2008-Sharon Cameron

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 2008, committee members recognized Professor Sharon Cameron for her outstanding work. Members of the Hubbell Award Committee for 2008 were as follows:

Wai Chee Dimock (Yale U), 2008 Chair
Douglas Anderson (U of Georgia)
Dana Nelson (Vanderbilt U)
Mary Loeffelholz (Northeastern University)
Shirley Samuels (Cornell U)

Citation for Professor Sharon Cameron from the Award Committee

It is a great pleasure for me to present the Jay B. Hubbell Award to Sharon Cameron. The Hubbell Award honors scholars who have made major contributions to American literature. In the case of Sharon Cameron, it is hard to think of the right order to name those contributions: there are so many of them, they are different in kind, but each comes with the same unmistakable stamp. Whether she is writing about lyric time, or thinking in Henry James, or the allegories of the body in Melville and Hawthorne, or Thoreau’s journals and Dickinson’s fascicles, Sharon Cameron always manages to make these canonical authors radically new, so that we read them with a shock of recognition, as if for the first time.

Sharon Cameron is the William R. Kenan Professor of English at Johns Hopkins University. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her Ph.D. from Brandeis University. She has taught at Boston University and UC Santa Barbara, and since 1979 she has been at Johns Hopkins University, shaping its English Department into one of the top departments in the country. Sharon Cameron has also taught as a distinguished visitor at UCLA and Harvard. She has been honored with many awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1995. She is on the editorial board of ELH and the Arizona Quarterly, and also serves as a consultant reader for PMLA. She has been awarded residencies at many scholarly centers, including the Rockefeller Study Center in Bellagio, Italy, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.

These public honors say something about Sharon Cameron. But, in a sense, she does not need them, because her works truly speak for themselves. And each of them stands as a defining statement in the study of American literature, ahead of its time when it first came out, and continuing to speak to us over the course of thirty years. Now, in 2008, when the question of genre is once again coming to the foreground, many of us find ourselves going back and reading with renewed admiration Sharon CameronÂ’s first book, Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre, published in 1979. Likewise, when the body emerged as a “hot” topic in the mid-1980s, Americanists realized that Sharon Cameron had already written about it, back in 1981, in The Corporeal Self: Allegories of the Body in Melville and Hawthorne.

If Sharon Cameron had produced only these books, she would still have impressed us as a great scholar. But of course, these two are just a fraction of what she has done. She has also written two brilliant manifestos on method, Writing Nature: Henry Thoreau’s Journal (1985), and Choosing Not Choosing: Emily Dickinson’s Fascicles (1995). In the first of these, Prof. Cameron calls for a radical shift in our study of Thoreau. She argues that ThoreauÂ’s greatest achievement is not Walden, but rather his journal, that the latter’s fragmented nature is in fact truer to his spirit. Thoreau studies can never be quite the same again after this. Prof. Cameron then goes back to Emily Dickinson, a poet she knows intimately, to argue that the basic unit of analysis should not be individual poems, but rather bundles of poems that were bound together by Dickinson herself. Very few scholars can claim to have brought about fundamental changes in method. Sharon Cameron has done it not once but twice.

And she has done more. She has also written Thinking in Henry James (1989), a book that makes a large claim for a consciousness that is not reducible to psychology. And, having spent much of her career giving us brilliant close readings, Prof. Cameron is also capable of going far afield, urging us to redefine our discipline in the image of this larger horizon. Her two most recent books, Beautiful Work: A Meditation on Pain (2000) and Impersonality: Seven Essays (2007) will surprise many of us familiar with her early work. Impersonality, for instance, begins with an essay on William Empson and his discussion of the faces of Buddha, in order to make a case for a poetics that hollows out individual features, that aspires to be almost anonymous. Nobody would have been able to predict this turn to a non-Western religion, and it suggests that Sharon Cameron has yet another career ahead of her. Eric Sundquist, in his praise for this book, says that “There is no work like Impersonality in the critical literature, though in spirit one could find in figures such as Stanley Cavell or William Empson some similarity of interests. But, as in her previous works, Cameron is in a class by herself in her attention to primary matters of consciousness and being.” A thinker and writer like Sharon Cameron comes only once in a long time. The MLA is proud to honor her with the Jay B. Hubbell Award for 2008.

Wai Chee Dimock
Yale University

Hubbell Acceptance Speech By Sharon Cameron

Thank you so much for those generous words. I was astonished to learn that members of a distinguished committee had chosen me as the recipient of this year’s Hubbell Medal. I initially regarded my presence in the field of literary studies as perilous (I will explain why), and perhaps also marginal, even when I was fortunate enough to be tenured at a remarkable university, because my interests never seemed to accord with those of others in the field. I am grateful to have my work recognized in this way.

In their acceptance speeches for this award, other recipients have traced the genealogy of their careers. My own history is a series of debts. At Bennington College, where I was an undergraduate, I was fortunate enough to be the student of two superb close readers, Barbara Herrnstein Smith and Harold Kaplan. While at Brandeis I was privileged to know Stanley Cavell, whose revelatory class on Wittgenstein I audited at Harvard, and, most important, Allen Grossman, who has never stopped instructing me, albeit informally. Grossman’s thinking, writing, and sheer capacity to unearth monumental topics have established him as one of a handful of literary critics of the past half century who have changed the way it is possible to think about poetry. In books like Must We Mean What We Say? and Summa Lyrica, Cavell and Grossman opened up questions beyond the limits of the established disciplines of literature, history, and, for that matter, philosophy. In pressing against the boundaries of philosophical and literary analysis, their writing has exemplified the imperative to discover forms of investigation that were dense, ruminative, difficult, even obsessive, in the search for responses that could engage their insistent questioning.

My own work has been enlivened by the spirit of such inquiry. The literary texts that have attracted me have been at once canonical and marginal and I have asked perhaps eccentric questions about the canonical. It could be said that my examinations have estranged the canonical. That is, I have been drawn to consider texts other people initially ignored or avoided, perhaps because their forms were so alien—the journal that Thoreau kept for twenty-four years; DickinsonÂ’s fascicles, in which she organized nearly eighteen hundred poems into her own form of bookmaking. Although in Perry Miller’s unelaborated words Thoreau’s Journal is “as much a literary composition as anything in Joyce or Proust”– what a foreign composition, essentially plotless and uninterpretable. I wanted to find a critical language to investigate questions we could call epistemological, but are thwarted in calling epistemological, since nothing could intelligibly satisfy a question like Thoreau’s “A meadow and an island—what are these things?” In the case of Dickinson’s fascicles, Susan Howe, among others, was my predecessor. But yet again I was pressed to consider the ways in which the contextual sense of Dickinson is not the canonical sense of Dickinson, and to raise the question of what counts as the identity of her text.

My other inquiries have been compelled not by enigmatic forms but rather by inscrutable representations. Why do Melville and Hawthorne write about physically violent subjects with unabashed candor, even as both authors attempt to conceal such bodily violence by insisting that their fiction is allegorical and exegetical? What is thinking in Henry James—a phenomenon I argue occurs between rather than within persons? In a subsequent book of essays, I wished to examine the way in which representations of impersonality suspend, eclipse, and even destroy the idea of the person as such. Most recently, I have been venturing outside the field of American literature and of purely verbal texts by writing on Robert BressonÂ’s au hazard Balthazar, a film which locks animal and human forms of embodiment and sentience into relationship, and about joy—as distinct from happiness—in DostoyevskyÂ’s novels. Since I do not write quickly or easily, I have often thought of my work as a labor of patience, perhaps as an archeologist does when he is engaged in excavating artifacts whose presence he can only intuit, brushing away layer after layer of dirt until something unexpected emerges or reveals itself.

To revert to a topic on which I touched earlier: in the second year of an assistant professorship at Boston University, I was given a terminal contract, because it was predicted that I would never publish. Twenty-seven-year-olds believe that such forecasts presciently detect invisible truths—and that belief does not make for a salutary state of mind. But the judgment also had a vitalizing effect. It was exhilarating to realize that I wanted to write a book on Dickinson regardless of whether I had a job, and I was fortunate enough to be able to do so with the help of unemployment insurance, food stamps, and the permission to use a faculty study in the BU library even after I was no longer employed. I like to tell this story to students who are struggling at the beginning of their careers—and the beginning can last quite a while. Work must remain intrinsically valuable even in adverse times or when it has no clear prospect of acknowledgment.

For the past thirty years, I have been fortunate to teach in the English Department at Johns Hopkins. It is a department I supremely value because of its austere but bracing commitment to the rigors of intellectual life. Over the years, formidable Americanists have been my colleagues—Eric Sundquist, Larzer Ziff, Walter Michaels, Michael Moon, Barbara Packer (during a quarter I spent at UCLA), and the late Laurence B. Holland. I have learned immeasurably from their example and writing. At Hopkins the opportunity to direct extraordinary dissertations and, subsequently, the professional success of so many of my students have delighted me.

The classroom too has been an arena of great good fortune. This summer I taught a National Humanities seminar on Dickinson to a group of young scholars from diverse institutions. As in the best classroom experiences anywhere, the genius of the seminar during that intense week was visible not only in the communal effort to refine particular thoughts about Dickinson but also in a more capacious reflectiveness in which, when people spoke without self-consciousness or stint, something fundamental was revealed about generosity as an attribute essentially contributive to what thinking is.

Thank you again for this great honor.

Sharon Cameron