A Historian In Paradise
As the recipient of a prestigious history scholarship, Tufts senior Max Felker-Kantor spent the summer getting acquainted with never-before-studied pieces of America's past.
When it comes to keeping in touch with his own family and friends, senior Max Felker-Kantor is an email kind of guy. But when it comes to keeping in touch with the past, it's handwritten letters all the way: As a 2005 Gilder Lehrman History Scholar, Felker-Kantor spent six summer weeks in New York City living a history buff's dream, hobnobbing with famed historians and delving into the never-before-studied letters of a Civil War soldier.
"He'd been to a year of college already, and [at 18] he left college to go to the war," the Salt Lake City native says of Laurens Wolcott, the Union soldier whose 33 letters he transcribed, summarized and catalogued this summer. "So he spelled everything correctly except for a word here and there, and his grammar was quite good."
Not all of Felker-Kantor's 14 fellow scholars, each of whom worked on letters from a different soldier, were so fortunate. "Some of the other people had a harder time-there were some creative, different spellings that they'd share with us," he smiles.
Transcribing the unread-and at times unreadable-letters, which were part of the Gilder Lehrman Collection at the New York Historical Society, wasn't the scholars' only task. By the prestigious and highly competitive program's end, the group of college students-the standouts in a pool of nationwide applicants-produced analyses of and commentaries on their soldiers' letters, which will eventually be published in pamphlet form and used in high school history classes.
The scholars also had the chance to mingle with historians so prominent that even non-history buffs might raise a brow upon hearing their names. "Eminent U.S. historians would just sit down with us at lunch," Felker-Kantor marvels. "[Race and labor relations expert] Eric Foner, [social policy savant] Linda Gordon, [slavery and emancipation scholar] Steve Hahn, [Civil War go-to guy] James McPherson...we were just able to talk with them about anything-what we were doing, graduate school."
Interacting with such luminaries put Felker-Kantor in an ideal frame of mind to immerse himself in Wolcott's letters. After noting the soldier's pervasive desire for a concrete connection to home, Felker-Kantor chose to write his portion of the pamphlet on the role newspapers played in establishing and sustaining that connection.
"In almost every one, he said, ‘Would you please send newspapers from home? The other boys'- meaning the other soldiers -‘received papers, and I would really like to get my share,'" Felker-Kantor recalls of Wolcott's letters, which the soldier wrote to his mother, father and two sisters.
Less clear, Felker-Kantor says, were Wolcott's reasons for enlisting in the Union Army in the first place. "He doesn't really talk about why he left to go fight in the war, and why he ended up staying in the war the whole time, through 1865," Felker-Kantor says. "And he doesn't mention a lot about slavery or the conflict itself."
Rather, Wolcott's letters tended to report the details of his day-to-day life. "He talks a lot about where he's going, reporting for his parents things like, ‘We went from Atlanta to Dallas to Georgia, or from Atlanta to Savannah,'" Felker-Kantor says. "He also has some anecdotal stories about General Sherman, and he talks about getting sick, and the soldiering life."
Towards the war's end, Wolcott's frustration with that soldiering life became evident. "In early 1865, near the end of the war, [Wolcott] talks about really wanting to be done," Felker-Kantor says. "He was getting tired of it. He writes, ‘Four years is enough for me.'"
Despite his war-weariness, Wolcott still wanted his Army to look good in the public eye, Felker-Kantor observes. "[Wolcott] talked about how the newspapers should report things the way that he, of course, sees them," the student grins, shaking his head slightly, as if Wolcott is not a Civil War soldier, but an amusingly stubborn college buddy.
Felker-Kantor still can't get over the fact that he "was able to sit there and read something no one had read before." Doing so, he says, was frequently surprising.
"We had been doing background reading about soldiers' letters and the themes they bring up, so I wasn't too surprised by anything that [Wolcott] brought up," he says. "What was surprising was that he didn't talk about any of the gruesomeness or the gory details, and he didn't talk about any of the reasons why he enlisted. The things he didn't say were surprising, versus what he did say."
"We had been doing background reading about soldiers' letters and the themes they bring up, so I wasn't too surprised by anything that [my soldier, Laurens Wolcott] brought up," recalls Max Felker-Kantor. What was surprising was that he didn't talk about any of the gruesomeness or the gory details, and he didn't talk about any of the reasons why he enlisted. The things he didn't say were surprising, versus what he did say."
Though Felker-Kantor found the chance to work with Wolcott's letters "pretty amazing," the other elements of his experience as a Gilder Lehrman Scholar were exciting and rewarding as well. "As a history major, there's not a huge abundance of opportunities to meet a lot of people who are also interested in the same field," he says. "So it was sort of surprising to be in one place living with 14 other people who were all interested in history and into doing research!"
But the summer was more than just a research experience for the like-minded scholars, who lived together in a suite-style setup. "It was kind of like the freshman ‘get-to-know-you' phase all over again," he says. "It was a lot of fun."
For Felker-Kantor, whose father is a professor of history at the University of Utah, spending six weeks engaged in historical pursuits was not entirely new. He's done research in the history of education for his dad, and last summer, he worked at Facing History and Ourselves, a Brookline, Mass.-based organization that creates what he describes as "a tolerance-teaching curriculum."
"They create resource books for high schools, a lot of which are based around the Holocaust and issues of that nature, promoting sort of a multicultural, pluralist sort of education," Felker-Kantor says, adding that the research he did for them "was geared towards the questions they wanted to address, but hadn't fully answered."
In the fall of his junior year, Felker-Kantor went on to work at Boston PBS TV affiliate WGBH, contributing to the civil rights section of the station's Teachers' Domain website. His advisor at WGBH was also his advisor at Tufts: History Professor Gerald Gill.
His Teachers' Domain project, Felker-Kantor says, basically consisted of compiling and writing about primary sources related to Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that famously decreed that public schools be desegregated "with all deliberate speed." The project was a perfect fit for Felker-Kantor, who since arriving at Tufts, had become increasingly interested in what he describes as "the confluence of race and education."
Felker-Kantor credits the well-loved and well-respected Gill with shaping his intellectual development and approach to the field of history. "He's been great to work with because he really gives a lot of students a lot of attention. He's very approachable, and he's helped me a lot in terms of both history and gaining opportunities to do internships and fellowships."
Though the time period on which it focused didn't fall within the 20th century-Felker-Kantor's favorite period to study-the Gilder Lehrman fellowship was particularly valuable for the student.
"The other internships that I've had have all had a bent on using history in its public education setting, which I think is very important," he says. "But this was really interesting because it was an opportunity to do history as well as research, to talk with historians, and to meet a lot of other students who were interested in the same thing."
As he heads into his senior year, Felker-Kantor is getting ready to write his thesis. "I'm going to be looking at community action and civil rights movements in Boston regarding housing and urban renewal," he says. He's also writing for Our Education, a Yale-based magazine that explores issues related to educational reform and is distributed on college campuses.
Like many of his fellow upperclassmen, Felker-Kantor can't believe he's entering his last year on the Hill, where besides studying, he has also been involved in the Tufts Wilderness Orientation program. "Being at Tufts has given me a lot of opportunities, especially to work with professors one-on-one," he says. "I've been able to go to them with any questions that I have, to say, ‘This is what I want to do-can I do this?'"
Someday, he hopes to play that role for students of his own: he plans on becoming a professor of American history. And one gets the sense that nothing could be more fulfilling for Felker-Kantor than a career teaching the subject he loves.
"People tend to see history as something that's done, finished-unchanging, in a way," he observes. "But the way I've come to understand it is that history is actually always changing as our present changes. History is not really static, and it's not really set."
Profile written by Patrice Taddonio, Class of 2006
Patrice Taddonio, a native of Holland, Pennsylvania, is an English major and a communications and media studies minor. Currently the
Tufts Daily's head features editor, she interned with the Improper Bostonian magazine during her sophomore year, and worked as a
temporary text editor with the Associated Press at last July's Democratic National Convention. A member of the Class of 2006 and a songwriter, Taddonio has also performed on guitar and vocals at on-campus venues and at Boston-area benefits.
This story originally ran on Aug. 15, 2005