2000-Nina Baym

Report of the Hubbell Committee

This year’s Hubbell Award committee was composed of Shari Benstock, Judith Fetterley, Richard Millington, Rafael Perez-Torres, and Eric Sundquist, chair. The committee considered a number of eminent and worthy candidates, but after exchanging views and votes easily selected this year’s recipient, Nina Baym, Swanlund Endowed Chair and Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts & Sciences in the Department of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

The citation was prepared by Judith Fetterley and Eric Sundquist, and presented by Susan K. Harris (Penn State).


On behalf of the Hubbell Award Committee and the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association, it is my great pleasure to present the year 2000 Jay B. Hubbell Award to Professor Nina Baym.

Professor Baym holds the Swanlund Endowed Chair at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. In addition, she is also the Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts & Sciences and the Center of Advanced Study Professor of English–an impressive but not surprising number of distinguished professorships for a most distinguished professor.

In the past generation of literary scholarship, no change has been more profound than the transformation of the canon–indeed, of our understanding of culture and society in their most comprehensive forms–brought about by the discovery and re-discovery of women writers. Whether as major figures within a previously appreciated tradition, as the creators of a counter-tradition with deep roots in politics and popular culture, or as daring precursors whose voices would later be recognized to have been generations ahead of their time, American women writing in many genres have inspired some of the best scholarship in recent decades.

Professor Baym has been an unparalleled pathbreaker in that scholarship. Her many books and articles are themselves a history of the criticism of nineteenth-century American women’s writing in the past generation. Beginning with The Shape of Hawthorne’s Career (1976) and continuing through The Scarlet Letter: A Reading (1986), Nina Baym has identified herself as a leading voice in reevaluations of the major writers of the American Renaissance. But it is her brilliant critique of the canon, carried out in a series of searching and engaging inquires into the writing by women, and reading by women, in nineteenth-century America, that has most made Professor Baym a major force in American literary scholarship. Her widely read and influential books, including Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870 (1978; 2 nd ed. 1993),Novels, Readers, and Reviewers: Responses to Fiction in Antebellum America (1984), and American Women Writers and the Work of History, 1790-1860 (1995) have completely rewritten the history of American literature in a profound and lasting way.

In more than 120 reviews and review essays and some sixty articles, including iconoclastic work such as “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors,” she has pursued an astonishing range of figures and topics, always with a commanding sense of the critic’s responsibility to history and to her contemporary audience, and with an exhilarating talent for bringing complex theory to bear upon literary texts in accessible and revealing ways. Whether in collections such as Feminism and American Literary History: Essays (1992) or in her many editorial capacities, Professor Baym has introduced a generation of new readers to forgotten or neglected writers of the past while at the same time forcing us to see well-known writers and works from surprising perspectives. Her introductions to new editions of seven novels or collections of fiction from the nineteenth century have brought before a new audience works by writers such as Maria Susanna Cummins, Juliette Magill Kinzie, and Judith Sargent Murray.

As the current General Editor of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, Professor Baym has been recognized with one of the profession’s most prestigious assignments–one all the more important for the fact the editor’s judgments set the course for many, many students’ understanding of American literature in its entirety. Under Nina Baym’s leadership, the Norton Anthology has struck a wonderful balance between attention to those works that have long constituted the canon and attention to those works whose importance has emerged only with our new understanding of the conflicting social, political, and cultural forces that shape literary history.

Nina Baym received her Bachelors degree from Cornell University, her Masters from Radcliffe, and her Ph.D. from Harvard University. In addition to prestigious research awards at the University of Illinois, she has held fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Association of University Women. Her many honors include Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Beta Phi, and Mortarboard; well as listings in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in American Women; and election to memberships in the American Antiquarian Society and the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Few people in this room need to be reminded of her devoted service to the profession. Touching only on the highlights, one would wish to mention her service on the executive committees and national councils of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society, the Division on Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the American Literature Section of MLA, the American Studies Association, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Brown University Women Writers Project. She has served on the editorial boards of the Columbia Literary History of the United States, Cambridge University Press’s Studies in American Literature, and the American National Biography, as well as the boards of seventeen professional journals.

In all of these many capacities–as a scholar, a teacher, and a professional–Nina Baym has set and met the very highest standards. As only a few of our colleagues are able to do, she has changed what we read, how we read, and why we read. In adding her name to the list of very eminent individuals who have won the Jay B. Hubbell Award, we attempt to recognize, in some degree, her many stellar contributions to American literary scholarship.

Acceptance Speech

Thank you. I was flabbergasted last August when I found out that I had won the Hubbell Medal. Like any scholar, I have hoped my work would seem good and prove useful to others in the field. But that it would be judged to have significantly advanced the field is more than I ever dreamed of.

Looking back on what is now called a lifetime’s work–but I do have another book coming out by the end of next year–I see a career of opportunity rather than design: all I wanted to begin with was a secure job teaching in a good college. My father, a 1929 math Ph.D., went for eight years without steady employment. During that time my mother, a high school English teacher, was the couple’s, then the family’s, breadwinner. Even after there was technically no need for her to work, she never gave up her job. She instilled in me forever the conviction that a woman had to be able to support herself and, if need be, her family. She was an English teacher; my dad was a college teacher. Both agreed that teaching in college was better than teaching in high school. So: I would be a college English teacher.

I arrived at the University of Illinois in 1963 as a new Ph.D. My spouse, a physicist, had accepted an assistant professorship. At that time no tenure-track position was possible for me because the university had a nepotism rule. I could only work in the English Department year-by-year, as an instructor. Yes, we had adjuncts in those days; they were called faculty wives.

Four years later, the federal government’s Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action programs led the campus to rescind the nepotism rule. Departments put their faculty wives on the tenure-track, where they were left to sink or swim. That is how I became an assistant professor.

Many wives, thrust without warning into positions they had not prepared for, did, indeed, sink. Fortunately, I had already begun to publish–NOT because of any expectation of a tenure-track job, but because a new department head had threatened to fire all us faculty wives. I hoped that, maybe, a wife with publications could keep her adjunct job.

The Head left before carrying out his threat. But these essays propelled me to a tenure that the department was, quite frankly, desperate to award. At this point, divorced with two small children, I really appreciated my mother’s teachings. I was promoted to full professor in 1972 on the strength of a newer group of essays I’d published about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novels. These essays were conventional formal and thematic studies, deploying the close-reading strategies we learned in the 1950s. But although methodologically conventional, the essays made a stir on account of their argument; one was rejected by Nineteenth-Century Fiction with a terse editorial note: “This is not the Hawthorne we know.”

My approach to Hawthorne–non-theological and woman-centered–developed from my adjunct teaching, or more precisely from my adjunct learning. In an undergraduate American literature survey for non-majors, I taught The Scarlet Letter as it had been taught to me–as a devout meditation on sin and redemption, heavily influenced by Puritan theology, centered on Arthur Dimmesdale’s agony. Hester Prynne was the female temptress–the carnal, eternal feminine luring saintly man to destruction.

My normally docile students resisted this approach with surprising tenacity. They said the novel was about Hester, a developing character who had the author’s sympathy throughout. When I looked at the novel afresh, I wondered why I hadn’t seen this for myself.

Re-reading The Scarlet Letter as a woman-centered novel opened the door, indeed, to a Hawthorne one did not know. Following the breadcrumb trail through the forest; or, zigging and zagging from one item on this scavenger hunt to the next, I found myself asking how other works by Hawthorne might read if interpreted from a woman-centered perspective; next, what one might make of Hawthorne’s career if the dominant theological approach were jettisoned. Hence, The Shape of Hawthorne’s Career .

One could also zig and zag to questions of women characters in fiction by other canonical American authors; to women characters in fiction by American women; then, to American women novelists more generally. Hence, the book, Woman’s Fiction .

I owe Woman’s Fiction also to Hawthorne’s notorious epistolary jab at the “damned mob of scribbling women,” which alerted me to their existence. We were now into Second Wave feminism. One tenet of this feminism in literary circles was that women writers had been silenced throughout history; that, in effect, there had been no women writers. What on earth, then, was Hawthorne talking about?

And, if Hawthorne was not hallucinating, why were these women unknown and unread? It wasn’t enough to say their work lacked esthetic value. History shows that esthetic judgments change all the time, and that they have never been free of politics and ethics. I wondered: according to what paradigm had women authors been deleted from the record? Hence, the essay “Melodramas of Beset Manhood.”

The favorable reception of these three pieces opened up many opportunities for me, to some of which Judith Fetterley has referred. I believe our field can only be enriched by canon-expanding work that attends to the historical circumstances in which given texts have been produced, circulated, and valued. I don’t believe that literature-as-such is threatened by this kind of work. I feel remarkably fortunate to have produced a particular kind of scholarship at a moment when people were ready to accept it. Thank you all, very much, again.