When award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns was seeking consultants for his 1994 documentary, Baseball, he called on internationally renowned essayist and American culture critic Gerald Early, PhD, the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in Arts & Sciences. Since then, Early has contributed to Burns’s film series on jazz, World War Two, heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, and most recently, the Roosevelt family, scheduled to air on PBS in 2014.
Early brings his expansive knowledge to bear in the classroom and encourages his students to research the beauty and the significance of literature. “Great literature is the map of the meaning of the world, the DNA of our culture,” he says. “It is a privilege to get students excited about decoding that map.”
A native of Philadelphia, Early has been a member of the Washington University faculty since 1982. Over the years, he has helped shape the curriculum in African and African-American studies and American culture studies. He served nine years as the director of the university’s Center for the Humanities and has been called “the very ideal of a great humanities scholar.”
Early is the author and editor of more than a dozen books on topics from baseball and jazz to father–daughter relationships and American, African-American, and children’s literature. He is completing a book titled The Cambridge Companion to Boxing, and another about Fisk University. His book The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature and Modern American Culture won the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. Early serves on several influential academic and editorial boards.
More than his visibility as an expert, his extensive publishing record, or the many prestigious prizes he’s won, Early’s passion for the humanities is rooted in helping young minds understand the historical importance and the continuing relevance of the humanities to our lives.
“I try to challenge my students and get them to see the weaknesses and flaws in their own thinking by analyzing the weaknesses and flaws in the thinking of others,” he explains. “I try to inspire them, too, and hope they might be infected by my enthusiasm.”