Peter Gilbert

Commentator

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

For commentaries from Peter before April 2013, visit the VPR Archive.

With all the talk in the news today about alternative facts and untrue statements, I’ve been reminded that before Google and Wikipedia, the best source of accurate information was usually the local reference librarian. And I’ve been wondering what librarians might say was the oddest question they’d ever been asked.

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass, former slave, eminent abolitionist, and perhaps America’s greatest orator, spoke near his home in Rochester, New York at an event commemorating the Declaration of Independence.

Superlatives are rare.  The biggest, the best, the oldest – they are unique: there’s only one “biggest.”   Superlatives are particularly noteworthy when they relate to something important, something people value, and perhaps collect, like books.  

The frequent news stories these days about the countless hungry and homeless strangers seeking shelter and security, both in Europe and the US, raise the same issues that are raised in Robert Frost’s famous poem Two Tramps in Mud Time.

Not long ago, after she’d finished reading two science-related magazines, my aunt passed them along to me and for some unknown reason I turned first to the prominent last page of the issue of MIT Technology Review.

In the face of calls for the abolition of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, one can appreciate just how much is at stake by looking at the life of Robert Frost.

Every year, between December 1st and the end of February, if winter storms in the North Pacific send really big waves on to the North Shore of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, then an invitational big wave surfing competition may happen. But only if the waves are at least thirty and forty feet high when measured from the bottom of the trough in front of the wave to the wave’s peak.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt named Admiral Chester Nimitz Commander of the Pacific Fleet.

Felix Frankfurter was a close advisor and friend to President Franklin Roosevelt, who, in 1939, appointed him to the Supreme Court, where he served for 23 years. A brilliant jurist, Frankfurter was a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union and a strong advocate of judicial restraint.

My brother, Ken, lives in Dallas. He met his future wife at an election night party forty years ago, the night Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford. And every four years since then, they’ve hosted a bipartisan election night party.

Gilbert: To Autumn

Sep 16, 2016

Two hundred years ago tomorrow, the British poet John Keats wrote one of the greatest short poems in the English language. It’s about autumn, something that Vermonters treasure, as do the countless tree-peepers who visit the state every fall. The poem is exquisitely beautiful, in language and image, and that’s the principal reason it’s such a beloved and frequently anthologized poem.

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said that “All biography is autobiography.” It’s usually taken to mean that in writing about other people, biographers reveal something about themselves - by the perspective they take, the elements of the person’s life that they focus on, and the interpretations they make of the person’s life. It might be thought of as a large but subtle Freudian slip.

Gilbert: Colby Award

May 4, 2016

Norwich University’s William E. Colby Award is given annually to a first-time author in recognition of a book that has made a major contribution to the understanding of military history, intelligence operations, or international affairs. 

I once heard Sir Christopher Ricks observe that a scholar is someone who tells you something you didn’t know, and a critic is someone who tells you something you hadn’t noticed. Ricks himself is both a great scholar and a great critic – which is why he was knighted in 2009. He’s now a professor at Boston University.

This is the hundredth anniversary year of the Pulitzer Prizes, and to celebrate the Pulitzer Prizes Board and state humanities councils across the country, including the Vermont Humanities Council, are collaborating with countless programs and projects. The initiative “seeks to illuminate the impact of journalism and the humanities on American life today, to imagine their future and to inspire new generations to consider the values represented by the body of Pulitzer Prize-winning work.”

It was August 1968, and Chicago was hosting the Democratic National Convention, an open convention without a clear nominee. I was a freshman in a suburban high school forty miles outside Chicago. My siblings and I took the commuter train into the city and walked around, from one campaign headquarters to another, not missing a chance to scoop up scores of campaign buttons for our collections. Late in the afternoon, we took the train back home, arriving in time for dinner.

2016 is the four hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death - a milestone being marked in myriad ways, including with copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio, the 1623 published collection of Shakespeare’s plays, touring the United States. Middlebury College Museum of Art is the only place in Vermont where you can see one of the First Folios, on display through the end of February; you can also see one at Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire.

As Hitler’s army swept across Europe with lightning speed, the political dynamic in the U.S. changed rapidly as a result.

Gilbert: Joe Hill

Nov 17, 2015

Joe Hill was born Joel Hagglund, or Hillstrom, in Sweden. He emigrated to the US at 23 and became a migrant laborer. Often unemployed, he wrote songs and gave speeches for the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW, known as the Wobblies. His songs expressed, often with humor, workers’ difficult circumstances and urged them to organize for better working conditions. He penned the lyric “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”

At the dedication in 1897 of the Civil War monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry that stands on the Boston Common, the keynote speaker was William James, philosopher and psychologist, brother of the great novelist Henry James, and considered by some the most brilliant American of the nineteenth century. His speech was surprising.

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