1. Tell us a bit about the project you are working on at UCHI.
I’m working on a book that explores the violent legacies of the American Revolution, especially in the south. It follows the lives of two brothers from North Carolina, who experienced some of the worst violence of the war as boys and, later in life, became killers. Micajah and Wiley Harpe committed dozens of murders in the 1790s. I’m using their story to explore the unsettlement and the alienation, especially among white men, left behind by the founding moment.
2. What drew you to this topic and what exciting developments are you anticipating?
I felt, strongly, that we didn’t know enough about the aftermath of the Revolution—especially the war itself. How people carried on, how they were scarred, how they reconciled the old with the new. Then I found the Harpes’ story, which speaks to some unfortunately perennial themes in American life—violence, crime, and the political alienation of young white men. And happily, it’s also a tremendously compelling story—with a lot of twists and turns. I couldn’t resist it, as a narrator.
3. What are you looking forward to in regard to this year at UCHI?
I’m looking forward to writing, thinking, and sharing ideas among scholars from a variety of disciplines. Although I’m mostly using traditional historical records (like newspapers and court documents), I’m also leaning on insights from other disciplines, like psychology and criminology. So, this fellowship year means I will have extra time and resources to write about this history in ways that do it justice.
4 . Many people wonder what value the humanities and humanities research has in today’s world. What are your thoughts on what humanities scholarship “brings to table?”
I wish I had a pithy answer to this question. There are plenty of practical reasons to study the humanities. I know an engineer who says he happily hires liberal arts majors, these days, because they think about problem-solving in the most creative and fullest ways. But more than that, I don’t think you can appreciate the richness of the human condition without the humanities—The beauty, the tragedy, the artistic heights and cruelest valleys of human behavior. Without history, or art, or literature, how do we know who we are?