Eudora Welty's 1944 essay "Some Notes on River Country"
begins with this memorable line: "A place that ever was lived in is like a
fire that never goes out." Some years back, I went to see the country she
describes. This is the stretch of land west of Jackson, Mississippi, and north
of Natchez whose settlements are at once weirdly abandoned yet also weirdly
preserved. Its chief sites are Windsor, a mansion near Port Gibson whose pomp
survives only in an intact set of Corinthian columns; Grand Gulf, a thriving
international cotton port until the Mississippi washed the town away; and
Rodney's Landing, a river town successful enough to have built a series of
exquisitely ornamented churches in the 1840s, until the river changed course
and left it high and dry.
These are enchanting places, but the average visitor would draw
their lesson very differently from Welty. For these are icons of desolation,
images of the utter transience of this world's glory. Windsor, once a great
house, survives exclusively as a ruin. Grand Gulf, once a boom town, was wiped
from the face of the earth, leaving only the overgrown graves of forgotten
entrepreneurs. Rodney's Landing's churches still stand, but wholly disconnected
from the people who built and used them. Those people have vanished -- and lest
anyone miss the lesson of the extinction of the human, this town is approached
through mile after mile covered exclusively with vines.
So how could she say, "A place that ever was lived in is like
a fire that never goes out?" If one thing is true of these places, it's
that their life did go out. And yet, and yet: Welty felt their distant force
when she visited, and I experienced the connection when I went decades later.
So how was this? Welty's reply is that the spark of "original ignition,"
having been once struck, lives on: "Sometimes it gives out glory,
sometimes its little light must be sought out to be seen, small and tender as a
candle flame, but as certain." But in truth, these places did not simply
stay in life: they were brought back to life by the mind of a latter-day
observer, re-animated by her powers of perception, sympathy and imagination.
I am here to speak in praise of the humanities, and I begin with
my Welty tale to remind us what the humanities are. The humanities aren't just
the subjects listed in college course catalogs -- literature, philosophy,
history, music and the other arts -- though those are certainly included. The
humanities are a name for the process by which all the things humans have made,
said, thought and done come back to spark the understandings of other humans
Two facts make this transaction possible. The first is that humans
make things, express themselves through the materials that surround them, and
that these wrought things -- a tool, a house, a picture or song, an expressed
idea -- live on when their fashioners have departed. Faulkner said that the
work of art is "the artist's way of scribbling 'Kilroy was here' on the walls of the final and irrevocable
oblivion through which he must someday pass." But it isn't only art
objects that have this trick of persistence. The idea of representative
government was envisioned, once upon a time, by people who have long since left
the scene. In Faulkner's Requiem for a
Nun, the most everyday mark made by the homeliest figures -- the name a
country wife carved in a window pane -- announces the fact of her human being: "Listen, stranger; this was myself;
this was I."
Second, as we make things that outlive their makers, another of
our innate capacities is that we go out in spirit toward the works of others.
Humans have the peculiar ability -- and, judging by the amount of time we spend
reading, watching videos, and listening to music, arguably even a fundamental
need -- to exit the confines of our own experience and to take up mental
residence in spaces created by others. Put these two together and you get the
difference the humanities make. This gift for going out of ourselves and entering
into things is what gives fresh being to creations whose origins are
distant in space and time. As we "get into" it, the book or song
composed by another comes to life again as our experience. As Welty trains her
gaze on Windsor or Rodney, she feels the obscure life of which these are the
When we live outside ourselves with sufficient intensity of
feeling, we in turn have a chance to be changed. This is the way we annex
understandings that have been struggled toward by others that we would never
have reached on our own. This is how we get to see the world differently from
the way our own minds or culture habitually present it, and recognize that our
customary outlook is not the only point of view. This is how we learn that
there is more to human history than the present, and that our present is itself
a moment in time. This is how we begin to understand the other customs,
beliefs, and values men and women live by in other countries (or indeed within
our own country), and to imagine how differences can be accommodated for a
Understood this way, the humanities are not a specialized taste
but the root of the most basic human and civic competencies. If we lacked these
gifts, we would be condemned to the harshest of poverties, dependence on our
own unaided selves. Collectively, we would have little idea where we came from
or where we could be going. So it matters how this impulse is fed.
I spoke of the humanities as the interplay of human making and
human receiving. But a third thing is needed for the reaction to work: some
mediating or connecting force, something to bring the past to the present's
attention. Welty was brought to her River Country partly by her work as
photographer for the Works Progress Administration, the Depression-era agency
that commissioned photographers to record the life of regions. I was brought
there through the medium of Welty's essay and photographs: in a million years,
I would never have happened onto these places on my own.
Since this is so, when we think about the health of the
humanities, we need to think of the agencies that carry the human legacy across
to its new receivers, and that teach the forms of attention that bring distant
things to life.
I'm not a native North Carolinian (had you guessed?), but since
moving here I've learned a fair bit about the lives that have been lived in
this state, so I have my own thank-you list of institutions that taught
me. It was in the brand-new Nasher
Museum that I got to see the films H. Lee Waters made in small Piedmont towns
in the 1930s and 40s, when he would first catch everyday people in everyday
activities, then circle back and allow the town to become the movie audience
for their own daily selves. It was at the new History Center at New Bern that I
got to see the tools of timber workers from the naval stores industry and oyster
harvesters from the Sound, and to hear letters in faint and fading hands voiced
into compelling life.
Sorry I started it: this list is far too long to complete. The
agencies involved in this broad work of education include elementary and high
schools, colleges, universities, and community colleges, museums, libraries,
and concert venues, and all manner of formal and informal community activities,
from book clubs on up. Keeping these all strong is essential to our civic
well-being. Tonight's host, the North Carolina Humanities Council, helps North
Carolinians by the thousands learn the Many Stories that, entered into with
delight and added to our store of knowledge, can make us One People, as your
But with every gratitude to this rich array of teachers, my first
North Carolina immersion came through my own research. So I hope you'll allow
me to share the story of how I began going to Carolina in my mind, long before
I ever imagined living here.
Charles Waddell Chesnutt was the major African American writer of
the post-Civil War generation. Like many writers in his tradition, he was
unread and virtually unheard of at the time of my graduate training. He began
to be noticed in the 1980s, at which time I read his volume of tales The Conjure Woman, loved it, and began
to teach it. From there it was an easy step to giving a paper on Chesnutt at a
scholarly conference, in which I mentioned drafts of an early Chesnutt novel
named Rena Walden. After the talk, a
stranger in the audience, Reynolds Smith, longtime humanities editor at Duke
University Press, came up to ask if I would be interested in doing an edition
of this manuscript. Perhaps so, I said, and filed the thought away.
Some months later, I had the idea of going to inspect this
manuscript, which like all Chesnutt's papers had been deposited in the Special
Collections of the Fisk University Library. Five minutes after arriving, it was
clear that there was no such edition to be made. But since I had two days in
Nashville before my return flight, I opened some other boxes in the archive,
and started into the journals Chesnutt kept in his late teens and twenties,
between 1874 and 1882.
This was one of those uncanny moments when the past's fire
reignites. Here I was, reading the penmanship of a young man who had written
these words one hundred and twenty-five years before, in a moment that must
have felt as present and alive to him as my present moment was to me. I was
hearing confided hopes, fears and ambitions he had perhaps only ever shared
with his diary, with no thought that they would ever be read by others.
After that, off and on for the space of a year, I kept company
with Chesnutt, transcribing the journal and trying to grasp the milieu it arose
from. This took me mentally to Fayetteville and what to me were a series of
revelations. I knew in some abstract way that North Carolina had an unusually
large free black population before emancipation: John Hope Franklin, later to
be my colleague, had written a book on this subject. Well, here was such a
person in his living actuality: a black man from a slave state, neither of
whose parents had been slaves. From Booker T. Washington I knew of the ardent
desire of blacks during Reconstruction to reclaim the education that had been
denied them before. But I would not have guessed that, when free blacks
including Chesnutt's father contributed the money to found the Howard School,
the consequence was that Fayetteville had a grade school for African-American
children before it had one for white. History is particular and thus full of
Charles Chesnutt was the prize pupil of this newly founded school.
Astonishingly precocious, he became the head of school at the age of
twenty-two, when it was designated to be one of North Carolina's first two
state-supported teacher training institutions, the State Colored Normal School.
(The other, white school was the education school at UNC.) Chesnutt's journal supplies access to
the thoughts and feelings of a gifted young black person living with the new
opportunities and old restrictions this time and place provided. Let's tune in
to a moment in this vanished yet visitable past.
July 1874. "While Mister Harris was packing up to-day for his
Northern trip, I came upon his journal, one which he kept several years ago,
and obtaining his permission, I have read a part of it. In fact nearly all.
After reading it, I have concluded to write a journal too." From this
first entry, we know that diary-writing was a learned behavior for Chesnutt, a
tribute of imitation paid to an admired teacher, and an index to how deeply
Chesnutt identified with the new world of teachers, learning, and black
Summer 1875. Chesnutt hunts for summer teaching jobs in the
hinterland between Charlotte and Statesville. It's clear at once how the milieu
that supports his aspirations gives him a jaundiced view of other, less
privileged lives: "I inquired the way to Jonesville church, and by dint of
stopping and inquiring at every house, and by climbing fences and crossing cotton
fields, I arrived at Jonesville. Where the 'ville'
was I am not able to say, for there was but one house within nearly half a mile
of the 'church.' The church itself was a very dilapidated log structure,
without a window; but there was no need of one, for the cracks between the logs
furnished a plentiful supply."
On this scouting
visit, Chesnutt found dinner and a bed with a local family, and his journal
lets us tune in to a remarkable dialogue. "After supper we had a talk
concerning schools, schoolteachers and preachers. The old man said that 'you teachers and preachers are too hard on us. You want us to pay
you thirty or forty dollars a month for sitting in the shade, and that is as
much as we can make in 2 or 3 months'." It took me awhile to learn that,
having obtained a first-class teaching license (itself a fairly new
bureaucratic invention for both white and black educators), Chesnutt was
entitled to earn forty dollars a month as a teacher at age seventeen -- a
stupefying sum to the agricultural laborer he is speaking with. (Chesnutt was
neither the first nor the last teacher whose work was not thought to be work at
all by those doing manual labor.)
Secure in the superiority of certified skills, Chesnutt looks
scornfully on this lame reply. But by chiding the older man for his cheapness,
Chesnutt provokes a fuller articulation of where this man is coming from. "Well,
but we haven't got any chance. We all of us work on other people's, white
people's, land, and sometimes get cheated out of all we make; we can't get the
money." I'm not too cheap to pay, the man rejoins. I am a tenant farmer, I
live in another new post-emancipation status, legally freed yet economically
still dependent. So my income is not under my control.
As he gains a deepened sense of the social position of the person
he is speaking with, Chesnutt becomes able to fashion a far more effective
retort. "Well, you certainly make something?" "Yes." "Now,
I'll tell you. You say you are all renters, and get cheated out of your labor,
why don't you send your children to school, and qualify them to look out for
themselves, to own property, to figure and think about what they are doing, so
that they may do better than you?" To paraphrase: Education isn't an
expensive scam, it's an investment. The less you think you can afford it, the
more you actually need it. Put your money into your kids' education and they'll
know how to control their social destinies.
Through this moment in Chesnutt's diaries, we catch people in the
act of arguing out the costs and values of education in rural North Carolina
ten years after the Civil War, at a time when both were new realities. The
argument between educators and the public that pays them is a never-ending
dialogue. But it helps to be reminded that funding arguments in our day come
out of a long history; that people's views on such issues are always embedded
in the circumstances of their social lives; and that we argue more effectively
when we become better able to enter into another's other point of view.
With the slightest encouragement, I would go on all night on my
work with the Chesnutt diary. But to ensure that David Price can go home with
his the medal he deserves, I will draw to a close. You have heard my argument.
The humanities aren't a luxury good to be enjoyed by those with high
discretionary incomes and long pedigrees in school. They're a fundamental need
of our humanity. They enrich us as persons and enable our life with others.
When access to them weakens, we pay a major cost.
Now as ever, the humanities need supporters, but we need to think
how best to advance the case. In my experience, humanistic advocacy tends to
take one of two general forms. On the one hand, devotees repeat mantras that
resonate with those who have already undergone humanistic conversion but draw
blank stares from the uninitiated. ("Only the humanities raise issues of
life's meaning." If you don't already know, what exactly does that mean? "The
humanities promote critical thinking." Now there's an unself-critical
thought!) On the other hand, aware that this sales pitch is falling flat, we
reach for arguments thought to be sure-fire winners with the unhumanistic
public, though we know they don't do justice to the cause—the arts are great because they are essential to economic development
(they are, but that's not why they're great); or, if we aren't trained in
foreign languages and cultures, we won't be able to decode intelligence from
What we need, before we ask others for investments, is to
challenge ourselves to say what the humanities are good for, as simply and
truly as we can manage, with examples that prove the point. It's not the
easiest of tasks, but it's worth our hard thinking. The life you save may be