Nell Irvin Painter, a leading historian of the United States, is the Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, Princeton University. In addition to her earned doctorate in history from Harvard University, she has received honorary doctorates from Wesleyan, Dartmouth, SUNY-New Paltz, and Yale.
A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Nell Painter has also held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the American Antiquarian Society. She has served as president of the Organization of American Historians and the Southern Historical Association. Those presidential addresses have been published in the Journal of American History (“Ralph Waldo Emerson's Saxons” in March 2009) and the Journal of Southern History (“Was Marie White?” February 2008). The City of Boston declared Thursday, 4 October 2007Nell Irvin Painter Day in honor of her Outstanding Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center in 2006.
A prolific and award-winning scholar, her most recent books are The History of White People (W. W. Norton, 2010, paperback, March 2011),Creating Black Americans (Oxford University Press, 2006), and Southern History Across the Color Line (University of North Carolina Press, 2002). A second edition of Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919 and a Korean translation of Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbolappeared in 2008. Her other books are also still in print. For a complete list of her book and article publications and other honors and activities, please consult the CV on this website.
As a public intellectual, Professor Painter is frequently called upon for lectures and interviews on television and film. In January 2008 she appeared live for a three-hour “In Depth” program on C-SPAN Book TV. To see the program on the internet, go to the web page for “In Depth.”She has also appeared on Bill Moyers’s “Progressive America.” New Jersey Network’s “State of the Arts” documented her work as both a scholar and an art student.
Question: How was the emerging notion of race tied to 18th-century scientific thought?
Nell Irvin Painter: For Linnaeus—and the great version of his taxonomy was 1758—he did categorize people, so but he categorized them according to where they were from, so they were categorized, there were four different varieties, and they were categorized by their continent. They did have continental temperaments, so people from Africa were flighty and people from Europe were thoughtful, but their names had to do with where they were from. So Johann Friedrich Blumenbach writing in… actually publishing on the 11th of April, 1795 enlarged Linnaeus’ four categories into five and called one of them Caucasian. Note that he is calling them varieties, not races. Race is… He wrote in Latin and so the translation becomes races and races is the nineteenth-century word. So for Blumenbach at the very end of the eighteenth century it was already clear that these varieties shade from one to the other imperceptibly. He said you can’t draw a clear line that all of this kind of person will be on one side and all of that kind of person will be on another, and he also offered his readers several different numbers of varieties. He said you could choose. For instance, he said I know a person who says there’re only two. He didn’t name that person, but we know who it was—Christoph Meiners, who was his colleague—and Meiners’ two races were ugly and beautiful.