New York City Learns How “Radcliffe Writes”
On February 28, three Institute fellows gathered to present their work to a group of Radcliffe alumnae at the Harvard Club of New York City. A historian, a journalist, and a fiction writer each represented a different approach to the written word in an event titled “Radcliffe Writes.” This all occurred, appropriately enough, under the watchful eye of Mary Ingraham Bunting, who founded the original iteration of the Institute—as Ellen Gordon Reeves ’83, EdM ’86 pointed out during the question-and-answer session. Bunting’s portrait hangs in the Harvard Club’s West Room, where the event took place.
Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of law at Harvard Law School and a professor of history in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, spoke about her longtime research interest in Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, and slavery. In January, she began the first of four research semesters provided by her appointment as the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professorship at the Radcliffe Institute. “It’s been another—one of the many—embarrassment of riches that I’ve had over the past several years,” she said. She currently spends each Monday morning in her Byerly Hall office, Skyping with Peter S. Onuf of the University of Virginia, with whom she is collaborating on a new book about Thomas Jefferson’s intellectual development. “There’s so much about the country you can learn from studying Jefferson,” she said.
Diane McWhorter, the Mildred Londa Weisman Fellow and a writer of narrative nonfiction, delivered what she called “the speed-dating version” of a recent presentation. She’s working on a book about a surprising connection between the Third Reich and the segregated American South: Tranquility Base, Apollo 11’s landing site on the moon. The book centers on Wernher von Braun, who, after he worked on the V-2 missile used by the Third Reich against London and Antwerp, was recruited by the United States to lead a team that built the Saturn V. After that rocket put Neil Armstrong on the moon, said McWhorter, von Braun became “the Elvis of the geeksphere.” Of her writing style, she said, “I approach history as a journalist, combining the research strategies of a historian with the festive cynicism of a reporter.”
Tayari Jones—a novelist, short story writer, and essayist whose work explores the African American experience in Atlanta—gave a heartfelt and poetic testimonial of what the Radcliffe Institute has meant to her career. An associate professor of English at Rutgers University, Jones says she was able to take a break from her “unsustainable professional life”—teaching four classes a year, participating in several committees, working on a novel, serving as vice-chair of the nonprofit Girls Right Now, and preparing for a 50-city book tour—to focus solely on writing a new novel. “I wrote my first novel sitting in a closet,” she said. “And this was not a closet that had been converted to an office.This was a closet that was still in use as a closet.” Now she doesn’t need to steal time—or space—to write her new novel. She has a full year to tell her new story, Dear History, and a real office in Byerly Hall.
All three fellows praised the generosity of spirit of their fellow fellows. That intellectual giving couldn’t occur without the generous alumnae who share both time and resources with us.