“That’s where it all started,” begins Steven Watts, pointing to the bust on his bookshelf. “I was born and grew up in Springfield, Illinois, in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln.” Inspired at such a young age, the MU professor of history pursued his interest in American history. Concerned with the emergence of capitalist culture, Watts’ early research explored ideas about profit, success, and “the shaping of Victorian culture in the 19th century.” About 15 years ago, however, Watts became more interested in modern American history and eventually completed a series of biographies on issues related to consumer capitalism in a culture obsessed with self-fulfillment, entertainment, and leisure.
Dr. Shonekan tells us about her collaborative work with African American Opera singer Camilla Williams. This collaboration served as the field work for Dr. Shonekan’s dissertation, and later culminated in her full-length biography The Life of Camilla Williams, African American Classical Singer and Opera Diva .
Watts’ most recent research resulted in a biography of Hugh Hefner—Mr Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream (2008). “Hefner has been a very significant historical figure in American popular culture.” At the front edge of the sexual revolution in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, Hefner signified liberation—sexual and otherwise. “In that sense,” explains Watts, “in the 1980s and ‘90s, Hefner became a kind of foil for the Reagan administration; the Meese Commission on pornography went after him very strongly. He became the bogeyman in the age of Reagan.”
With her background interest in women’s health, it was no surprise to find Carver collaborating with Elaine Lawless, MU Professor of English. After adapting some of the survivor stories for performance, in 2003 they formed the Troubling Violence Performance Project “to create a venue for people to communicate about intimate partner violence.” While they began performing stories from Lawless’ book, the stories soon emerged from elsewhere: “People starting coming up to us after the performances and asking if they could give us their stories,” many of which were then incorporated into subsequent performances. “If one out of every four women likely to suffer some kind of intimate partner abuse, then we need to really speak out. We don’t think we’re going to come in and perform and all violence is going to end. We just know that if people don’t talk about it…it’s going to be swept under the carpet.”