Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Rhys Isaac’s Shared Stories

Rhys Isaac told stories, and he challenged me to tell them too. He told stories from the past and from his present encounters deciphering the past, and he told stories that would matter beyond our close-knit professional and intellectual circles. Telling stories creates culture—the shared experiences that connect us both uniquely and universally to each other, across time and among groups large and small. Rhys’s stories showed me proud men on horseback and meek men ducking out of sight along roadways. They helped me to imagine my own Jupiter, Sall, and Jane. I will never be able to read the diary of Landon Carter without hearing Rhys’s interpretation of the voices of Carter, “honest and mild” Billy, cunning nassaw, and the other Virginians, whose flowery prose or stilted protests came to life, channeled through their champion, Rhys Isaac.

Rhys’s world—the real present and the fully imagined past—included an open invitation to historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, museum interpreters, writers, actors, and professional storytellers—anyone who engaged critically with the past and how to convey its stories. for those of us lucky enough to have semiregular interaction with him and his occasional entourage that included Colleen and her own interesting explorations with and without Rhys, there were delightful interruptions to the expected. He stopped to share his recent discovery of a new pattern in an old Williamsburg record or suggest I read a new article or book by some distant colleague. In between, he was a model archival researcher, note-taking ethnographer, and serious, engaged writer, who was generous with his research, his ideas, and his exuberant imagination. He was excited about his own work, but he was as genuinely excited about my work as a graduate student and first-book author. I have pages of notes he took during a colloquium at the OIEAHC in 2006, whose subject that evening was a draft chapter of my now-book. In addition to recording what various participants said and my responses, he added a column labeled, “my imagined interventions circled on this side!” under which he wrote his own rejoinders to the ongoing conversation.

To facilitate storytelling, he shared pints of malt beverage, plates of hummus, and peanut butter sandwiches (made from bread and jars kept among his books). The sharing was all part of a larger project for Rhys, a grander imagined conversation, in which he carried our discussions about the early American social and cultural landscape to share with colleagues in other places. He traveled the world, sharing it with us, and sharing us with the rest of the world. He introduced, through the proxies of stories and scholarship, his colleagues in Australia, South Africa, the Pacific Islands, Europe, and across the United States. Rhys showed me that our best work carries well beyond our small departments, universities, or professional associations—stories that matter exist for all time and connect the past with the present and the distant shores of Australia to Virginia. God speed, Rhys.

Susan Kern,
College of William and Mary