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Uncle Sam wants YOU to read ‘popular’ scholarly books

If all goes as planned, there’s a fascinating book about Diderot in your future — and one about the history of photographic detection and another one about the economics of addiction.

Think that’s too heady for you? Think again.

The Public Scholar program, a major new initiative from the National Endowment for the Humanities, is designed to promote the publication of scholarly nonfiction books for a general audience, and the first round of grants has just been announced: a total of $1.7 million to 36 writers across a broad collection of disciplines. The grants range from $25,200 to $50,400. (Full list at bottom.)

The winners include Pulitzer Prize-winner Diane McWhorter, who’s working on a book about the Moon landing and the civil rights era in Huntsville, Ala.,; National Book Award-winner Kevin Boyle, who’s writing about an early 20th-century anarchist; and National Book Award-winner Edward Ball, who will return to the territory of his bestselling “Slaves in the Family” to write a biography of his great-great grandfather.

But there are also a number of grants going to less well-known scholars writing about relatively arcane subjects, such as a history of the science of water, a biography of Adm. William Leahy and a study of American and British dialects. The NEH ambitiously aims to bring this scholarship “into book clubs and onto best-seller lists.”

This program is a priority for NEH Chairman William D. Adams, who has just completed his first year in office. He’s determined to push back against the forces that make academic writing and research inaccessible to lay readers. Applicants for Public Scholar grants were told that they must aim “to engage broad audiences in exploring subjects of general interest . . . in a readily accessible style.” At $1.7 million, the Public Scholar program represents about 20 percent of the NEH budget for fellowships and other scholarship.

“Over the years,” Adams said, “some of the humanities disciplines became much more technical and much more professionally oriented. Their audience became much more internal to the profession. With this program, we’re trying to send a message that would legitimate scholarship that aims outside the profession with topics that have resonance more broadly.”

He called the response to the program’s initial invitation “fantastic” and said the selection committee was “almost overwhelmed” by the number of applications: 485. The applications were evaluated by 72 external experts in 24 panels. “We’re very pleased with the diversity of the proposals, and the fact that many more came from independent scholars was very encouraging.”

McWhorter, one of those independent scholars, received $50,400. She praised the Public Scholar program for encouraging important research outside of the academy. “How splendid that the NEH has decided to recognize hybrids like me — journalist-historians who combine the storytelling imperative of the former profession with the rigorous research methods of the latter,” she said. “My diminishing tribe of marathon writers who function outside the academy (or any establishment) would be hard-pressed to survive between payouts on a publisher’s advance without fellowships such as these.”

Michael Gorra, an English professor at Smith College who won a $50,400 grant for a book about William Faulkner, said this new NEH program resonates with his own efforts over the years. “I’ve always tried to write for as broad a public as possible,” he said, “and writing accessibly has always, for me, had its rewards and benefits. At the same time, though, it’s not something that any of us who came out of graduate school in the 1980s were encouraged to do, and those of us who tried it, in literary studies anyway, often had a sense of having to work against the grain, of being a bit out of joint with our moment in the profession. So I see this new program as wonderfully encouraging for younger scholars in particular, one that tells them it’s okay to step beyond the boundaries, to seek something more than a strictly academic audience.”

Besides changing attitudes, the Public Scholar program also hopes to change the economics of writing scholarship for a general audience. Anne Boyd Rioux, a professor of English and women’s and gender studies at the University of New Orleans, won $50,400 for a book about Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel “Little Women.” She noted that many universities have cut back the number of sabbaticals they can offer, which makes taking time off for research prohibitively expensive for professors. And other sources of income are drying up, too. “Trade publishers are offering smaller and smaller advances, particularly for nonfiction books,” Rioux said. “It is nearly impossible, if you aren’t a David McCullough, to earn an advance large enough to support the writing and research of a serious nonfiction book.”

The academy itself may well benefit from this program. Eric H. Cline, a professor of Classics and Anthropology at George Washington University, said, “If higher education — and the humanities in particular — is to survive in this day and age, one thing that we must do is to share our remarkable results with the general public. This award underscores that point; hopefully, it will encourage additional scholars to share their work more broadly.” He won $25,500 for his history of Megiddo in northern Israel, “the site referred to as Armageddon in the Book of Revelation.”

Boyle, who teaches at Northwestern, considers the aim of the Public Scholar program in deeply personal terms: “My dad loved ideas,” he said. “And he loved to read. But he didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, much less graduate school. So when I became an academic historian, it really bothered me that so much of the wonderful scholarship I encountered had been written in a way that my dad, smart as he was, would struggle to understand. The NEH’s terrific new program wants to change that dynamic by encouraging scholars to make their ideas accessible. I only wish my dad was still here to see the results.”

Here is a full list of the newly named Public Scholars, their professional affiliations, book titles and grant amounts:

• Thomas Andrews, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colo, “Animals in the History of the United States,” $50,400.
• Edward Ball, Yale University, New Haven, Conn., “Constant LeCorgne (1832-1886): Biography of a Klansman,” $50,400.
• Nicholas Basbanes, independent scholar, North Grafton, Mass., “Cross of Snow: The Love Story and Lasting Legacy of American Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882),” $50,400.
• Timothy Beal, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, “Revelation: A Biography,” $29,400.
• Kevin Boyle, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill., “Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1891-1927) and the Culture of Early 20th-Century Anarchism,” $50,400.
• Mark Clague, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich., “O Say Can You Hear?: A Tuneful Cultural History of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’,” $50,400.
• Eric Cline, George Washington University, Washington, D.C., “Digging up Armageddon: The Story of Biblical Megiddo from Canaanites to Christians,” $25,200.
• Aaron Cohen, Truman College, Chicago, Ill., “Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and the Rise of Black Cultural Power,” $50,400.
• David Courtwright, University of North Florida, Jacksonville, Fla., “Multinational Industries: Pleasures, Vices, and Addictions,” $50,400.
• Andrew Curran, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn., “French Enlightenment Philosopher and Critic Denis Diderot (1713-1784): The Art of Thinking Freely,” $46,200.
• Philip Dray, independent scholar, Brooklyn, N.Y., “The Age of Fair Chase: Making A Hunter’s Paradise in America,” $50,400.
• Sarah Dry, independent scholar, Hove, England, “Water World: How the Sciences of Water Went Global,” $50,400.
• Judith Dupre, State University of New York, Purchase, N.Y., “One World Trade Center: The Biography of the Building,” $37,800.
• Michael Gorra, Smith College, Northampton, Mass., “William Faulkner’s Civil War,” $50,400.
• Christopher Hager, Trinity College, Hartford, Conn., “I Remain Yours: Common Lives in Civil War Letters,” $50,400.
• Jonathan Hansen, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., “Young Castro: The Making of a Cuban Revolutionary,” $46,200.
• Craig Harline, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, “Wild Boar: The Monk Martin Luther and the Start of the Reformation,” $50,400.
• Gregg Hecimovich, Winthrop University, Rock Hill, S.C. “The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts: The True Story of The Bondwoman’s Narrative,” $50,400.
• Noah Isenberg, New School, New York, N.Y., “Everybody Comes to Rick’s: How ‘Casablanca’ Taught Us to Love Movies,” $42,000.
• Carla Kaplan, Northeastern University, Boston, Mass., “Queen of the Muckrakers: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford (1917-1996),” $50,400.
• Wendy Lesser, Threepenny Review, Berkeley, Calif., “American Architect Louis Kahn (1901-1974): A Portrait in Light and Shadow,” $42,000.
• Malinda Lowery, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, N.C., “The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle,” $50,400.
• Kembrew McLeod, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, “The Pop Underground: Downtown New York’s Converging Arts Scenes in the 1960s and 1970s,” $50,400.
• John McManus, Missouri University of Science & Technology, Rolla, Mo., “The U.S. Army in the Pacific/Asia Theater in World War II,” $50,400.
• Diane McWhorter, independent scholar, Cambridge, Mass., “Moon of Alabama: The Space Race and Civil Rights in Post-WWII Huntsville,” $50,400.
• M. Lynne Murphy, University of Sussex, Sussex, England, “How America Saved the English Language: The Facts and Fictions of British and American English,” $50,400.
• Lien-Hang Nguyen, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Ky., “Tet 1968: The Battles that Changed the Vietnam War and the Global Cold War,” $50,400.
• Phillips O’Brien, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, Scotland, “The Second Most Powerful Man in the World: Adm. William D. Leahy (1875-1959), Statecraft and the Shaping of the Modern World,” $50,400.
• Linda Przybyszewski, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Ind., “The Unexpected Origins of Modern Religious Liberty,” $50,400.
• Anne Rioux, University of New Orleans, New Orleans, La., “Reading Little Women: The History of an American Classic,” $50,400.
• James Rubin, State University of New York, Stony Brook, N.Y., “Why Monet Matters, or Meanings Among the Lily Pads,” $50,400.
• Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, N.M., “Latino Landscapes: A Transnational History of Urban America since 1950,” $50,400.
• Jason Sokol, University of New Hampshire, Durham, N.H., “Shot Rings Out: How Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Death Was Lived,” $50,400.
• Bette Talvacchia, University of Connecticut, New York, N.Y., “The Two Michelangelos,” $50,400.
• Christina Thompson, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., “The Wonder Story of the World: How the Islands of Polynesia Were Settled and How We Know,” $46,200.
• Jennifer Tucker, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn., “Caught on Camera: A History of Photographic Detection and Evasion,” $50,400.