OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

Carolyn Eastman

Portrait of Carolyn Eastman

Carolyn Eastman is Professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research examines how men and women engaged with publications, oratory, and visual imagery during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and how those popular media affected their perceptions of self and community as well as the larger political culture. She is the author of The Strange Genius of Mr. O: The World of the United States' First Forgotten Celebrity (2021) and the prizewinning A Nation of Speechifiers: Making an American Public after the Revolution (2009). She is currently developing a new book project that examines the history of the yellow fever epidemics that ravaged New York City during the 1790s. To complete this work, she received a residential fellowship through the New-York Historical Society for the academic year 2021-2022, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Grant for the academic year 2022-2023.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

We often hear about high death rates during epidemics in history -- but what about the people who survived? How did they experience disease, and how did they go on once the epidemic had ended? Taking on the topic of New Yorkers' experiences of yellow fever during the 1790s, this talk explores some of the people most often overlooked in histories of public health: women, African Americans, and the poorest residents of the city, whose populations were hit hardest.
Why should we care about a now-forgotten celebrity of the early 19th century? This talk examines an explosive celebrity performer who captivated audiences at a key moment in the founding era -- a man whose career featured many of the hallmarks of celebrity we recognize from later eras: glamorous friends, eccentric clothing, scandalous religious views, and even a drug habit. And yet examining his career and the Americans who loved (or hated) him reveals a vivid portrait of the United States in the midst of invention.
In 1829 a social reformer named Frances Wright gave dozens of lectures to overflow audiences in cities up and down the East Coast, prompting scandalized newspaper accounts that sought to rouse public outrage about her oratory. The story of this scandalous public woman reveals an important moment in women’s history, and casts light more broadly on the gender politics of publicity for women in American culture that continues to have repercussions today.
Nothing is more ephemeral than speech delivered during historical eras before sound recording. Yet the more we learn, the more important it appears that we study public speech as a unique cultural practice and form of communication—an important site for the articulation of ideas as well as an explosive and innovative mode for performance, criticism, and debate. This talk explores the significance of public speech in American history, and the rich interpretive potential for a field of study in which style (gestures, staging, facial expression) can tell us as much about substance (a speech's text) when it comes to understanding how people of the past heard.
Early modern travel narratives frequently contained an unsettling vignette: a purportedly true tale about a European man who “marries,” and then abandons, a native woman who had proved crucial to his survival in unfamiliar territory. Considering that these books usually used racial comparison to declare European cultural superiority, these tales offered a far more complicated perspective on interracial families than one might expect—revealing in the process evolving viewpoints about cultural contact and sexuality.