Johns Hopkins University
Fall/Winter 2007
Vol. 5, No. 1

FEATURES

OF BYTES AND BOOKS AND DATABASES
  

THE WONDER YEARS

> DEFINING WORKS

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Defining Works

Hindsight may be 20/20, but that doesn't mean that looking back in time reveals the whole truth in every case. Consider, for example, the curriculum vitae of an esteemed, veteran professor in the humanities, someone whose work stands in the top rank of his or her field.

More often than not, that CV will show off a career that looks as if it unfolded along a straight and seamless line, each accomplishment building on the one that came before it as if in accord with a perfectly logical plan of action. This is not how things work in the real world. The whole truth about academic careers includes the fact that the most successful of them are often chock full of unlikely twists, surprising turns, and unexpected revelations.

Just ask Lou Galambos, Alan Shapiro, Frances Ferguson, and John Irwin.

In the stories that follow, each recounts the intellectual, emotional, and professional challenges they confronted while completing the project that's been most important to their careers.

What were the defining personal moments behind their defining academic works?


“A Real Vision of the Long Haul”

Louis Galambos photoLouis Galambos is a big-picture historian. He focuses on the behavior of large, lumbering entities such as multinational corporations, whole sectors of the economy, and big government. So there's a bit of irony to the fact that the work that defines his career above all else focuses so intently on a single individual: Dwight David Eisenhower.

Galambos came to Johns Hopkins in 1971 to take over from his colleague, Alfred Chandler, the job of putting together The Papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Over the ensuing three decades, Galambos led the team that edited the last 16 of the 21 volumes in a series published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. Today, that series serves as a model for the organization and dissemination of presidential papers.

Galambos never saw any contradiction between the laser-like focus of the Eisenhower project and his work on broader topics. Instead, he always regarded the postwar period of Eisenhower's presidency as a perfect lens through which to examine many of the same questions that have driven his 10 books and scores of articles. How does a nation keep its economy innovative and efficient? How do societies respond to seismic economic shifts of the sort that can turn a mostly rural nation into a mostly urban one in a few short decades? How did the U.S. learn to make its way as a powerful force in the broader world?

The story of the Eisenhower presidency is not bursting with personal drama and great heroism. And yet Galambos finds himself admiring the way Eisenhower helped lay such a strong foundation for the seminal changes that his nation would confront long after he left office. "He prepared the nation so intelligently for problems that were coming," Galambos says. "He explained in clear and even-handed ways that you can't buy perfect security, that you need to buy only what you can afford so that you can continue to run your society successfully. He had a real vision of the long haul."

"The truth is, I developed tremendous admiration for him while I was doing the papers," Galambos says. "He wasn't a saint, and he made some mistakes. But he was a very effective president. We've been slow to appreciate that, but his reputation is growing now. The reason might be that we've had a chance to see a lot of other presidents trying to get things done in this modern world. So every four years, he looks a little bit better."

 

Walking in the Footsteps of Peisistratos

Alan Shapiro photoIn 1987, Alan Shapiro had nearly finished his work on what would become Art and Cult Under the Tyrants in Athens (1989). He headed off on one last trip to Greece to work on his revisions and double-check some sources.

Shapiro had been chasing Peisistratos, a rather elusive figure in the historical record. A native of the rural countryside in the region of Attica, he became Tyrant of Athens after a coup sometime around 560 B.C. This was decades before the earliest stirrings of democracy in Greek culture. No writing from this period survives. To develop a portrait of Peisistratos, Shapiro relied on later historical narratives that mention him, and, especially, on inscriptions and paintings found on decorative and religious objects from his time in power.

"One day I woke up, and it was just a beautiful day," he recalls. "I'd planned to go back to the library, but then I got this wild idea. I got on a public bus and rode for an hour or so, going out to the countryside, to the place where Peisistratos grew up, a little village called Brauron. It was east of Athens, just about at the coast of the Aegean.

"It was completely desolate," he says. "I was the only person for miles around. I just wandered around for most of the day, soaking up the environment and thinking about Peisistratos' life as a young man."

When he returned to Athens, Shapiro found himself tackling his manu-script revisions with a renewed sense of purpose. Art and Cult Under the Tyrants in Athens was published at a time when studies of the archaic period were focused on the analysis of objects in highly technical ways, usually involving detailed questions of artistic technique and connoisseurship. His book, on the other hand, looks at those objects from an approach that was still relatively new-as a window through which we can see a broader picture of social, political, and religious life. The period of Peisistratos is a critical one in Greek history; Athens and its leaders were laying the cultural foundation for the classical period that would come soon enough.

"I know this is going to sound clichéd," Shapiro says, "but essentially I spent that day walking in the footsteps of Peisistratos. I was breathing the same air, seeing the same sky. It really brought home the way all of our research in texts and with artifacts has to be complemented by getting to know places and trying to think about them in new ways."

 

“Glimmers of Thought, Moments of Progress”

Frances Ferguson photoWhen Frances Ferguson first set out to trace the historical development of the aesthetic concept of the sublime—as developed by the likes of Kant, Burke, and Schiller—she had a rather modest goal in mind. "It was kind of foolish," she says, "but I thought that the sublime would be a fairly small topic. I ended up realizing that I was tackling something much bigger."

Ferguson, who had been on the English faculty at Hopkins since 1973, moved to the University of California at Berkeley around this time, and then returned to Hopkins as a full professor in 1988. It was during her stretch away that she did the bulk of her work on Solitude and the Sublime: Romanticism and the Aesthetics of Individuation, a book that was finally published in 1992, nearly two decades after she first started noodling around the topic.

"One of the things that's important for people like me who chew over projects for a long time is to get a chance to put all of the things we learn along the way into a hopper," she says. "You want to see how you work with them when they get bombarded by completely different ideas."

While reading, Ferguson takes notes in scattershot fashion, scrawling thoughts in a reckless hand onto the page, which she then fills with strange arrows and symbols. Later, in her own version of a brainstorming trick that the 19th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham employed, she sits on the floor and arranges those notes in a big circle, seeking connections amid her note-taking chaos.

"In the kind of work that we do, you have these senses now and again of having glimmers of thought and moments of progress," Ferguson says. "Sometimes, you feel so excited and you get such a sense of clarity that you feel like you're almost done! Then comes this other sense, of being at an impasse. I've learned to regard those moments as a good thing. It's like your mind is requiring that you stop and rest and build up some force again before you can move forward with the writing process."

 

The Best Is Yet to Come

John Irwin photoLike many young scholars eyeing a future in academia, John Irwin had sketched a career to-do list when he earned a PhD from Rice University in 1969. His top priority would be writing a book making the case that Hart Crane is the most underrated American poet of the 20th century.

In fact, Irwin did get to work on that book straight away in his first faculty job, as an assistant professor of English at Johns Hopkins. But he never imagined back then that he might still be toiling away on that draft 37 years later—or that he might be doing so in a frame of mind that's pretty content with the way things worked out in the end.

"Oh no, I wouldn't say this is a frustrating thing to me, that it's taken so long, not at all," the Decker Professor in the Humanities says. "I've published seven other books during the time I've been working on Crane. One thing I've found is that no matter how many times I go away from his poems, whenever I come back to them, I have new things to say."

Irwin first encountered Crane as an undergraduate student. It was the literary equivalent of love at first sight. "I was greatly under the influence of T.S. Eliot's poetry then," Irwin recalls. "It's true of course that Eliot is an American, but in a sense Eliot is also a kind of faux European poet. I didn't really see that until I found places in Crane where the language is just so clearly and genuinely American."

With Crane once again on top of Irwin's priority list, he insists that his manuscript will be done by the end of 2008. The book will argue that Crane belongs in the top rank of modern poets working in English. Irwin ranks him behind Yeats and Stevens, but ahead of Eliot and Frost. Yale University's Harold Bloom ranks Crane just about as highly; that's why he's been pushing Irwin to get back to work on the book that Bloom believes will come to define Irwin's career. "The level of John's criticism over the past several decades has been simply extraordinary," Bloom says. "The reason I keep asking him about this book is that the two living beings who love Hart Crane most deeply are John Irwin and Harold Bloom. This will be John's masterpiece. I really believe that." 

Jim Duffy writes from Cambridge, Maryland.