How do you find a new angle about the Kennedy assassination? How do you make a 700-year-old classic relevant to today’s readers? How do you get inside the mind of one of the Founding Fathers?
Three faculty members managed to answer those questions in the last year, producing books that received widespread attention, acclaim and awards. All three look back (to the mid-1960s, to the birth of the nation and to pre-Renaissance Italy) with fresh eyes, bringing new insights to history and literature.
Bill Minutaglio, a clinical professor in the School of Journalism, co-wrote “Dallas 1963,” about the months leading up to President Kennedy’s assassination. The book won the PEN Award for Research Nonfiction and the Writer’s League of Texas 2013-14 award for nonfiction. Since its publication in 2013, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, the book has garnered widespread media attention from dozens of national publications, including the New Yorker, the Associated Press, Texas Monthly and the Daily Beast. PARADE Magazine cited it as “one of the top three JFK books.”
Wayne Rebhorn, the Celanese Centennial Professor of English, received the PEN Award for Translation for “The Decameron” by Giovanni Boccaccio. Published on the 700th anniversary of Boccaccio’s birth, Rebhorn’s new translation has received widespread critical acclaim. Publishers Weekly described his version as “eminently readable and devoid of the stilted, antiquated speech associated with the classics his translation’s accessibility allows for the timeless humanity of the work to shine through.”
Denise Spellberg, professor of history, won the grand prize in the 2014 University Co-op Robert W. Hamilton Book Awards for “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders.” It was also a finalist for the Writer’s League of Texas nonfiction award. Published in 2013, the book recounts how a handful of the country’s founders, Jefferson foremost among them, drew upon Enlightenment ideas about the tolerance of Muslims to fashion a practical foundation for governance in America. Pulitzer Prize winner and fellow Jefferson scholar Jon Meacham said, “Denise Spellberg has done a great thing here by recovering the spirit and the substance of Thomas Jefferson’s vision of true religious liberty.”
We sat down with each of them to find out how they found new ways to approach old stories.
How do you find a fresh angle for a subject that’s been examined in depth for 50 years?
Bill Minutaglio: My co-author, Steven L. Davis, and I made a big decision early on: The book would not be about the assassination itself or the conspiracy theories. Instead, we decided we would do a present-tense, highly narrative look at the roiling buildup to the day when Kennedy made his fateful trip to Dallas. And the more we dug, the more we were stunned by the wild, untold stories.
We ran into one scary anecdote after another, centering on a handful of riveting characters battling for the city’s soul heroes and villains. Some of them had turned Dallas into the headquarters of the virulent anti-Kennedy movement in America. Others fought to make Dallas a place of reason and even light. We began with a hunch and then the floodgates opened we found several protagonists, stories and backstories that added up to something new.
Why did the angle of the city’s atmosphere before the assassination interest you?
In the early 1960s, Dallas was wrestling with the same tectonic shifts moving across the nation: Racism, poverty, integration and the palpable fear that the Cold War would erupt into nuclear annihilation. Dallas was a window into American history. But it also had these very dynamic protagonists we could to try to script in intimate detail the world’s richest man, a rogue Army general, a muscular media mogul, unsung civil rights leaders, even Stanley Marcus, the visionary head of the world-famous Neiman Marcus store. They were immensely compelling people to bring to life, and they were all caught in the mad swirl of Big History, reacting to these wholesale changes in America and to this man called John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Do you find parallels today with our strong political divisions?
On my book tour last year, I ran into a retired autoworker in Detroit who said, “You could change the name of your book to ‘America 2013.'” We talked some more and he said something I heard constantly around the country many Americans feel today’s politics have gotten so divisive, so polarized. Those divisions are often driven by just a few strident folks on either side of the political aisle. In Dallas 1963, a handful of people turned Dallas into the anti-Kennedy bastion, but they didn’t speak for the majority of citizens, many of whom loved Kennedy. This little band of people hijacked the civic microphone. That’s a danger anywhere, at any time.
What emerged from your research that hadn’t previously been part of the Kennedy assassination conversation?
The book was guided by firsthand accounts found in archives, personal papers and public documents. There are hundreds of footnotes we wanted every reader to know where everything in the book came from. We tried to rely on the papers of the very people we tried to bring to life. We found handwritten notes, almost diary-like entries, and papers that may never have been accessed by researchers or used in a work of history. I felt we had opened a gateway to some very intimately detailed things that really needed to be added to the Kennedy canon.
We learned about direct political connections from the Kennedy administration to Dallas and from Lyndon Johnson to Dallas. We learned about a series of incendiary crimes leading up to the assassination. We learned about a stunning visit by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Dallas in 1963 a visit that is not widely known, including the fact that his arrival was shrouded by a bomb threat. One other thing that jumped out at me was the fact that President Kennedy had invited crusading black civil rights activists to the White House these were folks whose lives had been routinely threatened in Dallas.
What was it like asking people to remember back 50 years? How had the passage of time affected their views or memories?
The folks we talked to had been seared by the Kennedy assassination. It remained the defining moment of their lives. They remembered what it was like to say you were from Dallas in the wake of the Kennedy assassination. We heard again and again that there were many people in Dallas who either loved Kennedy or respected the office of the presidency. And it convinced me that we were on the right track.
How do you make a 700-year-old text readable for contemporary audiences?
Wayne Rebhorn: I wouldn’t call myself a writer or an artist, but I’m a pretty good stylist, and that’s what comes into play in translation. I’m not inventing characters or plots, but I am putting them into English and drawing on my own resources as a writer to make that work. It’s a matter of listening to my ear this is the way it sounds all right to me.
What are some of the surprising challenges of translation?
The Italians have a proverb: Traduttore, traditore. “Translator, betrayer.” I always feel to some extent you betray the text when you translate it, and I didn’t want to misrepresent what Boccaccio was saying. For instance, because Boccaccio used a variation of “love” over and over again, I took small liberties: instead of saying, “he was in love with her,” saying, “he fell for her.” It’s a different verb, but it’s the same idea.
Were there words or ideas that just didn’t translate?
In one place I couldn’t avoid using archaic language: wishing the pox on someone else. We don’t have a modern way of saying that. Wishing syphilis on someone isn’t something you do. So I had to revert to an archaic word.
Another word that gave me a problem was bon uomo (good man). Goodman was a form of address for a respectable, upstanding member of the community in the 18th and 19th centuries. In one story a character is locked out of his house and he’s making a racket. Some of the neighbors call out, “What are you doing at this time of night?” They call him bon uomo. The British translation says, “my good man” or “my good fellow,” but that would feel stilted in American English. So I chose the word “buddy.”
It’s sort of like solving a puzzle. There was a kind of challenge to be playful and witty in my own language. It’s part of the creative aspect of doing translation.
How do you protect meaning when you’re translating across language, time and culture?
I wanted my English to be modern and comprehensible and to reflect some of the densities of the original, but I didn’t want to make it archaic. And you don’t want to add so much that you turn it into something altogether different. Like using the word “buddy” for a person: It’s not in the original and it’s a bit slang, so it feels accessible. But I wouldn’t use very contemporary slang. There are no “dudes” in my Decameron.
Did you discover anything new about The Decameron?
When I worked with the translation, I got a much clearer sense of the linguistic play involved in the language, the un-translatability of certain terms, the foreignness of it. But also a better sense of how the style was making you work through the complexity of the structure. Boccaccio was very conscious that interpretation is a necessary part of the reading experience. Of course he’s guiding you, but the reader becomes an active player by piecing together the complex syntax.
What do you want today’s reader to take away from The Decameron?
One of the things the 10 narrators talk about endlessly in various forms is pleasure. Sexual pleasure, the pleasure of eating, pleasures of pulling the wool over someone else’s eyes. It’s important for us as readers to get pleasure from the stories. You don’t read fiction for the information it provides you. You read it for the pleasure it gives you in the reading experience.
What would you ask Giovanni Boccaccio if he walked into your office today?
I would ask him, “Giovanni, what did you really want to say here? What does this word really mean? What are you talking about?” There are places where no one really knows for sure what a passage meant. You can ask writers, if they’re alive, what they mean, but you can’t do that with somebody who’s dead. But that’s another pleasure you make the dead speak.
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How do you get inside the mind of a Founding Father’s views about Islam?
Denise Spellberg: Many, many historians have written about Jefferson, but no one had focused previously only on Islam and Muslims, which meant that the contexts for his nuanced, evolving views had never been fully appreciated. That said, research focusing on Jefferson’s references to Islam and Muslims is a starting point.
We know that in 1765 11 years before he drafted The Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson bought an English translation of the Qur’an. He was then a 22-year-old law student and probably viewed it, as many Christians did, narrowly as a legal source. Unfortunately, we don’t have evidence of the notes he took on what he read in his Qur’an, which may have been lost in a fire. (There are things we cannot definitively know about his initial reaction to his Qur’an, because we have no written evidence.)
Despite expressing negative early views of the faith, he grew to appreciate Islam’s key tenets. For example, as president, he entertained the nation’s first Muslim envoy in 1805, moving the time of an afternoon state dinner until sunset to accommodate the ambassador’s observance of Ramadan. He also appreciated Islam’s uncompromising monotheism, which may well have agreed with his own later turn toward Unitarian beliefs.
In addition to the Qur’an, what other works may have influenced his thinking about Islam?
In 1776, a few months after writing The Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson copied these words from his hero, the English philosopher, John Locke: “[He] sais: ‘neither Pagan nor Mahometan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.” Locke wrote these words originally in 1689 in “A Letter Concerning Toleration.” Jefferson’s notation of Locke’s precedent remains an early indication that he included Muslims and Jews in his ambit of religious freedom.
What is the basis of Jefferson’s strong commitment to religious liberty?
Jefferson saw firsthand how Protestants were persecuted in Virginia by other Protestants, and his legislative attempts to abolish these coercive practices he described in his autobiography as “the severest contests in which I have ever been engaged.” He wanted the United States to avoid violent conflicts over religion, which had proved so destructive in Europe.
In Jefferson’s most important legislation, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, he asserted: “our civil rights have no dependance on our religious opinions.” This 1786 legal precedent influenced the abolition of a religious test in the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment. Recalling the intended “universal” scope of this legislation in 1821, five years before his death, Jefferson insisted that it was intended “to comprehend within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” This legislation remains one of the three achievements he wished to be placed upon his tombstone.
Is Islam specifically mentioned in the writings of the founders?
Muslims were mentioned explicitly and not infrequently in key early national debates about religious liberty and civic equality, then intended only for free, white men. Muslims were often linked to Jews and Catholics in these exchanges. While a Protestant majority argued that all three groups should be excluded as threatening and despised minorities, a smaller, pivotal group including Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington argued that all three non-Protestant groups should be granted both religious freedom and equal rights, at least in theory.
Why do you say, “in theory”?
Jefferson, like Washington and Madison, wanted an ideally universal religious freedom, which included Muslims, never realizing that their support for slavery denied these cherished rights to the first American Muslims, slaves of West African origin, a group none of these Founders ever connected to the practice of Islam. Jefferson’s beloved “universal” religious legislation would be limited in ways he never appreciated by race and slavery.
How close is America today to the Jeffersonian ideal of universal religious freedom?
During the founding era, most Protestant Americans feared not just Muslims, but also Jews and Catholics. Some forget that Jews and Catholics struggled into the mid-20th century to claim the equal rights assured them in theory. Both groups were targeted as un- or even anti-American on the basis of their religious beliefs, and prejudices against them have not been eradicated entirely. Only Muslim citizens now remain the objects of defamatory, politicized assaults of the kind seen in Jefferson’s era.
How does the past allow us to reconsider the present?
History compels us to challenge ongoing prejudices, based on key founding precedents that continue to demand equal civil rights for Muslims. To accept less, as Americans, is a betrayal of founding Jeffersonian ideals.