1995-Blanche H. Gelfant

Report of the Hubbell Committee

The 1995 Jay B. Hubbell Award Committee consists of Professors Jonathan Arac, Jackson Bryer, Nellie McKay, John Seelye, and myself as chair. The committee’s deliberations begin in the spring. Committee members decided, after discussion, to follow procedures established and affirmed in previous years and to consider only those nominees at or near the end of their careers as candidates for the award.

As the committee chair, I circulated the list of nominees from previous years, asked for additions to the list, and supplied in a letter to committee members some brief biographical information about each person on the list. The committee then engaged in two rounds of voting: the first, to establish the top five nominees; the second, to rank those nominees in descending order, with votes allocated from 5 to 1. The nominee with the most votes, and therefore the 1995 Hubbell Award recipient, is Professor Blanche H. Gelfant, the Robert E. Maxwell Professor of Arts and Sciences and Professor of English Emerita at Dartmouth College. After the voting was completed, I notified Professors Susan Belasco Smith and Paul Sorrentino, who are respectively the present and past Executive Coordinators of the American Literature Section, of the result. I sent a copy of the letter to Professor William L. Andrews, the 1995 chair of the Section’s Advisory Council, and, somewhat later in the year, corresponded with Blanche H. Gelfant about information that should be included in the citation that traditionally accompanies the awarding of the Hubbell Medallion at the annual business luncheon of the American Literature Section at the MLA convention.

Mary Ann Wimsatt
University of South Carolina


Jay B. Hubbell, for whom the award presented today is named, led a remarkable group of scholars who in the 1920’s established the professional study of American literature as distinct from that of British literature. A native of Virginia, Hubbell received his Ph.D. from Columbia University and then taught at many schools, among them Bethel College in Kentucky, Wake Forest University, and Southern Methodist University. Most of his career, however, was spent at Duke University, where he founded and edited the journal American Literature, which is still flourishing today. The Hubbell Award was established by the American Literature Section in 1964 to honor a scholar who has made significant lifetime contributions to the scholarly study of American literature. The 1995 Hubbell Committee consists of Professors Jonathan Arac, Jackson Bryer, Nellie McKay, John Seelye, and myself as chair. For the committee, I am delighted to announce that the recipient of this year’s Hubbell Award is Blanche H. Gelfant, Robert E. Maxwell Professor of Arts and Sciences and Professor of English Emerita at Dartmouth College.

In a brief citation, it is impossible to do justice to Professor Gelfant’s career and outstanding accomplishments, so I must single out only a few matters for special comment. Professor Gelfant received her A.B. degree from Brooklyn College and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She has taught at many academic institutions, including Queens College, the University of Southern California, the State University of New York at Syracuse, and since 1972 at Dartmouth. She has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the American Association of University Women. She has also held a Mellon Fellowship at the Wellesley College Center for Research for Women. The breadth and perspicacity of Professor Gelfant’s scholarship are legendary among students of American literature. Her books range from her pioneering study The American City Novel (1954) to Women Writing in America: Voices in Collage (1985) and Cross-Cultural Reckonings: A Triptych of Russian, American, and Canadian Texts, issued this year by Cambridge University Press. She has published articles and book chapters on such diverse authors as Jack Kerouac, Joan Didion, Emma Goldman, James T. Farrell, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, Tillie Olsen, Margaret Mitchell, and Willa Cather.

Professor Gelfant’s publications, whether on Dos Passos, Olsen, Farrell, Cather, or other authors, have consistently attracted perceptive and favorable critical response. The American City Novel is now almost routinely called a classic, indispensable study; “The Forgotten Reaping-Hook,” an article on Willa Cather’s My Antonia, is described as having “changed the course of criticism on the novel”; Women Writing in America is commended for its “sharp perspicacity” and “thorough knowledge”; and Cross-Cultural Reckonings is called “a highly innovative” experiment that “delivers on Professor Gelfant’s past reputation.” That Professor Gelfant is, in the words of a noted scholar, “one of our finest scholar-critics of twentieth-century American literature” confirms the fact that she remains a profound and challenging thinker who continues to deliver on her past reputation.

In order to prepare the citation, the Hubbell Committee chair customarily asks the recipient of the award for reflections on his or her career, humorous experiences along the way, and similar matters. Professor Gelfant and I have conducted an engaging correspondence on these and other counts. With wry amusement, Professor Gelfant describes one of her early experiences with the MLA office. “The first essay I submitted for publication,” on John Dos Passos, “I sent to PMLA, thinking I might as well start at the top and work my way down. Some time after the submission, I received a brown envelope obviously containing a manuscript” and assumed that “my essay was being rejected.” It turned out that the PLMA editor, apparently without taking note of the name of the essay’s author, recalled that “I had written about Dos Passos” in The American City Novel and had decided “I…seemed a likely person to read a manuscript on Dos Passos. I wrote a brief note saying that I strongly recommended publication, but that since I had written the essay in question, the editor would probably like to have another opinion.” The fortunate conclusion to this story is that the essay, after circulation among several readers, “was ultimately accepted without any suggestion for revision.” Not surprisingly, Professor Gelfant observes, “the incident ended up a laughing matter” in the MLA office for several years.

On a more serious note, Professor Gelfant in reflecting upon her career remarks that in scholarship, “I always hoped to evoke other critics to continue working on a writer or a theme that had inspired me. I like to write about texts that for some reason interest me, perhaps obsessively, and to say what I see, while acknowledging what other critics see…. My interest is not in arguing with critics (whom I read conscientiously) but rather in discerning complexities that make a story or a novel a work to wonder at or wonder about. I am critical of what I read, and I think I can see the strange, unmanageable, and aberrant aspects of a text and the lapses in a writer’s art and social sympathies. But to me the wonder is that the text remains hypnotic, and indelible, an enduring experience, even though I may be in profound disagreement with its social and political views.”

Professor Gelfant goes on to say, “I have loved being in the profession, teaching and writing and moving into new areas of interest. I have written what I wanted to write, although I could not always tell you why that was what I wanted. I have kept an idealism I have always had about a liberal education and its liberating effects. That’s out of style, and so were books and writers that interested me. I’ve seen the books come back into style, and perhaps the idealism will too.”

One of Professor Gelfant’s most recent, most sensitive reviewers says that “Blanche Gelfant has shaped an eloquent voice, at once critical and informed, personal and exploratory. It is a voice worth listening to as cross-cultural and multicultural studies gain momentum.” Her scholarship, the reviewer continues, can spur such studies “toward the kind of flexible, open-ended inquiry so successfully employed in Cross-Cultural Reckonings.”

For the past forty years, Blanche Gelfant has remained a scholar worth listening to on any subject she chooses to explore. Among many other qualities, it is for her eloquence, her perceptiveness, and the enormous range and breadth of her investigations into both classic and forgotten authors of American literary texts that the Hubbell Committee has selected her as the recipient of the 1995 award. On behalf of the committee, I am pleased and proud to present the Jay B. Hubbell medallion to Blanche H. Gelfant.

Mary Ann Wimsatt
University of South Carolina

Acceptance Speech

Thank you for your generous introduction. I am aware as I stand here of the distinguished colleagues who have been recipients of the Jay B. Hubbell Award. I am grateful to colleagues who find me worthy of the honor. To all of you here, and to all who could not be here, I wish to express heartfelt thanks and appreciation.

This occasion evokes musings over a lifetime of work that, in the replay of memory, seems a succession of beginnings. For whenever I finished a piece of writing, the final period mysteriously turned into the beginning of an ellipsis, of an empty space I felt I had to fill. So I found myself perpetually impelled to begin anew. Even now, I look forward to beginning new projects, to encountering new books, new ideas–to saying something different from what I now can say. For this reason, I find new literary and cultural theories clarifying rather than arcane, though in my work I have not clung to a single theoretical position, nor pursued a single critical idea or literary figure, nor prescribed a single mandate. As I look back now, I think I have seldom used the word must, as in we must, the fervent phrase that signals a certainty I have often admired but seldom attained. Indeed, I stand here bereft of mandates that would tell us with certainty what we must do. All I can say is that each of us must work in the way he or she thinks best, knowing that what seems best may be provisional, circumstantial, shaped by the contingencies of time, place, and personal predilection and, consequently, subject to change.

The one unchanging element in my life has been a capacity for interest. I have found reading interesting; I found teaching interesting; and I have always been intensely interested in what I was writing, even when I knew at the time that I was writing about held little interest for others. Often I thought my work would not be published. In 1971, what journal would publish an essay on redoubtable Willa Cather that had the word “sex” in the title? But I felt I must have that word there. I sent the essay to American Literature, and Arlin Turner, a gentleman and scholar, accepted it handsomely. “Sex” remained in the title, along with the word “forgotten,” a key word that, I confess, led straightaway to we must. For I was claiming that we must remember the disquieting realities of American history; that we betray the past when we forget, and begin to redeem it when we remember.

So I would like to remember three women with whom I wish I could share this award–Lila, Wilfrida, and Jean. I met Lila, Wilfrida, and Jean at the University of Wisconsin, where we were graduate students working for our doctorates. These three became my special friends; two were at different times my roommates. None was in American literature, but no matter. Lila was studying under Ruth Wallerstein, explicating the esoterica of metaphysical poets. Jean was writing on Virginia Woolf, at that time considered too esoteric to be widely read. I admired Lila and Jean as brilliant and ambitious students. I thought their ideas wonderfully original, exciting. I believed their work would make their names known. But you would not recognize their names if I told them, though you would know the names of their husbands, successful professors of literature, sometime members of MLA. At Wisconsin, Lila, Wilfrida, and Jean all married young men who were beginning their careers as students. I also married while in graduate school. We all helped our husbands in their studies and worked to support them financially. We all had children and cared for them ourselves, as we had to; we all cooked and cleaned. Meanwhile, the men finished their requirements and received their degrees. Jean and Wilfrida never finished. Lila did, many years later, but never wrote or made her name known.

I recall my three friends not to deplore what has been or to describe victims of a system. None of us thought herself victimized, either then or now. But all of us belonged to a past I want to remember in order to bring to mind cultural changes that, in a world troubled by divisiveness over race, religion, class, and gender, we may tend to forget. Today, brilliant young women can make their names known. Indeed, their names are known and respected, and valued as signifiers of social change. As we know, many today denounce change, warning that it is dangerous, a threat to values that have sustained American literature and American life. I realize that blanket advocacy can be as feckless as sweeping denunciation. So I am not saying that we must uniformly embrace change. But I want to acknowledge changes that have made a significant difference in people’s lives and in the policies by which they are governed. Policy –it is a word I have learned to dread. For I have seen how policy, unlike courtesy, has opened the door for men and kept it closed to women. Years ago, when I was applying for a graduate fellowship, policy mandated that male students receive preferential treatment. Even though I had the better application, my chair explained, the fellowship had to go to Harry; I wonder who now knows his name. I learned of another policy when I applied elsewhere for a teaching position: here, I was told, the policy was simply to hire an inferior man over a superior woman.

But policy shares with life the capacity to change–or more precisely, individuals and groups working with ardor and vision can effect change. Changes in university policies, reflective of cultural, professional, and legal changes, have distributed opportunities more evenly and widely among women and men and, however incompletely, among our diverse peoples. And changes in ways of thinking about all matters of human concern have enlivened the study of American literatures, now open to new and exciting interpretations. So I welcome change because it keeps us on the move, professionally, intellectually, morally. For myself, I favor temporary inhabitance, hotel life. I like to live intensely with a literary figure, a literary idea, a project, and then, after intimacy, to pay my bill, pack my intellectual baggage, and set off for new adventure in parts unknown.

At this point, no doubt, I should conclude with a resounding quotation from Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses”–to strive, to seek, and all that. But I prefer plain words for the memories, hope, and inspiration stirred in me by this occasion. I am inspired by the Hubbell Medallion to a new beginning. I am hopeful that the future will open doors kept closed by custom and the contingencies of the historical times, and by policy. On the behalf of all those whom prejudice and policy still would shunt to the outside, I remember the women of my generation who aspired and tried and, in today’s world, would have prevailed. In the wistful past that I can recall we all did what we thought we must. But the mandates have changed and, no doubt, will go on changing. I have, however, one naive concatenated mandate I would like to preserve and pass on. I find it sustaining. Love what you do, do what you love with a consuming interest, have fun, do good, and keep moving.

Blanche H. Gelfant
Dartmouth College