A Love Affair With the Past: Carl Guarneri

Some people believe that your destiny is determined before you are born. Others believe that you make your own fate.  For Carl Guarneri, his fate was sealed when he was a newborn in the cradle of his New York walkup.

The Italian patriarch of the apartment building declared, pointing down at Guarneri in his cradle, “This one is the professor and that one,” he said, pointing at his twin brother, “is the clown.” “As a historian, I’m not supposed to believe in determinism,” said Guarneri, a history professor at Saint Mary’s since 1979. “But there it is right in the cradle that he had us pegged, and we kind of grew into the roles.”

It was a far-fetched prophecy at the time. No one in Guarneri’s family had even graduated from high school, much less taught at a college. Growing up in a working class Italian family, he never even went on vacations. Instead, he immersed himself in historical novels, encyclopedias and geography.  He was able to feed his hunger for travel through the books he read.

“The past was a kind of foreign country where I could explore without leaving home,” he said. “It was a kind of time travel for a kid.” In fact, the bespectacled, silver-haired Guarneri looks a little like a grown-up version of his favorite cartoon character as a child — Sherman, the curious student who followed the dog-professor, Mr. Peabody, on his travels through fascinating moments in history in the Rocky and Bullwinkle series.

Interestingly, it would be his scholarship in history that would later become his ticket to travel to those distant lands he had only read about as a child. His unique focus on United States history in a global perspective has led to invitations to lecture in such faraway locales as France, Italy, the Netherlands, Brazil and Turkey. 

With his buttoned-up collar and constant appendage of a briefcase filled with graded essays, Guarneri is a popular figure around the College.  He won the Professor of the Year Award in 1995 and was given the Research Scholar Award at the 2011 Scholars’ Reception.

He is also widely recognized in his field. He received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his 1994 book on Fourierism, an American utopian movement, and his 2007 textbook, America in the World: United States History in Global Context, is used in classrooms across the country. 

“Carl is a brilliant and prolific historian,” said History Professor Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo.  “He gives his all and brings out the best in others. He is one of the scholars who puts Saint Mary’s on the national academic map.”

Guarneri spearheaded an elaborate Civil War reenactment on campus last year, complete with a cannon and musket-wielding soldiers, and helped to organize a Lee and Grant exhibit at the Hearst Art Gallery. Because of his expertise, he has become the go-to guy for the local media, such as the Contra Costa Times and NBC Bay Area, about all things Civil War. 

As an undergraduate during the tumultuous era of the Vietnam War, Guarneri saw the chaos and antiwar protests taking place around him and it awakened his unique view of history. He realized that he was living through a momentous era and that history was not restricted to the distant past. 

“It got me more interested in finding out about my own time and using historical methods about the near past,” he said. He has tried to pass that passion for history — the “lump in your throat, chill down your spine, swooning feeling,” as he calls it — to his students.

“Touching the past by being in the place where something important happened or handling a document that was signed by someone like Lincoln gives you a feeling of connection to people in the past,” he said. “It can show you the similarity of basic human experiences and ties between the generations.”

His characteristic enthusiasm and infectious laugh win over students, with whom he has worked closely to decipher important documents from the past. Students in his History Thesis class have even transcribed diaries from Civil War soldiers that were donated to the College. 

Guarneri is rather shy and modest when it comes to speaking about his own life and accomplishments, preferring to keep the spotlight on icons of the past.

“The funny thing about history is that you are losing yourself in your subject in a way,” he said.“It doesn’t feel natural to talk about your own biography as if you were a history subject yourself.”

He is currently working on a biography of President Lincoln’s assistant secretary of war, Charles Dana, which he hopes to release by the sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War in 2015.

Dana is best known for his postwar career as the editor of the popular New York Sun. Little has been written about his behind-the-scenes role during the Civil War. But he witnessed many important events and had close relationships with the key players of the war. He was even right there after Lincoln’s assassination, at the Petersen House where the dying president was carried from Ford’s Theater, and sent out urgent warnings by telegram to General Ulysses S. Grant. 

“Dana was present for so many different events that it gives me a chance to tell the story of the war through his eyes,” he said. “And it gives me the chance to take a fresh look at endlessly fascinating figures like Lincoln, Secretary of War (Edwin) Stanton and General Grant. It’s fascinating to see them through the eyes of someone who had daily interactions with them but whose impressions haven’t been fully recorded in history.”

Just like history, he explains that we live our lives forward but can only really see the turning points by looking backward.

“There are so many junctures that are only in retrospect very visible as turning points,” he said. “We can see later that they were crucial episodes or lucky escapes.”

One of those lucky escapes for Guarneri was his battle with recurrent cancer when he was in his mid-30s.

“I was not supposed to live,” he said, “so I feel very lucky to be here and keep my explorations going.”

Some people have a life-changing epiphany once they go through a near-death experience, but Guarneri just knew he had to continue to do what he loved — to teach. And continue to fulfill the prophecy that the wise Italian oracle made as he looked down on Guarneri in his cradle more than 60 years ago.