Finding the New in the Old on the Intellectual Life Beat

From an Inside the Times column by Jennifer Schuessler headlined “History at the Heart of a Beat”:

On a gorgeous afternoon this month, I was walking through Greenwich Village in Manhattan, enjoying a day off. My phone vibrated with a text from a friend, alerting me that Medieval Twitter (yes, it’s a thing) was abuzz with breaking news about … Geoffrey Chaucer. The author of “The Canterbury Tales.” Who has been dead for more than 600 years.

Specifically, new information had emerged about a rape charge made against Chaucer in 1380, which had shadowed his reputation since it surfaced 150 years ago. But now, previously unknown legal documents (held in deep storage, in a British salt mine) seemed to show that the earlier information had been misinterpreted — and there had never been any rape charge against Chaucer at all.

It was the biggest Chaucer-related discovery in nearly 30 years — the equivalent, one scholar joked, of “a Beyoncé album drop.”

Standing on the sidewalk, I sent a message to my editors and started sending out inquiries the next morning. Within two days, my story was online — and then it landed on the front page of The New York Times. It may have been a rare turn in the headlines for Chaucer. But for me, it was just another typically atypical day on the beat.

For the past 11 years, I’ve been a reporter on the Culture Desk covering intellectual life and the world of ideas. When people ask me what I do, I sometimes find myself putting that phrase in air quotes, since it can sound so dull and ponderous. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite.

I write about the fascinating work of scholars across many fields, as well as intellectual and cultural debates more broadly. In particular, I’ve gravitated to writing a lot about history — both the past itself and history as a profession, a process and a never-ending argument.

That might seem like an odd focus for a newspaper reporter. But I see it as a matter of finding the new in the old (including the very old).

Sometimes, my stories stem from surprising discoveries. Sorry, Chaucer. I got Walt Whitman on the front page twice after a graduate student with a knack for searching in huge digitized databases of 19th-century newspapers, found lengthy unknown works by Whitman that had appeared anonymously in New York papers.

I see a big part of my job as explaining how scholars do that work — how they know what they know, and how they change their minds (or ours). Several years ago, after I reported on the rise of the so-called history of capitalism in university history departments, one professor told me how wonderful it was that The Times had a reporter “who covered historiography.” I thanked him — and told him never to say that publicly, since if my bosses realized that was what I was doing, I might get reassigned.

But history isn’t just an academic matter. It’s also a crucial battleground in our politics and culture. Sometimes, my stories spin right off the news. For example, when Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade leaked in May, I wrote about the central role that claims and counterclaims about history have played in the abortion fight, including both in Justice Alito’s opinion and in Roe itself. (Did legal abortion have deep roots in American law and history, as Roe claimed, or not, as Justice Alito argued?)

Other times, I tackle bigger, more conceptual questions. Last year, on July 4, I wrote about the fight over 1776, a date that had gone from being a unifying symbol of America’s founding values to a culture war weapon wielded by conservative activists. To find my stories, I comb through publishers’ catalogs and attend as many conferences, talks, openings and parties as I can. And I read, read, read (including the footnotes of scholarly books, which show how the sausage gets made). And, yes, I lurk on social media, not just to see what the argument du jour is, but also, hopefully, to stumble on something weird and unexpected and delightful. My favorite kind of story makes people go, “Who knew?”

There have been plenty of big stories I’ve missed. But right now, I’m kicking myself for overlooking the best detail about the new Chaucer discovery. Apparently, the old court records fished up from the salt mine “smelled like coffee.”

Jennifer Schuessler is a Times culture reporter covering intellectual life and the world of ideas.

Speak Your Mind