Laura A. Macaluso

Now and Then

When I spoke with historian Laura A. Macaluso, she was fresh from the trenches. In France visiting places and monuments described in her most recent book, New Haven in World War I, the itinerary included trenches dug by German soldiers, which still scar portions of the French countryside. She had also recently left her writer’s foxhole; the book was just released in April.

“Ideally,” she says, “I would have done a trip like this before I wrote the book, but I am basically self-funded. I’m not attached to any institution. Doing things the logical way is not always the way things happen.”

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Still, the decision to write a book about World War I was entirely logical. 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into the Great War, and many historians are taking the opportunity to look back. Interest is likely to remain high, Macaluso says, until November 11, 2018, which will mark 100 years after the end of the conflict.

Living in and around New Haven for most of her life, the Norwalk-born author has written two other books centered on the city: Art of the Amistad and the Portrait of Cinqué (2016), about artistic representations attending the Amistad uprising, as well as a lighter, more commercial effort, Historic Treasures of New Haven: 375 Years of the Elm City (2013), which highlights objects and celebrations from the city’s past. The World War I book is a departure, the first to make only light use of her art history training.

Macaluso’s segue from art history to straight-up history has to do with love. For one thing, she married Jeffrey Nichols, a general historian, whom she met before they were both students at SCSU. For another, she feels a keen nostalgia for the things that’ve been lost to the march of time. “We live in a Walmart, commercialized world,” she laments. “There’s little of the older things left.”

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She laughingly describes her own background as checkered. “I’ve done a little bit of everything when it comes to museums, or what I prefer to call it: cultural heritage work,” she says. Having worked for art, civic and history organizations—from the National Parks Service to the New Haven Museum—as a grant writer or curator, and even spending 15 years as a live-in caretaker with her husband at two area historical sites—the Pardee-Morris House, near Lighthouse Point, and the Milford Historical Society—she says the purview of her work has been anywhere history intersects with the visual arts.

A full-time author now, Macaluso moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, in 2012. The move—her husband is the president and CEO of Poplar Forest, once a property of Thomas Jefferson’s that’s now a National Historic Landmark—has been a boon to her writing, all of which has published since. In rural Lynchburg, she says, there’s less demand for art history adjuncts and curators—and fewer distractions. “My productivity, in terms of writing, has skyrocketed because I live in the middle of nowhere now.”

Scheduled for October is a new book about Columbus Day celebrations in New Haven and Wooster Square’s Christopher Columbus monument. It acknowledges Columbus’s grave faults but considers his role as a folk hero to local Italian-Americans who needed one. And if all goes well, she tells me, next year she’ll be publishing two books, one the product of her dissertation on New Haven’s public art and the other on Thomas Jefferson.

The move south hasn’t dampened Macaluso’s interest in documenting New Haven, and she saw the anniversary of World War I as an opportunity to explore a new angle of the city’s history. “I knew nothing about what it means to go to war, to make war,” she says. “Art history students don’t do that kind of stuff.”

Macaluso’s fascination with history, both of art and war, stems from a sense of wanting to preserve the past by researching it, especially the visual, which she believes is a critical aspect of historical understanding. “We think of the Founding Fathers, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. When we say their names, I think we all visualize something in our heads.”

Art of the Amistad is largely about how the local artist Nathaniel Jocelyn’s painting of the slave revolt leader Sengbe Pieh, better known to history as Joseph Cinqué, became an icon of courage and liberty in the U.S. and beyond. (The Jocelyn image is even reproduced on the 5,000-leone bill in Sierra Leone, Cinqué’s home country.) New Haven in World War I, on the other hand, is a broader historical treatment, underscoring the effects of the war on the city but also the city’s effects on the war.

Macaluso devotes a chapter of that book to the war efforts of New Haven libraries, telling me that four folders of Great War-era newspaper clippings from the New Haven Free Public Library’s local history room gave her much of the raw research material she needed.

It’s “a gift from the past,” Macaluso says, which she’s wrapped up and ribboned for the present.

Laura A. Macaluso | Amazon

Written by Anne Ewbank. Photographed by Michelline Hall.

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