Kevin Mattson







The Short of It:

The Short of It:

Kevin Mattson is Connor Study Professor of Contemporary History at Ohio University and faculty associate with the Contemporary History Institute.  His work explores the broad intersections between ideas and politics in 20th century America.  He is author of numerous books, including Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech and the “Rocking, Socking” Election of 1952 (2012), available as audio CD; “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?”: Jimmy Carter, America’s Malaise, and the Speech that Should have Changed the Country (2009); Rebels All!: A Short History of the Conservative Mind in Postwar America (2008), winner of a Choice “Outstanding Academic Title” Award; Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century (2006); and When America Was Great:The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism (2004, 1st edition, 2006, 2nd edition).  He has co-written and co-edited numerous other books, and his articles and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Nation, The American Prospect, Chronicle of Higher Education,, and other publications.  He has appeared on numerous talk radio shows as
well as Fox News, NPR, C-Span Book TV, and the Colbert Report.  He is an affiliated scholar at the Center for American Progress; active in the American Association of University Professors (AAUP); and on the editorial board of Dissent magazine.


The Long of It:

Kevin Mattson was born just inside the Beltway (the Washington, D.C. “metropolitan area”) in December 1966 – meaning that he was ultimately a certified member of the liberal elite.  Well, his father was a Republican, his mother a Democrat, and the family wasn’t rich folks, but you get the idea.


Mattson lived a normal, suburban life until he “got punk rock” in the 1980s.  He played in numerous bands – Hate from Ignorance, Onto Gel, and Subtle Oppression – on the margins of the Washington punk scene.  Today the scene’s mostly known for bands like Fugazi, but Mattson remembers a timewhen kids use to “slamdance” with wild abandon, promote a multiplicity of bands, and figure out what every liquid known to humankind – juice, ice cream, dippity doo, bleach, gasoline – could do to ayoung boy’s hair.  Mattson also “got writing” here, by penning reviews for a local fanzine called If This Goes On

Then Mattson “got politics” and jump-started a youth organization at his high school called the Student Union to Promote Awareness (SUPA).  From that sprang a D.C.-wide youth organization called Positive Force, formed with other activists.  The organization worked on issues of homelessness, U.S. intervention in Latin America (we were  against it), the nuclear arms race, and other issues. Mattson helped produce a political fanzine (Off Center), fed poor people, and organized protest marches and educational events.  Positive Force wound up finding mention in Maximum Rock n’ Roll,the Nation, City Paper, and the Washington Post.  It even became the subject of two documentary films.


Mattson soon tired of activism when he “got ideas.”  He started to educate himself, reading rather esoteric works by the Situationist International, wild-eyed anarchists, and the Frankfurt School.  So he went to the New School for Social Research in New York City to study German philosophy, social thought, and history.  Here he “got argument.”  Then he decided to pursue graduate studies in American history and went to the University of Rochester to study with Christopher Lasch (who tragically passed away during the end of Mattson’s studies).  It was cold in Rochester, making it easier to read too many books.  In 1994, he earned himself a Ph.D., writing his dissertation about democratic activism during the Progressive Era (published later as Creating a Democratic Public).Now Mattson “got unemployment.”  He slogged it out in the ranks of underemployed Ph.D.s, teaching as an adjunct at a variety of upstate New York universities.  He taught courses in the civil rights movement and the history of ideas and politics.  Mattson got tired of little pay for gobs of work.  So he decided to return to an activism of a different kind, one a wee bit more intellectual.  He became first Research Director and then Associate Director at the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy – a non-profit center at Rutgers University begun by Benjamin Barber.  Here Mattson worked on projects aimed at enhancing participatory democracy.  He counseled public service programs on how to enhance the way young participants could think about civic obligation and politics, developed webs sites dedicated to public deliberation, helped community organizations work on planning and civic space, and other things that non-profits require (including the mundane – nay, torturing – task of fundraising and organizing events).


While at the Whitman Center, Mattson “got Hemingway” and started to learn how to ski (his wife Vicky taught him), raft and canoe rivers, and backpack on long trips through numerous western wilderness areas.  Recently, Mattson traveled a good part of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), from central California through Oregon and finally to the border of Washington state and Canada.  He has completed almost a thousand miles on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).  He has rafted the Rio Grande river on the U.S.-Mexican border, the Green River through Canyonlands, the San Juan River through the Grand Gulch region, the Verde River through the Arizona desert, and many other places.  He has fly-fished numerous wilderness areas and has now hiked over 10,000 miles of wild lands.


In 2001, he and his family (now including his wife Vicky and his son Jay, plus a cat named Buster) moved to Athens, Ohio, where Mattson accepted an offer to become the Connor Study Professor of Contemporary History, which became official in 2004.  Since here, he has taught a range of courses on modern American culture and intellectual history.  He has offered classes on the history of cultural rebellion, the intersection between high and low culture, political thought, the interplay between movies and history in modern America.  He has taught writing and research courses and a course on the study of contemporary history.  He has supervised graduate students who have pursued both M.A.s and Ph.D.s.


Mattson writes on a range of topics in both scholarly and popular publications.  His essays have explored the history of American liberalism (and centrism), the use of movies to teach history, the abuses of historical knowledge in public debate, the filmmaking of Michael Moore (and others), the cultural ramifications of 9/11, the Iraq War, the political views and ideas of President Barack Obama,the dumbing down of American political debate, the rise of “rock star” intellectuals, and numerous other topics.  He has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, The Nation,

Commmonweal, The Baffler, The Common Review, Bookforum,, Academe, and other publications.  His pieces are announced at his blog (you can go back in time on his blog to revisit some of this writing).


Mattson has “gotten to be a pundit” by being interviewed by NPR, Fox News (you bet!), Radio Nation, the Tony Trupiano Show, Air America, German Television, Canadian Radio, the Colbert Report, ESPN (yes, that’s right), AARP Radio, and numerous other media outlets.  He has appeared on C-Span Book TV three times now.He serves as a fellow at the Center for American Progress.  He is active within the American Association of University Professors and is on the editorial board of Dissent.  He has also worked on numerous political campaigns since moving to Ohio. He will be using his blog at this website to keep those interested in whatever it is he “got.”







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