Richard S. Dunn *52 *55
Historian Richard S. Dunn *52 *55 has spent the last 40 years constructing a portrait of the final decades of slavery. In A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia, Dunn draws a richly compelling history of the lives of three generations of slaves at the Mesopotamia sugar estate in Jamaica and the Mount Airy plantation in Virginia.
“Slavery caused terrible suffering to the black people in both regions,” Dunn writes, “but in strikingly dissimilar ways.” At Mesopotamia, Dunn found, life was marked by deadly work regimens, rampant disease, and dependence on the slave trade for new laborers. At Mount Airy, families often were broken up as “surplus” slaves were sold or moved to other work sites. More than 200 of the estate’s slaves were sent 800 miles away, Dunn found in his study of the papers left behind by the owners. Dunn provides a detailed account of the lives of two enslaved women: field hand Sarah Affir from Mesopotamia and Winney Grimshaw at Mount Airy. Continue reading
Professor Julian Zelizer
In the three years between November 1963, when he became president, and November 1966, when the Democratic Party was routed in the midterm elections, Lyndon Johnson pushed through Congress the legislative accomplishments of the “Great Society:” the Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty program, Medicare and Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, and the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts, among others.
Previous assessments of Johnson’s presidency have attributed his success to a receptive Congress and his force of personality, buttressed by his 6-foot-4-inch stature and his use of “the Treatment,” which history and public affairs professor Julian Zelizer describes as “physically and verbally bullying, cajoling, lobbying, and threatening.”
In The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society, Zelizer questions that view. He examines the crucial role Congress played in passing and eventually blocking initiatives driven by the president, as well as the larger political climate that was conducive to change-making legislation. He argues that “the work of grassroots activists and changes in the power structure of Congress enabled a liberal president to fulfill his grand legislative ambition — the creation of a second New Deal that would complete the work of Franklin Roosevelt.”
Kirkus Reviews calls The Fierce Urgency of Now “a smart, provocative study.” Alan Krueger, a Princeton professor of economics and public policy and former chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, writes, “Zelizer’s book is a valuable antidote to all those who say we just need Barack Obama to be more like Lyndon Johnson to get things done in Washington.”
Michael Brown ’72
As a fledgling anthropologist just four years out of Princeton, Michael Brown ’72 spent 21 months living among the Awajún, an indigenous tribe located in the upper reaches of the rainforests of Peru. He was forced to leave when political turmoil erupted, but decades later he returned to his field notes and rediscovered a world whose complexity and significance he says he had failed to appreciate as a younger, less experienced man.
In Upriver: The Turbulent Life and Times of an Amazonian People, Brown recalls that during his initial fieldwork, he encountered what seemed an exuberant and resourceful culture. But as he dug deeper into the Awajún’s way of life, Brown discovered the prevalence of violent, often murderous, vendettas among the tribe members. Even more disturbing were the rates of suicide from wives who tried to exercise control over their husbands with the threat of their own death.
Brown, who is the president of the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe and a professor emeritus at Williams College, returned to Awajún in 2012 to write Upriver, which is part memoir, part ethnography. It chronicles Brown’s struggle to make sense of the tensions and conflicts in Awajún life and explores the nature of civilization and independence.
Roberta Isleib ’75
Fifteen years ago, Roberta Isleib ’75 was a practicing clinical psychologist, an avid mystery reader, and a recent convert to the game of golf. Then a friend suggested that she combine her interests and try her hand at writing a golf novel. Two years later, Isleib produced the first draft of Six Strokes Under, a murder mystery starring a female golfer who must overcome psychological setbacks to achieve her dream of playing on the LPGA tour. Today, Isleib is full-time novelist publishing her 13th mystery, Death with All the Trimmings, under her pen name, Lucy Burdette.
The transition from psychologist to full-time writer was surprisingly easy, she says: “In my work as a therapist, I helped people understand themselves by looking for patterns in their family history, and tracing how these might lead to feeling stuck in the present. A detective story is similar: you start with a problem, and then look for clues so you can figure out the solution.” With a nine-month timeline for producing each book, Isleib is a disciplined writer. “I write a thousand words a day. I learned in my psychology training to set small goals and stick to them, rather than feel overwhelmed by the big picture,” she says. Continue reading
Three books by Princeton alumni were featured in The New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2014: A Replacement Life, by Boris Fishman ’01; American Innovations, by Rivka Galchen ’98; On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, by Alice Goffman *10; and Family Life, by Akhil Sharma ’92. Emeritus professor James McPherson also made the list with his biography of Jefferson Davis, Embattled Rebel. Times Book Review editors also named Sharma’s novel as one of the year’s 10 best.
Read more about the authors in the PAW Archives:
Boris Fishman ’01: Immigrant Experiences Inspire a Debut Novel
Fishman, who was born in the former Soviet Union and came to the United States at age 9, told PAW contributor Maria LoBiondo that the immigrant experience has played a key role in his writing. “Outwardly I’m very American, but inwardly I’m Russian,” he said. “The conflict is very rich for writing. Honey for art, but vinegar for life.”
Tiger of the Week: Author Rivka Galchen ’98
Galchen’s fresh, innovative short-story collection earned high marks from reviewers.
Life on the Run
Goffman, a rising star in sociology, chronicled the human costs of America’s penal system after spending her 20s immersed in fieldwork with wanted young men.
Tiger of the Week: Novelist Akhil Sharma ’92
Sharma’s semi-autobiographical second novel was the result of a sometimes painful writing process that took nearly a decade. He wrote about the experience in a personal essay for The New York Times.
For the record: This post has been updated to include Akhil Sharma ’92’s novel Family Life.
S.C. Gwynne ’74
When Thomas J. Jackson began his Civil War career, he was known among his students at the Virginia Military Institute as the college’s worst teacher, a literalist when it came to following military orders, and an implausible star in the Mexican-American War. He also was a confirmed Unionist who hated the very idea of the tremendous conflict that secession would bring. Despite his aversion to war, the man known as Stonewall Jackson became one of the greatest Southern heroes of the Civil War.
As S.C. Gwynne ’74 writes in Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, in a war that “made a specialty of such changes,” Jackson’s transformation stands out. With the same vivid prose that marked his previous book, Pulitzer Prize finalist Empire of the Summer Moon, Gwynne offers a fresh perspective on the life of the man who, 14 months after the start of the war, had become the most famous military figure in the Western world.