Today we interview Karen Lystra, professor of American Studies at California State University at Fullerton and author of “Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America ” and “Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain’s Final Years .” Karen is the featured speaker for the first event of 2011 for the Hoosier Chapter, Victorian Society in America. Her lecture “Lie Still and Think of the Empire: Love, Sex & Marriage in Victorian America,” will take place on Sunday, February 13, 2011 at 2 p.m. at Events on Delaware- 1101 N. Delaware St. *You can also find the event information on our calendar tab.
Historic Indianapolis: Your title?
KL: Professor and author
HI: How does what you do relate to the world of history and/or preservation?
KL: I try to develop a historical imagination in every student I teach. And of course I am a historian. A friend of mine once joked “another day, another footnote.” That may help illustrate the craft of writing history.
HI: What was your impetus to pursue this path?
KL:Good history teachers who believed in the life of the mind.
HI: Any advice for someone who would be interested in doing what you do?
KL: You must have two things: Insatiable curiosity and a fire in the belly for your subject matter.
HI: Anyone in your field you find particularly helpful or inspiring?
KL: There are so many. Rather than leave somebody out, generally speaking, I really admire people who have a book project and never give up on it.
HI: How do you think people can make a difference in your field?
KL: Great teaching and books that grab people and won’t let them go.
HI: If Dickens was talking about your career when he said “It was the best of times it was the worst of times” how would you expand on that?
KL: Best of times is dual. When I’ve taught a class that totally clicks and I know that my students have gained some historical knowledge that they can apply to their own life—that is one. And when I’ve had a day in my office at the Huntington Library and I suddenly look up at the clock and realize I have to go but don’t want to because I am so engrossed in what I’m doing.
Worst of times: Certain faculty meetings.
HI: Any organizations relating to your field you admire?
KL: Organization of American Historians—for which I am proud to be a distinguished lecturer.
HI: What impresses you?
KL: People who actually listen. People who are intelligent, empathetic listeners.
HI: Any personal heroes or heroines?
KL:Eleanor Roosevelt. I highly recommend the Blanche Cook biography Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 1: 1884-1933
HI: If you weren’t a teacher and author what would you have been?
KL: A torch singer; a chanteuse… named Rainbow.
HI: Any observations about Indianapolis?
KL: It has a certain European feel to it. Some people may find that laughable, but what I mean is: there are a lot of monuments and an appreciation of architecture and a sense of identification Hoosiers seem to have with their legacy. I don’t think this exists in California in the same way.
HI: What is your most marked characteristic?
KL: My ‘joie de vivre’ and wide variety of interests…
HI: Who are your favorite writers?
KL: Mark Twain; an old fashioned intellectual historian, Perry Miller; Emily Dickinson and many other American authors.
HI: Rules you live by?
KL: Be fair. Be open.
HI: What is your greatest extravagance?
HI: What words or phrases do you overuse?
KL: “No big deal.”
HI: Any hopes for your legacy?
KL: I recently read something that said ‘one way to look at your death is that you really die when the last person on earth says your name.’ To me, legacy is really about the people you love, the people who read your books—and if that continues and people continue to know you in some kind of way, then it will be a long time before the last person speaks your name. In my position, you also have a legacy through students: it is one of the great privileges of teaching.
HI: Any favorite history quotes?
KL: William Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead it isn’t even past” in effect how much the past is alive.
HI: Any goals yet to be realized?
KL: I would like to start an archive somewhere that would collect late 20th century love letters or even emails. I’d like to save the emotional history of the last 25-35 years, which I just see going up in smoke. I wish I could have gotten this dream starting this earlier. And I want it to include all sorts of ethnicities and backgrounds.
HI: What made you decide to author “Searching the Heart”?
KL: I went to the Huntington Library in San Marino—that has the largest manuscript collection in the US outside the library of Congress and stumbled across a set of 19th century love letters and became fascinated by the intimacy they revealed and wanted to know if there were more letters like that out there.
HI: What do want people will take away from your talk?
KL: I hope people will understand how “Victorian” they really are and that I can challenge some of the stereotypes people hold about “Victorians.”