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David Blight, Sterling professor of history, and Meghan O’Rourke, Editor of The Yale Review, both appeared in episodes of NPR’s Fresh Air to discuss books of theirs which have received national attention. 

Blight appeared in a Feb. 25 broadcast of the podcast, which “features intimate conversations with today’s biggest luminaries,” according to its description on the NPR mobile app. His appearance drew from his 2018 interview on the same podcast, in which he discussed his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.” The book went on to inspire the HBO documentary “Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches,” on which he also served as a historical advisor and interview subject.

O’Rourke appeared on a Feb. 28 broadcast of Fresh Air to discuss her new book “The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness,” as well as the impact of long COVID-19. The Invisible Kingdom was released the next day, on March 1, to critical acclaim and positive reception from those with chronic illnesses. 

“I had two aims for the book,” O’Rourke told the News. “The first was to help the tens of millions of people with autoimmune diseases feel heard and seen in a way that they have not been, and the second was to galvanize a national conversation around these invisible illnesses.”

O’Rourke’s book began as an article for The New Yorker in 2013, but it became a book project that she sought to supplement with further research and accounts of her personal experience. She spent a year at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, speaking with medical historians, scientists and researchers, gathering the foundational research for her book.

The Invisible Kingdom proved to be a personal endeavor for O’Rourke, who has suffered from an autoimmune disease for much of her adult life. Her experience living with a chronic illness that was not fully recognized or validated mirrors that of many others, making her book personally resonant for those in similar positions, she told the News.

“She steers ably between the Scylla of cynicism and the Charybdis of romanticism, achieving an authentically original voice and, perhaps more startlingly, an authentically original perspective,” Andrew Solomon wrote in his New York Times review of O’Rourke’s book. “A poet by choice and an interpreter of medical doctrine by necessity, she brings an elegant discipline to her description of a horrific decade lost to overdetermined symptoms that were misdiagnosed or dismissed as hypochondria.”

O’Rourke’s book has received widespread national acclaim for its careful consideration of issues at the edge of medical certainty. By critically considering the way medicine has historically dealt with chronic illnesses such as her own, O’Rourke sought to bring about a “public reckoning” with previous practices, especially the misattribution of real physical symptoms to solely psychological causes, she told the News.

She further explained that one of her greatest challenges while writing her book was maintaining the balance between the technical and the abstract. Her experience as a writer, poet and editor informed her work thoroughly, especially when it came to conveying ideas which seemed previously “illegible” to her.

“As both a writer and an editor, I care a lot about how we translate knowledge in a compelling way that makes people want to learn and consider questions that they haven’t considered before — that is a really urgent problem for me,” O’Rourke said.

Blight appeared on the NPR broadcast days before O’Rourke to discuss the life of Frederick Douglass. His appearance was recorded in 2018 around the time that his book was published, but it was reused in the Feb. 25 episode of Fresh Air. The interview was aired in conjunction with the release of an HBO documentary on Frederick Douglass. Blight spoke about major events and figures in Douglass’ life as well as his reputation as a powerful orator. 

Blight’s 2018 book, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” was credited by director Julia Marchesi as being the inspiration for her newly released documentary “Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches.”

The documentary is comprised of five major speeches delivered at critical moments in Douglass’ life. These speeches, powerfully delivered by various actors, were supplemented by commentary from scholars including Blight, who contextualized them within Douglass’ life and the broader history of the period.

“What you lose in converting to a documentary is an enormous amount of subtlety and detail, but you gain something too,” Blight told the News. “Film is a medium that can be very powerful at evoking feelings, ideas and a sense of place.”

Blight acknowledged the limitations of converting dense historical material into a documentary but also considered what the medium permits. He described the film as “aesthetically and historically powerful,” noting the value of hearing Douglass’ speeches performed by the documentary’s cast.

Blight also noted that the major benefit of this film is that it will reach a broader audience, exposing them to an essential figure in American history. He considers Douglass to be the most capable individual of the 19th century to capture the meaning of slavery and its relationship with the values of American democracy.

He also noted the timeliness of the documentary in relation to Douglass’ consideration of topics of democracy and race in America.

“No one spoke more poignantly, brilliantly, lastingly on the issue of race than Douglass,” Blight said.

“Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for History.

GAVIN GUERRETTE
Gavin Guerrette covers faculty scholarship & breakthroughs. He is a freshman in Branford College majoring in Humanities.