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American Academy President Patricia Meyer Spacks Addresses Joint Meeting of the Academy and the Boston Athenaeum

4/10/2003

Press Release

On April 10, 2003, Patricia Meyer Spacks, the President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, addressed the second annual joint meeting of the Academy and the Boston Athenaeum. Spacks, an authority on eighteenth-century English literature, spoke on "How to Read a Diary." The joint meeting continues the longstanding collaboration between the two institutions.

As Spacks explained, "It's not hard to understand why people enjoy reading diaries of the famous: in order to get an inside glimpse of exceptional lives. Nor is it difficult to know why Boswell's London Journal was a best-seller: good stories, bawdy bits. Pepys provides similar appeal; Virginia Woolf's diaries supply mini-essays on the literary life; one can multiply examples. But what is the attraction of diaries that offer only records of uneventful and undistinguished lives? Two such diaries, kept over long spans of time by eighteenth-century writers unknown except for their daily accounts, provide test cases for assessing the interest of what might be called 'hidden narratives.' The writers, an American Quaker woman living in Philadelphia and an English country clergyman, both lived through the years of the American War for Independence, although neither makes that war a primary subject for reflection. Investigation of these diaries reveals techniques for analyzing and appreciating the superficially unappealing and demonstrates the rewards of analysis."

The Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English at the University of Virginia, Spacks has written on the poets and novelists of the time in such books as The Poetry of Vision and Desire and Truth. She has also authored books and essays on cultural as well as literary subjects, including adolescence, boredom, gossip, and women writers from the eighteenth century to the present. Her new books, Privacy: Concealing the Eighteenth-Century Self, will be published this spring by the University of Chicago Press. Spacks is chair of the board of directors of the American Council of Learned Societies and a trustee of the National Humanities Center.

The American Academy was founded in 1780 by John Adams and other scholar-patriots "to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people." The current membership of over 3,700 Fellows and 600 Foreign Honorary Members includes more than 150 Nobel laureates and 50 Pulitzer Prize winners. Drawing on the wide-ranging expertise of its membership, the Academy conducts thoughtful, innovative, non-partisan studies on international security, social policy, education, and the humanities.

 

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