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Interview with Romare Bearden

Archives of American Art
2 sound cassettes : analog ; 2 hr., 5 min., 41 sec. An interview of Romare Bearden conducted 1980 July 31 by Avis Berman in Berman's studio, Long Island City, N.Y.
Bearden discusses his mural commissions; his youth; his time in Paris; working out of the blues tradition; the influence of the South; and changes in his work. He recalls Constantin Brancusi, Jacob Lawrence, Henri Matisse, Duke Ellington, Stuart Davis, and others.

Migrant Heritage Commission (Interview)

Smithsonian Education
The Migrant Heritage Commission is a non-governmental organization that addresses the growing concerns of immigrants. One of their main goals is to maintain cultural pride by sustaining traditions, some of which they performed at the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Family Day in 2012. Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Family Day 2012 May 6, 2012 National Portrait Gallery

Donald Rumsfeld: Extended Interview

Smithsonian Channel
Former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld recalls the attack on the Pentagon. From: 9/11: DAY THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

Dick Cheney: Extended Interview

Smithsonian Channel
Former Vice President Dick Cheney speaks about policy change after 9/11. From: 9/11: DAY THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

Storytelling: Gene Tagaban (Interview)

Smithsonian Education
Storyteller Gene Tagaban, of Tlingit, Cherokee, and Filipino heritage, talks about the importance of storytelling as a tool to teach, entertain, and heal. Smithsonian American Indian Heritage Month Family Day 2013: Raven Steals the Sun – A Family Celebration of Tlingit Culture November 9-10, 2013 National Museum of the American Indian

Quintango: Joan Singer (Interview)

Smithsonian Education
Joan Singer, director and founder of Quintango, talks about the history of her group. Smithsonian Hispanic Heritage Month Family Day 2010: Passport to Argentina September 25, 2010 National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum

Korean calligraphy: Mookjae (Interview)

Smithsonian Education
Korean calligrapher Mookjae and his son discuss Korean calligraphy. Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Family Day 2009 May 8, 2009 National Museum of Natural History

Ulali (Performance and Interview)

Smithsonian Education
The members of Ulali, a First Nations women’s a cappella group, talk about their music, the history of their group, and the importance of Women’s History Month. Smithsonian Women’s History Month Family Day 2009 March 7, 2009 National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum

Elaine Lustig Cohen Interview

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Elaine Lustig Cohen on alphabets (0:25), meeting Alvin Lustig (1:24), working with Alvin Lustig (2:40), the ruling pen (3:39), and establishing an independent practice (4:33). This video is part of the "How Posters Work" exhibition at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum from May 2015 to November 2015.

Interview with George Segal

Archives of American Art
2 sound tape reels : analog ; 5 in. ; 1 hr., 59 min., 7 sec.

Interview with George Segal conducted by Dorothy Gees Seckler, April 1, 1966. Segal discusses his plaster cast sculptures. Segal talks about his artistic education and community at New York University and at the Hans Hofmann School in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Interview with Hans Hofmann

Archives of American Art
1 sound tape reel : analog ; 5 in. ; 31 min., 26 sec. Interview with Hans Hofmann conducted by Dorothy Gees Seckler, circa 1962. Hofmann discusses his school in Munich, Germany, and his teaching. Seckler asks Hofmann about giving records to the Archives of American Art to be microfilmed.
Original recording is of poor sound quality.

Interview with Alvin Ross

Archives of American Art
2 sound cassettes : analog ; 1 hr., 55 min., 5 sec.

Interview with Alvin Ross conducted by Dorothy Gees Seckler in Provincetown, Massachusetts, recorded between August 22 and September 16, 1974. Ross discusses the subjects of his paintings and his artistic influences.

Interview with Giorgio Cavallon

Archives of American Art
1 sound cassette : analog ; 1 hr., 8 min., 13 sec.

Interview with Giorgio Cavallon conducted by Dorothy Gees Seckler in Provincetown, Massachusetts, August 28, 1966. Cavallon discusses his studies in Italy and with Hans Hofmann in New York, his involvement with American Abstract Artists, and his artwork.

Interview with Shirley Gorelick

Archives of American Art
1 sound cassette : analog ; 1 hr., 34 min., 24 sec.

Interview with Shirley Gorelick conducted by Dorothy Gees Seckler in Provincetown, Massachusetts, August 20, 1968. Gorelick discusses her artistic education with teachers Chaim Gross, the Soyers, and Ivan Chermayeff; at Columbia University Teachers College; and with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown. Gorelick talks about her work and her artistic influences, including Betty Holliday Deckoff.

Interview with Wolf Kahn

Archives of American Art
2 sound cassettes : analog ; 1 hr., 49 min., 29 sec.

Interview with Wolf Kahn conducted by Dorothy Gees Seckler in New York, New York, September 17, 1968. Kahn discusses his childhood in Nazi Germany, his first years in the United States, his education at the Hofmann School in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and his artistic influences and community.

Author Interview: A.X. Ahmad

Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program
Amin Ahmad not only writes mysteries – The Caretaker and The Last Taxi Ride make up two-thirds of his Ranjit...

Sons of Andros Interview

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Sons of Andros is a contemporary gospel group from the Bahamian island of Andros. Harington "Zippy" Frazier and four of his sons perform traditional Bahamian gospel, which integrates European hymns, West African dances, and American slave songs. Sons of Andros also showcase flawless four-part harmonies characteristic of Bahamian music. In this interview, members of the group explain the importance of spirituality and family to Bahamian music and culture.

Bob Greenberg Selects: Interview

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Bob Greenberg is the founder, chairman, and CEO of R/GA, a worldwide digital advertising agency, product and service innovator, and consultancy. He is the guest curator of "Bob Greenberg Selects." Here Bob talks about the objects that he chose for the exhibition and shares his thoughts on design, innovation, and technology. -- "Bob Greenberg Selects" is the sixteenth exhibition in Cooper Hewitt’s Selects series in which designers, writers, and cultural figures are invited to explore and respond to the museum’s collection. To learn more, visit

Bernice Johnson Reagon Interview

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, singer, activist, and historian, organized multi-racial performances in the segregated American South of the 1960s. Conversation recorded October 22, 2003.

Bess Lomax Hawes Interview

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and Smithsonian Folkways remember Bess Lomax Hawes (1921-2009) "I have always had the unshakable belief that every single human being has some knowledge of important elements of beauty and substance, whether everybody else knows them or not." - Bess Lomax Hawes, from her autobiography Sing It Pretty Bess Lomax Hawes, a leader in the establishment of public folklore programs throughout the United States, died Friday, November 27th in Portland, Oregon, at the age of 88. Ms. Hawes was born in 1921 in Austin, Texas, and was the youngest child of American folklorist John A. Lomax. She joined her father and brother Alan as a researcher at the Library of Congress, where they directed the Archive of American Folk Song from 1935 to 1948. From 1941 to 1952 she was a singer and instrumentalist with the Almanac Singers, a pioneering group in the Folk Revival. Folkways Records released their album Talking Union, and Ms. Hawes is also featured on Folkways Records Woody Guthrie Sings Folk Songs and Songs of the Spanish Civil War Vol. 1. During this period she also became known for co-writing the song "Charlie on the MTA," notably recorded by the Kingston Trio. In 1975 Ms. Hawes relocated from California to Washington, DC, to work on the 1976 Bicentennial Festival of American Folklife. Additionally, she was a key collaborator with Ralph Rinzler in shaping the Smithsonians Folklife Festival. In 1977, she became Director of the Folk Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts, where she remained until retiring in 1992. During her tenure she helped found the National Heritage Fellowship awards in 1982. While at the NEA, Ms. Hawes also helped create state-based folklore programs across the country. In 2000, the NEA began giving the Bess Lomax Hawes Award to recognize a person who has worked towards the preservation of folklore. Following her retirement, Ms. Hawes was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton and has continued to speak and consult internationally on issues of folklore, public policy, and cultural continuity. Bess is survived by her three children, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. - Read more about Bess Lomax Hawes, a Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage Legacy Honoree The content and comments posted here are subject to the Smithsonian Institution copyright and privacy policy (/ Smithsonian reserves the right in its sole discretion to remove any content at any time.

Interview: Amy Smith, Inventor

Smithsonian Magazine

Amy Smith, who has a master's degree in mechanical engineering and teaches at MIT, isn't interested in building faster computers or bigger jetliners. She's thinking about how to cook dinner in a Haitian slum. Most of Haiti has been deforested, few people have electricity, and fossil fuels are prohibitively expensive. But there's something Haiti has a lot of: bagasse, or sugar-cane fibers left over after processing. Smith and her students have developed a way to turn this plentiful (and otherwise useless) material into clean-burning charcoal by carbonizing it in a covered oil drum. It's a simple solution to a simple problem, but—like many of Smith's projects—it makes a big difference in ordinary people's lives.

Smith, a practitioner of humanitarian engineering, wants to solve everyday problems for rural families in the developing world: where to find clean water, how to preserve vegetables for market, how to do laundry without electricity or plumbing. Smith's inventions include a hammer mill for grinding grain into flour—a task African women usually do by hand—and a portable kit to test drinking water for contaminating bacteria. Smith, who was awarded a Macarthur Fellowship in 2004, runs MIT's IDEAS Competition, for which teams of student engineers design projects to make life easier in the developing world.

What would you say was the coolest project that you've worked on?

Well, it's not very romantic, but I think our charcoal project is going to have a huge impact, because it allows you to have a clean-burning fuel without cutting down trees. We're planning large-scale dissemination in Haiti. There's no glitz factor to it, but it's probably going to make a huge amount of difference.

Have the inventions that come out of your class and out of the IDEAS competition proved successful in the field?

Some of the IDEAS competition winners have been very successful. The compound water filter, which removes arsenic and pathogens, is now deployed quite extensively in Nepal. The Kinkajou microfilm projector, used in nighttime literacy classes, is being deployed in Mali. We’re working to commercialize a system for testing water for potability. It's in the field in several countries, but not on a widespread basis. We're looking towards doing a trial of aerosol vaccines in Pakistan, so that's exciting.

What is the biggest problem facing rural communities in the developing world?

I don't think you can say there's a single one. Obviously access to safe drinking water is a huge problem, and lack of access to opportunities, and general poverty. But if you get people safe drinking water, and then they still have no way to earn any money to feed their families, you still have a problem. And if you give them better methods of agricultural processing or ways to create clean energy, but there's still drinking water that makes them sick, you still have a problem. There are too many interrelated issues, so solving one problem won't completely change the lives of millions.

You lived in India as a child and you were in the Peace Corps in Botswana in the 1980s. How did those experiences lead to what you're doing now?

As a very young child I was exposed to very severe poverty, so I always wanted to do something to help kids around the world. Living in India is something that stayed with me—I could put faces on the kids who had so little money. In Botswana, I was teaching and then working for the ministry of agriculture as a beekeeper, and I remember thinking to myself that I really liked doing development work, but I wished could do some engineering too, because I like creative problem solving. People in the developing world scrape every last ounce of life that they can out of objects, and my students used to bring me things to fix, and I always enjoyed being able to do that.

You’ve said that engineering schools focus too much on defense and consumer electronics—what changes would you like to see in the way engineering is taught?

It would be great if students recognized that engineering with a humanitarian focus is as legitimate as aerospace and automotive engineering. Service learning is actually a very good way to teach engineering, because it motivates students to continue, and it appeals especially to women and minorities.

You are a woman in what is still a male-dominated field. What can we do to encourage more women to become engineers?

Actually, because my class involves humanitarian engineering, I very rarely have more men than women. There have been times where there have been ten women and one man. This isn't surprising, given that women often want to see an application to what they're learning that they feel is worthwhile. But I'm not involved in any particular projects to encourage women engineers, because I dislike being referred to as a woman engineer. I don't like programs that single out woman engineers as particular achievers just for being women. I think that it should be coincidental. What we should be striving for is a world where when we see women or minorities who are high achievers, it isn't surprising. We shouldn't be thinking, "Good for them!" just because of their race or gender. I think we're a long, long way from that, but I don't think we should keep implying that there's something special about being a woman engineer. I want people who meet me to say, "I like the work that you're doing." I want to be known as an engineer who designs solutions for the developing world. After that people can notice that I'm a woman.

Interview with Louise Erdrich

Smithsonian Magazine

You mention Wahpeton as a place of extreme weather—floods, tornadoes, blizzards. Were there any particularly memorable moments?

Lots of them. Let’s see. The first I remember was watching the clouds just boil up over the horizon and getting everybody down to the basement in the house I lived in. On the Wahpeton Indian School campus at the time there was also a big potato cellar that was supposed to be the refuge for everybody. However, after a heavy rain, the whole refuge caved in, so we were just very happy no one was in that potato cellar. I remember the park being flooded and wading to my swimming lessons through knee-high, waist-high water even. Blizzards, I think, were my favorite because we would get off from school and I remember walking—having a drift be so high I could walk—from the drift onto the garage roof.

What are some of your sensory memories of your hometown? The sounds and smells?

The meadowlark—there is a poignancy about going back there and not hearing the meadowlarks anymore because of the lack of habitat. There are very few meadowlarks in that part of North Dakota, but I used to hear them right in the middle of town. I don’t hear meadowlarks anymore. It’s the most wonderful sound. Mourning doves in late afternoon, early evening…the lazy heat that would come down at dusk and, of course, the huge clouds of mosquitoes that would accompany that in the summer. For me, my childhood is mixed up with the sound of snow. Snow makes different kinds of sound. You go out, and it is very cold, and your boots squeak in the snow and you notice the type of snow that has fallen because of the sound your feet make.

How is development—I know Wal-Mart is coming in—changing the town?

I think it’s been a slow change. There’ve been business owners who’ve tried so hard to stick it out on the main street of town and those are the people I really admire. They care so much about Wahpeton. It’s tough to watch the main street go under. Wal-Mart means the end of a small town’s Main Street culture. That to me is very sad. I just remember such a thriving little set of shops and business and restaurants. That hurts to see. I hate to bash Wal-Mart but the idea that there is going to be one there just discourages me so much. I feel like it’s the end of Main Street.

You write that your family has been an integral part of the transformation of Wahpeton. How was it growing up rooted to a place? Did it give you a strong sense of identity?

Oh, absolutely. I think that’s why I became a writer. I left, I was educated elsewhere, but part of me never has left. And I am glad to be close enough now that I can still consider it my home. Wahpeton is also close to the Sisseton Reservation and my mother’s people, 300 miles north, that’s the Turtle Mountains. Part of what ties me there is my sister, Angela, who is an Indian health service doctor and so is her husband. And my brother, Ralph, is the director of nursing. And I have another sister in Wahpeton who works at the Circle of Nations school. I have a lot of family there and I am very proud that my family has worked so hard for Native health.

Home can be such a source of strength, but some people sneer at the idea of staying close to home. Not me, I still live at home.

I don’t know where it is coming from. I think it is part of our “get out of town” culture. In Europe and in many Native communities it is perfectly normal to stay home as long as you can and stay close to your parents, if you are fortunate to have wonderful parents, and I am. And my girls are in and out of the house now, they are college-age, and sometimes they are home for extended periods and it is a very good time for us.

Have your hometown memories inspired your writing?

I think my dad, especially, has always kept me laughing. We just have a lot of stories. He is a very good storyteller and I think that, before I ever even learned how to write, I would hear the sense of narrative through my dad.

Some people have preconceived notions of a small town. How was it growing up in a small town?

Well, the good part was the real freedom and safety I had. Except for the stupid things I would do, I was fairly safe. I could go anywhere in town. I had my own transportation even as a kid. I could walk or ride my bike. I didn’t have to rely on grown-ups as much as kids do now. I suppose the downside was that the intellectual opportunities are limited as you get older and you naturally hunger for the whole sense of cultural diversity in the world. When I left, I didn’t really know a lot about religious or cultural differences in people. And when I left and went to Dartmouth I was pretty astounded. I had to get a whole new read on people. It took me a long time to catch up with that.

So you sold popcorn at the theater and worked at the local diner? Were you a good waitress? Did you have any other interesting jobs?

Well I was a good waitress but I also became resentful. Sometimes I was the kind of waitress that would glare at you if you dropped a fork for the third time. I wasn’t always a great waitress. I got pretty impatient. I worked the graveyard shift at the local 24-hour restaurant. I worked in several restaurants in town. I was also a lifeguard. I came back from college and worked construction. I just worked at all sorts of jobs around Wahpeton.

Your parents were both teachers. How did that influence your childhood? Was it a really creative time?

My dad would make up stories and he mimeograph them for the kids to punctuate or read. One of my favorites of his lesson plans was this fantastic story about the Great Pencil Shortage. He also made a wonderful timeline that stretched all the way around the room that he kept adding to and we kept adding to. And he had a scroll that every student he ever had signed. In fact, Leonard Peltier signed that scroll.

You had a really active childhood—swimming, tennis, fishing, softball. But you also mention spending a lot of time at the library. What did you read when you were a kid?

I read Jack London. I loved Jack London’s White Fang. That was my first experience of, you know, real books. I remember reading “To Build a Fire,” the short story. He was the greatest. Jack London, George Orwell—I loved Animal Farm. And you know these were books I read as a little kid. I didn’t really understand quite what I was reading in some of them.

Did you write as a kid?

I kept diaries and both my father and mother encouraged me to write. I would write anything. With poetry, I tried things that rhymed mostly.

You mentioned that at one time you left Wahpeton? Why?

Well, my mother found me a place to go. She saw something about Dartmouth College and sent away for literature and found out that they were starting a Native American program and that they were also admitting women. So I entered Dartmouth the year they admitted women. I applied from out in Wahpeton, North Dakota. But I had never really left the Midwest before for an extended period. I had been to Tennessee once—that was my major trip. So I got on a plane and went out to New Hampshire and it was just extraordinary.

Is there anything you savor now about being near home?

Practically everything. I appreciated it as a kid but as a young adult I found I wanted to be in the big world as most people do. I wanted to travel and see what life was like elsewhere. I live in Minneapolis so I certainly haven’t gone back to live in Wahpeton, but I like being close and I love being near the Plains. I really need sky, horizon, and the Great Plains.

Interview with Charles Harrison

Smithsonian Magazine

Charles "Chuck" Harrison designed some 600 household products—everything from blenders to baby cribs, hair dryers to hedge clippers—over his 32-years as an industrial designer for Sears, Roebuck & Company. He spoke with the magazine's Megan Gambino.

How did your parents influence you in your pursuit of art and specifically industrial design?
I think my mother probably planted a seed aesthetically for me to recognize beauty in simple things like flowers, plants and colors. She would enlist me to help her with her making of the house, putting pictures up, selecting pictures and arranging furniture and stuff. I think from my father I gained quite an appetite for creativity, for building things. He was fundamentally a carpenter although he taught industrial arts at a university. I acquired quite a fascination from seeing things grow from nothing to something. We came from very, very modest means, so he built most of the things we had in our house, like our furniture. He built a lot of our toys, and I participated in all that kind of stuff. We built sheds, barns, coops and things, even houses.

I spent hours and hours building model airplanes and actually flying them. Then I had erector sets, where I would build different kind of structures and mechanisms and make powered things move and lift. I built a boat once—took it out to the pond, put it in there and it sank with me. That's how you learn [laughs].

You say you have always had trouble reading. Did you find that that steered you towards arts and working with images?
I'm certain that directed me to find another way of communicating. Instead of trying to read signs and things, which I couldn't do quickly, I'd look at locations or symbols, houses or buildings to find my way. I was almost completely through college before I really discovered the name for my problem. The issue I had was dyslexia. But I somehow made a way through it, just through pure determination and maybe fear of failure [laughs].

What skills did you learn at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago?
I just had to really learn to draw and take a concept, something that didn't exist except in my mind, and communicate that to other people who would pick up this product along the production floor some place and make it a real product. It was sketching, 3-dimensional drawing like perspective drawing and rendering, which is shading and making images to show what a product will be one day. Then I had to learn to do detailed drawing, make blue prints of the drawings so it could be passed on to engineering and model makers.

Did you have to look around for a while after graduation before landing a job?
Boy, yes. When I returned from the military, I looked under every rock in Chicago for a job and nobody would hire me. But that was a time in America when they just didn't have a comfortable feeling about having minority people, black people around. We were very isolated in communities. We could only live in a certain part of the city. We could only travel in a certain part. That's a whole other story. But they wouldn't hire me any place. I went everywhere. My classmates, other people who had graduated with me, were all working. I was the only African American in the class. I was the only African American in most of my life after I left high school. In college, there were only a handful of us in San Francisco City College. In the School of the Art Institute, I was the only African American. In the military, I was the only African American in my unit. So I wasn't uncomfortable with it, but I did not enjoy the fruits of life that my associates and comrades and classmates did.

Before joining Sears' staff, you re-designed the popular View-Master. How did you better that product?
My job was to adapt it to another manufacturing process so that it could be made less expensive, made a lot faster, reduce the costs, put it into an updated form so that it would be more appealing, and essentially, that's what I contributed to it. As a consequence, it just happened to hit America at a time when it did a magical thing. It was low cost enough when I got done with it that they could buy it for children and let them play with it. They put these disks in with stories and they were attractive to children – fairy tales, comic and Disney characters.

Did the anonymity of making products with other companies names on them ever frustrate you?
No, never did. In fact, that's just par for the course. Besides, I needed a weekly paycheck before I needed recognition. Now some design people do have their names [on products], but they are high profile people, probably not even designers. That's a marketing technique used to get American people to buy products. They think if they buy a baseball bat that has Ted Williams on it, they're going to hit a home run. That's hocus, pocus kind of stuff. I really just wanted to do what I do, and do it as well as I could.

How would you say industrial design has changed in the some 50 years you've been involved with it?
The designer's point of view has changed; the proportion of interest in a product is less aesthetics than it was the years in the past and more marketing and perhaps technology driven than it used to be. If you think of things as a triangle and one leg of a triangle, it was not an equilateral triangle when I came in. The long side of the triangle was aesthetics, and then there were two short sides, which were business and science. That was the composition of a designer's approach in those days, but now it's more equilateral. His or her concern is as strong in the business and sciences as it is in the arts.

What advice do you have for industrial designers today?
That this is a much more serious profession than it looks like on the surface. What designers do will affect so many people, many more people than you can imagine during the lifetime of that product. They should take that charge very seriously, about what they are putting out there for other people to have in their possession and in their lives and may even be passed on down through generations. It should obviously be safe, do what it is supposed to do, be pleasing to have in your environment and certainly be of value.

Interview: Eric G. Wilson

Smithsonian Magazine

Eighty-four percent of Americans claim to be happy, a statistic that Wake Forest University English professor Eric G. Wilson finds "strange at best, troubling at worst." With a litany of self-help books, pills and plastic surgery to feed Americans' addiction to happiness, he says, "It's now easier than ever before to live a trouble-free life, to smooth out the rough edges, to hide the darkness." In his recent book Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, Wilson—a non-recovering melancholic by choice—praises sorrow as the muse of many writers and songwriters, warning that to rid life of it is to rid life of a vital source of creativity.

You compare the loss of melancholy to other apocalyptic concerns: global warming, rising oceans and nuclear war. What about happiness is life threatening?
Obviously that opening is a bit hyperbolic for rhetorical effect. I will admit that. But it is, at the same time, a kind of expression of real danger. I think that being melancholy is an essential part of being a human being. I think to be a fully expressed human being you must be willing to delve into melancholy as much as into joy. If we try too hard to get rid of that melancholy it's almost like we're settling for a half-life.

Why do you think people are aiming for a constant happy?
That is the question. My suspicion is that American culture has inculcated into most people that to be an American is to be happy. It's in our founding document, isn't it? We have the right to the pursuit of happiness. Many Americans think that America is a blessed nation. This grows out of 19th-century ideas like Manifest Destiny, the idea that America is a nation blessed by God that should spread its principles throughout the world. America is a fairly wealthy nation. America has a lot of military power. America has also kind of cast itself as the moral voice of the world. I think Americans growing up in that milieu tend to think, well, gosh, to be an American is really great, why shouldn't I be happy?

You're pretty harsh on the "happy type," making sweeping generalizations like happy types like the Lifetime channel and eat Jell-O with Cool Whip. What are you trying to get at in describing the happy type this way?
I am using a technique that one of my literary heroes, Henry David Thoreau, used in Walden, and that is hyperbole, satire, exaggeration, the idea being that if I kind of blow up large these behaviors of these happy types, I'm going to shock people into thinking about their lives. I'm trying to give people a kind of jolt. I guess I am a little bit angry at these happy types, such as I define them, and the anger does show through a bit. My book is a polemic. It is an attack on what I see as excessive in America's addictions to happiness. But ultimately I'm just trying to clear ground so that I can start making my more positive point, which is of course to embrace melancholy is ultimately to embrace joy.

You desire authenticity. But what is authentic?
Authenticity is embracing the fact that we're necessarily duplicitous beings. I think there's a tendency in our culture to use an either/or logic. One is either happy or sad. One is either liberal or conservative. One is either Republican or Democrat. One is either religious or secular. That's the kind of discourse that is used in our public arenas all the time. I think that leads people to jump on one side or the other. There are all sorts of oppositions that organize our being—reason/emotion, joy/sorrow, consciousness/unconsciousness, pessimism/optimism—and it seems to me that when we latch on to one of those polarities, at the expense of the other, that's an inauthentic life. An authentic life is an endless interplay between these oppositions in which one tries to put them in a creative conversation with one another, realizing that the light shines more brightly when compared to darkness and the darkness becomes richer and more interesting when compared to brightness. I'm just trying to call people to return to a balance, to consider that part of human experience that many people seem to be repressing, ignoring or flying from.

Is there always sadness on the road to joy?
Joy is the polar opposite of melancholy. You can't have one without the other. I think we can think about this when we put ourselves in memories of witnessing a birth or a wedding or a funeral, those times when we're so overwrought with emotion that we don't know whether to laugh or to cry. It's exactly those moments when we feel most alive, I would argue. Usually when we feel that way there's this strange mix of joy and sorrow at the same time. I'm trying to suggest ways to live that can cultivate as many minutes like that as possible.

So you're in praise of melancholy. Define melancholy.
It is best defined against depression. Depression is usually a passive state. It's not a creative state. It's a state of lethargy, paralysis, apathy, great pain, and therefore should be treated any way possible. Melancholy, in contrast, as I define it, and I'm drawing this definition out of a long philosophical and literary history of the term, is a very active state. When we're melancholy, we feel uneasy in relation to the way things are, the status quo, the conventions of our society. We yearn for a deeper, richer relationship to the world, and in yearning for that, we're forced to explore potentialities in ourselves that we would not have explored if we were simply content. We come up with new ways of seeing the world and new ways of being in the world. For this reason, I conclude that melancholy often fosters creativity.

You provide some examples of creative melancholics in the book: Keats, Crane, Woolf, Lennon, even Springsteen. Are you suggesting there may not be a Keats or Lennon of our day?
I wonder if we continue to try to get rid of melancholy entirely, will we eventually be a culture that can't create a Keats or a Melville? I don't really see right now our culture being such that we can't produce geniuses in art. I'm also not saying that all geniuses are melancholy. Obviously, there are a lot of artists who are very happy and created great works. I'm just trying to draw this connection between melancholy and creativity in certain cases.

Some of your melancholics really suffered for their work. Where do you draw the line between pain that should be suffered through and pain that deserves treatment?
I don't feel qualified to do that. I can say this though. I can distinguish it in myself. I know when I feel depressed. I don't want to get out of bed in the morning. I don't want to do anything. I just want to stay in this dark, safe womb. But when I feel sad, I want to do something. I want to play with my daughter and have a richer relationship with her. I want to be with my wife. I want to read. I want to write.

How do you suggest we reverse this trend of dealing with sadness as a sickness?
Slow down. I really think that American culture especially moves at a blinding rate. I think if we can find a way to carve out of any given day a time for quiet, for contemplation, for brooding, for solitude, when we turn the computer or cell phone off, then we might go within. Who knows, maybe we'd realize the value of that and the value of the brooding dark side. If that could happen, maybe we would be more willing to embrace natural sadness.

Do you think you'll forever be known as a grump?
Frankly, I worry about that. My colleagues called me the Melancholy Dane the other day, comparing me to Hamlet. I think I'm a cynical person. In my mind a cynic is someone who is suspicious, a little willing to question what most people believe. In questioning things, often I do find that there's a big gap between reality and appearance. I'm really trying to explore what a rich, deep, profound life would be, and, for me, to go through life expecting and wanting only happiness is not the way to achieve that. To me, cynicism falls in between optimism and pessimism. It's a golden mean.

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