048: Ari Kelman, 37


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

48: Ari Kelman, 3-26-07

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Associate Professor of History, University of California, Davis, 2005-present.
Area of Research: The Politics of Memory, Civil War and Reconstruction, The Built Environment, Environmental History, U.S. Borderlands, U.S. South, Native American, Historical Geography.
Education: Ph.D. History, Brown University, May 1998.
Major Publications: Kelman is the author of A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in NewAri Kelman JPG

Orleans, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003, 2006) which received the 2004 Abbott Lowell Cummings Award. He is currently working on A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, under contract). Kelman has also authored a number of scholarly essays in the Journal of American History, Suburban History, and Historical Geography He also authored book chapters including; “New Orleans’s Phantom Slave Insurrection of 1853: Racial Anxiety, Urban Ecology, and Human Bodies as Public Spaces.” In Andrew Isenberg (ed.), The Nature of Cities: New Directions in Urban Environmental History, (University of Rochester Press, 2006).
Awards: Kelman is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
The Huntington/National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar, 2005. “The Redemptive West: Nationhood and Healing in the Post-Civil War American West”;
National Endowment for the Humanities Research Fellowship, 2004-2005;
Temple Hoyne Buell Foundation Research Fellowship, 2004-2005;
Colorado State Historical Fund Education Grant, 2004-2005;
Abbot Lowell Cummings Award, 2004. Presented for A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans;
Colorado Endowment for the Humanities Program Grant, 2002;
Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Publishing Subvention Grant, 2001-2002;
National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute, 1999. “The Built Environment \ of the American Metropolis, Public and Private Realms”;
Martha Joukousky Dissertation Prize, 1998. Runner-up;
John Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization Fellowship, 1997;
American Historical Association Littleton-Griswold Research Grant, 1996;
Historic New Orleans Collection Williams Research Fellowship, 1995;
University of Denver Learning Effectiveness Program Teaching Award, 2002;
Brown University President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, 1995.
Additional Info:
Formerly Associate Professor of History and Department Chair at the University of Denver, 2000-2005, and Reach for Excellence Honors Professor and Assistant Professor of History and Geography, at the University of Oklahoma, 1998-2000.
Kelman has been involved in a number of public history and documentary projects. He was the Principal Series Advisor and On-Camera Commentator for “New Orleans,” for PBS, The American Experience Documentary Series, 2005-2007; Series consultant for “Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America”, for The History Channel, 2004-2006. Kelman was , On- and off-air consultant on BBC Radio for “Katrina” and “When the Music Stopped” radio documentaries, 2005.
He has also written for a number newspapers and magazines including The Nation, House and Garden, Slate, The Christian Science Monitor, and the Baltimore Sun among others. .

Personal Anecdote

My career has become a case study in historical contingency.

On August 28th, 2005, I was settling into a new job in the history department at UC Davis. Throughout the day, I organized notes for my current book project, on the politics of memory surrounding the Sand Creek Massacre. Then, late in the afternoon, as I sifted through a transcribed oral history, the phone rang, startling me. It was the first time someone called me in my new office; I hadn’t even known the phone worked. When I picked up, a breathless journalist from the New York Times asked if I could comment on the hurricane bearing down on New Orleans. The storm’s name was Katrina, he said, and it looked like a real “whopper.” I answered first that I didn’t “do” New Orleans anymore, and second, I hadn’t paid much attention to Katrina, which seemed to be tracking along a relatively benign path. “The city,” I quipped, “had weathered worse.”

By the next morning, when the Times reporter called back, generously offering me a do-over, it was clear that I had been wrong twice over: I still “did” New Orleans, and the city had never seen a more destructive hurricane. Another thing was clear as well: my career had taken a rather sudden turn. Like I said, historical contingency.

Prior to Katrina, I enjoyed a pretty ordinary academic life. My first book, A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans, died a dignified scholarly death: it won a prize, got me a job and tenure, and occupied a place of honor on my parents’ bookshelf. Then, after the storm, it was reborn, and with it a new stage in my career. I would be an [Author ID1: at Wed Feb 28 15:13:00 2007 ]instapundit and then a public intellectual, whatever that means. I appeared on TV once and wasn’t good; I have the perfect face for print. I did a slew of radio interviews, which went somewhat better. Apparently especially in Australia, from whence a disembodied voice explained, I had become a “media sensation on par with The Wiggles.” And I wrote essays published in middlebrow and glossy periodicals, including a short piece in “House and Garden.” My graduate advisors must have been so proud.

Overall, it was a surreal and discomfiting experience. In part because New Orleans remained under water, then soggy, and finally dry but desolate. I felt removed from the suffering and guilty writing about suffering secondhand. But also because I had my first experience working outside of the geological timeframe typical of academic publishing. Not only did I have to meet deadlines of hours or days instead of months or years, but I often got feedback from readers immediately after my essays appeared in print.

Now, I’ve just returned from another trip to New Orleans, where I led a tour of a city in which disaster voyeurism may be the only booming industry. And some day soon, I’ll get back to writing about Sand Creek. But I, and my career, will never be the same. I’ve become a better historian, more attuned to unpredictable winds of change.


By Ari Kelman

  • When Bienville gazed at the Mississippi’s muddy waters, he did not contemplate the power of fluvial tectonics, of accretion and erosion, or the difference between the river’s deltaic and flood plains. He saw only a magnificent system of watery roads, A River and Its City The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans JPGa tapestry of commercial empire woven from the strands of the river system’s watercourses. Bienville read the geography of the Mississippi Valley as surely as we might read a map, and he saw the unmistakable imprint of divine providence. Viewing God and what he called “Nature” as parts of a whole, Bienville perceived the river as a gift, a treasure map carved into the continent. For several reasons, his perceptions made sense. Before our era of paved roads, rails, or air travel – all technologies circumventing the vagaries of geography – rivers served as highways of commerce. And the Mississippi system provided the most magnificent collection of highways in the world, including more than 15,000 miles of navigable streams, a system shaped like a large funnel with its spout pointed at New Orleans. In Bienville’s mind, this strategic location guaranteed that from the capillaries of backcountry brooks, to the veins of larger tributary rivers like the Ohio and the Missouri, and finally to the artery of the trunk stream itself, commerce, the economic lifeblood of the continent, would inevitably flow downstream on the Mississippi system to market at New Orleans. – Ari Kelman in “A River and Its City The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans”

About Ari Kelman

  • “New Orleans’s Mississippi levee is the key to unraveling the historical dialectic between a great river and an essentially amphibious city. It is also the monumental space of New Orleans’s past, where dark plots and heroic dreams remain forever entangled.” — Mike Davis, author of “Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster”
  • “A pioneering environmental history of the evolving relationship between one of the nation’s old and most exceptional cities and our greatest river. It is a fascinating story.” — William Cronon, author of “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West”
  • “Kelman makes elegant sense of a story as tangled as the Louisiana bayous and tells his tale with a verve to rival that of New Orleans itself.” — John R. McNeill, author of “Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World”
  • “Deeply researched and compellingly written, Kelman’s book should be required reading for a nation in shock that its fabled Crescent City will require hundreds of billions to rebuild. . . . Planners embarking on the next phase of shaping the urban- nature interface can ill afford not to learn the lessons of this particular history.” — Philip J. Ethington, American Historical Review
  • “Kelman’s writing style makes the interaction between the inhabitants of New Orleans and nature come alive. His interdisciplinary approach, masterful use of primary sources, and balanced argumentation place his monograph with the best studies in environmental history. The book’s readability and length make it a good choice for classroom use.” — George S. Pabis writing in Journal of Southern History.
  • “Although Kelman’s book will probably be categorized as environmental history, its intellectual grandfathers are political philosopher Jurgen Habermas and historians of property law such as Harry Scheiber and James Willard Hurst. Close comparators are Roy Rosensweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, “The Park and the People: A History of Central Park,” Mary Ryan, “Civic Wars: Democracy and Public Life in the American City during the Nineteenth Century,” and Peter Baldwin, “Domesticating the Street: The Reform of Public Space in Hartford.” That it stands up well in comparison is a measure of Kelman’s accomplishment. – Carl Abbott writing in The Western Historical Quarterly.
  • “Ari Kelman’s book is an engaging environmental history heavy with legal overtones that detail the complex and ever changing relationship of New Orleans with the Mississippi River. It is a readable and well-written addition to the serious literature concerning the Crescent City and riverfront adaptation and redevelopment generally.” — Ralph E. Thayer writing in Technology and Culture.
  • “Kelman is an excellent writer who has done extensive research into New Orleans history. He has unearthed numerous details that enhance his story.” — Edward F. Haas writing in Journal of American History.
  • “He loves what he teaches, has a great sense of humor, and keeps you interested. What more could you ask for?”… “One of my favorite lecturers ever! Kelman’s class was highly entertaining and informative. Good sense of humor, willing to help and engage students.”… “I am only halfway through his Civil War class, and I can already say that this is my favorite class I have taken. Professor Kelman is an amazing lecturer, and very helpful with his papers. Everyone should take him…he is hilarious, and lectures are never boring…he is an incredible teacher.” … “A great lecturer who really knows his stuff.” — Anonymous Students

Posted on Sunday, March 25, 2007 at 8:12 PM

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