Two NEH Public Scholars grants awarded to Harvard writers

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Truth can be stranger than fiction, and equally readable.

Two Harvard employees were among the 36 grant recipients of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ new Public Scholars Program, which awards funding to humanities writers working on research-based nonfiction works with crossover appeal to the general public.

Jonathan Hansen, a senior lecturer on social studies, and Christina Thompson, the editor of the Harvard Review, received stipends for the coming academic year to complete their latest books, both of which are under contract with major publishing houses.

“Young Castro,” Hansen’s book, draws on unique and previously unavailable sources to detail the Cuban leader’s life up to 1960, before the U.S. embargo began. Instead of a retrospective on Fidel Castro’s controversial choices, Hansen’s approach gives the reader a forward-facing understanding of the environment of the time and the options Castro confronted from a new perspective, guiding them to question their perceptions of the polarizing political figure.

“Fidel obsessed about history and the problem of truth and agreement,” Hansen explained. “I wrestle with this myself, and I hope this book will inspire my audience to wrestle with this, too.”

One of evolution’s biggest mysteries, the prehistoric settlement of the Pacific islands, is the focus of Thompson’s book, “The Wonder Story of the World.” By piecing together archaeological, anthropological, linguistic, and mythological evidence with journals and documents from early Western explorers and missionaries, Thompson hopes to illuminate the source of a people who crossed vast oceans under seemingly impossible conditions to populate the tiny islands.

“I’m drawn to problems of philosophy and political theory. In this book, I try to address them in an accessible way, through biography—and by telling stories. That’s the art of the job, and the order of the grant,” said Hansen.