AMERICAN CHRONICLES about Robert C. W. Ettinger, a founder of the cryonics movement. Robert C. W. Ettinger is ninety-one years old and he is a founder of the cryonics movement. When he dies, the blood will be drained from his body, antifreeze will be pumped into his arteries, and holes will be drilled in his skull, after which he will be stored in a vat of liquid nitrogen at minus three hundred and twenty degrees Fahrenheit. He expects to be defrosted, sometime between fifty and two hundred years from now, by scientists who will make him young and strong and tireless. Ettinger has already frozen his mother and his two wives, along with ninety-two other people who await resurrection inside giant freezers in a building just a few blocks from his house, in Clinton Township, Michigan. The Cryonics Institute occupies a seven-thousand-square-foot warehouse in an industrial park. Past a shabby waiting room is the small office of Andy Zawacki, who constitutes half of C.I.’s full-time staff. He is also one of C.I.’s more than eight hundred members, which means that he plans to be frozen when he dies. The writer visited the freezer storage area. There were fourteen cylindrical freezers. Each held six patients, and all but four were filled. There were also three older, rectangular freezers. The writer asked if the corpses were put in canisters within the cylinders. “No, in sleeping bags,” Ettinger said. Ettinger was born in Atlantic City in December of 1918. His mother’s family came from Odessa; his father was born in Germany. In about 1922, the family moved to Detroit. When he was eight years old, Ettinger started reading Amazing Stories, a sci-fi magazine. Ettinger dates his interest in immortality to 1931, when he read “The Jameson Satellite.” Mentions Ted Williams’s head, which was frozen and stored at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, C.I.’s chief rival. “Neuropreservation” has a scientific attitude, but that doesn’t make it science. Credentialled laboratory scientists don’t generally think the dead will one day awaken. The consensus appears to be that when you try to defrost a frozen corpse you get mush. And even if, in the future, scientists could repair the damage done to cells by freezing and thawing, what they would have, at best, is a cadaver. Ettinger announced the dawn of what he called the Freezer Era at the height of the Cold War. His book, “The Prospect of Immortality,” appeared in 1964, the year “Dr. Strangelove” hit theatres. When the book came out, Ettinger became something of a star. The first human being was frozen in 1966; it went badly, and the body had to be buried a few months later. The following year, a man was frozen by an organization that later became the Cryonics Society of California. Ettinger’s father and brother were not frozen; they “were lost.” His first patient was his mother, Rhea, whom he froze in 1977. His second patient was his first wife, Elaine, who died in 1987. He remarried the following year. His second wife, Mae, suffered a stroke in 2000, and she was frozen as well. Ettinger finds nothing so uninteresting as history. Describes the writer and Ettinger going through his family photo albums.
Common-place asks its founding editors about their collaboratively written novel, set in Revolutionary-era Boston—Blindspot, a Novel, by a Gentleman in Exile and a Lady in Disguise (2008)—and about relationships between history and fiction in general.
What happens when historians write fiction? We decided to find out. Blindspot, our novel, is set in 1764, in Boston, a city reeling from the economic downturn following the French and Indian War, and beginning to simmer with the fires of liberty. The book tells the story of Stewart Jameson, a Scottish portrait painter fleeing debtor’s prison, and Fanny Easton, the fallen daughter of one of Boston’s richest merchants, who poses as a boy to gain a situation as Jameson’s apprentice. Their lives take a turn when Samuel Bradstreet, Speaker of the Massachusetts Assembly, is murdered the day Jameson and Easton are to paint him.
Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard, and Jane Kamensky, a professor of history at Brandeis, met as graduate students in the 1980s. In 2007, the two began to write a historical novel. The product of that collaboration, the occasionally racy Blindspot (Spiegel & Grau, $24.95), tells the story of the portrait painter Stewart Jameson and his apprentice, "Francis Weston," née Fanny Easton, the disguised daughter of a prominent Bostonian. Lepore and Kamensky compiled glossaries, consulted collections of urban slang and lifted freely from eighteenth-century sources. With each in charge of one narrator--Lepore wrote Jameson's chapters, Kamensky Easton's letters--the two volleyed passages back and forth, like "a tennis game."--Christine Smallwood
The historical mystery "Blindspot" (Spiegel & Grau) is a collaboration between the New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore, who is also a professor of American history and the chair of the History and Literature Program at Harvard, and Jane Kamensky, the chair of the Department of History at Brandeis. Set in Boston during the summer of 1764, against the backdrop of the colonies' increasing discontent, the novel imagines the lives of Stewart Jameson, a swashbuckling Scottish portrait painter, and Fanny Easton, a young woman whose circumstances have forced her into disguise in order to serve as his painting apprentice. Lepore and Kamensky graciously took a moment to answer our questions. Below is our discussion with Lepore; later today, we'll post our talk with Kamensky.
It was a classic medical scare story: Parrots died. A few people got sick. Newspapers went wild. Then, well after the outbreak of "parrot fever" was declared dormant, researchers who dealt with the birds began to mysteriously die themselves. Historian Jill Lepore talks to host Jacki Lyden about the great parrot fever outbreak of 1929. Lepore chronicles the episode in the June 1 issue of The New Yorker magazine.
Soon after earning her bachelor’s degree in English from Tufts, Jill Lepore started working at Harvard, but not as a member of the faculty. The future David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History was clocking hours as a secretary on temporary assignment. But she was also writing up a storm, auditing courses, and thinking about attending grad school. In a conversation that opens with high-school recollections before venturing into seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America, Lepore describes how she became the person she is today: a well-known scholar of early American history, a winner of the Bancroft Prize, a former NEH research fellow, and the author of numerous essays and several distinguished books. She is also a staff writer at the New Yorker and, with fellow historian Jane Kamensky, the coauthor of Blindspot, a work of historical fiction set in Revolution-era Boston.
In a recent issue of The New Yorker magazine, Harvard historian Jill Lepore wrote about murder in America. Her article looks at recent and historical events in Connecticut to illustrate her points. All Things Considered host Mark Herz spoke with her about how the Cheshire home invasion crime and subsequent changes in punishment guidelines fits in historically.