Seek out early American art and the abundance of portraits is sure to stand out. A desire to understand that passion for portraiture — or, as Jane Kamensky describes it, “making a nation out of faces” — was what inspired her current book, a biography of the painter John Singleton Copley.
Kamensky’s work has focused on early American history, from the 17th century through the early 19th. She pinpointed Copley — familiar to New Englanders for his namesake plaza in Boston as well as iconic images like his Paul Revere — as her next subject, in part because of the wealth of personal documents that the artist produced. Unlike most artists of the time, Copley was a prolific writer who recorded many details about his life. Kamensky was able to tap into an archive of more than 500 Copley family letters that chronicled the artist’s personal thoughts and day-to-day happenings during an extraordinarily momentous period of American history.
“Copley’s one of the few visual artists and one of the few lower-middle-class people who really tells us what they were thinking. So instead of having to infer a set of logics and beliefs from looking only at the artwork or only at the texts, Copley gives both types of material,” Kamensky said.
Her book, Copley: A Life in Color, will be published by W.W. Norton in 2016. She’ll spend her first year at Brown on leave working on the book as the Cornille Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Newhouse Center for Humanities at Wellesley College.
The idea for the book on Copley came to Kamensky during work on her previous book, The Exchange Artist: The Tale of High-Flying Financial Speculation and America’s First Banking Collapse (Viking, 2008), about the 1809 financial crisis that began with a Ponzi scheme in Boston. More recently, Kamensky was the co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution (2012). Along with Brown historian Howard Chudacoff, she is also member of the six-author team that wrote the most recent edition of the widely used U.S. history textbook A People and a Nation (2014).
She has also experimented with historical fiction. With Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore, Kamensky co-authored a novel, Blindspot (Spiegel & Grau/Random House), a mystery involving painters during the period just before the American Revolution. Kamensky reflects on the experience of writing the epistolary fiction as “tremendously freeing, in part because it was a wonderful experience of middle-age amateurism.” She notes that the project also aided her academic work.
“It was valuable to me as a historian to be thinking about people’s lives in the distant past from the inside out rather than from the outside in. There’s something presumptuous about that: We know that people experienced life differently in different times and places. But it’s important as a historian to be reminded that the people we study were hot and cold, they experienced pleasure and pain, they lived lives of desire and fear, as well as lives structured by social class, demography, environment, or by the many other kinds of material circumstances that we work so hard as scholars to recover.”
Kamensky comes to Brown as the inaugural Mary Ann Lippitt Professor of American History after spending the last 21 years on the faculty at Brandeis University, rising from assistant professor to the Harry S. Truman professorship and chair of the history department.
“I’ve been very happy there, but when Brown approached me it seemed like a really exciting change at a really good moment for change in my career,” Kamensky said.
She said she’s eager to tap into the resources available at the John Carter Brown Library and the RISD Museum and hopes to use her expertise to offer more coursework on the age of revolutions, early American culture, and women, gender, and family in American history. History, Kamensky believes, shouldn’t be relegated to the classroom.
“I’m very interested in a laboratory model for the humanities, where students have a sense of being on the bench with their faculty mentors as researchers doing the work. I think we’re coming into a moment where anybody can find the best lecture course in just about anything on the Internet, and I’m interested in thinking about the things that can only be done hands-on with a group of students like Brown students — and can best be done here,” she said. Examples might include a course on the history of Providence or the Brown family, using the unique resources of the Hay Library.
Kamensky began her own undergraduate studies at Yale as a music performance major.
“I wasn’t a history girl growing up,” she said.
But soon after starting her freshman year, she realized that music wasn’t for her and switched to a history major, then the most popular at Yale.
“It was a well-trodden path,” Kamensky said.
Later, encouragement from a former professor while she worked in the typing pool at Columbia University eventually led her to pursue graduate work, again at Yale. And the rest, as they say, is history.
It was the right choice, as she clearly relishes the process of research and writing that her career involves.
“It’s a job where you’re continually pursuing projects and seeing them through to the highest level of completion you can bring them. It’s artisanal work rather than industrial work and that’s a great luxury in an industrial and post-industrial age.”