Get To Know The Author: Laura Macaluso, PhD

Laura A. Macaluso, PhD, researches and writes about art, cultural heritage and material culture. She has degrees in art history and the humanities from Southern Connecticut State University, Syracuse University in Italy and Salve Regina University. In 2018, The Public Artscape of New Haven: Themes in the Creation of a City Image will be published by McFarland & Company, and Monument Culture: International Perspectives on the Future of Monuments in a Changing World, of which she is the editor, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Inc. 
A Guide to Thomas Jefferson's Virginia is her third book for The History Press.


First, we’d like to know a little bit more about you. When did your interest in history (and Jefferson) first begin? Why?

I was an Art History major as an undergraduate at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, and even though that was a long time ago, I’ve never lost my passion and love for doing Art History, and studying where those two subjects come together. Jefferson isn’t really about Art History, but I also was involved in an amazing internship experience at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado during my undergraduate formative period. While I had always been interested in the idea of “place” and geography even as a child, to have the opportunity to work in a national park really got me interested in that idea of place. Moving later from Connecticut, which is a small state just packed full of people, to the more rural setting of central Virginia really appealed to that interest, and Jefferson made a huge impact on the area, as well as the area making a huge impact on him.

Your academic focus with Art History has primarily been in monument, murals, and museums, so was it that interest in place and geography that inspired you to write a book on homes and important locations to Jefferson’s life?

It did, but very particularly, my husband Jeff and I lived as historic house caretakers for a total of fifteen years – our move to Virginia was actually the first time we had bought our own house. Jeff also entered into historic house museum work when he became an employee for the Mark Twain house. Historic homes and places have always been our interest and how we’ve made our lives.

You’ve had a lot of experience with studying these types of things then. What unique lens do you think your academic background gave you while writing A Guide to Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia?

I’m not sure this is a popular lens, but I think my recent blog post indicated the lens I had while studying Jefferson. I can’t help but be critical about Thomas Jefferson. I’m not sure how much that’s appropriate or desirable for all audiences, but I can’t neglect to engage with that criticism as an academic. It comes from trying to be a witness to what’s happening in society. I hope my lens is a balanced one, because I am both critical but also very appreciative of Jefferson. He did a lot of great, essential American things, which ranged from beautiful and wonderful to horrible. I’m trying to not take one side in that argument, but acknowledge both sides.

Jefferson certainly has developed a new image in the 21st century, as people have begun to judge him for the amount of slaves he kept, and his confirmed relationship with Sally Hemings. As an Art Historian, as society changes, do you think that history also changes? That is, do you think that we “rewrite” history to suit society as we progress?

Yes. I think history is a lot of circular conversation – it’s not possible to come down and judge “this is history,” versus “this is not history.” That’s very much the case with monuments, where people will say “well monuments aren’t the history, they’re the revision of history, so that’s why we can remove them, because they’re not the actual history or the actual person.” It’s difficult and complex. I suppose I’m someone who wants to go with the times, and I think we all have to. The times have changed, and Jefferson has changed.
History can (and should be) a guide to help society move forward. We shouldn’t just write history as a story that’s pleasurable and makes people feel good, but rather point out the things that can be a guide. People from centuries ago experienced similar things to what we are today, and we can look to them for enlightenment, because they were extremely smart people too!

There are numerous books that study Jefferson. What do you think makes your book stand out from that crowd?

As far as I can tell after searching the libraries at Poplar Forest (which has two rooms with books devoted solely to Thomas Jefferson), I don’t think there’s any book that incorporates all of the different places that I’ve brought together in A Guide to Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia. There might be books on his political life, so they’ll talk about political sites, or even books on Presidential homes that fail to talk about Poplar Forest. I love it all, so I’ve included as many of these sites as possible into the book.

So as you were researching all of these different places, did you run into any large challenges researching sites that only have historical markers, like Shadwell?

Shadwell is located on a fairly busy road now, and the marker actually has fencing with some barbed wiring. I wasn’t able to jump that fence (obviously) and walk into the landscape, so there was a problem with accessing some of these smaller sites. I ran into something similar at Tuckahoe, where the site was actually closed for a wedding when I went to do research. I took a few quick pictures, but wasn’t able to spend as much leisurely time as I would have liked to.

Which was your favorite site to research or visit? Why?

I’m going to sound like a broken record, but my favorite place to go and to learn about one aspect of the Jefferson story is definitely climbing up to Sharp Top at the Peaks of Otter in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Jefferson did this hike twice as an elderly man in his 70s. I explain this in the book, but Jefferson was convinced that the Blue Ridge Mountains were the highest peak in all of the United States, so he climbed Sharp Top to try to prove that the mountains were taller than the White Mountains in New Hampshire. He climbed with a group of friends and measured the mountain, only to find out that he was wrong. But he published that information to let everyone know that he had discovered he was wrong, and to give people the accurate measurements.
We climb Sharp Top every fall now, because not only is it a great Jefferson story, but it’s absolutely beautiful to see the waves of green from the top of the mountain as you look out over the Blue Ridge Mountains.

We have a few lighter questions for you, too! First, what’s your favorite part of American history to research? Why?

My favorite part of American History to research is whatever I’m working on at the moment! I always have projects percolating in my mind, but the moment I go back to another project I’m immediately interested in that topic again. I wrote another book with The History Press last year called New Haven in World War I, and I was just reading a newsletter today from the World War One Centennial Commission, which made me think “Wow, WWI is the most fascinating moment in time for both Americans and Europeans!” I’m interested in almost all of it, as long as it meshes history, artwork, and culture in some way; I don’t get excited about 300-page history books with no pictures!

That being said, in your academic career thus far, what’s been your favorite research project to work on? All of them?

It’s been all of them. I think of them as equally important, and serving as developmental touchstones or steps in my growth. I hope as a writer, as a researcher, that each project makes me a little bit better and more skilled.

It’s mentioned online that you were a Fulbright scholar. Can you speak a little about your experience? Do you feel it’s helped your career and research today?

The Fulbright was just an amazing, eye-opening experience. In a similar vein to wanting to experience place, or a different place and people, I went to a country called Swaziland. It’s a small South African country surrounded by the countries of South Africa and Mozambique. I had always wanted to go to the African continent, and was able to go and work in a museum to try to help them do things. The Fulbright Commission doesn’t really do museum-based Fulbrights, so I’m grateful for the unique opportunity I was given.

I think that writing A Guide to Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia, like an internship, or a Fulbright, that Americans need to have open eyes and try to experience as much as they can. Mark Twain has a famous quote saying, “travel is fatal to prejudice.” Travel helps to make us better humanitarians, and equally appreciative of the things that we have, the people that we are, and hopefully better people for the future.

Laura is the author of three books for Arcadia Publishing & The History Press. Check them out below!