Biblical Megiddo, Lumbee Indians, and Polynesia’s colonial history may seem subjects better suited for academic discourse than bestsellers, but the authors of these projects are hoping to catch the eyes of more than just their colleagues.
And the National Endowment for the Humanities wants to encourage those efforts.
On Wednesday, the NEH will announce its first round of Public Scholar grants, aimed at bolstering the creation of nonfiction books with a scholarly bent but written for the general public.
Thirty-six writers, including 11 from New England, will share in $1.7 million in awards, delivered in monthly stipends over six months to a year.
“At the Endowment we take very seriously the idea, expressed in our founding legislation, that the humanities belong to all the people of the United States,” NEH chairman William Adams said in a statement.
It’s a choice many scholars face: whether to write a niche, academic book, or something more accessible, even entertaining, geared to a more general reader. But this grant offers support for work that is something in between, that is challenging without being patronizing, said Jonathan Hansen, a senior lecturer at Harvard who won a $46,200 grant to write about a young Fidel Castro.
“In this age when we’re all falling apart and going to our own little corner to hang out with people who think like us, it’s a bold and important initiative to say, ‘No, we can read things together even if we don’t all agree,’ ” he said.
Pulitzer-winner Diane McWhorter, who began her writing career at the Boston Phoenix newspaper and Boston Magazine after attending Wellesley College, won a $50,400 grant for a book about the intersection of the space race and the civil-rights movement in Huntsville, Ala. As an independent scholar, she said she is pleased to see the NEH supporting writers who otherwise might fall through the cracks.
“I think there’s a tendency among academics to dismiss narrative history as anecdotal,” she said. “But there’s analysis in every choice you make about how to tell the story.”
Other New England recipients and their projects include Yale University lecturer Edward Ball, who is writing about a Reconstruction-era klansman; Nicholas Basbanes, of North Grafton, on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; Wesleyan University professor Andrew Curran on Denis Diderot; Smith College professor Michael Gorra on William Faulkner and the Civil War; Trinity College professor Christopher Hager on Civil War correspondence; Northeastern University professor Carla Kaplan on muckraker Jessica Mitford; University of New Hampshire professor Jason Sokol on Martin Luther King Jr.’s death; Harvard Review editor Christina Thompson on how Polynesia was settled; and Wesleyan professor Jennifer Tucker on photographic detection.