This article is part of a series featuring Centre College’s 2020 John C. Young (JCY) Scholars. Centre’s JCY program, now in its 30th year, is designed to serve highly motivated seniors, allowing them to engage in independent study, research or artistic work in their major discipline or in an interdisciplinary area of their choosing.
JCY Scholar Payton Howard ’20 (Campbellsville, Kentucky) combined her history major and creative writing minor to create a work of historical fiction titled “Remembering the Ladies: A Return to 1776 Philadelphia.” The piece centers on the life of a woman that came of age in 1776 Philadelphia, alongside her three best friends—women with different political persuasions, family professions and unique ways of engaging with political and domestic life.
“The protagonist, Prudence, tells the story in her own words and on her own terms twenty-four years later, when the nation’s capital moved to Washington, D.C. in 1800,” Howard explained. “The occasion reminds her of her own young adulthood, when Philadelphia was the core of American Revolutionary politics. As it turns out, 1776 was a pivotal year in her own life, too, as she learned to navigate friendship under the considerable threats of warfare and intensifying familial political divisions. Prudence’s story is not idyllic; she suffers considerable loss.
“As a woman in colonial America, she reaches a coming-of-age realization that she lacks the power to be an agent of change in her community’s political story,” she continued. “She longs to be in the center of everything—an impossible proposition, she realizes, in these contexts—and she re-tells her story with nearly heavy-handed candor.”
This project was an opportunity for Howard to actively and creatively engage with life in an extraordinary period in American history. It allowed her to think about how and why people tell their own histories and their own stories in the way that they do.
“As a young writer, I learned to work within the novella form and navigate the delights, trials and unwieldy pieces that make for thoughtfully—crafted fiction,” she added.
The idea for this project first came up during a post-meeting chat with Tara Strauch, assistant professor of history, and John Harney, associate professor of history, in the fall of 2018, when she was the student intern for their blog CentreTrail.
“Somehow or another, our conversation wandered into JCY, and Dr. Strauch mentioned historical fiction in passing as a way to bridge the gap between my curiosities,” Howard said. “It was the perfect fit.”
This project is a link between her two fields of study at Centre—history and creative writing.
“I was curious about the prospect of incorporating fact with fiction, and working with a historian with expertise in the time period I was exploring,” she added.
Due to this collaboration, Howard said this project was a new type of research experience for her.
“Usually, my history research helps me build and construct a particular argument—usually for a research paper,” she added. “This is completely different. I read sources to learn about facets of life in 1776 America, to think about what women wore and how they spent time with one another, or the types of food people enjoyed at a dinner party or what the streets of Philadelphia may have looked like.
“I research to gather a sense of the atmosphere, so that I can better create characters to operate in the time period,” she continued. “I visited the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to access primary source letters and documents—again, not to cite for a traditional research paper, per se, but to access more voices, pieces and ways of engaging with daily life and politics, as a Pennsylvanian in the mid-to-late eighteenth century.”
This project was a unique and challenging diversion from her usual stories, which always centered around modern American life.
Howard said she first envisioned her project as an equal balance of historical study and creative writing, but found her story stagnated as she tried to balance creative work within such a monumental year in American history and in proximity to historical figures of such caliber and notoriety.
“I have learned and am learning that the context and the setting are crucial, absolutely, but not at the expense of a character’s shifts and developments,” she shared. “I learned so much, too, about narrative structure and my developing style and voice. This is really valuable information for me to process as I prepare to begin an MFA later this year.”
The history and creative writing courses provided the foundation for her project, however, Howard said she fell in love with this time period when she took Colonial America with Tara Strauch, assistant professor of history, who also served as her faculty mentor.
“Payton was a wonderful student to work with,” Strauch said. “From the moment she expressed interest in applying for the John C Young program she had a clear sense of what she wanted to do and why. Her self-motivation and creativity made this process so fun. Payton has a sense of humor about herself and her world that is absolutely infectious. Her writing is also full of this appreciation for the fun of life and it has been really rewarding to watch her use that voice to bring a young woman’s experience of the American Revolution to light.”
Howard said Strauch was a tremendous mentor to her throughout the project, and she’s grateful she agreed to take on this project with her.
“She has graciously supported my work and recommended sources, answered questions, celebrated structural breakthroughs alongside me, served as a sounding board for my plot and character ideas and read all of my green, gnarly draft pages,” she added. “She even gave me a sewing lesson to fill gaps in my understanding of the sewing terms and techniques my characters were using. Meanwhile, though, she always gave me full control of the vision and the process. Our weekly meetings are a cherished memory of my senior year.”
Howard believes JCY reflects the best of what a Centre education provides, and she is grateful the College supported her work in this art form.
“I have found it to be a personalized, rigorous and creative way to connect and build on the coursework and research experiences I loved most during my time here,” she concluded. “Faculty mentorship has been a transformative and cherished component of my learning at Centre, and the JCY project fostered that learning even more.”
This fall, Howard is studying to earn an MFA in creative writing.
View Payton Howard’s project here.
by Kerry Steinhofer
July 8, 2020