Don’t Kill the NEH


With the newly-released Trump budget slaughtering everything from the PEA and Appalachian job retraining programs to ebola vaccines, climate change research, Big Bird, school lunches, and Meals on Wheels, the killing off of the National Endowment for the Humanities may seem too small a thing to get worked up about, but it’s a critical program, and one I have a very personal stake in.

For those of you who don’t know about the National Endowment for the Humanities(NEH), it, along with the better-known National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), does a whole variety of things: it gives grants to libraries, museums, historical societies, and schools, and sponsors writing projects, films, and exhibitions.

It’s funded Ken Burns’ documentaries, THE CIVIL WAR, JAZZ, and BASEBALL (which all by itself should make it worth saving); published the Library of America editions of the classics, financed the TREASURES OF TUTANKHAMEN travelling museum exhibition, funded the complication of the DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN REGIONAL ENGLISH, and sponsored the U.S. Newspaper Project, which has digitized (and saved) the newspapers of the early Republic.

It’s also helped literary critics, historians, and other scholars research, write, and publish books. It’s awarded honorariums to American scholars who’ve communicated the humanities “in an accessible and appealing way,” people like Toni Morrison, Robert Penn Warrant, and Arthur Miller. And it’s given grants to poets and writers to enable them to pursue their writing.

In 1980, I received an NEH Writer’s Grant. I had been writing science-fiction stories for 10 years with only marginal success and very little remuneration. I’d been substitute teaching, but I was rapidly approaching a time where I was going to have to “fish or cut bait”: get a real teaching job and give up on my ridiculous dream of being a writer.

Enter the writing grant, which not only enabled me to write for another year, but made me feel like someone had faith in me and I wasn’t just wasting my time.

The money from the grant also made it possible for me to go to England, where I did the research for “Fire Watch” and DOOMSDAY BOOK and first got the idea for my two-volume London Blitz novel, BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR. It also enabled me to buy a bunch of research books, including Leonard Mosley’s invaluable BACKS TO THE WALL, Mollie Panter-Downs’s wartime journal, and the Mass Observation diaries, and to do the initial research which culminated in my writing “Jack,” “Lost and Found,” TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG, and “The Winds of Marble Arch.”

People often say that if you really want to write, you can overcome any obstacle, and maybe I would have continued to write if I hadn’t gotten the grant. But it’s also possible that I would have given up or given in, like so many writers I’ve known over the years who fell by the wayside because they had to take a full-time job or care for an aging parent or deal with illness or divorce or financial reverses. Or all of the above. Who knows what a grant at the right time might have done for them.

I know what it did for me. Thanks to the money it provided, I was able to keep writing and do the research that fueled future works. It tided me over till I could justify writing full-time. By the time the money was gone, my career was launched, I’d won a Hugo and two Nebulas, one of them for “Fire Watch,” and I was publishing regularly in GALILEO and ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE. And I’d decided not to go back to teaching, but to keep writing. Which I did for the rest of my life.

Now, I realize that seeing to it that one writer continued to write may not seem like much, but I was not the only writer who benefited from those grants, and if they were anything like me, they worked hard to pay back the government’s investment in them–and to pay it forward.

In my case, I’ve taught writers’ workshops; lectured at public libraries, library conferences, science conferences, and universities; taught elementary, middle-school, high-school and college students; worked with my state’s arts council; donated books, manuscripts, and money to libraries; and tried to share my love of books, literature, and science fiction wherever and whenever I could.

Literature isn’t just some frill of the “elites.” It’s absolutely essential. Our country is what it is not only because of the explorers and farms and miners and steelworkers who forged it, but because of the novelists and poets who wrote about it: Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. And Toni Morrison and Ken Burns. The humanities are what give our country its soul, and we can’t afford to lose that.

As Lyndon Baines Johnson said when he started the NEH, “Art is a nation’s most precious heritage, for it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.” We are in more need than ever of a uniting vision for our country. Keep the National Endowment for the Humanities alive.

NOTE: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security weren’t addressed in this phase of the budget (they’re in the next go-round) and Trump’s promised not to touch them, but since his health care plan has already decimated Medicaid, I don’t think we should trust him. So I need to give credit for my success not only to the NEH, but to the Social Security Survivor’s Benefits program.

That’s what got me through college. My mother died when I was twelve, leaving me in the “care” of my stepfather, and when I began applying to colleges, he refused to fill out the financial need forms on the grounds that it was “nobody’s goddamned business” how much he made. Without the information (and his signature), I couldn’t qualify for any financial aid at all and was not sure I could even get into college.

A wonderful high school counselor who understood my situation somehow managed to get me a scholarship that covered my tuition and a job in the dining hall, but it still wasn’t enough to get me through, and without the help of those survivor’s benefits (which I began to collect at age 18 when the payments were transferred from my stepfather to me), I simply couldn’t have gone to college–where I majored in English lit, fell in love with Shakespeare, and was first introduced to Dickens, T.S. Eliot, Trollope, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and all the other writers who’ve inspired me through the years–and who taught me to write.

Ronald Reagan was fond of saying the government’s the problem, not the solution, and that the most frightening words someone can say to you are, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.”

But he was dead wrong. The NEH grant and Social Security survivors’ benefits were from the government, and they both helped me immeasurably. As so many government programs help other people. We need to make sure they’re around to help the next generation, too.

Connie Willis

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