2001-Paul Lauter

Report of the Hubbell Committee

The Hubbell Award Committee, which comprised Shari Benstock (U of Miami), Chair, Judith Fetterley (State U of New York at Albany), Rafael Pérez-Torres (UCLA), Richard Millington (Smith C), and Cheryl A. Wall (Rutgers U), selected Paul Lauter, Professor of English at Trinity College and former chair of the American Literature Section as winner of the 2001 Jay B. Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement in the study of American Literature.


Paul Lauter, your scholarly and editorial contributions to the study of American literature have broadened and enriched our understanding of this central field of academic study. You have set an example for scholars, teachers, and students in your analysis of social and political movements that have shaped American experience –from the legacy of Henry David Thoreau’s representation of civil disobedience to the impact of the literary and political legacies of movements for social justice in the twentieth century.

Characterized by cross-disciplinary collaboration and a sense of community that includes teachers, students, and the reading public at large, your work reaches across boundaries of class and culture. Your understanding of the breadth and complexity of the relation between literature and lived experience has been realized in the development of the interdisciplinary field of American Studies. As president of that association in the 1990s, you framed American Studies in an international context and worked in support of “The Crossroads Project,” an initiative that opened an international, online conversation. Your travels in Europe, Asia, North Africa, and South America in these years extended the conversation and provided new perspectives on the field of American Studies. Collectively, these experiences led to the writing of your recent book, From Walden Pond to Jurassic Park (2001).

Central to all your work is your ongoing commitment to changing classroom pedagogy and enlarging and enlivening students’ experience of literature. These contributions are represented by four books published over the last two decades: Reconstructing American Literature (1983); The Heath Anthology of American Literature (1990), now in its fourth edition; Canons and Contexts (1991); and From Walden Pond to Jurassic Park.

In celebration of and in gratitude for all that you have contributed to the field American literature, we honor you as the first recipient of the Jay Hubbell Award of the twenty-first century.

Acceptance Speech

For me, New Orleans is a particularly appropriate place for this wonderful event. I was first here some 37 years ago in 1964. I was working as director of Peace Studies for the AFSC and came to New Orleans for some work related to that project. Here, Richard Adams, truly a gentleman and a scholar, took me to dinner at Antoine’s, a different kind of first for me. Later that year, I came here again for R&R during Mississippi Summer, in which I was working as a volunteer. Thus New Orleans evokes for me both an earlier moment of “American Literature” and the Civil Rights movement, which would play a major role in transforming it.

I want to share three moments of their coming together. First, teaching Native Son in the Freedom School at the Blair Street A.M.E. Church basement in Jackson, Mississippi. The students, who would spend their afternoons in the dangerous work of canvassing for supporters of the MFDP, had mostly never read a whole book before. But the discussion of that novel, which they had consumed overnight, was more intense than any I had ever experienced. Why were my classes not like that, so intense and vital?

Second scene: I asked a SNCC staff member which black writers I should think about reading, aside from the big three I knew: Wright, Baldwin, and Ellison. “Try Paule Marshall,” she suggested. Here I faced, starkly, the questions of the canon. Why had my own education been so limited and, finally, narrow. And what were the sources, like this SNCC field staffer, for expanding what I knew . . . indeed expanding the canon.

Third scene: a couple of years later, I’m on the platform of the El in Chicago, trying for some reason to remember a poem by Lillie Mae Powell that had been published in a small volume of poems by Freedom School students. I am forced into the kind of experiment described by Franklin: write down your remembered version of a text and compare it with the original. But unlike Franklin, I found that I had corrupted the poem in small but meaningful ways. I had to recognize that the logic of its composition departed from the stylistic values I had learned in my classes at the School of Letters and elsewhere. What else did I have to relearn about form and style to think usefully about writers like Lillie Mae Powell, or Paule Marshall, or, indeed, the many others with whom we are now familiar but who, in 1967, were as distant from the halls of the MLA or the pages ofAmerican Literature as Jackson, Mississippi, seemed from New York.

When I returned to doing scholarship and to the classroom early in the 1970s, I began working on the question of the canon, particularly in an article called “Race and Gender in the Shaping of the American Literary Canon.” In that piece I raised a number of questions about the practices of those scholars, including Jay Hubbell, who had constructed “American Literature” as we then knew it, about what was published in journals like American Literature or in books like the Encyclopedia of Southern Literature, which then omitted all black writers. How things have changed is measured by this bag . [At the 2001 MLA convention Duke University Press gave away tote bags in honor of the American Literature Section. Printed on these bags was the phrase “ALS: Where Melville Meets Zitkala-Sa.”]

I certainly stand by that critique, but it had come to seem more important to ask what to do about the deplorable–or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the conventional–state of our field. By that time the Radical Caucus had emerged from the agitation and excitement of the 1968 and 1969 conventions; for 25 years and more we organized sessions on one largely ignored area of culture: working-class studies. We also began to publish a newsletter and what would become an independent magazine, RT [ Radical Teacher ] . It has focused all these years–now in our 62 nd issue–on how to translate our politics and values, the politics and values of the sixties movements, into classroom practice. That was also the intent of the collection that Louis Kampf and I edited called The Politics of Literature. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that that has been the objective of all of my own books.

But I was also heavily influenced by one of my former teachers and a Hubbell Award winner, Cleanth Brooks, another gentleman and scholar with whom I strongly differed: Mr. Brooks saw clearly the importance of institutionalizing change, especially in textbooks like that most famous of all such works, Understanding Poetry.

No one can, I think, aspire to the power of that book in establishing a particular canon, a set of reading practices, and distinctive cultural and social values. But in beginning the RAL project at the Feminist Press in 1979 or so, in organizing the 1982 RAL Institute at Yale, and in developing theHeath Anthology of American Literature , we tried to generate the power to effect change. It seems to me that this award is, in a real sense, a measure of a certain success in that enterprise, the enterprise of creating alternative forms of cultural power.

I would, therefore, like to thank not only the ALS and the Hubbell committee. I am enormously grateful to all of you for this honor. But I also want to dedicate this award to my colleagues, and comrades–many of them in this room–who have been engaged in the constant struggle to transform our cultural work, as well as our society. And also to my students, particularly those from that hot church basement of 38 years ago, from whom undoubtedly I learned more than I taught.