Prior to 2012 I was a big fan of the C.V. Starr Center for the American Experience at Washington College. I admired the way the Center combined history writing, teaching, and public history work with students. I became a bigger fan of the C.V. Starr Center in January 2012 when, holed-up in a Gettysburg hotel writing the early chapters of my forthcoming Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, I received an e-mail from Center director Adam Goodheart informing me that my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction was one of three finalists for the $50,000 George Washington Book Prize sponsored by Washington College, the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History, and Mount Vernon.
I was thus thrilled to read this feature article on the C.V. Starr Center in Humanities magazine. The article features interviews with Goodheart, Starr Center founder Ted Widmer, and current Patrick Henry Fellow Neal Gabler. Here is a taste:
I was spending the day, which began with coffee at the Evergrain Bread Company, where sugar-dusted, dough-twisted sun buns are the specialty. Goodheart, I quickly learned, is not a PhD and never attended graduate school. He worked as a journalist before coming to the C.V. Starr Center, which in 2007 received a major challenge grant from NEH to endow its fellowship program, and purchase and renovate the fellows’ house.
After graduating from Harvard, Goodheart got his start as the first-hired staff editor at Civilization, a magazine of culture that was brought out by a private publisher from the Library of Congress. Although a critical success with a quarter million subscribers, the magazine folded after only six years, and Goodheart became a full-time freelancer, writing for the New York Times and magazines such as Travel and Leisure, National Geographic, and GQ.
Life was good: One assignment took him to France to write about remnants of the Renaissance in the Loire Valley. When not on the road, he was living in Washington, D.C., and not thinking about pursuing an academic career until Ted Widmer reached out to him.
Widmer didn’t know Goodheart, but he knew of him, having taught at Harvard in the history and literature program in which Goodheart had studied. Widmer had interrupted his teaching career to work as a speechwriter for the Clinton administration in its second term. After that, he was hired by the college to build the Starr Center into a program for history-writing. For a small college founded in 1782, on whose board George Washington once sat, it was logical to emphasize history and especially the eighteenth century.
But how to do it well and reach a large audience? Everyone interested in finding an audience for history labors with some version of the following question: How to make dead people vivid? Widmer gave a lot of thought to George Washington, who is constantly evoked at Washington College and, as a subject, sometimes suffers from overfamiliarity. “He’s certainly famous,” says Widmer, “but he is not always interesting.”
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