Between the Covers, Spring 2022: Fellows Discuss Their Recent Publications | National Humanities Center
Books by NHC Fellows

Books by Fellows

Between the Covers, Spring 2022: Fellows Discuss Their Recent Publications

January 18, 2022

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

Candace Bailey (NHC Fellow, 2019–20)

book cover

Unbinding Gentility: Women Making Music in the Nineteenth-Century South

University of Illinois Press, 2021

From the publisher’s website:
“Southern women of all classes, races, and walks of life practiced music during and after the Civil War. Candace Bailey examines the history of southern women through the lens of these musical pursuits, uncovering the ways that music’s transmission, education, circulation, and repertory help us understand its meaning in the women’s culture of the time. Bailey pays particular attention to the space between music as an ideal accomplishment—part of how people expected women to perform gentility—and a real practice—what women actually did. At the same time, her ethnographic reading of binder’s volumes, letters and diaries, and a wealth of other archival material informs new and vital interpretations of women’s place in southern culture.

A fascinating collective portrait of women’s artistic and personal lives, Unbinding Gentility challenges entrenched assumptions about nineteenth-century music and the experiences of the southern women who made it.”

What are the most important things you want people to take away after reading Unbinding Gentility?

Women across all classes learned to read music, and they did so for a number of reasons. These musicians included enslaved black women, white daughters of yeomen farmers, free women of color, rich white plantation belles, and everyone in between. Moreover, most authors allude only to music being an accomplishment, but some of these women prove that the impetus to study notated music came from many different motivations.

When women approached women as a symbol of accomplishment, often it became a tool to define social status. Specifically, the repertory that women (or someone “in charge” of them) chose spoke volumes about the social circles in which they saw themselves or to which they wanted to belong. Some were content to play for dances and sing the most popular songs, but others went beyond the necessary baseline of technical accomplishment and achieved the same level of virtuosity seen in public, professional performers. Still others sought a specialized repertory, such as comparatively obscure works by Parisian composers that would not have been available from American publishers or even most booksellers in the United States.

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

I was thrilled to learn how many women were placed in or even assumed leadership roles in civic and sacred music during the nineteenth century. This was such a revelation because the standard literature tells us they didn’t begin to hold these positions until the last decades of the century. The problem, of course, is that scholars have assumed they didn’t work in music (except as teachers) and therefore didn’t look for them. Newspaper accounts, however, reveal some surprising remunerated professional women musicians. Most astounding, perhaps, is that they would have been telling men what to do in rehearsal, in front of others—not what we expect of southern women in this period.

Another phenomenon that I was able to document was a widespread network of women of color and black women who studied and taught music. In particular, New Orleans was home to a number of women who knew each other, taught in some of the same institutions, and were related in some way to men who belonged to the Negro Philharmonic or were involved in other arts in this city. This led me to the concept of black gentility and its implications in the antebellum South.

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

Chapter 4, note 22. Anne Boykin Jones had traveled to Europe with her family in 1851 and doesn’t seem to have been overly impressed with much she saw there. She found the opera overdone and the dancers too scantily clad. Her expectations are quite humorous, especially her comments on being surprised not to have run into Queen Victoria while touring Scotland or encountering—up close—King Leopold while touring the Royal Palace in Brussels. That this woman from rural Georgia assumed it an entirely likely event reveals how unacquainted she was how royalty conducted themselves on a daily basis.

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

I have located the backstories of so many women and their music books, which further illuminates regional practices, as well as the men who worked with them. I would have liked to write about all of them, but that would have drastically changed the book. I hope to include this information in a digital database that I am working on at the moment.

You worked on this project during your fellowship in 2019–20. How did your fellowship experience affect the ultimate work you produced?

During the fellowship year I completely reorganized the book. Since its inception, I had struggled with the book’s structure, including two full drafts that resemble in no way the final version. It was only after I had the time to think, undisturbed by the typical duties that occupy university professors’ time (teaching, committees, etc.), that I could stand back and view the bigger picture of what I saw as the underlying trajectory of Unbinding Gentility. Having been planning the book for fifteen years, finding this understanding proved an epiphany and made the book much better.

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

I always have several things going at once, and my plan post-Unbinding Gentility is no different. After the fellowship at the NHC, I was awarded a Humanities Unbounded Fellowship at Duke University, where I began work on a digital collection of bound music volumes (the primary material evidence for my research). I have two book projects underway: one on musical networks in mid-nineteenth century New Orleans, and a collection of microhistories of women collectors in the antebellum period. I have also rediscovered an opera score from 1870s New Orleans, and I am editing that and another opera by a New Orleans composer.

Colin Jones (NHC Fellow, 2014–15)

book cover

The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris

Oxford University Press, 2021
Order at with promotion code AAFLYG6 to save 30%.

From the publisher’s website:
“The day of 9 Thermidor (27 July 1794) is universally acknowledged as a major turning-point in the history of the French Revolution. At 12.00 midnight, Maximilien Robespierre, the most prominent member of the Committee of Public Safety which had for more than a year directed the Reign of Terror, was planning to destroy one of the most dangerous plots that the Revolution had faced. By 12.00 midnight at the close of the day, following a day of uncertainty, surprises, upsets and reverses, his world had been turned upside down. He was an outlaw, on the run, and himself wanted for conspiracy against the Republic. He felt that his whole life and his Revolutionary career were drawing to an end. As indeed they were. He shot himself shortly afterwards. Half-dead, the guillotine finished him off in grisly fashion the next day.”

What are the most important things you want people to take away after reading The Fall of Robespierre?

The day on which Robespierre was overthrown—27 July 1794 or 9 Thermidor Year II in the French Revolutionary Calendar—has long been acknowledged as one of the pivotal points in the Revolution, beginning a move away from the use of terror as a means of commanding political consent. Readers of my book will see that customary judgement confirmed, but in a new way and on the basis of a fresh interpretation. I hope that they will also be able to appreciate the incredible drama of the day itself, when the stakes were high and the end-result far from certain.

By highlighting the uncertainty hovering over the result of the day, I diverge strongly from traditional interpretations. Historians have tended to see 9 Thermidor (as it is usually called) as a kind of palace coup against Robespierre organised by his political colleagues, and whose outcome was inevitable. On the contrary, I suggest a Robespierre victory was probably the sounder bet at the start of the day and the likely outcome of the action unclear throughout. 9 Thermidor was a day of might-have-beens.

I show how the balance of probability changed so drastically by adopting a kind of ‘real-time’ approach. I organised the book in 24 hourly chapters which cover the actions of the day in close detail, allowing readers to follow the actions across the course of an exciting day of ups and down in which Parisians across the city were mobilised initially for and by the end against Robespierre. Watching events unfold both by the clock and on the map permits, I hope, the drama, excitement, and vicissitudes of the day to emerge powerfully.

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

When I started out, I thought one of my challenges would be to explain why Parisians were indifferent and apathetic toward the political situation on this pivotal day, as historians claim. In fact, I was genuinely amazed to discover that when I really dug down into the archives, the opposite was true. Parisians were the principal agents of Robespierre’s fall. The people of Paris played an absolutely vital role on the day that historians have almost wholly overlooked.

The other key thing I discovered resulted from choosing to tell the story in a real-time way that differs radically from the way historians normally write. I found myself drawing less on historians’ conventional narrative approach than on the techniques of novelists, dramatists, and film-makers. The single-day framework is neglected in history-writing, but very much a staple in its sister disciplines—witness Aristotle, and hosts of examples, running through Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and on to Dr Strangelove and indeed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off! For me this was one of the most challenging but also most compelling aspects of the whole project. It was sparked when, after we had watched an old episode of the TV series 24, my wife (Josephine McDonagh, an NHC Fellow in the same year) turned to me and said: ‘you could write your book like that!’ And the rest is history—or at least my history.

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

That’s a lovely question! And in fact I really cherished my footnotes. I noted how historians who are imaginative with their ways of telling stories are often hammered by their peers for their alleged lack of intellectual rigour as evidenced in a shortage of footnotes. So I knew that if I wrote as I wanted I had to preempt that criticism and indeed to overpower critics with a plethora of footnotes. (I add as a note to readers who are not professional historians: you really don’t have to read the footnotes, which are in fact placed at the end of the book; but you can take comfort in the fact that they are there!)

A footnote that I particularly cherished concerned the weather on the day. Numerous historians had argued that a violent rainstorm towards midnight caused most Parisians to go home at the end of the day rather than defend Robespierre. I went up to the Paris Observatory to the south of the Latin Quarter which stores meteorological records going back well into the eighteenth century to check the data. So the footnote for page 32 which shows the complete absence of rain that evening (Archives de l’Observatoire Af. 1-14) was deeply satisfying for the kind of nerdish historian I have become.

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

It sounds crazy for a book of nearly 600 pages devoted to a single day, but in fact I left out huge amounts of what I had discovered. For a variety of reasons, this day must have been one of the best-documented in the whole of the eighteenth century. I certainly built up Himalayan levels of evidence—and totally loved doing so. I was particularly excited by how what started out as a normal kind of day for ordinary Parisians finished up as an extraordinary one which shaped the course of French Revolutionary history, and how by close-up analysis one could see a kind of collective agency operating. But I had learned from literary practitioners that you can make a point effectively in quite an economical way. Less was more. So a lot of my findings ended up on the cutting-room floor!

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

Peace, time, quiet, and harmony were among the most precious gifts that the NHC offers. Plus a superbly efficient system of book supply from surrounding libraries. Plus hot meals. But I most loved the old-fashioned community of scholars idea that the NHC embodies. I had so much fun with colleagues and learned so much from them. Their encouragement concerning the risks I realised I was taking by writing in the way I had chosen was particularly precious to me. It gave me a sense that I could do it—and do it well.

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

The archival research in Paris for the book involved combing through countless bundles of police files kept in the Archives nationales de France. I was looking for cases involving individuals who I knew had been caught up in the day, but these were located among lots of extraneous yet juicy-looking dossiers at which I took an inquisitive if necessarily cursory look. In one dossier I was intrigued to find six scrappy little notebooks filled with almost impenetrably badly written script. It would have been only too easy to pass quickly on, but I am very happy that I chose to dig a little deeper. For I discovered that the notebooks were the almost completely unknown copies of letters that an octogenarian aristocrat, the duchess d’Elbeuf, had written to an unknown female friend between 1788 and 1794 describing her experience of the Revolution. Historians have been increasingly interested in the role of women in the Revolution, but they have focussed on proto-feminists. This was a correspondence by a woman—quite as ardent, doughty, and clued in as her radical counterparts—who told the story of the Revolution from the other end of the political spectrum. Astonishingly I found that she was maintaining this sulphurously reactionary correspondence from her private mansion at the very heart of Paris, a matter of yards from the governmental apparatus of terror. On my return to the UK from the NHC, a couple of colleagues and I applied for a national research grant that has allowed us to prepare a scholarly edition of the correspondence for publication. We are hoping that ‘The Duchess d’Elbeuf’s Letters to a Friend, 1788–94’ will appear in 2023. In the interim, we can refer those interested to a website created by my collaborator, Alex Fairfax, that contains information about and translated excerpts from the correspondence: 

James Mulholland (NHC Fellow, 2016–17)

book cover

Before the Raj: Writing Early Anglophone India

Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021

From the publisher’s website:
“During the later decades of the eighteenth century, a rapid influx of English-speaking Europeans arrived in India with an interest in expanding the creation and distribution of anglophone literature[…] In this study of colonial literary production, James Mulholland proposes that the East India Company was a central actor in the institutionalization of anglophone literary culture in India[…]from presses and newspapers to poetry collections, letters, paper-making and selling, circulating libraries, and amateur theaters[…] Recovering this rich archive of documents and activities, Mulholland shows how regional reading and writing reflected the knotty geopolitical situation and the comingling of Anglo and Indian cultures at a moment when the subcontinent’s colonial future was not yet clear. He shows why Anglo-Indian literary publics cohered during this period, reexamining the relationship between writing in English and imperial power in a way that moves beyond the easy correspondence of literature as an instrument of empire[…]”

What are the most important things you want people to take away after reading Before the Raj?

I want people to understand two primary things after reading my book. The first is how vibrant, but now forgotten, was the literary culture of anglophone Asia that emerged at the same time that colonial dominion was being created. My book is an India-based history of this emergent literary culture, which provides details about our claims that culture was an instrument of colonialism.

At the same time, I want readers to understand how important the British East India Company was for the creation of what I’ve called the “cultural company-state,” a corporation that has a crucial role in the creation of an entire art world in Asia and the ideologies that went with it. I don’t know that we’ve ever had a literary period and place quite like it.

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

The most surprising thing was that there was such an expansive population of British and anglophone colonial administrators over India and the Asian world by 1800, not just in Calcutta, and that large portions of this population engaged regularly in literary activities, writing poems, composing and producing plays, reading newspapers, thinking up travel narratives. Early in my research for this book, I wondered why there was no literary history about these figures that I could use and no study of the creative literature of those people who actually administered the British empire overseas in Asia. Not able to find it, I produced this literary history. I was surprised it didn’t already exist.

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

I love this question. Maybe not one endnote, but a cluster that revolves around the author James Romney, who was an author and military officer in late eighteenth-century Bombay, a time when we might have assumed there isn’t really any English-language literary culture there. That this figure was the brother of George Romney, the famous painter, and a distant ancestor of Mitt Romney, the U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, only made the connections I was following in my book all the more fascinating. When I started I never expected that it might trace itself all the way to contemporary American politics.

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

Two grainy images of English translations of poems from Brajbhasha, a dialect of Hindi, that I found in a 1780s Indian newspaper—they didn’t make it into the book because COVID-19 prevented me from getting a high-quality image of the newspaper clippings before we went to press. One poem is a “little epigram” and the other is described as a riddle-poem (a paheli). The translations are ornate, orotund, lovely. I discuss these poems in my book but not seeing them there is a shame because they demonstrate visually how far anglophone writers extended themselves into South Asia and appropriated from its cultures to make their poetries. Much of my book is trying to imagine what these writers thought they were doing as they found these examples and translated them into English, but also to describe all of the apparatus and infrastructure that make these poems live in print. To me they represent all of the fascinating material that drew me to this project in the first place but that just couldn’t fit into the book, for whatever reason.

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

It affected it in so many ways it’s almost hard to define. But I will name two that are widely appreciated among NHC Fellows but that I wish were more shared more frequently throughout our careers. I spent an enormous amount of time at the NHC gathering background information that made my book historically rich—the NHC was a place for me to dismantle the demand for immediate and rapid productivity, and the book is better for it. And the library staff are amazing, helping me find materials that on my own might never have been possible to find because the staff were so expert at following pathways, of thinking creatively about archives and repositories, of speaking with their colleagues about materials. Hats off to them, and to all the NHC staff.

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

I’ve written three different articles that reflect on revising dissertations, publishing first books, and publishing second books, so I’ve thought a lot about how big projects can structure lives and careers. And I’ve decided to ignore much of that insight and follow what interests me. As with many scholars at this stage in their career, I have a number of ongoing projects that are driven by my curiosities. Before the Raj taught me to trust that I should follow what seems strange, interesting, weird, understudied, so I plan to do that again with more anglophone writing of Asia, but also with early poetries of North America. I also hope to think and write more about my interest in American higher education and how it works and how it’s changing in response to uniquely twenty-first century forces—so lots of disparate kinds of thinking going on, which can be scary!

Lena Cowen Orlin (NHC Fellow, 2014–15)

book cover

The Private Life of William Shakespeare

Oxford University Press, 2021

From the publisher’s website:
The Private Life of William Shakespeare tells the story of Shakespeare in Stratford as a family man. The book offers close readings of key documents associated with Shakespeare and develops a contextual understanding of the genres from which these documents emerge[…] Throughout, we encounter a Shakespeare who consciously and with purpose designed his life. Having witnessed the business failures of his merchant father, he determined not to follow his father’s model. His early wedding freed him from craft training to pursue a literary career. His wife’s work, and probably the assistance of his parents and brothers, enabled him to make the first of the property purchases that grounded his life as a gentleman. [And] with his will, he provided for both his daughters in ways that were suitable to their circumstances[…]”

What are the most important things you want people to take away after reading The Private Life of William Shakespeare?

Even the most recent biographers of Shakespeare persist in seeing him as his first biographers did. To fit a prevailing profile of genius, it seems that he has to have been unaware of—and his family has to have been unsupportive of—his talent. The established narrative is that a calculating older woman entrapped him sexually, got herself pregnant, and coerced him into a shotgun wedding. He was so miserable with her that he ran away to London and fell somewhat haplessly into a career in the theatre. The Shakespeare I encountered knew what he was capable of and figured out how to do it. He was supposed to have served a long craft apprenticeship in his provincial hometown. But, because by law apprentices had to remain single, the supposedly enforced marriage was his way of escaping that fate—a creative way. It was his ticket to London.

Literary biographies of Shakespeare are premised on the notion that because there’s too little hard historical information, our best course is to exercise our own intuitions about which parts of the plays and poems were autobiographical. For example, many believe that because Shakespeare wrote about marital jealousy, he experienced marital jealousy. It seems to me he recognized that marital jealousy was a good engine for drama. I would never fool myself that I’m as smart as he was intellectually, emotionally, or artistically, and I don’t believe I can tell when he was writing autobiographically—if he ever wrote autobiographically. So, instead of going back to the plays and the poems, I went in search of a better understanding of the hard historical information. My bookends are that by the time he was eighteen Shakespeare knew what he wanted to do and that by the time he died he knew what he had accomplished. He commissioned a funerary monument that commemorated his own poetic achievements.

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

For me, it all began with the fact that Shakespeare gave his wife his “second-best bed” in his will. Years earlier, I had begun reading wills as windows into the lives of middling-sort people of the period. It can be a vivid and emotive genre, especially when taken down bedside as the dying give their last instructions. I noticed how common it was to identify a bed as “best,” “second-best,” and so on, all the way to “seventh-best” and even “worst.” The best bed might be what we would call a four-poster, reserved for guests; the worst might have a mattress filled with straw instead of feathers, used by servants. There was no discernible affective content in such bequests; the terms were used simply to identify specific beds. Testators would leave an heir a long list of items, with a “worst bed” thrown in alongside a “best cloak” and a whole house.

Shakespeare’s will is not one of the interesting ones. He was more concerned to settle real property than goods. He didn’t provide, as some testators did, a virtual inventory of all his possessions—I wish he had done. He bequeathed just a very few personal items: his clothing to his sister, who had sons; a sword to the son of a friend, who was a gentleman; a silver-gilt bowl to his daughter Judith, who was a surviving twin; the bed. All my research had persuaded me that the second-best bed didn’t tell us anything about Shakespeare’s relationship with his wife. In the writing, though, just as I was finishing, I began to wonder if the bed wasn’t bound to the other goods by a common thread. The great silence of Shakespeare’s private life is that when his only son Hamnet died, aged eleven, he didn’t write a poem about it like his fellow author Ben Jonson did for his own lost children. We have no insight into how Shakespeare felt. But it occurred to me that he would have expected Hamnet to grow into his clothes. He would have wanted Hamnet to have the sword that was a symbol of the gentility he had achieved. A bowl was a common christening gift, and this one may have marked the joint birth of Judith and Hamnet. Hamnet could have been born in the second-best bed; he could have died there. Perhaps the bed recalled the joys and griefs Shakespeare and his wife had shared.

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?

I’ve never written a book where I thought people were as likely to follow the footnotes, so I was careful with these and, yes, they’re full of detail. About a third of the book is notes and appendices. Rather than focus on one note, though, may I tell you about something related? In the main narrative, I didn’t want to spend much time on what other biographers have written, and I also dislike jumping up and down, rhetorically speaking, when I’m saying something new or different. But I knew that some readers, and all reviewers, might welcome a bit of help on where my version of the story parts with those of others. So, for each chapter, I began the footnotes with a headnote giving an abstract of the chapter and a précis of how it differs from recent accounts. I have to confess that this is also where I indulged my inner, sometimes sardonic critic.

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

Shakespeare lived in Stratford-upon-Avon and in London. I knew a lot about London from two other books I’d done, so I started my research in Stratford records and then never really looked back. When I came to the National Humanities Center, however, I hadn’t digested the research and didn’t know that this would turn into a book about Shakespeare’s Stratford life and omit his London career entirely. Is it legitimate to write a biographical study of the greatest writer in the English language without mentioning a play or a poem? I hope that what had most discouraged me at the outset—how many biographies of Shakespeare there are—has meant that I could get away with writing something more selective. Rather than try to cover it all, I touch down wherever the archival documents led me to a new perspective on his life.

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

I came with research that I didn’t know how to structure; I came with arguments that I didn’t know how to express. But I was lucky enough to try out a slice of my argument in a talk, and then there were countless good discussions over lunch and around the edges of the Center’s long, concentrated days. Even now, I remember many specific conversations with my fellow Fellows. I could quote some of them to you verbatim; in memory, I still hear those voices. The extraordinary library staff was part of the alchemy, too, as in this remarkable environment I found my own voice.

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

Most Shakespeare biographers know the key documents that survive. I tried to understand these documents by taking each as representing a specific genre, with its own conventions and vocabularies. This is where my literary training informed a historical project. Close-reading lots of wills, inventories, town council minutes, parish registers, and legal depositions, I became interested in what leaks out of them unintentionally. Sometimes it’s an insight into the life of the time, sometimes it’s the voice of the anonymous scribe, sometimes it’s a cultural fault line. I’m continuing to work with what we might learn from so-called “pragmatic” writing.