Carole Levin is one of those people who seems to bring light into the room when she enters.
“Ph.D.,” “medieval” or “historical scholar” are not words likely to race to mind upon meeting her. With her radiant smile and youthful springy hairdo, one might not peg her as a Willa Cather professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for the past 13 years or director of the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program for the last seven. But she is both.
When she was a little girl growing up in the Chicago area, her father, who worked at an ad agency and taught college English, and her mother, who was an artist and homemaker, made sure she and her three sisters got to the public library. During a weekly visit when she was 10 years old, she found a book about one of the world’s greatest monarchs, England’s Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled alone from 1558 to 1603. Years later, she says, “Elizabeth Tudor is a woman who captures the imagination and does not let it go.”
Indeed, the queen took such a hold on young Carole that she opened a pathway through life, a subject to teach, to present to the world and to write about -- in erudite and lovingly funny ways.
These days Levin is planning a Medieval and Renaissance Material Culture Conference in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Medieval and Renaissance Studies major at UNL. Scheduled for Oct. 1-3, this national conference features a complementary exhibit of “Medieval Imagery in the Quilts of Mary Catherine Lamb” at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum and a drop-by word from Congressman Jeff Fortenberry. There also will be the more expected array of papers and panels by academic experts who will touch on such topics as medieval prayer books, jewels, royal mourning attire and church wardens’ accounts. The complete program is at unl.edu/medren/conference-2015. Levin says she is thrilled that so many scholars in the conference will be UNL graduates, either “Med-Ren” majors or minors or alumni who studied in the program.
If it seems odd that Representative Fortenberry will be at a medieval conference, Levin said, “I met him at an event and started talking to him. I really liked him. So I called his office to see if he would say a few words.”
She also likes local artist Julia Noyes, so the conferees are invited to the First Friday Art Walk in Lincoln’s Haymarket, for a special welcome and tour of Noyes Gallery. That is how Levin rolls… and rolls and rolls.
The conference is all the more remarkable since Levin has just completed a Fulbright Scholarship in York, England. That honor began in January this year and ended in June.
But that was then, and now she is also excited that her new book in the “Queenship and Power” series is out in hardback. It is “Scholars and Poets Talk About Queens.” She edits it with former student and poet Christine Stewart Nuñez.
It seems foolish to ask this woman with an overfull agenda about hobbies. “I grow students,” she said with a laugh, referring to typical hobbies like gardening. She likes to nurture students, see them published and take their place as her colleagues.
That pattern is apparent in the design of the conference and throughout Levin’s scholarship. Both create places where graduate students, fledging faculty and mature scholars can mingle and interact. And if Carole Levin has anything to do with it, have a laugh.
While one of Levin’s contributions to the queenship book is a straightforward paper on Queen Margaret with documentary notes, figures and sources, the other is something else that has become a Levin specialty -- a short play.
It is “The Heart and Stomach of a Queen (With apologies to William Shakespeare, Monty Python and James Aske).” It is a humorous riff on great figures of English history who are impossibly brought together in parody with the effect of updating Elizabeth I’s speech to her forces before the battle to defeat the Spanish Armada. It takes an ear for Shakespeare and a passing knowledge of the Tudor Era, but with that as background, it is a hoot.
Earlier a similar skit of Levin’s was published in “Calliope,” a history magazine for young adults. That short play focused on King Henry VIII, father of Elizabeth, who famously had six wives, some of whom he executed. The play summarized -- for people of all ages -- in five cleverly illustrated pages, facts and insights that have been the subject of many movies and television series of varying quality. Levin used a device in the play that has been a subject of much of her research and writing -- a dream, entitling the work “The King Dreams of Marriage.”
Levin said that one of the great pleasures of her Fulbright experience in England was that students performed both of her plays and had a great time doing so.
Interviewing Levin about her work can mean taking away a small stack of scholarly books she has authored or edited. Drawing from the nooks and crannies of her Elizabeth I-themed residence with its posters, prints, sketches, dolls and pillows bearing the image of the queen, she offers a copy of her successful “The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power.” The book, first published in 1994, placed her in the category of “cultural biographer,” breaking from the tradition of relying solely on presumed facts in serious biography.
In the Preface to a Second Edition, Levin argued that apparently factual historical sources are not reliably factual, especially where women are concerned. She said all sources have to be taken into consideration, and in the case of a queen certainly, “they tell us a great deal about the social-psychological response to queenship, to a woman in power, particularly in terms of attitudes toward sexuality and power.” She included “gossip, slander and rumor” as sources in her work for the full picture of a queen. At the time, a colleague accused her of doing “the ‘National Enquirer’ form of history.”
But, in 2000, as the millennium turned, the book was named one of the top 10 academic books of the 1990s by the readers of “Lingua Franca,” the American magazine about literary and intellectual life in academia; the Second Edition of her book was published in 2013.
Levin’s interest in sleep and dreams in Elizabethan times opened the door for her to the holy of holies on this side of the Atlantic for relics and printed material of the era: The Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C. In 2008 she was a joint curator of the “To Sleep Perchance to Dream” exhibit at the Folger. Visuals, the catalog and even video of the event remain readily available on the library’s website. That same year she published another book, “Dreaming the English Renaissance: Politics and Desire in Court and Culture.”
Today, at a time in her career when many would be pondering IRAs, Medicare and retirement, Carole Levin’s response is, “I love my work!” A Fulbright. An exhibit at the Folger. Books in print. Her curriculum vitae (the academic version of a resume) makes it look so simple.
“When I speak, I say, ‘I’ve had more rejections than anyone in this room; maybe than the people in this room all together,’” she said.
“I’m smart," she added, "but I’m not a genius. I believe if you have a certain intelligence, a strong work ethic and curiosity, you can do anything.”