The Humanists: Christopher Hunter

Hunter came to Caltech in 2010 as an assistant professor of English with a specialization in American literature of the 18th and 19th centuries. He is interested in how the genre of auto- biography developed historically, and is preparing a book titled A New and More Perfect Edition: Reading, Editing, and Publishing Auto-biography in America, 1787–1850. Hunter has been heavily involved in the study of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, which he describes as “the most published, read, and studied memoir of all time.” Hunter is part of a team of scholars now working on a facsimile edition of the original manuscript.

As a high school student I spent a summer at MIT taking classes in calculus, physics, chemistry, engineering, and writing. I was an aspiring astrophysicist—in fact, on a few occasions I came with the Santa Monica Amateur Astronomy Club to talks and star parties here at Caltech. In college I decided to concentrate on comparative literature instead of physics, but I returned to MIT for the next five or six years, first to tutor and later to teach the same summer writing course I myself had taken. Little did I know it was preparing me to return to Caltech! I jumped at the chance when it came, and it has been wonderful to find myself once again in front of classrooms full of STEM majors. Caltech students are brilliant and sharp-eyed, and teaching them has made me a better humanist.

My own work focuses on the history of the book, which means that I’m interested in how the physical form of books, letters, newspapers, and the like affected the meanings of the texts they contain. This approach really resonates with Caltech students, in part because it considers technical and economic questions alongside the cultural and interpretive ones they might expect from an English class. Books are products; they are objects. In Colonial and post- Revolutionary America they were made by craftsmen and craftswomen using tools that would have been recognizable to Johannes Gutenberg, the 15th-century Mainz goldsmith who perfected printing with moveable type. The 19th-century technological innovations that transformed those trades into an industry also dramatically changed the look, availability, and price of books. These changes mattered as much to scientists as they did to writers and readers of literature. One of my goals is to teach my students to see the technical processes at work in the books we study.

That is why, as much as possible, I like to expose my students to rare books and artifacts from the time periods we study. After a few weeks of training in basic bibliography, they can go into the Caltech Archives and generate new insights about its small but extraordinary collection of rare books. Often, they work on texts by scientists they’ve studied in their STEM classes: people like Newton, Kepler, Galileo, and Darwin. These encounters with the history of their own disciplines should help make them better scientists by making them more aware of how knowledge is produced and how it circulates.

-C. Hunter