William McNeill: A Gentle Madness

William McNeill: A Gentle Madness

Think. See. Feel.

The North Carolina Humanities Council marks its 40th anniversary in 2012. To celebrate that milestone, every month we will ask friends and partners to respond, within the context of the humanities, to these three single-word prompts:


January 2012 - William McNeill: A Gentle Madness

A popular North Carolina Humanities Council Road Scholar, William McNeill explores in his lectures topics as diverse as the history of church fans, the lure of the tango, and the “astonishing life” James McNeill Whistler’s mother. He is a musician, history and theater buff, collector of Southern Americana, and an environmentalist who advocates particularly on the preservation of old trees.


"I am not afraid of words, ideas, and images, and I have learned to live easily with ambiguity and ambivalence. I often select books I think will challenge me intellectually, stretch my mental horizons."


"In my multimedia presentation on handheld church/advertising fans, I show a fan that depicts a pastoral scene that reminds me of one of Gainsborough’s landscapes. After I remark on the fan’s beauty, I quote an inscription I found on a tombstone while visiting country churches and cemeteries in England: 'The wonder of the world, / The beauty and the power, / The shapes of things, / Their colors, lights and shades, / These I saw. / Look ye also while life lasts.' I have memorized this poetic fragment, and it has become my mantra." 


"As a pianist who plays in varied venues, I always endeavor to perform with emotional intensity. When I perform recitals of classic tangos, I play them with passion and brio. While playing the music of film composer Nino Rota and musical theater composer Stephen Sondheim, I strive to achieve the appropriate emotional nuance and shading of each note. I want my listeners to respond emotionally to my music, to be transported to an ethereal emotional plain. I am thankful that I have been given the sensibility to be moved emotionally by great art, music, and literature. What a blessing!"



Get an inside look at one of McNeill’s presentations – watch this video.

Read “Fans Tell Story of Hot NC Summers” (StarNewsOnline, Dec. 13, 2011)

Read “NC Man has a ‘Gentle Madness’ for Church Fans Collections” (Washington Post, Jan. 5, 2012)