Lois Leveen

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January 8, 2012

Just Wait Until Senior Black Correspondent Larry Wilmore Gets Wind of The Secrets of Mary Bowser

What do Jon Stewart and I have in common?

Besides a deep fear that someone will unearth photos of us from our bar/bat mitzvahs and put them on the internet? (C'mon, no one wants the word to know just how gawkward--that is not a typo, that is a word I just invented--they were at age 13)

What Jon Stewart and I have in common is we luvvvvvv talking about books about slaves in the White House.
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What do Jon Stewart and Mary Bowser have in common?

They both lived in Virginia. Stewart went to Virginia to be educated at William and Mary College in the 1980s. Bowser left the state in the 1850s, after she was freed from slavery, to be educated in the North. But there the comparison falls apart, since she went back to Virginia to become a spy for the Union army, whereas he ended up in New York doing really funny late night TV.

Still, wouldn't it be beautiful if they could come together in a seven-minute book interview segment sometime this spring?
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December 12, 2011

Recasting History:  From Mary Bowser to Marie Watt

Years ago, a guy I met in an elevator asked me What determines the value of art?

I should mention that the elevator was in a building full of Chelsea art galleries, the guy was wearing a uniform from a delivery service, and my guess is he'd just happened by some piece of art that was selling for more than he made in a year.

Let's face it: art can seem intimidating to a lot of people.

So when I was asked to do a talk at Portland Art Museum, I picked a piece I really love. I thought about how to connect it to my writing. And then I set out to get the audience as excited as I was about it.
Lois Leveen discussing Almanac by Marie Watt

How would you describe what you see? I asked, as we stood before Marie Watt's mixed media sculpture. Here's what they told me.


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December 8, 2011

Can the story of Mary Bowser get more African Americans interested in studying the Civil War?

What's blue and gray but NOT studied by blacks? Great @MorningEdition NPR interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates about why African Americans are less likely to study/commemorate/obsess about the Civil War than white Americans. (You can also read Coates' smart essay on the subject at the Atlantic).

Of course, as the granddaughter of Eastern European immigrants, raised in suburban New York, I never thought I'd find myself one of those who obsess about the Civil War (and yes, visit reenactments and battlefields on "vacation") . . . But the story of Mary Bowser hooked me to think about the experience of blacks during the War. It's not just that the War ended slavery; at the time, no one knew whether that would happen. So what interested me is understanding what it was like to be black, living in a place at war, hoping it would end slavery but not knowing if that would prove to be the case.

I'm hoping the novel will leaders readers of all races to understand that experience. Free and enslaved African Americans made tremendous contributions during the War, and I think this story will be a great way to learn about that--without having to hit the history textbooks (or even spend your summer touring battlefields--which I admit is kind of a mega-history-geek pursuit). And if it encourages more people to want to study the experience of people of color, especially women of color, rather than just battlefield statistics and the names of the heralded generals, I'm sure Coates won't mind seeing the phenomenon he discusses finally start to shift.
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November 23, 2011

Richmond’s Medical Miracle

As we gather with family and friends to give thanks and overeat pie, let us all pause for a moment to obsess about staffing at Civil War military hospitals, shall we?

Here's an article I published about Chimborazo Hospital in Disunion, the New York Times' ongoing coverage of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. The race and gender roles at the hospital show how Southern society changed over the course of the War.
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November 16, 2011

You Say It’s Your Birthday

Nineteenth-century literary allusion du jour:

"November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year," said Margaret, standing at the window one dull afternoon, looking out at the frostbitten garden.

"That's the reason I was born in it," observed Jo pensively, quite unconscious of the blot on her nose.


Jo March and I have so much in common: authorial aspirations, inky noses, November birthdays.

But I did not have a disagreeable birthday. Instead, I had an affair.


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