completely different sources.

Now that this book has been published, what’s next for you?

I have two different projects in mind at the moment. One is to write the history of the utopian collective I already mentioned. I have been researching its origins in youth groups that organized in Basel and Vienna in 1968 to reform the juvenile justice system—particularly as it related to the control of apprentices and young workers by their bosses and their parents. In writing this history, I can now take the time to address the problematic aspects of charismatic leadership of countercultural figures who attained legendary status among their followers and in the press. The second project is to think through the categories of urban and rural by studying more closely the indeterminate space where city and country meet—referred to by geographers and planners as the “urban fringe” or “periurban” space. Developing an understanding of what constitutes peri-urban, suburban, and ex-urban areas in America and France is a first step in considering the transnational dimensions of peri-urbanization.


Sanjay Krishnan (Fellow, 2012–13)

V. S. Naipaul’s Journeys book cover

V. S. Naipaul’s Journeys: From Periphery to Center

Columbia University Press, 2020

From the publisher’s website:
‟The author of more than thirty books of fiction and nonfiction and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, V. S. Naipaul (1932–2018) is one of the most acclaimed authors of the twentieth century. He is also one of the most controversial. Before settling in England, Naipaul grew up in Trinidad in an Indian immigrant community, and his depiction of colonized peoples has often been harshly judged by critics as unsympathetic, misguided, racist, and sexist. Yet other readers praise his work as containing uncommonly perceptive historical and psychological insight.

In V. S. Naipaul’s Journeys, Sanjay Krishnan offers new perspectives on the distinctiveness and power of Naipaul’s writing, as well as his shortcomings, trajectory, and complicated legacy. While recognizing the flaws and prejudices that shaped and limited Naipaul’s life and art, this book challenges the binaries that have dominated discussions of his writing.”

What are the most important things you want people to take away after reading V. S. Naipaul’s Journeys?

For several decades now, many critics and scholars have insisted that because Naipaul purportedly mocked the struggles and aspirations of non-European peoples, his writings should be condemned. I argue that such views are reductive and that they miss the complex and ironic nature of Naipaul’s work. By situating Naipaul in his time and place, I show how his insights as a writer are connected to the uniquely self-implicating ways in which he wrote about decolonization and twentieth-century global history.

As you were working on this project, what did you discover that you found most surprising?

I was most surprised by how widely Naipaul is read around the world and how he signifies different things to different people. For some readers the only Naipaul who counted was the one who wrote hilarious and affectionate stories about Trinidad early in his career; for others, only the travel books on India seemed to matter; yet others knew Naipaul as the author of the bleak novel A Bend in the River, which is set in postcolonial Congo. And then there were people who knew Naipaul as the first person to write about political Islam. At times, it seemed that there was not one but many Naipauls.

Producing a scholarly work involves innumerable details, minutiae, and references. Could you please point us to your favorite footnote and tell us more about it?

Chapter 4, footnote 68. In 1977, when Naipaul’s India: A Wounded Civilization was published, he was accused of expressing contempt for Hindus and the Hindu religion. Then, in a 2005 essay, William Dalrymple held up the same work as a defense of Hindu chauvinist ideology. Both charges are as extreme as they are misguided, as I show in my book. In his essay, Dalrymple also claimed that Naipaul had given readers a distorted impression of the culture of early Vijayanagar, a kingdom in South India that was founded in 1336 and, despite tensions with Muslim powers in the north, had lasted for a couple of centuries. Drawing on the revisionist work of scholars in the 1990s, as well as the cultural criticism of Salman Rushdie, Dalrymple declared that Vijayanagar was a syncretic and culturally hybrid kingdom, not the rigidly orthodox Hindu one portrayed in Naipaul’s book. Dalrymple neglected to point out in his essay that the scholarship on which he had based his claims did not yet exist when Naipaul’s book was published. Despite their anachronistic nature, Dalrymple’s accusation made me curious about recent assessments by specialists of the character of Vijayanagar. This in turn led me to a number of fascinating historical studies of the period in question, whose findings I allude to in the footnote.

What was the most difficult thing to leave out of the final version of your book?

I had written a couple of chapters on works that I felt attached to, but they opened up questions that I could not examine in the rest of the book. In the end I decided it best to leave them out of the final version because I wanted the chapters of the book to have a unity and flow that revealed the development of Naipaul’s art and thought.

You worked on this project during your fellowship in 2012–13. How did your fellowship experience affect the ultimate work you produced?

I am grateful to have been awarded an NEH fellowship in 2012–13. It gave me the opportunity to have many stimulating conversations during my time at the National Humanities Center. I met folks working on musicology, moral philosophy, intellectual and cultural history, and the history of the Haitian Revolution. There was also an Africanist and a historian of late-Qing China who got me thinking about different ways of conceptualizing modernity. Naipaul wrote about so many places and on diverse themes, and all these topics spoke to me in one way or another.

Now that this book has been published, what’s next for you?

I’m completing a book that explores how the past is mobilized in contradictory or divided ways in important works of twentieth-century postcolonial and world literatures.


Thomas M. Lekan (Fellow, 2009–10; 2010–11)

Our Gigantic Zoo book cover

Our Gigantic Zoo: A German Quest to Save the Serengeti

Oxford University Press, 2020

From the publisher’s website:
“This book examines the troubled relationship between Europe’s greatest wildlife conservationist, the former Frankfurt Zoo director and Oscar-winning documentarian Bernhard Grzimek, and the landscape he saw as a “gigantic zoo” for the earth’s last great mammals: the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. It analyzes the fissures that emerged between Grzimek and his son Michael’s self-appointed quest to save the Serengeti from modernization and “overpopulation” and the rights of rural Africans and their livestock to inhabit the landscape on their own terms during the era of decolonization around 1960.”

What are the most important things you want people to take away after reading Our Gigantic Zoo?

At the center of Our Gigantic Zoo is the troubled relationship between Europe’s greatest wildlife conservationist, the former Frankfurt Zoo director and Oscar-winning documentarian Bernhard Grzimek, and the landscape he saw as a “gigantic zoo” for the earth’s last great mammals: the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. My most important takeaway from Grzimek’s story is the danger of “thinking locally and acting globally” within the international conservation movement: formulating scientific and moral claims about Nature from a situated space of knowledge and power and then universalizing them to encompass other places of encounter. The failure to decolonize wildlife conservation’s institutions, imaginaries, and ecological baselines established around 1960 has continued to thwart UN, bilateral, and non-governmental organizations’ efforts to foster participatory and sustainable development in Tanzania and other parts of East Africa.

The core of the book takes place between 1950 and 1980, a time when Grzimek was well-known to German audiences through his long-running television program, A Place for Animals (think a German version of Marlin Perkins’s Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, only without the commercial sponsor, and with a far more didactic and hard-hitting conservationist message).

In the late 1950s, he travelled to what was then British-controlled Tanganyika (this mainland territory united with the nearby Zanzibar archipelago in 1964 to create the United Republic of Tanzania) with his son Michael to produce Serengeti Shall Not Die (1959), a film that won an Academy Award for its depiction of the region as both a symbol of the global extinction crisis and a potential tourism destination. I analyze the fissures that emerged between Grzimek and his son Michael’s self-appointed quest to rescue Serengeti and other parks from modernization and “overpopulation” and the rights of rural Africans and their livestock to inhabit the landscape on their own terms. Indeed, the film tries to soar above grounded conflicts over the colonial government’s original intention to allow customary use within nature reserves, depicting a timeless refuge for animals in areas that were embroiled in independence struggles over land and resources.

After independence, Grzimek raised funds, brokered diplomatic favors, and convinced German tourists to book travel packages—all to persuade Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere that wildlife would fuel the young nation’s economic development. Yet Grzimek’s global priorities eventually clashed with Nyerere’s nationalist ones, as a more self-assertive Tanzania resented conservationists’ unfulfilled promises. Grzimek’s cosmopolitan aims also clashed with moral ecologies of Maasai, Ikoma, and other communities who depended on the Serengeti’s grasslands, montane forests, and animals for their livelihoods and cultural autonomy.

As you were working on this project, what did you discover that you found most surprising?

I was surprised to discover just how few Western promises of direct aid for conservation were met and how little indirect economic stimulus came from wildlife-based tourism, at least in Tanganyika-Tanzania. Much of our historical and geographical understanding of national parks and game reserves has rightly pointed out the European colonialist discourses and mentalities that carried over from imperial game protection to post-independence wildlife conservation. These cultural frameworks sidelined already existing customary relationships to wild animals as well as hunters’ and farmers’ aspirations for political and ecological sovereignty.

But when we look at the colonial state’s limited ability to police game reserves from “poachers” and the paltry infrastructures it left in place at independence—warden stations, roads, hotels and lodges, wells and the like—we realize the significant investments that Tanzanian premier Julius Nyerere’s government had to make to stimulate and sustain a tourism industry. The government did so under the assumption that Western aid and donations could fill in the gaps while the tourism industry got on its feet—and investment funds on that scale were just not available from IUCN, the WWF, the Frankfurt Zoological Society, really any international agency or NGO working in this region in the 1960s. Nature tourists, meanwhile, never arrived in numbers that Tanzania’s planned economy had anticipated, partly because of competition with a wealthier and infrastructurally better-endowed Kenya.

As a consequence, Tanzania’s government—and not so much Western imposers—footed the bill for conservation, subsidizing the national parks repeatedly and compulsorily “resettling” Maasai, Ikoma, and other communities outside the Serengeti region. When Bernhard Grzimek declared that Africans were “sacrificing” their own development priorities for the sake of the global ecological commons, he was right in a strict economic sense, but this was hardly consensual. Serengeti communities felt betrayed by their own national government and, soon thereafter, Nyerere and his ministers felt deceived by unfulfilled Western promises. Based on earlier scholarship, I had assumed too readily that tourism had actually experienced a “take-off” across the region, but the varied material realities that each East African territory faced at independence cascaded across the 1960s and 1970s, making tourism a gamble at best, a liability at worst.

Producing a scholarly work involves innumerable details, minutiae, and references. Could you please point us to your favorite footnote and tell us more about it?

I love this question and thank you for asking it! It shows a deep understanding of (and compassion for) writers’ circuitous and sometimes tortuous process of bringing a draft manuscript to final form. In my case, it’s Chapter 5, FN 51. It’s not a long footnote, but it was one whose contents took many weeks to locate and draw out appropriate correlations. One reviewer of the draft manuscript rightly noted that I needed an ecological portrait of the Serengeti itself—what kind of landscape did the Grzimeks confront in 1958–59? We needed maps, timelines, pictures! I wholeheartedly agreed but also approached the writing process for that section with trepidation.

Such a portrait is challenging because the Serengeti’s climate, peoples, wildlife, and botanical inhabitants are all constantly in motion. In fact, this was one of the sources of error in the Grzimeks’ aerial surveys: they encountered a landscape experiencing a prolonged drought and extrapolated outward, predicting that without more stringent protection and limits on pastoralist grazing of cattle and goats, the Serengeti would turn into a desert. East Africa normally experiences bimodal weather patterns—a short rainy season that usually starts at the end of November and ends in mid-December, is followed by another, longer rainy season stretching from January to May. In between, the grasslands brown and shrivel—it can look quite alarmingly desert-like even in the best of times until the rains return.

In the late 1950s, numerous sources spoke of the catastrophic effects of record-low rainfall on pastoral communities and wildlife numbers, but my reviewer wanted more: how long had the drought lasted? How much rain fell normally in the Serengeti, and how much did it decrease during the hard times? By a stroke of luck, I realized that in the course of their research, the Grzimeks had stumbled upon rainfall charts collected at a Serengeti field station stretching back to the 1930s. They had published those rainfall amounts in published scholarly articles separate from their main book, Serengeti Shall Not Die. My colleagues in physical geography then helped me find journals containing historical hydrographic data on droughts in East Africa, which I correlated with the Grzimeks’ data to gain a semblance of how the 1950s drought compared to previous and subsequent ones, that is, how “abnormal” it was in a climatic zone that was already highly stochastic. It made me very humble about how environmental historians borrow datasets and methods from other disciplines, and how unamenable the non-human world is to our usual narrative techniques.

What was the most difficult thing to leave out of the final version of your book?

I had wanted to include a chapter about Grzimek’s domestic conservation efforts to round out the trans-continental dimensions of the study and to point out the sharp environmental inequalities that defined—and still define—the expansion of conservation areas globally. Grzimek served for a short time in 1969–1971 as West Germany’s first federal minister for nature conservation under chancellor Willy Brandt. The creation of this office and the naming of Grzimek to lead it, who was still a popular television star at the time, was supposed to cement the Brandt government’s reputation as an environmentally friendly regime. Grzimek faced stiff opposition from agricultural interests in his quest to create new nature reserves and found his proposal to unite nature conservation (Naturschutz) with the more public health-oriented environmental protection (Umweltschutz) in one ministry derailed by bureaucratic infighting.

Grzimek’s signature project was the campaign to create West Germany’s first national park, the Bavarian Forest (on the border with the former Czechoslovakia). German observers, and especially local residents and conservationists, balked at Grzimek’s hopes to restore wild animal populations (such as various species of elk, lynx, bear, and beaver) that hunters, foresters, and development projects had wiped out decades, if not centuries, before. They wanted a pleasant hiking area for tourists and zones where forestry and other economic activities could continue, arguing that bringing these animals back to Bavaria would “falsify” a cultural landscape long shaped by human hands. But they also did not want to live again with predators like the lynx that might go after their own livestock or carefully managed deer stocks. Local and regional editorials lampooned “Grzimek’s Bavarian Serengeti” and citizen opposition won the day. Grzimek was bitter; he disavowed this “national park” because it did not meet IUCN criteria for naturalness and protected habitat.

By including the Bavarian National Park in the same analytical frame as the Serengeti and other national parks, I had hoped to raise objections to the language of African “sacrifice” that I alluded to in Question 2. Foiled in Europe, Grzimek redoubled his efforts to expand parks in Tanzania and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, writing quite explicitly that these reserves would “compensate” for Europeans’ shortsightedness. Yet the notion of sacrifice implied a consensual willingness to offer up land and resources, masking the deep inequalities of power and citizen participation between Germany and Tanzania. These inequalities stretched back to Germany’s own imperial expansion in East Africa and they had long made living with wild animals a choice for Germans, a compulsion for Tanzanians. While postcolonial Tanzania did have forums for democratic participation, it was a developmentalist, one-party state. Nyerere and many of his finance and economic ministers viewed rural farmers and pastoralists as “backward” and would hardly have acceded to their preference not to live amid crop-raiding elephants or aggressive hyenas in those districts targeted for park expansion. Moreover, the national parks in East Africa, like those in Central Europe, were carved out of humanized landscapes with long histories of use. They were, to use the German phrase, a Heimat (homeland) for Maasai, Ikoma, Sukuma, and other communities, not an “untouched” wilderness. Their establishment should also have weighed existing cultural traditions and livelihoods. I hope I can draw out these threads in an article or two, but a full chapter would have been so much better—a real disappointment.

You worked on this project during your fellowship in 2009–10, 2010–11. How did your fellowship experience affect the ultimate work you produced?

Well, given the length of time between the fellowship time and publication date, it’s probably easy to tell that the fellowship prompted me to rethink fundamentally the existing manuscript. I’ll never forget Geoff Harpham’s reassurance on our very first day that there was no mandate to pursue the project we had proposed in our applications; the fellowship was designed to give us the mental space and camaraderie necessary to think boldly and creatively. For me, that meant taking a partially written manuscript about German ecotourism and the rise of environmentalism (with one or two chapters about “Germans abroad”) and adopting the “contact zone” perspective articulated by Mary Louise Pratt and other scholars. I also never expected to focus so much on one individual—I had never written anything in a semi-biographical genre, having been trained in social and environmental histories of “everyday life.”

Uniquely, I did my fellowship in a calendar year, which was also in hindsight perfect. It allowed me to engage with one reading group of fellow fellows in reconceptualizing the project, stay through the summer and read, read, read in secondary literatures (thank you to Kent Mullikin, for allowing me to keep an office, and to the library, for tolerating those huge book orders), and then debut the new project with a new cohort of fellows in the fall.

I mention a long list of fellow fellows in OGZ‘s preface who helped me in reconceiving the project. Here I’d like to emphasize the serendipitous conversations that were pivotal and would not have happened without the Center’s informal environment. When I was trying to figure out how to pitch biography with deep context, Mia Bay encouraged me to look at Susan Ware’s Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism—brilliant! When I thought about a title for a work centered on a German with a difficult to pronounce last name whom no one in North America recognized (as opposed to Germany, where everyone over forty knows Grzimek), Jared Farmer noted “you can always call it ‘one man’s quest’ or something like that.” And when I was mired in reviews from a first article in German History about the new project, Ellen Stroud worked with me to figure out how to expedite rather than expand: “don’t go there,” “maybe” were her responses. These small interventions got me out of mental loops. Your best academic friends are the ones who know when you’ve overthought something and it’s time to move on.

Now that this book has been published, what’s next for you?

I’m pursuing two projects at the moment. In the shorter term, I am cowriting a book with Carol Hager at Bryn Mawr College about German sustainability, tentatively titled Green Germany, targeted to advanced undergraduate audiences in environmental studies. In the longer term, I’m pursuing a more synthetic and critical history of sustainable development in East Africa: Conservation by Slaughter. It’s about the international program of “wildlife utilization” first articulated comprehensively at an IUCN and FAO-sponsored symposium on nature conservation that took place in Arusha, Tanganyika in 1961—thus decades before the Brundtland Commission’s famous report which defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Green Germany is a book about what Carson Center director Christof Mauch calls “slow hope” for a damaged planet. Dr. Hager and I are exploring Germany’s uneven quest to create a sustainable industrial society by shifting to renewable energy, promoting public transportation and green infrastructure, developing urban gardening, and expanding green spaces. We observed that when American students study abroad in Germany, their first impressions were almost always about environmental conservation—recycling, repurposing, the ready availability of public transport, the modest size of apartments, the ready access to “nature.” Yet when they thought about drawing on these models to improve US communities, they assumed “it would never work here” because Americans would reject Germany’s level of state control and bureaucracy. Yet as Dr. Hager and I know from our work in different environmental sectors, Germany’s sustainability strategies emerged out of highly decentralized networks and citizen demand in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s—not top-down planning. Whether we look at the anti-nuclear solar energy tinkerers in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg or the grassroots protesters who saved Frankfurt’s beloved tram network from dismantlement, it was bottom-up pressure that forced municipalities and states to ecologically modernize. Only now, with the threat of climate change looming, has the state begun to absorb, rationalize, and integrate these vernacular processes, often in ways that weaken the potential for grassroots participation.

Conservation by Slaughter investigates the cohort of African, North American, and European conservationists who challenged the “fortress conservation” model represented by Grzimek, Julian Huxley, Jacques Verscheuren, and others in the early 1960s. They called instead for wildlife to “pay for themselves” through controlled hunting, wildlife ranching, and game cropping—all of which were supposed to fill a “protein gap” that they believed was the main source of malnourishment among African infants. These sustained-yield programs largely failed on multiple fronts. Little thought was given to deeper questions of equitable land tenure and existing foodways, let alone the parasites and zoonotic spillover that made it exceedingly difficult to “view your game and eat it, too,” as one conservationist had sunnily predicted. Game ranching is undergoing a reboot today as a form of “community conservation” across East and Southern Africa, with little thought given to its dubious antecedents. I’m deeply interested in how developmentalist “failure” in the wildlife sector, paradoxically and dishearteningly, has made market-based environmental schemes more resilient—it’s about getting the monetary incentives right, not about the historical entanglement of people, animals, and parasites in complex ecosystems. I began this project in earnest on a fellowship at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich this past spring—but my time there was cut short due to COVID-19.


Mab Segrest (Fellow, 2017–18)

Administrations of Lunacy book cover

Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the Haunting of American Psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum

The New Press, 2020

What are the most important things you want people to take away after reading Administrations of Lunacy?

I want to change readers’ thinking about both psychiatry and race in the United States and thus about how they themselves perceive reality and respond to it. US asylum psychiatry via state hospitals interacted with settler colonialism to extract the violent history of conquest from its effects on the people it targeted. This left only “symptoms” easily re-written into eugenic narratives that blamed those people suffering most, and that made invisible those white actors most responsible. It also erased the effect of lynchings. The history of the United States told from a lunatic asylum is revelatory of the deep historical roots for the country’s most troubling issues of white supremacy today. For example, the obscene fact that today 90% of state psychiatric beds are in jails and prisons—one manifestation of the “New Jim Crow”—is part of a long history of Georgia’s convict lease and chain gang systems and the proximity of prisons and asylums on state land.

As you were working on this project, what did you discover that you found most surprising?

On the granular level, I was struck by how white privilege and settler colonialism worked themselves so densely into the structure of the asylum. Focused on the archives, I saw how tragically ridiculous and inept, how totally reliant on crude power white supremacy is in ways that can make white brains into mush and elevate the stupid into power. From early reports, readers have been shocked as well, which is good.

Also, I did not see coming the collapse of DSM-5, the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. Early on, I had aligned myself with the Humanistic Psychologists’ “Open Letter to DSM-5”: “We believe that it is time for psychiatry and psychology collaboratively to explore the possibility of developing an alternative approach to the conceptualization of emotional distress.” But the announcement in 2013 by the National Institutes of Mental Health Director Tom Insel came as a shock: “NIMH will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories … to begin to develop a better system.” Buried for years in the nineteenth century, I did not see that coming. I want my book to put a critique of white supremacy at the center of any “reorienting.”

Producing a scholarly work involves innumerable details, minutiae, and references. Could you please point us to your favorite footnote and tell us more about it?

My footnote is from Chapter 9, no 6, “A WITLESS WOMAN’S STORY,” from the 1882 Atlanta Constitution (Proquest Historical Papers). The story’s ten paragraphs provide the frame: “Sue Pagan” is “a [white] crazy women … of whom” two Black women were making “the most abject slave.” Concerned, a reporter, a councilman, and a policeman went to 92 Houston Street to find Sue with Jane Stafford and Belle Mitchell, the laundresses for whom Sue worked. Remarkably, the journalist reported Sue’s account verbatim. Hardly witless, she explained that while working in a Macon hospital a white doctor impregnated her, then “after the child was born … caused me to be sent to the asylum at Milledgeville … for nearly one year.” She came to Atlanta in search of her child and was taken in by Jane, who “gives me plenty to eat and wear and I want to stay with her.” Disregarding her account, the white men took Sue back to her family and in 1904 she died back in the Asylum. Belle, Jane, and Sue likely were part of the 1880s Black washerwomen’s strike in Atlanta. Thus, authorities disrupted women’s interracial solidarity and used the asylum to dispose of their indiscretions.

What was the most difficult thing to leave out of the final version of your book?

I omitted Chapter 4, based on a Georgia Supreme Court decision judging the mental capacity of James Potts Sr. to dictate his will. In 1842, old Potts lies dying, mumbling his last-ditch effort to change his will. Sitting near his head is the African American woman Charity, the only person who understands Potts’ mumblings. Charity interprets them to mean that her mother Lucy is free, and that Charity and her children go to Alonzo House, apparently the most benign of Potts’s grandsons. Other relatives challenge this distribution based on slaves’ lack of legal status. Surprisingly, in Potts v House Justice Joseph Henry Lumpkin upholds Charity’s interpretation, to conclude: “No man can testify as of a fact within his knowledge of the sanity or insanity of another” and such attempts “have ended … in nothing.” Lumpkin explained that absolute power over property was needed by old white men to ensure their care in old age. This stunning disavowal by Georgia’s most influential antebellum jurist of knowledge of insanity came as Georgia counties were taking exactly such testimony to justify the commitment to Georgia’s new asylum from which many white Georgians would not return.

You worked on this project during your fellowship in 2017–18. How did your fellowship experience affect the ultimate work you produced?

I could not have finished the book at the quality I did without the NHC fellowship. Undistracted time to work was a blessing. Also, the staff librarians Brooke Andrade and Sarah Harris were stellar. I could request a book or article in the morning and have the article in my inbox by afternoon, the book on a table near the mail in a couple of days. This immediate access allowed me to pursue questions to determine their relevance to my argument in the process of completing drafts. Fellows in the seminar on nineteenth century race and gender served as invaluable sounding boards as did the talented and dedicated scholars working on a diversity of projects.

Now that this book has been published, what’s next for you?

I am concentrating amid the pandemic on promoting the book and the issues it raises about the “bedlam” in U.S. history that creates “lunacy administrations”—including the one we are now in. I may also pursue material omitted from the book in a range of shorter forms.


Blake Wilson (Fellow, 2016–17)

Singing to the Lyre book cover

Singing to the Lyre in Renaissance Italy: Memory, Performance, and Oral Poetry

Cambridge University Press, 2019

From the publisher’s website:
‟A primary mode for the creation and dissemination of poetry in Renaissance Italy was the oral practice of singing and improvising verse to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument. Singing to the Lyre is the first comprehensive study of this ubiquitous practice, which was cultivated by performers ranging from popes, princes, and many artists, to professionals of both mercantile and humanist background. Common to all was a strong degree of mixed orality based on a synergy between writing and the oral operations of memory, improvisation, and performance. As a cultural practice deeply rooted in language and supported by ancient precedent, cantare ad lyram (singing to the lyre) is also a reflection of Renaissance cultural priorities, including the status of vernacular poetry, the study and practice of rhetoric, the oral foundations of humanist education, and the performative culture of the courts reflected in theatrical presentations and Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano.”

What are the most important things you want people to take away after reading Singing to the Lyre in Renaissance Italy?

Even in the case of extremely well-studied periods and places like Renaissance Italy, we still have much to learn. And often this is because as historians we are still learning how to learn, how to see, and most difficult, how to listen. Because we rely on surviving physical objects—documents, paintings, buildings, clothing, etc.—we are relatively deaf to the oral cultures that pervaded all levels of the early modern world. Imagine a society in which nearly everyone participated in the spontaneous creation and performance (often by singing) of poetry, and for all kinds of reasons: love, politics, satire, news, personal correspondence, epic story-telling, teaching and transmission of literary culture, and, above all, social cohesion. Singing to the Lyre tries to recapture and conjure that world.

As you were working on this project, what did you discover that you found most surprising?

Two things. The disconnected state of scholarship on this topic. As my bibliography shows, there were hundreds of documents and short articles (in English, but most in Italian) testifying to the practice of poetic performance in Renaissance Italy, but few attempts to assemble them into a coherent frame. I actually love a project like this—assembling a huge jigsaw puzzle of pieces, but into a picture that only becomes clear as you bring the parts together. For me scholarship is not at all the dry exercise many might assume it to be, but a creative endeavor marked by discovery, intuition, story-telling, and the excitement of recovering something largely lost. Also, I was surprised to discover the exercise of a faculty widely cultivated in the early modern period, but largely absent in ours: a well-trained memory, capable of both storing huge amounts of material (entire books, even libraries), and breaking down and recombining that material (including music) in infinitely varied ways that fed a highly developed practice of improvisation. How easy it was for them to “break into song”!

Producing a scholarly work involves innumerable details, minutiae, and references. Could you please point us to your favorite footnote and tell us more about it?

You’re right, and far from “the devil” being in those details, what they more often reveal are moments when an authentic and candid voice from the past breaks through to us. For example, p. 208, note 79: the great humanist poet and scholar Angelo Poliziano (who figures prominently in my book) wrote to the Venetian ambassador to Florence in 1490, complaining about how much of his time was wasted by “smearing every wall like a slug with all manner of texts and inscriptions … [some want] sad laments for the lyre, another ribald songs for serenades …” Who knew that his patron Lorenzo de’ Medici (himself a lifelong practitioner of “singing to the lyre”) didn’t cover all of Poliziano’s expenses, and that the great scholar was forced to accept trivial commissions? So much comes through here: the pervasive and public nature of poetry, Poliziano’s palpable irritation tinged with shame, and the revelation that even the greatest and most privileged of historical figures were forced to reckon with the mundane. And a wall-smearing slug as an image of bad poetry is just priceless.

What was the most difficult thing to leave out of the final version of your book?

A section devoted to the impact of print culture on oral poetic practice. I had a lot of material on this, and it was interesting, complex, and very much at the heart of my topic since oral poets, for many of whom writing and written material played only a secondary and supportive role, adapted to the new technology of print in fascinating ways. Some of them even started their own printing business, having learned that they could sell printed versions of poems quite successfully in the immediate wake of performing them live in outdoor public spaces. But the book had become too long, and I settled for dispersing some of the material in appropriate sections throughout the book.

You worked on this project during your fellowship in 2016–17. How did your fellowship experience affect the ultimate work you produced?

It was everything. I was at the Center for the spring term, having driven from LA with my road bike and several boxes of books. A more perfect environment for scholarly work cannot be imagined: a beautiful natural setting, a quiet building full of like-minded humanists whose companionship and learning could be enjoyed every day during lunch, and ready access to all the books and articles you can think of asking for. In five intense months (interrupted only by a trip to my son’s college in Wisconsin to help him through surgery for a torn ACL) I completed the entire second part of the book, four long and complex chapters. At no other time in my thirty-year career have I been able to work at such a high level of focus and productivity.

Now that this book has been published, what’s next for you?

I am working on a project that grew out of a performance. For my entire career as a musicologist, a part of my load has always been conducting an early music choral ensemble. About five years ago I prepared a concert of Renaissance musical settings of texts from Vergil’s Aeneid. Besides being beautiful works by the greatest composers of the age, these settings turn out to provide fascinating insight into the much larger phenomenon of Vergil reception in the sixteenth century. These are not well known to non-musicologists, nor have the musicologists who have written on them paid much attention to the rich work of literary scholars on Vergil reception. So I am working on a small monograph (I really want to submit to the discipline of writing a short book!) that has been accepted for publication, in which I hope to bring all this together. Perhaps I can return to the Center to claim that fall semester you gave me in the previous question!


Christopher Witmore (Fellow, 2014–15)

Old Lands book cover

Old Lands: A Chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese

Routledge, 2020

From the publisher’s website:
Old Lands takes readers on an epic journey through the legion spaces and times of the Eastern Peloponnese, trailing in the footsteps of a Roman periegete, an Ottoman traveler, antiquarians, and anonymous agrarians.

Following waters in search of rest through the lens of Lucretian poetics, Christopher Witmore reconstitutes an untimely mode of ambulatory writing, chorography, mindful of the challenges we all face in these precarious times. Turning on pressing concerns that arise out of object-oriented encounters, Old Lands ponders the disappearance of an agrarian world rooted in the Neolithic, the transition to urban-styles of living, and changes in communication, movement, and metabolism, while opening fresh perspectives on long-term inhabitation, changing mobilities, and appropriation through pollution. Carefully composed with those objects encountered along its varied paths, this book offers an original and wonderous account of a region in twenty-seven segments and fulfills a longstanding ambition within archaeology to generate a polychronic narrative that stands as a complement and alternative to diachronic history.”

What are the most important things you want people to take away after reading Old Lands?

My hope is that this book will challenge readers to reflect upon how they understand a region, a land, whether in the course of research or travel. I want readers to ponder how they conceive of space and what they believe it to be. When looking through conventional maps of a region one encounters space as continuous, for on the flat surface lands spread out evenly in every direction; one encounters a perspective built upon a geometry where all points, lines, and areas are accorded equal value. Through this homogeneous space ancient sites and citadels, fields and groves are encountered within the radius of perception that maps themselves open. This not only differs with how most inhabitants of the Eastern Peloponnese, prior to the turn of this century, understood this country, the heartlands of Greece, it is at variance with other spaces that emerge through lived encounters with town squares, ancient roadways, mountain peaks, stone enclosures, or aqueducts. I want readers to think about how objects, whether a temple foundation, a Roman forum, a throne room, or an ancient well, unlock possibilities for conceiving of heterogeneous spaces by bringing their own unique qualities to the situation. Old Lands is a book that unfolds over dusty trails with goatherders and goats, along rows framed by trellises of Agriogitiko, through understories of olive trees looking for ancient terraces and tombs; it is a book that pauses over soils, at a town gate, in a theatre, or museum; it is a book that transpires in the present, or at key moments of change in the past that afford perspective on how spaces are imagined. I hope the book will inspire readers to conceive of these lands and archaeology in different ways, and to connect these riches to matters of relevance to living in our precarious times.

As you were working on this project, what did you discover that you found most surprising?

At the outset of many segments, as a matter of fact, the majority, I was largely uncertain as to where the path would lead me. Of course, each route had its destination. Still, whether in the course of walking through the Katafiki Gorge or driving along the A7, objects encountered along the way called out to me, they asserted themselves, they interrupted a line of thought and raised unforeseen problems. As I entered the writing process, working from notes, I remained true to the circumstances of each route and the character of discovery that emerged through the journey. To various degrees, I was surprised by what surfaced in all twenty-seven segments, by how I found angles and arrived at concerns wholly unforeseen. In a journey through the Nafplion Archaeological Museum, just to take one example, what I thought would be a discussion of museal display and alienation was completely derailed by a Middle Helladic burial on display. I was surprised, not so much by the discovery that came with working my way through a vast literature on human remains, exhibition, and reburial, but rather by how the excursus opened by the visible dead took over, demanded contemplation, and, after this, nothing more was to be said, nothing more could be said, about the remaining objects on display. So, the burial brought an abrupt end to the segment, which I had not anticipated.

Producing a scholarly work involves innumerable details, minutiae, and references. Could you please point us to your favorite footnote and tell us more about it?

I should begin by stating how important it was for Routledge to publish Old Lands with footnotes rather than endnotes. Footnotes more than fulfill an inducement served by numerical superscript to peruse a reference synoptically alongside the primary narrative; they invite an altogether different readerly experience in parallel. There are 1512 footnotes in the book for the reader to indulge or ignore. This hardly scratches the surface of what has been written about the objects that compose these lands—in the end the book is highly selective and it misses entire libraries of work. With this proviso, and with the additional caveat that my selection here was chosen less as a favorite than an opportunity to indulge some necessary self-reflection, allow me to point you to Note 26, in Segment 15, A Stroll through Nafplion.

From Benjamin to Virilio all the action for the collective is in the streets, but residing in the Old Town is fundamentally about interiors. Knowledge of interior spaces is a key distinction between tourists and residents. Domestic interiors are off-limits to nonresidents, unless vacated, or renovated as so many are. It is of interest that the pivot of this segment occurs inside when the rest of the segment is focused on exterior spaces, peering through windows into collapsed buildings, the degree to which the outside pierces the inside is a matter of ruination.

This note appears after a long discussion concerning the transformation of the Old Town from a residential area to a tourist resort. Here interiors are indeed open to visitors, but few are domestic residences, most buildings are now shops, tavernas, bars, pensions, hotels, or storage areas for their surplus. Few residents now live in the Old Town. Many former residences are in ruin, which opens a window into their secrets. Overall this begs the question of whether the Old Town still fulfills its basic function as a town. It is through the friendship and hospitality of my interlocutors that we enter into their workshop, which both serves as a pivot for the segment and a prompt to reflect on this discrepancy of engagement.

Rereading this note now also highlights how much of the book turns upon this contrast between interiors and exteriors. The vast majority of the book transpires out-of-doors, apart from the jewelry shop, the museum segment, a wine tasting room, and two other segments that enter monasteries at their end, one through the hospitality of a friend. As such, the book may hardly seem to be a commentary on our present times, with so much of our lives spent indoors. Still, many of the segments transpire in moving interiors—cars, a train, a van, a ferry boat—which serves to highlight how mobile bubbles of conditioned air have transformed human engagements with these old lands and conjure very different senses of space from those held by previous inhabitants.

What was the most difficult thing to leave out of the final version of your book?

I originally designed Old Lands with twenty-nine segments in mind. The writing, of course, was a struggle, slow going, and about seven or eight segments into the book, while I was at the NHC, I decided to trim some length. I cut two segments from the end, which followed paths across the islands of Poros and Aegina. This was a hard decision. Poros offered an opportunity to think more carefully about forests. Large portions of the island are covered in pine. When the geographer Antonios Miliarakis visited Poros in 1884/85, resin, which was used in both wine-making and ship-building, was a primary export. I spent a week walking through the understories of the island, looking for traces of wood-cutters and resin-collectors; I spent more weeks reading literature on Mediterranean forest ecology, the island archaeology and history. Miliarakis was a large influence on Old Lands, and I had planned to make that debt more explicit by following in his footsteps through the forest from the port to Palatia, the location of the erstwhile sanctuary of Poseidon, and discussing his work, Γεωγραφια Πολιτικη νεα και αρχαια του Νομου Αργολιδος και Κορινθιας (1886).

Aegina, among other possibilities, provided an occasion to return to matters of antiquarianism and the Classical imagination addressed elsewhere in the book. That segment was to move with the young English architect Charles Robert Cockerell (an acquaintance of Byron) and several companions in April of 1811 from the port town to what they took to be the temple of Jupiter Panhellenius. At the temple, which was later identified by Adolf Furtwangler with the goddess Aphaia, Cockerell and party unearthed fragments of pedimental sculpture—what would come to be known as the Aegina marbles. Against local objections, these Northern Europeans absconded with the marbles to Athens, and later, Zante, where they were sold to Ludwig of Bavaria. I had hoped that segment might touch upon the accumulation of knowledge as a ruse for the old European habit of world-taking; that it might explore how antiquities, defined as spoils, profits, and glory, gave self-assured and “enlightened” antiquarians pretense to silence local cries against the removal of the sculptures as “baseless superstition.” I had already put a huge amount of work into researching Poros and Aegina, and it was indeed difficult to leave these labors to my notes.

You worked on this project during your fellowship in 2014–15. How did your fellowship experience affect the ultimate work you produced?

My fellowship experience impacted Old Lands at every level. While I had written several segments before the fellowship year, the book took on new shape and scope at the center. I was given time to invest in a deeper level of inquiry—library services worked miracles by procuring sources that had been hitherto unprocurable—which certainly raised the bar significantly within those key segments and set the tone for everything that followed. I was exposed to a diversity of other projects and other styles of research—daily conversations with other fellows permitted me to work through problems dialogically. It was a privilege to take routine council from so many seasoned scholars. I am fortunate to have made many friends, some with whom I continue to work, all of whom have left their mark on the book.

Now that this book has been published, what’s next for you?

I aim to delve deeper into a key rupture touched upon in Old Lands, the passing of agrarianism from the helm of human societies. I am fascinated by the differences between an agrarian world of scarcity and hardship and a world with increasingly circumscribed zones of comfort and overabundance. I am fascinated by what has become of agrarian livelihoods, how the objects associated with that erstwhile existence linger on, and what we can learn from these things given our precarious times. Like Old Lands, this book will reimagine how we archaeologists document and describe our objects of study through the topological folding of three locales caught in the aftermath of this end; a former agrarian island landscape in Greece, an abandoned fishing hamlet in northern Norway, and a bygone farm in ultra-rural North Carolina.