Rutgers-Camden professor Jacob Soll wins MacArthur grant

Jacob Soll, 42, a professor of history at Rutgers-Camden, at his West Philadelphia home. He's the region's only MacArthur winner this year. His specialty is early modern Europe, and one of his passions is Niccolò Machiavelli.
Jacob Soll, 42, a professor of history at Rutgers-Camden, at his West Philadelphia home. He's the region's only MacArthur winner this year. His specialty is early modern Europe, and one of his passions is Niccolò Machiavelli. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 20, 2011

Let's say someone calls to tell you you've just won a MacArthur grant of $500,000.

How would you react?

Jacob Soll, 42, just won one. He was among the 22 new MacArthur Fellows announced at 12:30 a.m. Tuesday. He's in wonderful company, including the poets Kay Ryan and A.E. Stallings; radio guy Jad Abumrad of WNYC's science show Radiolab; the Latin jazz master Dafnis Prieto; the parasitologist Elodie Ghedin of the University of Pittsburgh; and the Chicago architect Jeanne Gang.

Soll says he thought it was a practical joke at first.

"I was walking in the rain, and they called, and I didn't believe it," he says. "And I called them back, as in 'What is this? Is this for real? Is this some practical joke?' I didn't know what it was - I thought maybe they wanted a recommendation. Then it hit me. I almost fainted. It's crazy."

The MacArthur Fellowship is for five years and $500,000, no strings attached. About 850 people have received MacArthurs since the program began in 1981.

Soll, a professor of history at Rutgers-Camden, lives in West Philadelphia. He's this area's lone MacArthur grantee this year, with a specialty in the history of early modern Europe, especially in the 16th to 18th centuries. The MacArthur website praises him for "opening up new fields of inquiry and elucidating how modern governments came into being."

Soll cares about his fields of study. He's nothing if not animated, especially if you ask him about one of his passions, the work of Niccolò Machiavelli, about whom he wrote in his 2005 book Publishing 'The Prince.'

"He's such a huge figure," Soll says, "but when I started studying him, I discovered he's even bigger than people ever thought. His works were cut up and distributed, without his name on them, and he gets into all sorts of unsuspected places."

Soll says he became "almost like a geneticist, following the trail of this crazy DNA." Machiavelli turns out to be a founder of "modern political science, one in which you look rationally and critically at what political leaders do, and see what their real goals are and the means they use to achieve them." Machiavelli's dry-eyed, sometimes coldly rational, even cynical look at real people and real power was an early awakening of the modern.

"His ideas are implicit in the way we see government today," Soll says. "And I wish we had more of his kind of criticism of our leaders."

Soll's MacArthur joins other top honors he has won, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (2009), a Braudel Fellowship (2007), a Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History (2005), and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship (2005-2006).

Aside from the money, he says, it's nice that a group of smart people have read his work and appreciated it: "What they do is actually, truly the nicest thing. They read me the whole report over the phone. And they know everything about my work. They know my secret mission! As I heard their description, I kept nodding and thinking, 'Yes, that is what I'm trying to do, what I'm trying to explain. They get it.' "

OK, spill: What will he do with the money?

"Pay my taxes, I suppose," he says, then laughs, and adds, "without much complaint from me."

But he does have plans. He is, at the moment, hard at work on a book about accounting and politics.

That's right: accounting. "Just saying the word can put people to sleep," he says, "until you realize what it all means."

A country's budget is, in reality, its leaders' goals, laid out in numbers. If we could get at the books of our country, or of any country, and really understand what the books are telling us, we'd have a much clearer idea of what's going on, and why it's going on. "We need to see the books," Soll says.

His publisher, Basic Books, wants him to aim the book for a broader audience. "They understand the need to translate serious knowledge into something accessible," he says. "We academics need to communicate to everybody, or we're going down.

"I mean, I really believe this stuff. I'm a political junkie. I read a dozen newspapers from five countries every day, and I read the financial reports, and I keep saying, 'Why isn't anybody telling the real story? Why aren't they telling the story that's in the books?' "

So he'll write the book - and then he has a dream, to ransack Europe's libraries and retire to a remote Greek island and do nothing but read in peace. "I want to see no one but the fisherman guy who brings me my fish and zucchini for dinner," he says.

That's the real gift the MacArthur brings Jacob Soll: "The chance to shut out the noise and read again."


Contact staff writer John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com, or

@jtimpane on Twitter.

 

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