Top Young Historians: 118 – Jennifer Jensen Wallach

TOP YOUNG HISTORIANS

Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

118: Jennifer Jensen Wallach, 11-14-10

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Assistant Professor of History, University of North Texas, 2009-
Area of Research: African-American history, civil rights movement in Arkansas, African-American foodways I specialize in the history of African-Americans in the South since the Civil War. My specific areas of interest and expertise include southern autobiography, the life and times of Richard Wright, the civil rights movement in Arkansas, and American food history.
Education: Ph.D. Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts, 2004
Major Publications: Jensen Wallach is the author of Richard Wright: From Black Boy to World Citizen, Ivan R. Dee Library of African-American Biography, John David Smith general editor 2010; Closer to the Truth than Any Fact:Jennifer Jensen Wallach JPG Memoir, Memory, and Jim Crow, University of Georgia Press (Paperback edition released in 2010) 2008.
Jensen Wallach is the editor with John A. Kirk of Arsnick: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas, 1962-1967, University of Arkansas Press Expected publication Spring 2011.
Jensen Wallach is also the author of numerous scholarly journal articles, book chapters and reviews including among others:
“Introduction,” Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class by Allison Davis, Burleigh Gardner, Mary Gardner, reprint for the Southern Classics Series, University of South Carolina Press, Mark M. Smith and Peggy G. Hargis general editors, 2009; “Replicating History in a Bad Way?: White Activists and Black Power in SNCC’s Arkansas Project” Arkansas Historical Quarterly Fall 2008; “Building a Bridge of Words: The Literary Autobiography as Historical Source Material” Biography Summer 2006; “Fawn Brodie and the Struggle for the Historical Memory of Thomas Jefferson” Clio’s Psyche, June 2006; “The Vindication of Fawn Brodie” The Massachusetts Review, Summer 2002
She has written reviews for the following scholarly journals: Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Reviews in American History, Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies, Journal of Social History, Journal of Southern History, Women’s Historical Review, Ethnic Studies Review.
Jensen Wallach is currently working on a book under contract, tentively entitled: The American Stomach: Foodways and Identity from the Colonial Era to the Present, Rowman Littlefield, Manuscript due Jan. 2012.
Awards: Jensen Wallach is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
UNT Junior Faculty Summer Research Fellowship 2010;
UNT Faculty Small Grant 2010;
Closer to the Truth than Any Fact named a Choice Outstanding Academic Title, 2008;
Georgia College & State University, Faculty Research Grants, 2006, 2007, 2008;
American Association of University Women, American Dissertation Fellow, 2002-2003.
Additional Info:
Formerly Assistant Professor of History Georgia College & State University, 2006-2009, and Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Stonehill College.

Personal Anecdote

“Dear Bill,

I have spent much of the holidays editing the memoirs and oral histories that will become a part of the forthcoming collection of material about the SNCC Arkansas Project. Given our space constraints, I have made suggestions about what material we might possibly be able to omit.

I have agonized over this process of editing. Although, it is necessary to shorten your piece-it need not be shortened in the way that I have suggested. If I have omitted something you think is vital, changed your meaning, or inadvertently altered your narrative style, please respond with a different suggestion about what should be excluded and included. The last thing I want to do is to impede your ability to tell your story in your own way…”

Being an historian sometimes means writing letters like this one. Those of us who work on twentieth century historical topics often have the privilege and the dilemma of writing the histories of individuals who are still living. Although the historian’s task is always accompanied by the grave responsibility of striving to be fair to one’s historical subjects, this duty takes on a different resonance when writing about historical moments that are very much still alive in the memories of the people who participated in them.

This past year, I have had the opportunity to work on one of the most important and one of the most difficult projects so far in my career. Along with John A. Kirk, I have had the privilege of compiling a book of materials about the activities of the 1960’s civil rights group the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Arkansas. Although much has been written about the activities of this organization elsewhere in the South (particularly in Mississippi), their work in Arkansas has been understudied if not nearly forgotten by historians of the movement. In order to begin to fill this gap in the literature, John and I put together a collection of articles by historians, primary documents, oral histories, and short memoirs written by members and supporters of SNCC in Arkansas.

I had the unenviable task of whittling down the contributions we solicited from SNCC participants into a size that could fit into the 300 page book envisioned by our sympathetic editor at the University of Arkansas Press. Perhaps more than at any other time in my career I felt a heightened awareness of the seriousness of the historian’s task. Collectively historians who document the civil rights struggle are striving to rescue worthy individuals from historical obscurity and challenge simplistic historical narratives of the past embraced by politicians and others to meet present day needs. This book is part of an attempt to wrest control of the legacy of the civil rights movement from those who would reduce that variegated grassroots struggle to a single, often misinterpreted speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963.

As important as this task was, I wondered if it was accompanied by a certain amount of hubris on my part. Who was I to strike out details and descriptions written by people who made the history that I was attempting to tell from the comfort of my living room? Who was I to say what should stay or what should go in the name of something as constructed and arbitrary as “space constraints”? In slashing passages and omitting specific memories, to what extent was I shaping this collection rather than allowing these history makers the opportunity to tell their own stories?

When I have these doubts and hesitations, I console myself with the idea that an inevitably imperfect retelling of the past is infinitely preferable to leaving these histories dormant and unknown. For me the process of historical interpretation is and must be a process of constant self-interrogation and continual reexamination of methods and motivations. For, as David Blight reminds us, our work has implications that go far beyond the so-called Ivory tower as we engage in the study “of contested truths, of moments, events, or even texts in history that thresh out rival versions of the past which are in turn put to battle in the present.”

Quotes

By Jennifer Jensen Wallach

  • “[T]here are certain aspects of historical reality than can best be captured by artfully wrought literary memoirs. Skillful autobiographers are uniquely equipped to describe the entire universe as it appeared from an Closer to Truth Than Any Fact: Memoir, Memory, and Jim Crow JPG acknowledged perspective. Skillfully executed life writing has the ability to portray the complicated interplay between the thoughts and emotions of an historical actor. Furthermore, autobiographers intermingle historical data about what actually happened with reflections about what the author wishes had happened or imagined had happened. A full-fledged understanding of a particular historical moment must capture the complexities of the cognitive and the affective, the factual and the imaginary, perceptions and misperceptions. These elements are constitutive of a complex historical reality, which exists from the perspectives of the people who inhabited a past social world. The thought and feelings of historical agents are not responses to a preexisting social reality. Rather they are reality. If we are to come to a deep understanding of a historical moment, then we must endeavor to understand the individual experiences that constituted it….” — Jennifer Jensen Wallach in “Closer to Truth Than Any Fact: Memoir, Memory, and Jim Crow” (2008)

About Jennifer Jensen Wallach

  • Wallach’s biography of Richard Wright, to be published on the 50th anniversary of his death, gracefully traces and celebrates the writer™s rise from his hardscrabble Mississippi roots (unforgettably portrayed in Black Boy), his development of and dedication to his craft, and his physical and political peregrinations–to New York and left-wing circles, and later to Paris and the existentialists. Wallach’s book is thorough and almost pedagogical in its purposes; she excels at the lively anecdote and doesn™t shy away from her subject™s less savory aspects–his affairs and homophobia. But what™s absent is any trace of Wright™s voice as well as more perspective from his peers, readers, or critics to round out and provide depth and analysis to this study. This able biography summarizes where it should probe, and skates too smoothly over the conflicts and controversies that surrounded the man, who in his pursuit of freedom and unvarnished truth crossed racial lines, went into self-exile, and embraced the harshest social realism. — Publishers Weekly
  • “A quietly but uncommonly ambitious work . . . Wallach’s review of the theoretical literature on autobiography is refreshingly lucid and cogent. . . . I look forward to periodically rereading it and wrestling with its conclusions.” — W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Journal of American History
  • “Wallach’s lucidly written essay offers much food for thought, both for scholars of history and life writing and for general readers trying to recapture the flavor of the past.” — Jeremy Popkin, Journal of Interdisciplinary History
  • “Historians and particularly history students will find many valuable insights in this book. Wallach lays out a theoretical framework for understanding memoirs as source material and then does an excellent job of putting that theory into practice.” — Steve Estes, author of I am a Man: Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement
  • “Wallach’s interdisciplinary training allows her to demonstrate how attention to language, symbolism, allegory, and other literary devices can uncover more historically relevant content in a memoir than a mere surface reading would allow. This is a well-written and well-argued response to a single question: How should historians handle literary memoirs as historical sources?” — Jennifer Ritterhouse, author of Growing Up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race

Posted on Sunday, November 14, 2010 at 9:14 PM

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