Place of Birth
St. Louis, MO
B.A. Harvard University
M.A., M.Phil., Ph. D. Yale University
Why did you choose to come to Amherst
I began my career as the Curator of Photographs at the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth, TX, and initially came to Amherst in 1989 to become director of the Mead Art Museum. My career has taken some interesting twists and turns since then, and I am now Professor of American Studies and History. After a wonderful twenty-year run, I will be leaving Amherst this summer to become a Professor of History at Princeton University.
Favorite course to teach
I’ve enjoyed teaching so many classes, it’s difficult to cite a single favorite. I’ve loved teaching first-year seminars and introducing freshmen to college-level research and writing. Likewise, I‘ve enjoyed teaching upper-level seminars in Archives and Special Collections at Frost, where I’ve been able to introduce students to the joys of working with visual documents. I’d also have to mention my Public History class. It always surprises students to discover that history can be an ongoing source of contention – as it is made public in museums, monuments, textbooks and public policy. History is not just over and done with!
My own research interests have undergone a big shift in recent years. My last book was on photography and the nineteenth-century American West. My most recent book focuses more on issues of race and identity in late-nineteenth century New York. I suppose what unites the two is a keen interest in how historical documents – whether images, public records, or literary sources – can be made to speak to more complex and more pressing historical questions.
Awards and Prizes
Over the years, I have received fellowship support for my work from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Beinecke Library at Yale University, and the School for American Research. My books have received awards from various organizations, including the Organization of American Historians, Art Libraries Society of North America, and the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.
At or near the top of my list of favorite writers, I’d put the great western novelist and historian Wallace Stegner. I’m a great fan of his novels, but also admire his ability to write history with real narrative flair. My favorite book of his is “Angle of Repose,” a work of historical fiction grounded in the work of a little known writer named Mary Hallock Foote. Few books are so wise about why history matters and how we ought to write it.
Tips for aspiring writers
The best advice I ever got about writing history came from a graduate school professor. He had just won a major book award and our class took that as an excuse to talk to him about writing. “Who do you write for?” we asked. “Intelligent martians,” he replied. He explained that he imagined his readers to be very smart, but never imagined them to know anything about his subject. Nothing I learned in graduate school has served me quite so well as that one remark. Even now, it allows me to imagine my reader as I write. And for me, that is key
For more information about Marni, visit her website: http://www.marthaasandweiss.com