Historian Jane Kamensky to Lead the Schlesinger Library

Photo by Webb ChappellPhoto by Webb Chappell
By Pat Harrison

Jane Kamensky, the newly appointed Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library and a member of the Harvard History Department, describes her academic beginnings as meandering. She attended what she calls “a pretty middling public high school in the Jersey suburbs”; went to Yale, where she began as a music performance major and wound up studying 20th-century German history; headed to Wall Street, along with about a quarter of her classmates, but didn’t love the work; left that job and took a new one in the typing pool at Columbia University, which offered free tuition to employees; enrolled in Rosalind Rosenberg’s class on American women’s history, and BOOM.

“I found my life in the books we read,” Kamensky says. “It was a life-changing epiphany.” Rosenberg’s was the first history class about women that Kamensky had ever taken and also the first history class she’d been in that was taught by a woman. Kamensky and her husband, Dennis J. Scannell Jr., whom she had met during her brief time on Wall Street (“the one good thing about that job,” she says), began graduate school at Yale in the fall of 1987—she in history and he in management.

Since earning her doctorate in 1993, Kamensky has had a distinguished academic career, serving on the history faculty at Brandeis University for more than 20 years, 6 of them as chair of the department. She held the Harry S. Truman Professorship of American Civilization at Brandeis and was subsequently appointed to the faculty at Brown University as the Mary Ann Lippitt Professor of American History.

Kamensky has lived in Cambridge for 22 years and has been in residence at Radcliffe twice before: as a Bunting fellow in 1996–1997 and a Radcliffe fellow in 2006–2007. During her second stint at Radcliffe, she put the finishing touches on her award-winning book The Exchange Artist: A Tale of High-Flying Speculation and America’s First Banking Collapse (Viking, 2008) and started a new project.

Her tale of the banking collapse centered on Boston’s Exchange Coffee House, a seven-story building constructed in 1809 on Congress Street, which Kamensky describes in her prologue as “one of the tallest, strangest, most talked about buildings in the English-speaking world.”

Designed as a center of commerce, the building imitated grand exchange edifices in London, Paris, and other world capitals. But the man who built it, Andrew Dexter Jr., financed it with worthless currency printed by banks that he secretly controlled. When the bubble collapsed, the Exchange brought financial ruin to almost everyone involved, from financiers to bricklayers. The building burned to the ground in 1818 in a spectacular fire that served for decades as a metaphor for the dangers of finance capitalism.

Kamensky’s current project, the first scholarly biography of the artist John Singleton Copley, took root in her work on The Exchange Artist. She first became interested in one of Copley’s cohorts, Gilbert Stuart, when she saw the portrait Stuart painted of Dexter, the entrepreneur who built the Exchange Coffee House. But Stuart—whom she calls “a notorious character”—turned out to be an impossible subject for a biography.

“Stuart painted a lot,” she says, “including scores of portraits of George Washington. It is no exaggeration to say that he put a face on the new United States. When we think of the early American republic, it’s his portraits we see in our mind’s eye.” But Stuart wrote very little. “He can only be seen from the outside in,” Kamensky says. “He was a character—people wrote about him. But we only get the surfaces, not the depths.”

So she changed gears. Copley, whom Stuart knew in London, kept surfacing in her research. Unlike Stuart, he wrote a lot. “Hundreds of family letters survive,” Kamensky says. “He’s very present as a visual intellectual, not only through his paintings but also through his voice, which is filled with a kind of aching ambition we have come to label American. I think he’s a great historical figure, of a kind we don’t often reckon with.” She describes Copley as “in many ways a man in between: neither elite nor impoverished, neither fully English nor comfortably American. He’s a shape-shifter in an era when we tend to assume that people’s identities were fixed.” W. W. Norton will publish Copley: A Life in Color in 2016.

That subtitle, A Life in Color, is meant to convey two ideas: the nature of a painter’s work and also a different way of thinking about the era of the American revolution, which has too often been seen as a two-sided story, more like a black and white engraving than an oil painting. Copley’s revolution was a messy civil war, not a moralistic tale “of white-hatted patriot heroes and black-hatted Tory villains,” as Kamensky calls them, but a story about those American-born Britons who were reluctant to join the conflict. “We really don’t know the story of the sideliners,” she says. And Copley is a good figure to tell this story, since he wanted to escape the politics of the revolutionary era.

It’s not surprising that a history scholar with Kamensky’s broad interests would be drawn to the position of Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger. “It’s an astonishing archive,” she says. “As a historian, I love living in archives. They’re magic to me.” She also likes the idea of maintaining her scholarly and teaching life. She plans to immerse herself in the library during the fall semester and begin teaching in the spring, when she’ll teach a sophomore course for history concentrators called “What Is Family History?” The course, like many of Kamensky’s, will expose students to the rich collections of the Schlesinger Library.

Kamensky is convinced that there’s a lot of potential for the library to reach beyond Harvard’s walls even more than it already has. “Now that the study of women and gender and the household is important to so many different areas of inquiry—from politics to military history—almost every historian and social scientist in the United States has reason to use this library,” she says.

“The library has a great impact on the Harvard campus and is a treasured resource for historians of American women,” she says, “but a much broader range of scholars needs to draw on these collections. Nancy Cott [former Pforzheimer Foundation Director] and Marilyn Dunn [executive director and Radcliffe Institute librarian] and their predecessors accomplished hugely important things, acquiring major new collections and making great strides in digital and on-site access. Now there’s a chance to trumpet the message even more broadly.”

Public events during 2015–2016—including an exhibition of Corita Kent’s artwork and a lecture by Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer Megan Marshall ’77, RI ’07—should help begin that trumpeting.

Search Year: 
2015