Peter Gilbert


Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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

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.

Gilbert: NEH At 50

Oct 22, 2015

Fifty years ago this fall, federal legislation established the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was created for many reasons, including these three: Because “the arts and humanities belong to all the people.” Because “an advanced civilization [embraces not only] science and technology [but also] other …scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future.” And, finally, because “democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens.”

In 1815, two hundred years ago today, the American brig Commerce, with its two square-rigged masts, was wrecked on the northwestern coast of Africa. The surviving officers and crew fended off an attack by nomads and fled in their longboat only to be forced back to shore a bit further south on the watery edge of the arid Sahara. There they were stranded with precious little food or water; it was clear that only intervention by other humans could save them.

In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, Atticus Finch tells his daughter, Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

I recently learned of two real events that reportedly inspired the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s masterpiece “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” a poem most of us read in high school about an old sailor who stops one of three people walking to a wedding to tell him a captivating but grim story.

In May of 1914, just three months before the beginning of World War I, the poem “Channel Firing,” by the English poet and novelist Thomas Hardy, was first published. Hardy later called it prophetic of the upcoming global catastrophe.

It was last fall, at the Vermont Humanities Council’s annual conference, which was about the continuing legacy of the Civil War, a war that ended a century and a half ago.  Wesleyan Professor Lois Brown commented that in the understandable desire to put a painful past behind us, to get to peace and reconciliation, as in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process, we sometimes don’t linger long enough in the “truth” part of that process.  We don’t want to look honestly at the horrible reality of, say, apartheid, or slavery, or post-Civil War treatment of African Americans notwithstanding the end of slavery and the supposed establishment of equal justice under the law.  She argues that before we can get to real reconciliation, before we can really move on, we have to linger in the ugly truth part of Truth and Reconciliation long enough that we not only acknowledge it, but that we know it and feel it and see it as a powerful and ugly reality.  We have to ask “Whose truth and reconciliation for whom?” 

On April 5, 1815, two hundred years ago this Sunday, Mount Tambora, a volcano in Indonesia, erupted; the roar was mistaken for cannon fire eight hundred miles away. The eruption continued for four months. It was the largest in human history, ten times more powerful than the better-known Krakatau.

Many baby boomers and others loathe Lyndon Johnson because of Vietnam. He could be crude, insecure, ruthless, petty, racist, sexist, and more, but he could also be inspiringly idealistic. Perhaps nowhere was his American idealism, and his singular political genius, more visible than in the speech he gave fifty years ago this Sunday before Congress in support of the Voting Rights Act. He spoke, he said, “for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.”

Birches, one of Robert Frost’s best and best-known poems, describes trees bent down permanently but not killed by ice-storms so that “[y]ears afterwards” you can see them [quote]

...trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

Gilbert: The Owl

Dec 19, 2014

I recently came across a poem written almost exactly hundred years ago by the British poet Edward Thomas, who was probably Robert Frost’s closest friend. They met just before World War I, when the Frost family was living in England. They didn’t know each other long, but after Thomas died, Frost told his widow, “I hadn’t a plan for the future that didn’t include him.” He was, Frost wrote, “the only brother
I ever had.”

Gilbert: Prodigy

Dec 5, 2014

Barbara Follett was a child prodigy novelist. She was born in Hanover, New Hampshire a hundred years ago, in 1914. Her parents were both distinguished teachers, writers, and literary critics; when she was born, her father was teaching English at Dartmouth.

Two of the greatest pieces of prose in English were written by the same person less than sixteen months apart: The Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. That’s the speech with that magnificent final sentence beginning, “With malice toward none, . . ..”

One hundred and fifty years ago this month things were not going well for the Confederacy. And so in a desperate attempt to force the Union to accept Southern independence in return for peace, a group of conspirators came up with a plan to burn New York – to start numerous fires simultaneously around the city.  Their goal:  to spread fear in the North and influence the presidential election.

I bought an old copy of Joy of Cooking at a library book sale. The red and blue lettering on the white dust jacket made it look patriotic, as American as apple pie, perhaps, or maybe that staple of autumn in New England – the game supper.

First copyrighted in 1931, this edition was from 1964. And with apologies to those who oppose hunting or eating meat, I have to say that I found the chapter on game to be fascinating - and at times oddly amusing.