Skip to main content

Kennington receives NEH Fellowship for book on mental illness, gender in American South

Kelly Kennington

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) will support Auburn University Draughon Associate Professor of Southern History Kelly Kennington's latest work through a fellowship grant totaling $60,000.

Kennington's project, "Womanhood, Insanity, and Consent in the Nineteenth-Century South," will investigate mental illness, gender and law in the American South through a book focused on the life story of Susan Wray, who lived in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina from 1816-1889.

Wray was wealthy, the wife of a plantation owner near Union Springs, Alabama, who had a turbulent personal life and engaged frequently with the court. Between an alleged affair, a divorce case that hinged on an insanity plea and several stays at mental hospitals, Wray's life is surprisingly well documented.

Kennington said Wray represents an intersection of multiple factors including power, consent and freedom in the nineteenth century.

"In the initial part of the book, I talk about the ways in which enslaved people play a critical role in her story and how even though they're not allowed to testify directly, they are actually very involved in legal proceedings and in what's going on behind the scenes," Kennington said. "It is a book about Susan Wray, but it's also a book about all the people around her who make up her world."

In the book, Kennington will confront questions about whose information is privileged in the record, whose voices go unheard and how much Susan Wray made her own decisions versus when others manipulated her.

To complete the work, Kennington uses legal and medical records, including letters directly from Wray drawn from archives throughout Alabama and the southeast.

Kennington hopes readers will be intrigued by Wray's story while reflecting on how factors such as slavery, mental health and gender shaped the world in which she lived.

"Essentially, what I'm trying to do is use her as a through line to talk about women's interactions with the legal and medical systems, particularly looking at questions around knowledge production and consent," Kennington said. "I hope that this book shows that one person's story does matter beyond just their own experiences, that we can learn broader lessons from people in the past. Even people who weren't necessarily famous or who didn't leave volumes of diaries or personal or family papers still have something to tell us."

NEH Fellowships are "competitive awards granted to individual scholars pursuing projects that embody exceptional research, rigorous analysis and clear writing." The NEH judges applications on each project's value to the humanities and public audience. Only 7% of projects submitted to the NEH receive faculty fellowship funding.

The College of Liberal Arts' Department of History hosts nationally renowned scholars who study southern history. Kennington is the latest faculty member to be recognized for distinguished contributions to the field.

"The National Endowment for the Humanities continues to recognize the noteworthy research and national value of the work being done within the College of Liberal Arts' Department of History," said Dean Jason Hicks. "Dr. Kennington's fellowship award represents excellence in investigating southern history to advance the future of humanities research, teaching and outreach."

Kennington is one of two scholars in Alabama to receive a 2024 NEH grant. The other, Alabama State University's Professor Bertis English, is an Auburn History alumnus.

Learn more about the Department of History in the College of Liberal Arts.

Tags: History Faculty Research

Media Contact

Charlotte Tuggle, Director
News and Media Services
CLA Office of Communications and Marketing

Related Articles