2005-Martha Banta

Report of the Hubbell Award Committee

The Jay B. Hubbell Award is given each year to a scholar who has made an extraordinary contribution to the study of American literature over the course of his or her career. The members of this year’s Hubbell Award Committee were Douglas Anderson, Wai-chee Dimock, Gordon Hutner, Viet Nguyen, and Cheryl Wall (chair). On behalf of that Committee and the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association, it is a pleasure and an honor to present the Jay B. Hubbell Award for 2005 to Martha Banta.


Martha Banta is Distinguished Professor of English, Emeritus, at the University of California, Los Angeles. She joined the English Department there in 1983, having previously taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of Washington. Thousands of students are in her debt. She has served the profession as both the president of the American Studies Association and as editor of the Publications of the Modern Language Association (PMLA). Her many contributions to American literary scholarship begin with a study of Henry James then range widely across the literary, cultural, and social landscapes of the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Hallmarks of her work are the boldness of its claims, the thoroughness of its research, and the subtlety of its arguments. The breadth of her interests perhaps required the range of theoretical and analytical tools she has brought to them: from close reading to cultural analysis to Foucauldian and feminist theory to visual interpretation. In ways that are striking for a literary scholar, Professor Banta’s work has helped us “see” our national past through new eyes.

Before earning the Ph.D. at Indiana University and embarking on an academic career, Martha Banta achieved success in the world of advertising, working as a copywriter, account executive, and as copy editor of Harper’s Bazaar. Perhaps her experience on Madison Avenue contributes to the fact that the world beyond the academy is always a palpable presence in Professor Banta’s scholarship. Her books and articles analyze literary developments within the context of broad social and intellectual movements. She is the author of Henry James and the Occult (1972), Failure and Success: A Literary Debate (1978), Imaging American Women: Ideas and Ideals in Cultural History (1987), Taylored Lives: Narrative Productions in the Age of Taylor, Veblen, and Ford (1993), and Barbaric Intercourse: Caricature and the Culture of Conduct 1841-1936 (2002); she editedNew Essays on The American (1987) and served as associate editor for The Columbia Literary History of the United States and The Harper American Literature anthology. Her editions of novels by William Dean Howells and Edith Wharton are classroom staples.

Imaging American Women contains more than 500 reproductions of photographs, drawings, sculptures, posters, and advertisements that document the typology of the feminine ideal in the United States between 1880 and 1920. Reviewers routinely expressed their awe at the wide-ranging primary research. The book argues that despite the pressures exerted by the male-generated feminine ideals, “American women of will and self-possession could, indeed, not only survive but even thrive.” One might well apply that observation to Professor Banta herself. Only a woman of will and self-possession could have succeeded in this profession when she began her career more than three decades ago.

No book better exemplifies her scholarly method than Taylored Lives. It explores the theory of scientific management proposed by Frederick Winslow Taylor, then analyzed by Thorstein Veblen, and implemented by Henry Ford. The theory rested on the belief in “the one best way” that would increase industrial productivity and regulate human behavior. The result was the subjugation of the individual to the demands of the system. In Banta’s view, the ideology of Taylorism moved beyond the factory floor to “encompass every aspect of cultural existence.” She traces its impact on narratives of the Spanish-American War, on Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, on treatises on the organization of the domestic sphere, and on advertisements for prefabricated houses in Sears and Roebuck catalogues. She shifts between exploration of cultural narratives to canonical texts by Henry Adams, William James, Sinclair Lewis, Nathaniel West, Theodore Dreiser, and William Faulkner. In addition to the multilayered understandings of American society at the turn of the last century, Taylored Lives offers a cautionary tale to readers in and out of the academy who need to be self-reflexive about our reliance on singular theoretical paradigms to impose order on the chaos of postmodern society.

Although she has retired from teaching, Professor Banta continues to be a prolific scholar. Her work is a model for those wishing to practice modern literary scholarship that combines historical research, critical theory, and textual analysis.

In acknowledgment of her many achievements and in profound gratitude for the richness of her work and the example of her career, we present the Jay B. Hubbell Award for 2005 to Martha Banta.

Cheryl A. Wall
Chair, Hubbell Award Committee
December 29, 2005
Washington, D.C.

Professor Banta’s Acceptance Speech

I shan’t take up much of your time in expressing how fully I appreciate becoming a proud recipient of the Hubbell Medal, bestowed by the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association. I limit my remarks to some reflections over how I got to here, from there, for my life as an Americanist has the feel of one of those “origin” tales so beloved of myth-analysts.

It had to be expected that I would become an “Americanist,” so fated by having been born and raised in Muncie, Indiana–the “Middletown” made famous by the seminal sociological studies authored by Robert and Helen Lynd. As a child of this officially designated “average American town,” how could I not devote my life to all things “American”? In truth, I shrugged off this fate for a while. I had other matters to attend to and ambitions to meet on New York’s Madison Avenue advertising row. Of course, while I was making a living in the business of fashion supply and demand, I was busily absorbing key aspects of 1950s urban culture–the arts of the opera, theater, ballet, and museum-world, as well as the political upheaval that came with the close of World War II. Still, the time came when I decided to leave that first profession behind to train for a new one.

On my arrival as a graduate student at Indiana University, I first considered taking up the English Metaphysical Poets as my chosen field, but I was soon converted to the blandishments of American Literature under the tutelage of Edwin Cady and James Cox–previous recipients of the Hubbell Medal, a fact that pleases me greatly. Doctoral degree in hand, I set out on that long trek that is euphemistically called “my career.” It has been a good life, and a busy one. I have tried to bring honor and all diligence to the fields of American Literature and Literary Criticism, amplified by commitment to the various “histories” that add enrichment to any literary history–such as gender history, race history, art history, and “history” history. As I look back, it does seem as though I have lived out the terms of that “fate” given me at the very start back there in “Middletown.”

I thank you for having seen fit to validate the worth of whatever contributions I have made. Indeed, I thank you very much.

Let me add certain words taken from Henry James’s seminal essay, “The Art of Fiction” of 1884, which lay out concerns which I have taken as my own: The writing of fiction needs the “art of having a theory, a conviction, a consciousness of itself behind it–of being the expression of an artistic faith, the result of choice and comparison.” Otherwise, there is only “a comfortable, good-humoured feeling abroad that a novel is a novel, as a pudding is a pudding, and that our only business with it could be to swallow it.”

“Art lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt, upon the exchange of views, and the comparison of standpoints.” If this is not the case, the times “are not times of development–are times, possibly even, of a little dullness.”

By the way, I like to think that my own little “history” proves that there is life after having been denied tenure–that one can keep on striving to be a good Americanist after all.