In Washington, D.C., a city full of people who think of themselves as smart, each year’s Jefferson Lecture is set aside to showcase the intellect of one American who seems among the brightest of the brightest.
So here in Louisiana, let’s take heart that in the 43 years since the Jefferson Lecture began, a number of people selected for this honor have had strong Louisiana roots.
Robert Penn Warren, the poet and novelist who developed the idea of writing “All The King’s Men” while teaching at LSU, gave the Jefferson Lecture in 1974. Cleanth Brooks, another former LSU professor who co-founded The Southern Review with Warren, was the 1985 Jefferson Lecturer. Walker Percy, the late Covington novelist, delivered the Jefferson Lecture in 1989. A few weeks ago, Louisiana native Walter Isaacson delivered the 2014 Jefferson Lecture before an enthusiastic audience.
The lecture, in which a gifted commentator talks about the value of the humanities — music, literature, drama and art — in American life, is a big deal in the nation’s capital. Many dignitaries show up for the talk and reception, which is a nice acknowledgment that the humanities are an important part of our civic culture, too. Among the attendees this year was former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and journalist Cokie Roberts, another Louisiana native.
What a proud night that was for Louisiana — and a nice reminder that a state widely promoted through reality TV for its duck hunters and alligator wranglers has a life of the mind, too.
Isaacson acknowledged Louisiana’s longstanding connection with the Jefferson Lecture in his remarks. He noted his deep admiration for Percy, his predecessor at the podium and a personal hero.
Isaacson, acclaimed for his biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, credited Percy with inspiring him to become a writer.
“Dr. Percy, with his wry philosophical depth and lightly worn grace, was a hero of mine,” Isaacson told the audience. “He lived on the Bogue Falaya, a bayoulike, lazy river across Lake Pontchartrain from my hometown of New Orleans. My friend Thomas was his nephew, and thus he became “Uncle Walker” to all of us kids who used to go up there to fish, capture sunning turtles, water ski and flirt with his daughter, Ann. It was not quite clear what Uncle Walker did. He had trained as a doctor, but he never practiced. Instead, he seemed to be at home most days, sipping bourbon and eating hog’s head cheese. Ann said he was a writer, but it was not until his first novel, “The Moviegoer,” had gained recognition that it dawned on me that writing was something you could do for a living, just like being a doctor or a fisherman or an engineer.”
Isaacson reminded listeners that science needs the humanities. Franklin, Einstein and Jobs all relied on the arts to develop their best ideas. That reality is too often lost in a country where humanities funding lags so far behind the nation’s investment in math and science. We welcome Isaacson’s timely reminder that the humanities and innovation go hand in hand.