On the Spot: Gene A. Jarrett
‘Being a careful analyst of history can help anticipate trends in the present and future.’
Why are you a historian of African American literature?
For its formal experimentation with ideas and language, and for the insights into the diversity of the human condition it affords.
What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?
That being a careful analyst of history can help anticipate trends in the present and future.
Which history book has had the greatest influence on you?
David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.
What book in your field should everyone read?
W.E.B. Du Bois’ collection The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches.
Which moment would you most like to go back to?
When I read Richard Wright’s autobiography Black Boy for the first time.
Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?
W.E.B. Du Bois.
Which person in history would you most like to have met?
How many languages do you have?
What historical topic have you changed your mind on?
Slave narratives: not only literate but illiterate slaves had fascinating stories to tell the world about their experiences.
What is the most common misconception about your field?
That it is narrow.
Which genre of history do you like least?
Anything that recycles old tropes.
What’s the most exciting field in history today?
Studies of the era of Reconstruction.
Is there an important historical text you have not read?
The Federalist Papers.
What’s your favourite archive?
The James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.
What’s the best museum?
The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.
What technology has changed the world the most?
The Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean?
Historical drama or documentary?
The Parthenon or Machu Picchu?
What will future generations judge us most harshly for?
For not thinking empathetically and mindfully enough about future generations.
Gene A. Jarrett is Dean of the Faculty and William S. Tod Professor of English at Princeton University. He is the author of Paul Laurence Dunbar: The Life and Times of a Caged Bird (Princeton University Press, 2022).