2007-Lawrence Buell

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. In 2007, committee members recognized Professor Lawrence Buell for his outstanding work. Members of the Hubbell Award Committee for 2007 were as follows:

Viet Nguyen (U of Southern California), 2007 Chair
Wai Chee Dimock (Yale U)
Douglas Anderson (U of Georgia)
Dana Nelson (Vanderbilt U)

Citation for Professor Lawrence Buell from the Award Committee

It is my pleasure tonight to present the Jay B. Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement in American Literary Studies to Lawrence Buell. The Hubbell Medal recognizes scholars who have made major contributions to the contemporary understanding of American literature. Lawrence Buell has made two such contributions, first to the study of literary transcendentalism, and second to environmental criticism. For over three decades, he has been widely acknowledged as a leading interpreter of transcendentalist aesthetics. More recently, his work on environmental criticism has shaped the establishment of that field, such that no one writing in it can do so without acknowledging his formative influence. In honoring Lawrence Buell this evening, we recognize someone whose work has both deepened and widened the traditions of American literature.

Lawrence Buell is the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American literature at Harvard. He earned his A.B. at Princeton and his Ph.D. from Cornell, both in English, and taught for many years at Oberlin College. Not long after moving to Harvard in 1990 as the John P. Marquand Professor of English, he became the Dean of Undergraduate Education. His commitment to undergraduate life was rewarded when he was named one of the first Harvard College Professors in 1998, an honor created to recognize those especially dedicated to undergraduate teaching. This devotion to teaching hardly interfered with his research. Over the course of his career, he has written or edited nine books, and published over a hundred and fifty articles and reviews in American, British, Canadian and Japanese journals. He has served on the editorial boards of many of those journals, including the American Quarterly, American Literary History, PMLA, and American Literature, where he won the 1968 Norman Foerster Prize for the best essay published in that momentous year, one of numerous honors Prof. Buell would collect as his career unfolded. During his years at Cornell, Oberlin and Harvard, he also received fellowships recognizing the importance and the implications of his work from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Howard Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

While he might have to explain how he came to win that last award, there is no mystery as to why the MLA is honoring him with the Hubbell Medal. Lawrence Buell joins an illustrious company of recent Hubbell recipients—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Martha Banta, Sacvan Bercovitch, and Houston Baker—who have not only intervened in established American literary traditions but opened new and important fields of inquiry. Since the publication of his first book, Literary Transcendentalism, in 1973, Professor Buell has been a leading expert on Ralph Waldo Emerson and the American Transcendentalists. Two recent works exemplify his expertise: the 2006 Modern Library edition of the American Transcendentalists’ essential writings, which he edited, and his 2003 book, Emerson, winner of the Christian Gauss Award for Literary Scholarship from Phi Beta Kappa and the Warren-Brooks Award for Outstanding Literary Criticism from the Center for Robert Penn Warren Studies at Western Kentucky University. Previous winners of the Warren-Brooks Award include John Hollander, Denis Donoghue, and Frank Kermode.

Besides these two notable books, Lawrence Buell’s major work on the writers of the American Renaissance includes his 1986 study, New England Literary Culture, which like Literary Transcendentalism thirteen years earlier was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and again like Literary Transcendentalism immediately became an indispensable resource for Americanists. A model of scholarship for its intricate interweaving of history, biography, and religion, with insightful readings across a range of literary genres, New England Literary Culture stands as a comprehensive and authoritative treatment of New England’s ethical and aesthetic sensibility from the Revolution through the American Renaissance.

This cluster of books on 19th century American literature would have been enough in themselves to establish Lawrence Buell’s lasting reputation and influence, but in 1995, he published a book that would signal a change in his own intellectual interests and inaugurate a new field. This book,The Environmental Imagination, energized the movement for environmental criticism, or what is popularly known as ecocriticism, a term that Buell describes in the book as providing a “cartoon image” of the field “no longer applicable today, if indeed it ever really was.” Using Thoreau’s Walden as a touchstone, The Environmental Imagination was the most ambitious study to date of how literature represents the natural environment. But the book’s concerns extend beyond studying literary representations to making a case for how these representations and our examination of them could have an impact on our relationship to nature and our understanding of our place in it. As Buell argues in his book, an “environmental crisis involves a crisis of the imagination the amelioration of which depends on finding better ways of imagining nature and humanity’s relation to it.” Poet Gary Snyder described the book as “changing the way American literature departments think and teach.” The Environmental Imagination does so by consolidating the field of environmental criticism, placing it within the tradition of American literary criticism, and integrating it with feminism and deconstruction. In accomplishing these varied goals, the book provides one of the most important studies of American nature writing in the last few decades.

Professor Buell amplified the impact of his work on literature and the environment with his next book, Writing for an Endangered World, which won the 2001 John G. Cawelti Award for the Most Outstanding Scholarly Inquiry into American Culture, sponsored by the Popular Culture Association and the American Culture Association. While The Environmental Imagination addresses the green tradition in American writing, Writing for an Endangered World extends the work of environmental criticism to the urban landscape in a transnational context. Covering a diverse range of 19th and 20th century English and American writers, from Thomas Hardy to Joy Harjo, this book puts natural and artificial environments in “conversation with each other,” as Buell puts it, and puts an end to the stereotypical conception associating environmental criticism with whiteness.

His most recent book, The Future of Environmental Criticism, published in 2005, completes his trilogy on criticism and the environment. It also constitutes a critical introduction to the field in which he himself has played such an influential role. This book, written with the same elegance and theoretical acumen that characterize his earlier work, signals the transformation of environmental criticism from an emergent field into an established research area that is global in scope. Not coincidentally, it has been translated into Japanese and is being translated into Chinese. These translations are a fitting acknowledgment of the book’s scope, of the expanding significance of Lawrence Buell’s career, and of the turn it has taken most recently with his co-editing of Shades of the Planet: American Literature as World Literature, with Wai Chee Dimock. In this collection, ten prominent scholars of American literature join Buell in relocating the field within an international framework, measuring its significance, as Buell puts it in his contribution to the collection, on a planetary scale, where, to quote Maxine Hong Kingston, it “translates well.” So too does Lawrence Buell’s own work, both as a critic and as an advocate for American literature and the environment.

In recognition of his many achievements and their deep influence upon the field of American literature, we present the Jay B. Hubbell Medal for 2007 to Lawrence Buell.

Viet Thanh Nguyen
University of Southern California

Hubbell Acceptance Speech By Lawrence Buell

I’m delighted, grateful, moved, and still quite amazed to receive this award–mindful as I am of the many colleagues with claims at least as strong as mine, not to mention those who passed away without receiving it.

By way of thanks and response, these reflections.

First, that this year’s award demonstrates, de facto if not by intent, that the profession sometimes really does reward late bloomers. By no means was I a person predestined for academia. I was a dutiful bourgeois youth–brought up to enact my father’s fond dream of my son the attorney, or, failing that, the manager. My resistance to that received identity was belated, conflicted, protracted, and nearly retracted during the dark night of the soul that grad school so often is. Nor was I a particularly distinguished student–good but by no means great. I benefitted crucially from the brief one-time window of opportunity in the late ’60s when humanities jobs were plentiful and tenure even at good places basically a reward for good behavior. When I asked my undergraduate advisor for grad school recommendations, he benignly replied, yes, he thought anyone who wanted to enter the profession should be encouraged; and he couldn’t disguise his astonishment when I was actually admitted to my departments of choice, which were a cut above what he thought me suited for. I then proceeded to choose what in those days was reckoned the least galactic option, solely because it was the school of repute nearest where my then-fiancée (now wife) was finishing college. This, however, proved the ideal place for me–and not just for personal reasons, either, since Cornell was extremely strong not only in European romanticism but American too, with the preeminent Emersonians of their day, Stephen Whicher and Jonathan Bishop, plus which, thanks to a retrospectively inexplicable act of free grace on my advisor’s part I was given in my second year what elsewhere would have been vetoed as an unconscionable degree of liberty to substitute private reading for regular courses. Yet my overriding motivation then and for some years after had little to do with scholarship as such. What excited me above all was the opportunity to teach, think, read, and talk. At this threshold stage, I had zero desire to write for publication.

That’s a second point I’d stress here: at least sometimes, certainly for me, however anomalous it may seem from the standpoint of a research university lifer, the desire to do something of scholarly worth may arise at least as much from one’s teaching commitment as vice-versa.

Obviously scholarship is and should be the chief requisite for this award. Yet my own professional raison d’être has always been even more my sense of vocation as teacher, and my research life has always felt inextricably symbiotic with that. The mental electricity generated by working with super-bright undergraduates was what first set me down the path to writing articles and then turning my ho-hum dissertation into a book. Later on, in the early 80s, student-driven enthusiasm for interdisciplinary environmental studies was almost as crucial in nudging me towards ecocriticism–first as teacher, and only then as scholar, when I found myself (so to speak) having to make up the terms of my critical discourse as I went along. The greatest blessing of my professional life has been the chance to work, year after year, with groups of remarkable students, first at Oberlin, then at Harvard–many of them inherently smarter than I even if they didn’t realize it yet (luckily for me)–and, beyond that, more often than not (also luckily for me) cantankerous and independent-minded enough to instill a salutary consciousness of my own mental limits and the desire to keep trying to surpass those. Paradox though it might seem, I’m convinced that the quality of my critical thinking actually gained from knowing that most of my students during the first two-plus decades of my career knew little and cared less about my scholarship, which freed me up to range more widely and be less tribally obeisant than otherwise I might have been.

All this in no way diminishes my very large debt to my many colleagues and friends in the profession over the past forty years–a debt all the larger in proportion to the smallness of the place I spent the first half of my career. Most especially I thank those who’ve helped me think through how the fields of literature, culture, history, ideology, and religio-ethical commitment synergize yet also pull against each other (without coming to terms with which you simply can’t think non-reductively about Transcendentalism, or about the prevailing rhetoricity and instrumentalism of literary practice in the U. S. Before modernism, or about the various constituent discourses of environmentality). I’m no less grateful to all those who’ve pressed me to think beyond as well as within and beneath the confines of the national. The sense of U. S. antebellum writing as a moment when this eclectic brew of commingled force fields were on display in uniquely unstable and volcanic ways–and touched off not in isolation but in relation to the sense (however rudimentary) of interlinkage with a wider world–is key to my long fascination with it, to why I started out as a specialist in what used to be called “the American renaissance,” to why I keep returning to it and always shall.

Earlier I mentioned ecocriticism. I can’t help but take this award as a sign of literature-and-environment studies’ advancement from a problematic fledgling project to something like a fully emergent one. Though my track record as a prophet is spotty, I continue to suspect that if the defining social issue of the 20th century was the problem of the color line, the defining issue of the 21st may be the problem of ensuring a decent future for life on the planet. But even if that proves wrong, and given the worst-case scenarios in play I hope it will, everyone in literature-and-environment studies (from whatever perspective) may rightfully take today’s occasion as confirming the significance of that broader project, not just mine alone. When I began the first of my three ecocritical books, The Environmental Imagination, I was haunted by a very strong “Who’s listening?” dubiety. Now my problem’s the obverse: how to keep up with all the important new work.

A further attraction of ecocritical work for me–which brings me to my last point–is that it requires its practitioners, at least in principle, to stretch, intellectually and empathetically, from local to planetary. As such, it’s one though hardly the only approach that gives promise of reimagining one’s critical horizon in terms of multiple socio-geographical scales at a time when literature studies as a field has fissioned relative to a generation ago; the understanding of what counts as “America” has become much more elastic; and American culture (however defined) is manifestly more tangled up with the rest of the world, for better and for worse. My parting shot, then, isn’t a brief for ecocriticism or any other ism, but for the obverse: for receptivity to any and all forms of critical practice that help us navigate the unprecedentedly vast and messy situation in which we live now. Speaking for myself, at least: when it comes to measuring the possible value of my own work whether as scholar or as teacher, I’d rather not think of how it maybe helped to build or further this or that school of thought but of what it might have set in motion–what it stirred up, not what it settled down. To be thought of as having actually done something in this vein in return for all I’ve been given is the greatest honor of all. Thank you.

Lawrence Buell