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Setting the Groundwork for a Guggenheim

USC College’s Karen Halttunen has earned a Guggenheim Fellowship enabling the historian to finish her book, "New England Groundwork."

By Pamela J. Johnson
April 22, 2009

Karen Halttunen of USC College was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship that will enable her to finish her book about 19th century New Englanders. Born in Massachusetts, Halttunen has always felt a deep connection to New England. Photo credit Taylor Foust.

Karen Halttunen of USC College was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship that will enable her to finish her book about 19th century New Englanders. Born in Massachusetts, Halttunen has always felt a deep connection to New England. Photo credit Taylor Foust.

Karen Halttunen, professor of history in USC College, has earned a Guggenheim Fellowship to support her book about 19th century New Englanders and their sense of identity in relation to place.

"I see this project in terms of layers," Halttunen said. "Nineteenth-century New Englanders had a sense of memory layered on their local landscapes. The most immediate past was the colonial settlement, the deeper past was Indian habitation, below that lay the geological past right down to the dinosaurs, whose footprints they were discovering in the Connecticut River Valley."

Halttunen has spent the past seven years researching the book. She was among 180 awarded the 2009 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship from a pool of nearly 3,000 applicants.  

Established in 1925, the fellowships are awarded to American and Canadian scholars, artists and scientists who have demonstrated distinguished achievement and show exceptional promise.

"This is an enormously welcome fellowship," Halttunen said. "It will enable me to complete a draft of the book."

Next academic year, Halttunen will finish her research at the Huntington Library in San Marino, and in New England - Cambridge and Amherst, Massachusetts; Hartford, Connecticut and Portland, Maine - while she continues writing.

Titled, New England Groundwork: Nature, History, and Local Place, 1790-1876, the book investigates "the vision of place imagined by people whose creativity arose, not from pursuing continued expansion and conquest, but from embracing the cultural and intellectual challenges of staying put," Halttunen said.

"New England Groundwork examines the creation of local and regional place during a period when New Englanders were experiencing large-scale out-migration to what we now call the Midwest," she said.

"New Englanders have a powerful relationship to the past. And they have a powerful connection to their landscape. To a Westerner, the New England landscape may seem very tame; Western landscapes are so much more dramatic. But 19th-century New Englanders were really invested in making their landscape a special, storied place from which they drew their own sense of identity."

Joining USC College in 2004, Halttunen is vice president of the American Historical Association's Teaching Division, a past-president of the American Studies Association and an elected member of the Society of American Historians. Earning her Ph.D. at Yale University, she has held professorial posts at Northwestern University and the University of California, Davis.
 
Born in Massachusetts and raised in the Midwest, Halttunen has always felt a deep connection to New England.

"There is an autobiographical component to this project," Halttunen said.  "My parents were themselves New England exiles, and even as a child I became fascinated by their sense of the historical specialness of that region's landscape."