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Authors Speak promises a transformative evening

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By Kelly LeVan

“I’m a serious academic historian,” Noel Pugach said.It’s true – but it may slip your mind when you see him perform as Lew Wallace this week at Mesa Public Library. You might think he’s a progressive 19th-century territorial governor of New Mexico, author of one of the most popular American novels of his time.“Wallace” will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday as part of the library’s Authors Speak Series, held monthly in the upstairs rotunda. The free event is sponsored by Friends of Mesa Public Library and supported by the library board.In addition to dozens of articles, and essays and more than 50 book reviews, Pugach has written several academic books on political topics, including “Social Security: The First Half of the Century” (with co-authors Gerald Nash and Richard Tomasson), “Paul S. Reinsch, Open Door Diplomat in Action” (KTO studies in American history) and “Same Bed, Different Dreams: A History of the Chinese American Back of Commerce, 1919-1937.”He also has given Chautauquan performances all over the United States.It started in 1983, when his specialty in foreign relations led him to consider performing as President Harry S. Truman.“Truman played a critical role in this field,” Pugach said, citing the decision to drop the atomic bomb in 1945 as one of many of Truman’s difficult choices.Furthermore, “he changed. He was an individual who starts as a small-town politician. He’s bigoted ee He came from a terribly confederate home in Missouri and he grew, which is striking.”He said he also was drawn to Truman because of his strong stance on civil rights.In general, when selecting characters to portray, Pugach said he always looks for two main traits: that they have something important to say and that he can find humor within their stories.On both counts, he said, “Truman got an A-grade.”Wallace also scored highly. About 10 years ago, Pugach, who had been performing as the Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise as well as Truman, realized he wanted to focus his attentions on New Mexico. He’d been teaching at the University of New Mexico for several years, and was looking for a character with strong connections to the state, but also had a larger presence.“I thought of Lew Wallace right away,” he said. “He was all over the place ee He was just fascinating.”Pugach said Wallace served as a lawyer, politician, New Mexico territorial governor, Civil War general and a judge at the trial for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He was also known to be a gunrunner.Despite his many claims to fame, Wallace is most well known for his 1880 novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” which Hollywood adapted for film 45 years later.Although Pugach enjoys the more traditional, publishing aspects of his career, he said he loves Chautauqua performances because “you have a chance to interact with the audience – you interact through books, too, of course, but with a performance, there’s feedback.”Nevertheless, he said the question-and-answer period parts of his presentations are the most difficult: He has to answer whatever the audience throws at him, which requires knowledge not only of historical facts but of his characters’ personalities – how they would answer the question.He said that at the very end of the show, he takes off his hat or jacket and becomes himself, free to speak as a scholar, and, if necessary, to correct his characters’ version of events.Pugach, who has performed Truman in Los Alamos a number of times, also offers Chautauqua presentations of John Steinbeck, concentrating on the author’s life rather than literary criticism of his work.Pugach received his B.A. from Brooklyn College and his M.A. and Ph. D. from the University of Wisconsin. He is now professor emeritus at UNM, where he taught for more than 38 years, and continues to teach a class or two when he can.Visit www.truman-macarthur.com for more information.