In his college career, James Marcus was not unlike many college freshmen who randomly select a major having no clear path or direction for where it might take them. Years later, Marcus is now the editor of Harper’s Magazine, and sharing insight with college students through The University of Alabama’s lecture series, “Hidden Humanities,” to be held on Wednesday, Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. in Oliver-Barnard Hall on the UA campus.
Marcus’s lecture will focus on the importance of education in the humanities and rely heavily on his in-depth knowledge of American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“I’ve been writing a book about Ralph Waldo Emerson for the past three years, and I may talk about a pivotal moment in his life: his abandonment of the pulpit as a Unitarian minister,” Marcus said. “The idea that literature could save you, as opposed to God, was pretty heretical at the time — perhaps it still is, but Emerson made a great case for it.”
Though Marcus admits it is often difficult for humanities students to imagine the content of their textbooks becoming tools of life, he hopes to shed light on the relevance of education in the humanities in his lecture.
“I entered college in a complete state of confusion,” Marcus said. “I spent my first couple of years ping-ponging between English literature, music theory, printmaking, typography, poetry and art history, always wondering how to focus. I finally realized that the lack of focus was an asset, or at least an incidental blessing. Studying everything was a better fit for me than studying one thing in particular.”
After completing his degree in studio art, Marcus began the journey of a freelance journalist, working on projects ranging from personal work to editing and writing fourth-grade textbooks.
“Along the way, I also worked as an editor and realized that I loved that collaboration with other writers, which can be very intense and even intimate,” Marcus said. “In 2006 I got a job as editor-at-large at the Columbia Journalism Review, and that gave me the opportunity to work with an amazing roster of writers. Harper’s offered me the deputy editor gig in 2010, and I gratefully accepted, already aware that I had ended up in precisely the right place: a generalist’s heaven, where the offbeat and eccentric will always find a home, and a prose-worshipping magazine, where keeping the writer’s voice intact is a top priority. I could not imagine a better job.
“The ability to think across disciplines, to shoot the gulf (as Emerson put it) between ideas, eras and emotions, is exactly what I value about the humanities. They reflect the delicious messiness of life on earth.”
The Hidden Humanities lecture series is sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences; it was founded in 2014 to bring nationally prominent scholars and writers to UA, each fall and spring to discuss the so-called “crisis in humanities.” The goal of the series is to challenge the widespread notion that the humanities ought to be a low priority in education.