Princeton Humanists Respond to Coronavirus

April 29, 2020
Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" provides inspiration to humanities faculty Ilya Vinitsky and Yiyun Li. Image: Getty Images

As COVID-19 forces communities to isolate themselves, creating economic and political anxiety, the humanities can provide a sense of connectedness and historical memory. 

Against a backdrop of disquiet, isolation, and confusion, humanities scholars at Princeton are offering their thoughts on the crisis, illuminating the values at stake in current debates. In op-eds, news commentaries, petitions, and digital projects, Princeton faculty are helping us to make sense of a shifting global landscape and to imagine how it might look when we emerge on the other side.

The Humanities Council strives to build connections and create conversation in these uncertain times. If you have read or written something you would like to share, please forward news and articles to Min Pullan for inclusion. 

Below is a sample of faculty responses to COVID-19 from across disciplines.

From the the Humanities Council: 

  • Senior Research Scholar Allen Guelzo (Humanities Council) goes back a shorter distance to contemplate, in his own isolation, what families in the 19th century did around parlor tables and recommends a meditation from The Remains of Edmund Grindal (1843), a book about the plague of 1563. Drawing on historical examples, he and Robert P. George (James Madison Program) discuss cases of political leadership in times of national crisis. They argue that history will not necessarily provide a roadmap, but perhaps reflection on historical cases can teach us some lessons in safely navigating the highways when there is no roadmap at hand.
  • As part of “American Contact,” a Humanities Council Global Initiative, history professor Rhae Lynn Barnes is offering virtual help to school teachers by coordinating The Show Must Go On, a crowd-sourced collection of American history lesson plans and 5-minute video lectures by scholars.
  • Professor of English Jeff Dolven, the 2020-21 director of the Behrman Undergraduate Society of Fellows, offers a poem in Cabinet magazine in a post dedicated to nurses and doctors across the world.

For both literary scholars and creative writers, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace provides inspiration:

  • Ilya Vinitsky, professor of Slavic literature, examines the epidemiological motif in Tolstoy’s depiction of the flu in War and Peace, exploring how the grippe epidemic in Paris in 1804 signaled the breakdown of relations between France and England and the destabilization of Europe in the coming years. 
  • Yiyun Li, professor of Creative Writing, invites readers to participate in her virtual book club Tolstoy Together.  Inspired by the solidity and structure that War and Peace provides in these unsettling times, the novel offers “a moment each day when we can gather together as a community.”



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