If we think about them at all, most of us probably imagine that biographers and historians happily toil away in sanctified destitution, untroubled by the cares of this world. But it turns out that many biographers and historians need to eat — and pay rent and buy clothes for their children. Such earthly demands push most scholars into academic jobs at colleges and universities, where they’re rewarded for producing arcane work that remains cloistered in the hallowed halls of academe.
The National Endowment for the Humanities is determined to break down those walls. Since 2015, the NEH has been funding the Public Scholar program, an annual series of grants designed to promote the publication of scholarly nonfiction books for a general audience.
This year’s roster of 22 grant winners, announced Wednesday, includes a cultural history of allergies, a biography of Boston art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, a history of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and 19 more books you may be reading a few years from now.
T.J. Stiles, one of the $60,000 grant winners, says support from the NEH will make it possible for him to write a one-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt. Despite having won two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award, Stiles notes that working as a historical biographer without a job at a university is freeing but financially stressful. “Currently, my royalties don’t even pay my family’s health insurance premiums for the year,” he says. The advance he’s received from his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, does not cover all his research and living expenses. “I had hoped that my career would be more self-sustaining by now, but life is full of unexpected twists and setbacks.”
For other Public Scholar grant winners, support from the NEH represents not just money but time.
Carole Emberton, a professor of history at the University at Buffalo, is writing a biography of the emancipated slave Priscilla Joyner. “While I love teaching,” she says, “the NEH grant will effectively buy me out of my teaching and service obligations for 12 months, allowing me to focus all my energies and time on the book.”
And that book sounds fascinating. “Like so many formerly enslaved people,” Emberton says, “Priscilla Joyner experienced emancipation not as a single moment but as an extended, lifelong process that entailed very intimate struggles to find love and acceptance and to make peace with the memories of slavery.”
Some of the projects being funded today by the NEH could even save your life. Carl Elliott, a professor in the Center for Bioethics and the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, is working on a book about medical research scandals and the people who exposed them. “In many scandals, doctors and nurses have stayed silent for years,” he says, “even when they have seen research subjects shamefully mistreated.” He hopes his forthcoming book will explain what our society can do to make it easier for conscientious people to speak up.
Here is a full list of this year’s Public Scholar grant winners:
Julie Byrne, Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y., $60,000
“American Catholicism and the Cantor Fitzgerald Employees Who Lost Their Lives on 9/11.”
Writing an account of five men killed in the attack on the World Trade Center, focused on their shared cultural and religious background.
Tom Dunkel, Washington, DC., $60,000
“White Knights in the Black Orchestra.”
Research leading to publication of a book on a Nazi resistance group that included German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945).
Natalie Dykstra, Hope College, Holland, Mich., $60,000
“Isabella Stewart Gardner: A Life in Art.”
Research and writing leading to publication of a biography of Boston art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924).
Hugh Eakin, Sunnyside, N.Y., $40,000
“Picasso’s Dealer: Paul Rosenberg and the 1939 Exhibition That Changed America.”
Preparation for publication of a book about the 1939 Picasso exhibition put on by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Art Institute of Chicago, the transfer of European art to the United States prior to World War II, and its impact on American culture.
Jeremy Eichler, Newton, Mass., $60,000
“War and Memory in Modern Classical Music.”
Preparation for publication of a book about music and the cultural memory of World War II and the Holocaust in the works and lives of Shostakovich, Britten, Schoenberg and Richard Strauss.
Carl Elliott, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, $60,000
“Exposing Wrongdoing in Medical Research on Human Subjects.”
Research and writing leading to publication of a book on six medical research scandals and the people who exposed them.
Carole Emberton, SUNY Research Foundation, University at Buffalo, Amherst, N.Y., $60,000
“An Intimate History of Freedom: The Biography of Emancipated Slave Priscilla Joyner.”
Writing leading to the publication of a book about the experience of emancipated American slaves told primarily through the life of former slave Priscilla Joyner.
Cynthia Haven, Stanford, Calif., $60,000
“The Spirit of the Place: Czesław Miłosz in California.”
A book-length study considering the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet as an American and Californian.
Stephen Heyman, Pittsburgh, $60,000
“A Life of Louis Bromfield: The Lost Generation Novelist Who Inspired America’s Organic Food Revolution.”
Research and writing leading to publication of a biography of Pulitzer-Prize winning American author and pioneering organic farmer Louis Bromfield (1896-1956).
Frank Holt, University of Houston, $45,000
“A Social History of Coins: Money and the Making of Civilization.”
Research and writing leading to publication of a book on the study of coins that explains their relevance in history and everyday life.
Robert Kanigel, Baltimore, Md., $60,000
“American Scholar Milman Parry and the Study of Oral Tradition in Classical Literature.”
Research and writing leading to publication of a book-length biography of Milman Parry (1902-1935), a scholar of classics who revolutionized the study of Homer’s “lliad” and “Odyssey.”
Theresa MacPhail, Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, N.J., $60,000
“A Cultural History of Allergies, 1819-2017.”
Research and writing leading to publication of a book on the scientific and cultural history of allergies, ranging from the first description of hay fever in 1819 to the recent development of mobile apps, wearable devices, and gene therapies intended to prevent allergic reactions.
Thomas Madden, St. Louis University, St. Louis, $60,000
“The Fall of Republics.”
Research and writing leading to the publication of a book examining the forces that have threatened history’s great republics from Sparta in ancient Greece to the United States during its foundation in the late 18th century.
Stephen Mihm, University of Georgia, Athens, Ga., $60,000
“Industrial and Technical Standards in Modern Life.”
Research and writing leading to a book on the history, from the late 18th century to the present, of the industrial and technical standards that enable modern life.
Devoney Looser, Arizona State University, Tempe, Ariz., $60,000
“Biography of Sisters Jane Porter and Anna Maria Porter, 19th-Century British Novelists”
Research and writing of a biography on British sister novelists Jane Porter (1776-1850) and Anna Maria Porter (1780-1832), contemporaries of Jane Austen.
Stephen Platt, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Mass., $60,000
“U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier General Evans Carlson (1896-1947) and America’s Long War for China, 1937—1950.”
Research leading to publication of a monograph on U.S.-Chinese relations from 1937-1950.
James Romm, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., $50,000
“The Sacred Band of Thebes and the Last Days of Greek Freedom.”
Research and writing leading to publication of a book on the “Sacred Band,” a special infantry unit of the city of Thebes from 379-338 B.C., in the context of ancient Greek history, politics and philosophy.
Kevin Sack, Atlanta, $60,000
“200 Years of African American Life.”
Writing a history of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
Susan Schneider, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Conn., $55,000.
“Future Minds: Artificial Intelligence, Brain Enhancement, and the Nature of the Self.”
Research leading to publication of a monograph on ethical and social implications of artificial intelligence.
T.J. Stiles, Berkeley, Calif., $60,000
“The Believer: Theodore Roosevelt and the Reinvention of American Democracy.”
Research and writing leading to publication of a comprehensive, one-volume biography of American president Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919).
Courtney Thorsson, University of Oregon, Eugene, Ore., $60,000
“The Sisterhood: A Black Women’s Literary Organization.”
Research and writing leading to publication of a cultural history of a group of African American female writers, founded by Alice Walker and June Jordan, who met in New York from 1977 to 1978.
John Turner, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va., $60,000
“Out of Small Beginnings: Plymouth Colony and the Making of American Liberty.”
The writing of a book on the history of the Plymouth Colony, from its founding in 1620 to 1691.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.