James Alexander (Alec) Dun
Place of Birth:
New York, NY
BA Amherst 1992; MA Princeton 1999; PhD Princeton 2004
Why did you choose to come to Amherst?
There wasn’t some profound reason, really. I applied, was lucky in getting admitted, and it was one of my best options. The profound parts happened after I came, some of which I’m still only coming to understand today.
Most memorable or most influential class at Amherst:
My ILS with Jan Dizard on War opened me up to reading and writing in ways I hadn’t experienced before. Another was History 11, which, thanks to some bozo moves on my part, I didn’t take until my senior year. It was taught by John Servos and was great, and was also fun because I got to take it with my sister (Catherine Dun Rappaport, ’95). There were many others.
Most memorable or most influential professor: David Blight, by his bearing, his care, his intellectual empathy, and his rigor, made me think seriously about being a historian.
I’m an early American historian, focusing in particular on race and slavery in North America and the Caribbean. Right now I’m just starting a study of the ways in which gradual emancipation laws changed how enslaved and free people of color moved in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Awards and Prizes:
I have a “World’s Greatest Dad” mug. I’ve also won some fellowships and grants along the way. Amherst awarded me some money for my books at the start of graduate school.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale is, for me, like Springsteen’s Nebraska album: it made me aware of who I want to write about and how.
Yikes. I don’t think I have one.
Tips for aspiring writers?
For me, it has been important to write regularly, if at all possible. I’ve also noticed that my window of lucidity and focus is shrinking. It is a good day if I’ve written for a couple of hours in the morning, early morning if I can. One trick I’ve learned is to leave a thought you’ve formulated halfway through at the end of a session. That way, when you start up again you know where you were going from the get-go.
Tell us a bit about your path to becoming an author:
As a historian, I didn’t have much choice: books are the coins of the realm in my profession. I’m glad, though. I’ve always liked writing, though I won’t say it is always easy going. I like making order, my order, out of chaos—explaining things that I think are important in ways that, I hope, people find compelling.