Peter Gilbert


Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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

On Nine-Eleven, 1997, the late actor Charlton Heston, best known for his role as Moses in The Ten Commandments, spoke at the National Press Club on behalf of the NRA.  Yes, the NRA had opposed the Brady Bill, but with Heston as its spokesperson, the gloves, or the silencer, came off.

I saw a car parked on School Street in Montpelier not far from the library. It had a bumper sticker that said, “I [heart] Bacon.” I smiled. Imagine a person putting that bumper sticker on his car because he’s so enamored with Francis Bacon!

After the shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas that left 26 dead and many wounded, many of us had the same thought: of all places for this to happen – a church, and in the middle of a worship service. One might think a church would provide some shelter from such things.

More people these days are asking whether the high cost of a college education is worth it, and many people are noticing the many expensive nonacademic facilities that some colleges and universities have built, partly to compete for students.

Viewing the solar eclipse this week, I recalled how, in 1986, I looked skyward for Halley’s Comet, drawn to the rare, the cyclical, the stellar - as people are every seventy-five years when the comet comes around again. I was a high school English teacher. It was less than a week after Epiphany and the coldest day of the year.

When there’s political or social unrest, people take to the streets and protest. Recent examples include the Women’s March, the People’s Climate March, and the March for Science. There’ve also been marches in many cities around the country in response to shootings of African American men by police. There’ve been marches for many causes throughout American history, but marches for the civil rights of African Americans are comparatively new. They may have begun one hundred years ago tomorrow.

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.