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Sean Wilentz is one of the nation’s most prominent historians. His books and commentary on music, politics, and the arts have gained a wide reputation for their force, originality, and elegance.
Wilentz was born and raised in New York City. His family owned the famed 8th Street Bookshop in Greenwich Village, where as a boy and young teenager he was immersed in the currents of beat literature and folk singing that would profoundly change the nation’s culture — and the world’s. (Allen Ginsberg first met Bob Dylan in his uncle’s apartment above the shop, a fateful encounter in the lives and writing of both artists.) It is out of this formative experience that Wilentz writes about the music and literature of that time and its legacies.
Wilentz’s writings on music have focused on folk traditions and contemporary rock and roll, especially the work of Bob Dylan. His liner notes for Dylan’s album, The Bootleg Series, Volume 6, Bob Dylan Live, 1964: Concert at Philharmonic Hall were honored with a Grammy® nomination and an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for musical commentary. He has written liner notes for other notable reissues, including the full Carnegie Hall concert of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, recorded in 1963. He is also the co-editor, with Greil Marcus, of The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad (2004). Since 2001, he has served as historian-in-residence at Dylan’s official Website, www.bobdylan.com.
In September 2010, Doubleday published Wilentz’s new book, Bob Dylan in America.
Wilentz’s historical scholarship has concentrated on the political and social history of the United States from the American Revolution to recent times. His best-known books of history are: Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850 (1984; reissued with a new preface, 2004), winner of, among other prizes, the Albert J. Beveridge Award and the Frederick Jackson Turner Award; The Key of Liberty: The Life and Democratic Writings of William Manning, “A Laborer,” 1747-1814 (with Michael Merrill, 1993); The Kingdom of Matthias (with Paul E. Johnson, 1994); The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (2005), winner of the Bancroft Prize among other honors, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 (2008). His successful textbook, Major Problems in the Early Republic, 1787-1848, originally published in 1992, appeared in a second edition in 2007, co-edited with Jonathan H. Earle. Wilentz has also edited collections of essays on Abraham Lincoln, and on political ritual and symbolism, as well as a modern edition of David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. He serves as general editor of the acclaimed American Presidents’ series for Times Books/Henry Holt, and the James Madison Library in American Politics for Princeton University Press.
A long-time contributing editor at The New Republic, Wilentz is also a regular contributor to The Daily Beast, a former contributing editor at Newsweek, and a member of the editorial board of Dissent. In addition to these publications, he writes regularly for the New York Times Book Review, the New York Times Op-Ed page, the Los Angeles Times, and other major newspapers and periodicals. He has appeared on numerous network television and radio programs, including The Charlie Rose Show, Morning Joe, Fresh Air, Radio Times, and NPR’s Talk of the Nation.
In 1998, Wilentz joined with his friends and colleagues Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and C. Vann Woodward to form Historians in Defense of the Constitution, an ad hoc organization of several hundred American historians who opposed on constitutional grounds the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. That effort, as well as Wilentz’s controversial testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in December 1998, brought him criticism as well as plaudits. The late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, among others close to the proceedings, later cited the historians’ arguments as one of the crucial factors that consolidated the senatorial convictions which turned back the Republican-led House of Representatives’ drive to remove the president from office.
Sean Wilentz is currently the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1979. The winner of the Cotsen Family Distinguished Teaching Fellowship at Princeton (1993), he has also received numerous research awards, including fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. He is spending the academic year 2010-11 as the Times Foundation Fellow at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.