1997-James M. Cox

Report of the Hubbell Committee

The committee, chaired by John Seelye, conducted a round of ballots and selected James M. Cox, Professor Emeritus of Dartmouth College as the recipient of the Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement.


It has been my fortune to serve twice on the Hubbell Award Committee, beginning in the days when we handed the winner a silver medal actually made of silver. Back then, when my turn came to be chair of the committee, the winner was James Woodress. Today it is James M. Cox. Now those are two people in our profession who have very little in common except for their given names and the fact that during the balloting they both won the first time around, hands down, testifying to the variety that the discipline of American Literature allows and the generous purview of our colleagues when it comes to honoring accomplishment.

Last year, Nellie McKay in presenting the Hubbell Award gave a moving tribute to Blyden Jackson, starting with his relatively humble and impoverished beginnings, against which Blyden labored, with the added impediment of race. I am not going to follow Nellie’s lead, that being a hard act to follow, further than to say that Jim Cox was born in Western Virginia and that he now resides on the family farm on which he was raised. He was a country boy, and like many such in the South he grew up surrounded by kinfolk. I have visited his home there in Western Virginia, and there are more Coxes in that community than there are hills, and there are a lot of hills.

There are lawyers and doctors and undertakers and ministers, all named Cox. I believe that without trying very hard you could be attended from the cradle to the grave by a Cox, and you can certainly buy a house or car, new or used, from one. They are an influential family in the vicinity of Galax, the urban center of the area, a town named for a material harvested there that is used in the manufacture of an item equivalent to the one made in Willett, Massachusetts.

The name of the actual town in which Jim grew up is Independence, and it is, I think, also well named. There are about twenty towns in the United States called Independence, and perhaps someday a book should be written about all of them, each different I am sure in its own way. But Independence in Virginia, a state that gave birth to the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, has I think a special mandate therefrom. When Jim Cox gets up to accept this award, he will be in more ways than one the man from Independence. Harry S Truman was from Independence, Missouri, as I recall, but not Independence, Virginia. This is an important distinction, yet Truman and Cox I think share some qualities in common. If you are from a place called Independence, you must from time to time acknowledge it, and this serves as a reminder and an encouragement to develop certain positive traits of character.

On Jim’s c.v., it mentions that he attended the University of Michigan, graduating in 1948, and Indiana University, from which he received a doctorate in 1955, but I also know that prior to those years he served as an enlisted man in a submarine during World War II. This was very difficult and hazardous duty, and seamen were screened carefully before being assigned to it. You had to be able to perform capably under considerable pressure. We have all seen the movies, and understand the general idea, but I don’t imagine many of you here today have served aboard a battery-powered submarine. It is a unique experience, I think, not common shared by professors of English. Nor are most of you from a place called Independence, though we all strive to get there, I hope.

Before he entered the graduate program at Indiana, Jim was already teaching English, at Emory and Henry College in Virginia, and about this time he received a teacher’s certificate. If he would like another I would be glad to write one for him. He first taught during the years 1950-52, at which time I was still an undergraduate, so that he was teaching and I was learning but in different places at the same time. I have been learning from Jim Cox ever since I first met him while we were both at the University of California in Berkeley, he on leave from Indiana to work in the Mark Twain papers, and I a lowly because untenured assistant professor. I never did get tenure at the University of California at Berkeley, nor did Jim, although it did look for a while as though he might. Henry Nash Smith had been made an offer by Yale and Mark Schorer thought that Jim would make a dandy replacement, and he would have been more than that, I know. Berkeley in 1961 badly needed and even now could benefit from the presence there of Him Cox.

But Henry decided that the call from Yale had come too late and though Mark went ahead and offered a position to Jim, he had promises to keep, and returned to Indiana, where he had been teaching since 1957. But it wasn’t long before Jim returned all the way east, to where the woods fill up with snow, to Dartmouth College, where he first taught after getting his Ph.D. from Indiana, from 1955-57, and where he remained from 1963 until he retired. Along the way he served as Dean and was given a chair, the Avalon Professorship of Humanities, which, whatever other virtues and benefits it might bestow, is certainly the most beautiful sounding honor a person could ever be awarded. Avalon of course was associated with paradise in the Arthurian legends and more recently with a town on Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California, which is the place to which the singer hopes to be carried back in the song. I think we need to put Avalon next to Independence, Virginia, as we go about constructing a mythology for Jim Cox, which is what I am attempting in a small way to do. It is the place to which King Arthur retired and from which he is expected to return to Camelot–though in fewer and fewer numbers by Democrats these days–and Dartmouth I know keeps hoping the same thing from Jim.

As I was saying before I interrupted myself, I first got to know Jim Cox when we were together at Berkeley, and I remember very well how he made a special effort to extend himself to the kind of low-placed faculty member whose existence very few visiting professors in those days would have bothered to acknowledge. He somehow made you feel part of a conspiracy against the dunces who made up the large part of the department, indeed any department, indeed the entire profession. He made you feel that you and he were part of a knowing and affectionate community, a kind of low-wattage illuminati, like that immortal pair on the raft.

I remember driving Jim down the coast to Leland Stanford Farm where he participated in a graduate symposium and I am sure he does too. I remember his saying that the problem with the faculty at Berkeley was that California (the place, not the institution) was too good for them, that they were like persons who had arrived in Heaven before their time, and it gave them psychic wrinkles and problems with moral posture, never mind a bottle in a bottom desk drawer. I’m not sure he really meant it, but it did make a person without tenure feel good at heart, knowing that if a body didn’t make it into Heaven, he would have Huck Finn’s consolation.

Shortly afterward I moved on to the University of Connecticut and because of proximity saw more of Jim, and the more I saw the more I learned. I remember the time he came down from the heights of Hanover and gave a lecture in Storrs in which he made the point that Thoreau was a secessionist, and I have never forgotten that point, indeed have used it ever since to draw a baseline and vector through much of the vast confusion that is American culture. For what was new Secession but old Separatism in political form? New England is proud of Plymouth Rock and the First Thanksgiving but it keeps quiet about the Hartford Convention. Daniel Webster among others wanted to keep out of Mr. Madison’s War, and Henry David Thoreau felt the same about Mr. Polk’s War. We have just witnessed a shack about the dimensions of Thoreau’s at Walden being trucked to a trial in Oakland, California, just in case you missed the connection. Championing John Brown or firing on Sumter or constructing pipe bombs pretty much amounts to the same thing once you have declared war on the State.

Well, that is my thesis, not Jim’s, but the test of a true teacher is the ability to set ideas in motion, not put a fence around them. I am not going to stoop to further details, being inclined toward the neoclassical view. But those of you who have ever had conversation with Jim Cox about any aspect of American literature and life will understand what I mean. The region around

Independence is deeply pious in character, and religion there is practiced with an evangelical fervor, a characteristic that was passed on to Jim in a modified but identifiable way. I think it can be said that he converts you to his way of thinking, not by haranguing but by the onrush of enthusiasm, and if you know the etymology of that word, you will grasp the divine connection.

The main criterion for the Hubbell Award is “influence,” that the recipient must have been influential in the study of American Literature, and if citations count, there are a few more influential books about Mark Twain’s writings than Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor. But Jim I think has during a career now nearing a half-century been influential the way a great orator or preacher is influential, by the sheer power of his presence and voice. He is as a man of words unique in this profession. I have myself been teaching for nearly forty years, a period during which I have almost always attended the MLA annual convention, that being an act of duty essential to the New England conscience, and I have never heard the like, though I have had frequent opportunity to listen to the unlike.

His delivery does not resemble Mark Twain’s, which was rather quiet as I understand it and full of exaggerations and understatements for effect. Like Mark Twain, Jim has a great sense of humor, but it is not ironic and poker-faced, but exuberant, like the man himself. His syntax is not plain but complex, and illuminates with that tangled fire we associate with Faulkner, who is perhaps the greatest comic genius after Twain in our literature, and both in different ways understood the humor inherent in Fate, as does Jim Cox. He for years edited the journal Studies in American Humor , but that is not what I am talking about. Scholarship about humor is not very humorous, and when it tries to be, it strains at the traces against an immovable burden. Our profession in general is humorless, as I have had frequent occasion to observe. Not that we don’t enjoy a good joke, but we take our subjects of study very seriously, though there are occasional and very welcome exceptions. Let me give you one example.

Some years ago, Louis Rubin organized a meeting at the MLA in which the cardinal directions of the academic world were recognized and celebrated in what was intended to be a humorous way, and it was. Louis chose people who taught in regions different from those of their origin: for example, Hennig Cohen, who was from the South but was on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, addressed himself to Philadelphia, and did surprising and memorable things with the statue of William Penn on the Statehouse dome; Norman Grabo spoke about the West, namely Texas, from A to M; Louis himself talked about New York, chiefly I think because he had an anecdote about a cab driver he wished to unload; and Jim Cox talked about the experiences of a southerner in New England. He talk mostly about wood stoves, as I remember, or at least that’s what. I remember, and it was very, very funny.

Jim lived on a farm near Hanover, or what was left of a farm after the Dartmouth authorities peeled off the acreage before selling it to him for what they had paid for it with the acres, and he did heat the house with a wood stove, so he knew whereof he spoke. Wood stoves like mules have a certain inherent humor and like mules must be dealt with directly yet with circumspection. More often than not a stick of firewood is involved in both transactions. Jim brought that all out, and he addressed himself to firewood, too, as I recall. Firewood, the kind you cut down, saw up, and split yourself, can also be a topic of comedy, mostly to those who are watching the process. I wish Him had done more of that sort of thing. I wish we all did more of that sort of thing, and much less of what we do do, which is funny only in the way that cutting up firewood is fun . . . Incidentally to the intention.

Recently I participated in screening candidates for a position in our department, and one of my colleagues noted succinctly that a sample of work submitted for our scrutiny and evaluation “lacked theory.” This was meant as a negative judgment, but when I say that Jim Cox lacks theory, I mean it as praise. What he does have is practice. He has written close to a hundred essays and reviews on writers from Frost to Poe, from Hawthorne to Stowe, Henry Adams to Hemingway. He is a particularist, and moves out from his subject, not back toward it and around it in the service of an ideology.

In his essay on regionalism in the Columbia Literary History of the United States , Jim addresses what he calls a “diminished thing,” regionalism having gradually disappeared from both the American and the academic landscape. As he calls it, the South was the last region worth its salt, but as a definable place it too is fast disappearing from the map. In cadences echoing Faulkner, who also wrote in the spoken word, Cox talks of the South as “a worn land and place representing both the ruin of and resistance to the civilization it has survived. In precisely such resistant ruin [does] the beauty and power” of Southern writing reside. In Cox’s view the South as a region may have ended, for “even as the South came into the nation’s literature, the nation’s economy came into the South,” but then that is the common doom of all regions, “the fate of their imaginative space before the ever-encroaching Union. The point is that they are always ending, which is to say that ending is their eternal process.”

Now I suppose you could boil down some theory out of those sentences, but you would kill the life in them by so doing. What they are vibrant with is a kind of eschatology, a faith sustained by and in final things, the power that is shared by so many other writers, including Willa Cather, so often catalogued as a writer of the Midwest but who was also raised on a farm in Virginia and for whom, as Cynthia Griffin Wolff tells us, loss was a constant theme. But I quoted those words not so much for their sense but their sentience, the power of feeling they convey, which is so essential to Jim’s writing as well as his talk, both being redolent with the cadences of the region the loss of which he is there commemorating, so alive with paradox and persuasiveness. In sum, Jim Cox not only evokes the subject he is talking about, he becomes inseparable from it.

Where are such voices today? Who comes to us now trailing the glory of origins, of place of birth, writing words with the scent of native soil still on them? I turn to the most recent PMLA bibliography available to me, and find I can learn about “Spouse and Child Abuse in Faulkner,” or about “In-Forming Texts: Ideology, Subjectivity in Black Characterizations.” Under the topic “Regional Novelists” I am referred to a (and I quote) ” narrower term : Women regional novelists,” which brings me to a lone dissertation that addresses the role of nationalism in relation to Puritanism. These are studies fertile with theory, but sterile of passion. They bring me back to cutting, chopping, and splitting wood, and I return instead to James M. Cox.

In the truest sense, Jim is his own subject, what he writes best about being of and out of himself, the Emersonian criterion. It is therefore fitting that his latest book is on autobiography, gathering together essays written over the years, but what I want from him now, as soon as he gets that piece on Walt Whitman out of the way, is something specifically autobiographical, something about Jim Cox. Something beyond the academic honors he has earned over the years, from the Guggenheim fellowship to the Danforth award for teaching and this present award, something that reaches back to and in and then out of Independence and to the heart of what it means or perhaps what it meant to be a member of our profession in what from here is beginning to look like our Golden Age.

Like regionalism, the teaching of the humanities is a diminished thing, nor do those who practice it today threaten to reverse the trend. Region and Section are much the same, and let me note that we who are gathered here today occupy the last section sponsored by the MLA, which stands for the More is Less Association I reckon, everything else being a matter of longer and longer division, and multiplying sessions of seldom sweet and never silent thought. We have given over the luncheon, that essential act of communion and companionship , which as Thoreau would tell us means the breaking of bread, and after such loss, what gain?

It will never be any better than it was between 1950 and 1990, and there will never be anyone in our profession more worthy of it than is James M. Cox, the Avalon Professor in the Humanities Emeritus at Dartmouth College, owner and at present operator of the family farm in Independence, Virginia, and the latest recipient of the Hubbell Award.

John Seelye

On Receiving the Hubbell Award

Reflecting upon my utter surprise on receiving Susan Smith’s letter saying that I would be this year’s recipient of the Hubbell Award, and reflecting too on the list of illustrious prior recipients, and now hearing Professor Seelye’s extended remarks, I feel both humbled and honored. Put the two feelings fully together, and you have the sum of my present consciousness: a recognition of my luck.

My luck began early. I was born in 1925, the year that saw publication of In Our Time, The Great Gatsby, and An American Tragedy. Then too I was drafted into the Navy just early enough to get a touch of submarine war action even as the end of the war loomed into view. Returning to college, I found the G.I. Bill waiting to assure my financial independence for the rest of my education. I drifted into an English Major, and, just at the threshold of applying to Michigan high schools for a teaching position, I abruptly wrote letters of application to fifteen small colleges. Receiving two offers, I chose Emory and Henry College, which was only sixty miles from my Virginia home.

At the same time, Austin Warren, who had come to Michigan fresh from having co-authored Theory of Literature with Rene Wellek, encouraged me to go to John Ransom’s Kenyon School of English the summer before I was to begin teaching at Emory and Henry. I did, and took a course from Kenneth Burke. After two years at Emory and Henry, I decided to get a Ph.D. And thought I would begin my studies by going to The School of Letters (the Kenyon School of English renamed and moved to Indiana University).

So I found myself in Leslie Fiedler’s Myth in American Fiction and Verse , which he taught in Bloomington, Indiana, in the summer of 1952. And that, dear hearts, is how I came to be in American literature. But enough! I am about to sink into a narrative of my life. Autobiography is, as I am sure you will have divined, suicide, just as biography is murder–which is why Henry Adams told Henry James to take his own life before a biographer had a chance to take it.

I therefore skip to the present. For the past twelve years I have lived, with my wife, in the house I was born in and on the farm where I was raised (I used the very advisedly, since the farm is almost twenty-eight hundred feet above the sea). People who should know better told me that the farm should prove a wonderful place for writing. How little they knew. I saw early and even wrote that the farm is against writing . Now, ten years later, my ignorance has steadily been growing exponentially in relation to my knowledge, and I am well on my way to what I foresaw when I first returned: lying down beside Saddle Creek that runs through the center of the farm and, in harmony with its plangent rush to reach New River, falling into complete illiteracy. That would not be bad. After all, Whitman wrote in his introduction to the 1855 Leaves of Grass:

There is that indescribable freshness and unconsciousness about an illiterate person that humbles and mocks the power of the noblest expressive genius.

That quotation could well be placed over the door of every English department in the country.

Such an observation facing us from our greatest poet reminds us of the immense attraction of ignorance. It is surely, to follow Henry Adams, the inertial energy always attracted by the accelerating electro-magnetic field of the dynamo. Much as he found himself attracted to the dynamo, Adams never forgot that inertial energy was the object of dynamic attraction–whether the object was woman as sexual generator or nature as raw material. Like coal in the ground or Booker T. Washington in a coal mine, this oppressed inertial energy was yet the necessary fire to drive the steam engines that powered the dynamo. Ignorance is nothing more or less than the energy of inertial mind, and it should be sought rather than opposed. There are those, even–or is it especially?–in higher education, who fatuously subscribe to “stamping out ignorance,” as they are wont to say, and they constantly regret that students coming from high school are utterly ignorant of this or that. There is probably nothing to be done about this eternal contingent. Greet them with preternaturally ignorant face and listen with a dead pan equaling Mark Twain’s to their lamentations. That is, I hope, the sum of my advice on this occasion. Thoreau’s great sentence early in Walden comes hauntingly to mind: “I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from any of my seniors.” I would not go quite as far as Thoreau in this matter, but his account is true enough to serve as admonition at moments like this one.

I have left until last the middle years (1950-1990), which I spent teaching in colleges and universities. To return again to my luck, there was probably no better year to emerge with a doctorate than 1955, the year I went on the market. There were positions everywhere, particularly in American literature. It was still a relatively new field, new enough that an outstanding Ph.D. candidate could reasonably believe that he could read all the secondary material on even the most celebrated American writer. Great writers–Eliot, Frost, Faulkner, Hemingway–were still alive and writing. If the field attracted students, it also attracted the ablest critics and scholars. F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance , which was to remain the most influential book of the entire forty years of my academic life had just made its way fully into the academy, quickly establishing the American canon up to the Civil War. His pentad of writers seemed, to the true believer entering the field, related to the pentagonal power that had made the nation the leader of the free world. At the same time, the New Criticism had displaced the belletristic tradition as well as the old Germanic scholarship; beyond that, it had, in the academy, triumphed over the Marxist criticism with which it had contended in the thirties. Far from being elitist, as later critics would have us believe, the New Criticism was a great democratizing force, allowing a poem to be faced directly without all the historical, biographical, and cultural paraphernalia that had come to attend literary study. Equally important, the New Criticism, which had fully fleshed itself out before World War II, was particularly appealing to a society emerging from a war in which everything including literature had assumed the identity of propaganda.

It was just Matthiessen’s power, in 1941 (it is still difficult for me to realize that his book appeared that early), to unite left-liberal politics, which he found more or less directly expressed in the forms of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, with his essentially conservative literary “aesthetics” expressed in the “imaginative” and “tragic” fiction of Hawthorne and Melville. No wonder his book afforded the basis for the strengthened study of American literature inside English departments at the same time that it provided ground for the interdisciplinary programs of American Studies. You know the rest from the books you have read, to misquote slightly a writer largely displaced by Matthiessen’s canon formation.

I belonged to the generation that enjoyed the opportunity offered by the ever-expanding fields of American literature and American studies. The burden of expansion appeared in burgeoning enrollments, the descent of insight into methodology, and the overwrought interpretations inevitably attending overworked authors. Twenty-five years after receiving my doctorate, I could hardly face the mass of books and articles that had been added to the shelf of every major writer. One of these books was my own.

Fortunately–and inevitably–new forces appeared, exerting pressure on both canon and existing criticism. The Civil Rights and Women’s Movements brought new people into classroom and faculty and new authors and books into the canon. At the same time, critical theory accelerated through phenomenology, affectivism, reader response, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and new historicism. Couple all this with the new technology, and the sense of acceleration becomes acute. Small wonder that older faculty members are likely to envision a world of falling standards and criticism that seems to obfuscate rather than clarify. Yet it was ever thus, as Whitman saw:

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Attending a recent MLA conference on the American Renaissance, I heard papers on Emerson and Melville bearing the stamp of recent criticism that matched anything I could remember. Long before I took early retirement, I saw (and like to think I supported) colleagues in American literature that I knew could see more and see farther than I could see.

I retired early partly to make room for and partly to escape the accelerating minds and machines; then too, there was the genuine attraction of the farm I was raised on. I still dream of writing–writing something different from anything I wrote as a teacher. But it eludes me and will probably always elude me. No matter. My wife and I will search for firewood on the farm, and I shall from time to time ponder Hawthorne’s fine observation in “The Custom House”:

It is a good lesson–though it may often be a hard one–for a man who has dreamed of literary fame, and of making for himself a rank among the world’s dignitaries by such means, to step aside out of the narrow circle in which his claims are recognized, and to find how utterly devoid of significance, beyond that circle, is all that he achieves, and all that he aims at.3