#NEHstories: Catherine E. Kelly

Catherine E. Kelly

#NEHstories: Catherine E. KellyLike all my colleagues, I recognize that NEH is threaded throughout my career as a teacher and a scholar; its influence is visible in the books I teach and in the ones I’ve written. But the #NEHStory that matters to me most is a story about how the NEH helps build cultural and intellectual community in places we don’t always expect to find it.

In 2009‒11, I was the lead scholar on the NEH Library Outreach Program “Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women” at the Noble, Oklahoma, Public Library.  Noble is a small, rural community a few miles south of the University of Oklahoma, and its energetic and entrepreneurial librarian, Cathy Adams, had a track record of securing NEH funds. This particular grant furnished the public with free copies of Harriet Reisen’s biography so that they could explore Alcott’s “untraditional life, her varied body of published work, and her place in American culture.”

I was frankly skeptical at the outset: Did the general public really want to talk about Alcott, much less in a way that disrupted an easy identification between the author and her most famous novel?

I should have known better.

My job was to devise multiple forms of participatory programing to bring Noble’s residents into the library for a day-long event that would cap months of reading groups. Over the course of “Alcottpalooza,” as I wound up calling my share of the programing, we had talks on nineteenth-century fashion and material culture and a workshop on nineteenth-century music and dance, which ended with participants executing quadrilles and reels. We dug up some of the parlor games that might have amused Jo and her sisters and taught them to the children. Volunteers contributed cakes and cookies from historic cookbooks. (I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the baked goods except to say that they were heavy on the apples and gone long before I got to sample any.)

Every event was full to capacity.

The following week, I went to Curtis Inge Middle School and gave a couple of interactive talks to dozens of Noble’s social studies students. We talked about what it might have been like to live 150 years ago. We talked about careers and aspirations.  We talked about class, and gender, and race. We talked about wanting to make the world a better place. And we did it all by talking about Louisa May Alcott and the antebellum United States more generally.

My #NEHStory has a coda. Oklahoma is in a severe and protracted budget crisis, born of falling revenues, a commitment to minimal taxes, and a deep suspicion of the role that government should play in ameliorating the conditions of everyday life. Today, the Noble School system runs four days a week. They simply can’t afford to keep the doors open for a fifth. Proof, I think, that when you start to shred the edges of the social fabric, you quickly find yourself shredding its heart.

19 June 2017

About the Author

Catherine E. Kelly is L.R. Brammer Jr. Presidential Professor of History at The University of Oklahoma and editor-in-chief for the Journal of the Early Republic.

Recent Contributions to the JER
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