I am excited to be blogging for the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities and the Pulitzer Prize-inspired commemorative series, What is the 21st Century Essay?
While the thirteen annual Pulitzer Prizes mark excellence in the realm of journalism, literature and music, I confess to still having the most visceral connection to Pulitzer Prize winning photographs, a preference I carry from childhood. For me these iconic pictures, brimming with emotion and story, represent public humanities at its best. The capacity to focus our attention to a specific place and time, on a unique moment unfolding in a particular locale, is a powerful mechanism. It produces a focus that both disrupts our distracted habitual ways of looking and gives us a glimpse of what is common, universal, human and always relevant.
The essay form is not a photograph but at its best, the essay does similar work. We are drawn into a set of details, specific and material, lead along a path of associations and thought to arrive at insight. The essay as a form is engaged, speaks from a distinct vantage point, and is tasked with the obligation to make its case. The mechanism of focus, the varied paths we travel to arrive at focus, even if fleetingly, intrigues me. Perhaps this is one component of the 21st Century essay—what holds our attention?
Under these definitional terms, I suppose I too am a 21st century essayist. I have lived in the Elmwood neighborhood of Providence for nearly thirty years, in the same house with a rotating cast of dogs and children and contractors. I am a Brown University trained historian and author of three books. I taught college students for twenty plus years until the recession of 2008 changed my professional trajectory. I no longer write for a university audience. I’ve been de-institutionalized yet no less called to write and think. These days my familiar preoccupations with the intersection of history and narrative have morphed into questions at once more pressing and slower paced, questions that require time and distance, the very elements the internet with its fevered connectivity have compressed: Why are we as we are? What are we moved to say? And why do we express ourselves as we do?
These are my questions as I think about the 21st century essay but what are yours? If the internet has taught us anything it is the lesson of unruly inclusion and unregulated participation in the constantly unfurling present. Follow along. What might your 21st Century essay’s form be and what do you want to express? How will you hold our attention?
Jane Gerhard is a historian and writer living in the Elmwood neighborhood of Providence. She earned a PhD in American Studies from Brown University in 1996 and never left. She is the author of two books, the co-author of an American women’s history textbook and is currently at work on on her next book, The Monkey King of Madison. More information can be found at janegerhard.com.
Jane is blogging for the Council as part of the Pulitzer Prize-inspired commemorative series, What is the 21st Century Essay? to help us explore the changing nature of journalism and the humanities in the digital age with a focus on environmental issues because of their urgency and relevance to our health, communities, and economy.