Hecht, Jennifer Michael 1965-

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HECHT, Jennifer Michael 1965-

PERSONAL:

Born 1965. Education: Adelphi University, B.A., 1987; Columbia University, Ph.D.

ADDRESSES:

Office—Nassau Community College, Education Dr., Garden City, NY 11530. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

Educator, writer, poet. Nassau Community College, Garden City, NY, assistant professor of history.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Tupelo Press Prize in Poetry, 2001, Poetry Book of the Year from ForeWord Magazine, 2001, and Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America, 2002, all for The Next Ancient World; Distinguished Achievement Award, Dean of Instruction, Nassau Community College, 2001.

WRITINGS:

The Next Ancient World (poetry), Tupelo Press (Dorset, VT), 2001.

The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism, and Anthropology in France, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 2003.

Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson, Harper-SanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 2003.

Contributor of poems to anthologies, including The Best American Poetry, Scribner, 1999; Poems to Live by in Uncertain Times, Beacon, 2001; and Good Poems, edited by Garrison Keillor, Viking/Penguin, 2002. Contributor of poems to periodicals and Web sites, including Poetry, Partisan Review, and Nerve.com.

SIDELIGHTS:

Blending an historian's appreciation for fact with a poet's sense for the telling detail, Jennifer Michael Hecht has written two volumes of social and intellectual history as well as an award-winning collection of poetry. With a doctorate from Columbia University, Hecht is an associate professor of history at New York's Nassau Community College. In 2001 she published The Next Ancient World, a collection at once "playful," "exasperated," and "delightfully iconoclastic," according to Jeremy Glazier in the Boston Review. Glazier also noted that Hecht "is at her best when disrupting formal regularity."

In 2003 Hecht published two works of narrative history. The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism, and Anthropology in France tells a little-known tale of French intellectual history. A group of skeptical French citizens and others formed the Society of Mutual Autopsy in 1876, agreeing to give their bodies to science after their deaths so that autopsies could determine that there was nothing such as a soul in the human body and that religious beliefs in immortality were wrong. Members of the group included the writers Emile Zola and Arthur Conan Doyle. Thus, it was assumed by these members, science could prove that religions like Catholicism were empty and in fact stood as a hindrance to scientific advancement. From this point on, Hecht attempts to show in her study, the science of French anthropology became a new "secular religion," according to Library Journal contributor James A. Overbeck, who also found that Hecht "offers a solid contribution to the crowded story of anticlericalism in France." New Scientist reviewer Mike Holderness was more reserved in his evaluation of the book, however, complaining of prose that he termed "like thigh-high spaghetti." A critic for Publishers Weekly also had problems with the "academic tone that makes for slow reading," but further observed that Hecht "succeeds admirably in providing a fascinating glimpse of a little-known chapter in French history."

More skeptics are presented in Hecht's second 2003 publication, Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson. The book is, according to Kendrick Frazier in the Skeptical Inquirer, a "sweeping history celebrating doubt as an engine of creativity, and as an alternative to the political and intellectual dangers of certainty." Hecht's historical doubters call into question matters such as the existence of God and gods, the afterlife, and other dogma. The philosophical form that such doubt has taken ranges from relativism to rational materialism and is personified by numerous individuals throughout history: Confucius, Socrates, Hypatia, Galileo, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and even Jesus. Both an intellectual history and a quilt of narrative biography, Doubt is a "remarkably wide-ranging history," according to Booklist reviewer Bryce Christensen.

Hecht takes readers on a chronological tour of doubters and skeptics who have spurred intellectual and scientific advances, beginning with the Greeks. For Denis Dutton, writing in the Washington Post, Hecht is "especially engaging when she describes the great women skeptics of history, starting with Hypatia, torn to pieces by a Christian mob." Dutton also named the American free thinker Margaret Sanger and poet Emily Dickinson among Hecht's canon. However, Dutton found that Hecht fails "to recognize [the] irony" of the fact that her skeptical heroes in turn often founded schools of thought that themselves became almost religious-like in their certainty. Gordon Marino, reviewing the work in the Los Angeles Times, found Hecht's observations about early skeptics in the chapter on Jews and Greeks of the Hellenistic age in Alexandria to be "most compelling." Though Marino thought that the book "loses some steam when it pulls into the present age," he had praise for Hecht's narrative, which "sails along through abstract issues that would have run lesser writers aground." Marino continued, "Highly informative and potentially transformative, Hecht's meditations on misgivings might cause you never to read your own doubts in quite the same naive way again." Writing in the New York Times, Edward Rothstein pointed out that Hecht's "goal is to provide an affirmative history for doubters," a goal well reached, as a contributor for Publishers Weekly observed. This critic called Hecht's book "magisterial," and concluded that the "breadth of this work is stunning in its coverage of nearly all extant written history."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, November 15, 2003, Bryce Christensen, review of Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson, p. 550.

Boston Review, December-January, 2002-2003, Jeremy Glazier, review of The Next Ancient World, p. 52.

Christian Century, December 13, 2003, review of Doubt: A History, p. 23.

Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2003, review of Doubt: A History, pp. 1163-1164.

Library Journal, May 1, 2003, James A. Overbeck, review of The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism, and Anthropology in France, p. 141; October 1, 2003, Henry L. Carrigan Jr., review of Doubt: A History, pp. 79-80.

Los Angeles Times, January 25, 2004, Gordon Marino, review of Doubt: A History, p. R13.

New Scientist (London, England), June 28, 2003, Mike Holderness, review of The End of the Soul, p. 51.

New York Times, December 20, 2003, Edward Rothstein, review of Doubt: A History, p. B7.

Publishers Weekly, June 9, 2003, review of The End of the Soul, p. 47; September 29, 2003, review of Doubt: A History, p. 52.

Skeptical Inquirer, November-December, 2003, review of The End of the Soul, p. 60; January-February, 2004, Kendrick Frazier, review of Doubt: A History, p. 58.

Washington Post, February 1, 2004, Denis Dutton, review of Doubt: A History, p. T4

ONLINE

Adelphi University Magazine Online,http://events.adelphi.edu/ (summer, 2002).

Columbia University Press Web Site,http://www.columbia.edu/ (October 29, 2003).

Nassau Community College Web Site,http://www.ncc.edu/ (June, 2001), "Eleven Nassau Community College Faculty Members Receive the 2001 Dean of Instruction's Distinguished Achievement Award."

Official Jennifer Michael Hecht Web Site,http://www.jennifermichaelhecht.com (March 29, 2004).

Poetry Santa Cruz,http://www.baymoon.com/ (November 12, 2002), Dennis Morton, interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht.*