OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

Carolyn Eastman

Portrait of Carolyn Eastman

Carolyn Eastman is an associate 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). Her current research has focused on two book-length projects. The first examines the history of the two yellow fever epidemics that ravaged New York City during the 1790s. The second asks how ideas about travel—elaborated in popular, richly illustrated volumes—cultivated new ways of seeing strangers and considering the self during the eighteenth century.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

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.
The tale of the nationwide peace movement that arose during the antebellum era is fascinating on many levels, not least because its leaders proposed an unusual argument: that war was perpetuated, in part, by prevailing modes of manliness. They offered up an alternative: a gentle masculinity, revealed through one’s personal interactions, speech, and demeanor. In particular, their refusal to engage in aggressive forms of public persuasion brought pacifists into dramatic conflict with abolitionists during the 1830s—a fight that shaped both organizations in the years afterward.
Eloquent Indian speeches served as models for fine oratory to Americans in the years after the Revolution—even though these speeches frequently condemned Americans for their hypocrisy and guilt for Indian suffering. This talk explores how it was that, at the very moment Americans sought new sources of national pride and identity, they might express widespread appreciation for oratory that portrayed them in such unflattering terms—even going so far as to ask children to memorize and recite those speeches in schools.
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.