2009-Cecelia Tichi

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 2009, committee members recognized Professor Cecelia Tichi for her outstanding work. Members of the Hubbell Award Committee for 2009 were as follows:

Douglas Anderson (U of Georgia), 2009 Chair
Dana Nelson (Vanderbilt U)
Mary Loeffelholz (Northeastern U)
Shirley Samuels (Cornell U)
William L. Andrews (U of North Carolina-Chapel Hill)

Citation for Professor Cecelia Tichi from the Award Committee

Dana Nelson (Vanderbilt U)

On behalf of the Award Committee and the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association, it is my great pleasure to present the Jay B. Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement in American Literary Studies to Cecelia Tichi. The Hubbell Medal recognizes scholars who have made major contributions to the contemporary understanding of American literature.  Few have done more to demonstrate American literature’s impact on a range of cultural phenomena, from environmentalism, politics and journalism to technology, television and country music, than Professor Tichi.  Throughout her career, Professor Tichi has drawn on her capacious knowledge of US literature to make readers rethink it—and the technologies and popular culture it has so deeply influenced and been influenced by—through a new lens.

Cecelia Tichi is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English at Vanderbilt University.  She earned her B.A. from Pennsylvania State University, her M.A. at Johns Hopkins, and her PhD from University of California, Davis.  She taught for many years at Boston University before moving to Vanderbilt in 1987, where she has earned multiple awards for teaching, mentoring, creative scholarship and career achievement.  Over the course of her career she has given dozens of invited lectures and published seven scholarly books, five novels, three edited collections of scholarly essays, and dozens of articles and book chapters.  She has served on numerous editorial boards, including Studies in American Fiction, American Studies, American Literary History and Early American Literature.  She has held numerous elected offices, in Northeast Modern Language Association (NMLA), the Advisory Council of the MLA American Literature Section (which she chaired in 1998), and the American Studies Association, and the William Carlos Williams Society.  She has served as a consultant to Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, the Museums at Stony Brook, the Figge and Tacoma Art Museums, the Getty Art Program, and to a range of public film and television documentaries.  She has won grants and fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, Radcliff Institute, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bellagio Center of the Rockefeller Foundation.  She was the Kluge Chair of Modern Culture in the Library of Congress in 2006-07.

Professor Tichi’s work, notable for its originality and energy, defies simple summary.  A colleague comments: “The thing I find always most wonderful about Cecelia is her ability to engage with anyone on just about anything.  She is always so curious and interested in the world and what others know about it.”  Her books and articles reflect this curiosity, impressively wide-ranging in time (from the colonial period to the present day) and in topic.

Tichi’s work has been interdisciplinary from the get-go, as her books’ titles signal: New World, New Earth:  Environmental Reform in American literature from the Puritans through Whitman (Yale UP, 1979); Shifting Gears:  Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America (U NC P, 1987); Electronic Hearth:  Creating American Television Culture (Oxford UP, 1991); High Lonesome:  The American Culture of Country Music (U NC P, 1994—published with its own 23 track cd!); Embodiment of a Nation:  Human Form in American Spaces (Harvard, 2001);Exposés and Excess:  Muckraking in America, 1900/2000 (U Penn P, 2004); and Exiting the Gilded Age:  7 Who Launched Progressive America (and What They Teach Us), (U NC P, 2009).  Her career-long commitment to advancing interdisciplinary scholarship was honored in her election as President of the American Studies Association (1992-93).

Her prose, lively and accessible, connects with a variety of audiences, in academia and beyond.  She starts High Lonesome this way:  “This book does country—does it with a head-on recognition that country is synonymous with nation.” One of Tichi’s many ambitious projects, this book argues that we need to stop thinking of Country Music as provincial and hillbilly in order to appreciate how it mines and elaborates on central motifs in nineteenth-century American literature that we attribute to such luminaries as Emerson and Melville, Whitman, Stowe and Dickinson:  “home,” “lonesomeness,” “the road,” “the West” and “spiritual journey.”

Tichi’s interests are as peripatetic and wide as the US is big.  And more than one of her books, as she quips in the preface to High Lonesome, have begun “in the car.”  Take Embodiment of a Nation, a rollicking, energetic tour through some key geographical, cultural and historical American landmarks, which also begins in a car with her friend Wendy Martin, in 1965, on a two-lane blacktop road in South Dakota that leads to Mount Rushmore.  Of the coin she dropped then into the overview binoculars, she notes, “the quarter’s worth of magnification was not enough to focus Mt. Rushmore’s link, say, to the civil rights movement with its sit-ins and marches by Negroes, or to mark a horizon line of the women’s liberation movement then in the offing.  Nor did the huge heads show the extent to which Mt. Rushmore could be considered an imperialist project, since white mainstream America knew nothing of the monument’s violation of the sacred ground of the Oglala Sioux.” The fundamental insights and the new vistas opened by the political movements emerging in the sixties and seventies shape Tichi’s return to Mt. Rushmore in this book and her analysis of similar US natural features and monuments.  From Walden Pond and Thoreau’s “environmental sainthood” to Love Canal, from Old Faithful’s reinterpretation as an icon of industrial America to the moon’s “female lunar body’s” post-Sputnik reinterpretation as a masculine frontier, Tichi maps gendered and anthropomorphizing cultural investments in reading the landscape as a national body.  She explicates the texts and discourses that make particular geographic embodiments seem “natural”: writing of Mt. Rushmore, for instance, she shows how the eighteenth-century proclivity to identify mountains with male rulers, the nineteenth-century obsession with white men’s cranial measurements, and early twentieth-century redefinitions of white masculinity combined to claim a granite mountain face as a “natural” site for the articulation of the nation’s transcendent destiny in the form of four huge, white, presidential heads.  A reviewer’s praise for another book applies across the spectrum of her work: “I cannot do full justice to the sophisticated imagination Tichi brings to her study. She reads objects and images with as much intelligence as she explicates words.”

Tichi’s work has always been guided by her progressive passions and commitment to social issues—democracy, environmentalism, feminism, civil rights, free speech and a free press.  With Amy Shrager Lang, Tichi gathered a collection of essays in response to the protests of the 1999 World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in Seattle, This is What Democracy Looks Like:  A New Critical Realism for a Post Seattle World.  Dedicated to the “activists in Seattle,” this collection rallied teachers, poets, critics, playwrights and historians to think about how our individual and collective projects might be refocused through the lens of global activist protest and democratic world-building projects. Or take her wonderful Bedford Cultural Edition of Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills, which offers readers an impressive range of contextualizing materials for reading that novel—materials on work and class, social reform movements, art and artists, and women and writing, including anonymous pieces by Lowell factory workers, an excerpt from Harriet Hanson Robinson’s Loom and Spindle and Anna Gordon’s Senate Testimony on the Kitchen Garden Movement.  Or take her luminous and furious Expose and Excess, her comparative analysis of muckraking journalistic “blockbusters” from the early nineteenth-century and into our own day, what she calls her “deliberate foray into socially activist narrative.”  From Upton Sinclair’sJungle to Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, from Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed, from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague, Tichi recuperates the nobility and necessity of “muckraking” both past and present even while analyzing how cultural and literary critics have tended to relegate this lively category of literature to the dustbin of history.
Those who have had the honor of working with Tichi always comment on her wonderful collegiality, her impeccable professionalism, her formidable productivity and her mentoring skills.  And they comment on her commitment to her students, and her landmark interdisciplinary courses aimed at making her students citizen-intellectuals, on such topics as “Crisis and Narratives of Investigation,” “America, the First Empire,” “Narration and Social Critique,” on “Coal,” and one starting this January on “Water.”  As one Vanderbilt student summarized in a course evaluation:  “Unparalleled wisdom and heart.  Takes learning to entirely new levels.  Really has had more impact on my life than I can even begin to know.”
What we could, under her tutelage, call the “Tichi-mobile” is still going strong, with a new book just out and who knows how many more in the cooker.  In recognition of her extraordinary achievements to this date, and grateful appreciation for the curiosity, range and passion of her work and its contributions to our understanding American literature and the culture it thrives within and helps to build, we present the Jay B. Hubbell Award for 2009 to Cecelia Tichi.

Hubbell Acceptance Speech By Cecelia Tichi

Like every other honored and grateful recipient of the Jay B. Hubbell award, I extend my deep appreciation to the officers of the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association. It is personally moving on this occasion to see here in this room a number of  friends and colleagues from many years of shoulder-to-shoulder work and recreation–and with whom I hope to work (and play) in the years ahead.

This formal occasion prompts expression of my gratitude for many years of “boiler room” sessions with colleagues in the testing of possible arguments for scholarly projects and plans for new courses. My thanks is  expressed in recognition that scholarly work depends, as we all know, upon the support of department staff members, of chairs, of deans, of libraries and librarians, and also of the work of journal and university press editors, and of outside readers who improve our work with their critiques.  If one is fortunate, the extensive network is also familial.  Bill Tichi has been the first reader from our undergraduate days, when “green” referred to inexperience, not to ecology. In recent years our daughters, Claire Grezemkovsky and Julia Harrison, have lent their knowledge and research skills to specific projects. We’ve had good adult discussions, and we’ve had fun.

The Hubbell award positions one along a historical timeline dating to the 1964 inaugural award presented to Professor Jay B. Hubbell, the founder of the journal, American Literature. It was the year in which I graduated from the Pennsylvania State University, where two professors–two male mentors–provided the foundation for a  future in literary scholarship and teaching.  I thank Harrison T. Meserole for instilling the obligation of scholarly exactitude and the idea of scholarly publication. I thank Frank Brady (a specialist in eighteenth-century British literature) for exemplary pursuit of argument. In graduate school at the University of California at Davis, some of us had the good fortune to work under the direction of the late Brom Weber. Weber’s contrarian–even iconoclastic–literary questions at first struck us as intellectual irritants.  Only later were they recognizable as sand grains in a literary seed bed.

One more point about Professor Weber. Feeling recruited (actually, drafted) into his enthusiasm for colonial American literature, we women doctoral students were blithely unaware that Weber was strategically protecting our interests, not his own. He knew, as we did not, that American “lit” was largely a men’s game in the era governed by the ultra-masculine “tough guy” swagger found in the work of the reigning “lions” such as Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer.  A woman’s job prospects were slim and dim.  But Weber recognized (as this female then-grad student did not) that the expansion of colonial literature in colleges and universities nationwide would open job opportunities for women. He was correct. At that time, there were simply not enough men studying the Puritan sermons of Cotton Mather and the poems of Anne Bradstreet to fill all the available open jobs. Grumbling privately to one another, we women Ph.D. students specialized in colonial literature–and got our first jobs. (This was in the post-Sputnik halcyon moment of institutional expansion of U.S. higher education, a moment in which the United States invested heavily in higher education to beat the Soviet Union in the “space race” and to close the “missile gap.”)

The founding year of the Hubbell award–my baccalaureate year of 1964–is significant for our field of study and classroom work, and I linger with it here because in many ways it has proved to be a major pivot point. At that moment–the mid-1960s– the post-World War II generation of Americanist critics–those awarded the Hubbell medal in the first decade of its existence –had published the landmark studies that all of us younger scholars of American literature relied upon for our exams, our dissertations, our entry-level work.  The titles resound: The American Adam, Virgin Land, Form and Fable in American Fiction, the compendious (and unsurpassed) Literary History of the United States, known simply as Spiller (for its editor-in-chief, Robert Spiller). These and certain other titles defined the canon and shaped interpretive approaches to it.  These books remain engaging and admirable. They set a high standard. We thought “so‘t’ would last for aye,” to quote a phrase from the Puritan verse of Michael Wigglesworth. We did not know that contemporary events were about to challenge us to undertake scholarship, criticism, and the formation of course syllabi in a radically different direction.

Events of 1964 and thereabouts augured an American literary-critical future that would move us in startlingly different directions. The origins of a half-century of new angles of vision (to borrow Wallace Stegner’s title) can be read in a backward glance. It was in 1964 that President Lyndon Johnson met with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, approving covert operations in Vietnam, and later that year authorizing $50 million for the South Vietnamese and dispatching 5,000 troops to do battle in Southeast Asia. In that same year some ten thousand persons, mainly students, rallied on the Berkeley campus of the University of California to call for the lifting of a ban on political speech and a freedom of speech for all students everywhere. In 1964, in addition, Martin Luther King conferred with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover concerning FBI surveillance of the civil rights leader, while Malcolm X left the Black Muslims and formed the Organization for Afro-American Unity. In Mississippi in that same year three white young men civil rights workers–Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney–disappeared near the city of Meridien, their bodies found forty days after their disappearance. The year 1964 marked the federal Civil Rights Act and the 24th Amendment to the Constitution forbidding the poll tax in federal elections.

It was in 1964 that China detonated a nuclear bomb, while the social critic E. Digby Baltzell coined the term WASP (White Angle-Saxon Protestant) in a book about social class in America. In that year Panamanians staged a lethal protest against U.S. imperial control of their country, instanced in American control of the Panama Canal.  It was the year that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique appeared in a paperback edition for seventy-five cents.  And it was the year when Rachel Carson died, the author of Silent Spring having concealed from the public her fatal breast cancer in order to prevent the dismissal of her work by critics—really, the chemical companies and their political apologists–on the grounds of personal female animus. The Native Americans’ seizure of Alcatraz Island to protest and publicize conditions on the reservations was five years off, as was the Stonewall riot that demarcated a new era in politics and literature for gays and lesbians, although the state of Illinois had decriminalized homosexual acts between consenting adults in private (1962), and the Daughters of Bilitis was already eight years old. On a light note, perhaps, 1964 saw the introduction of the Ford Mustang and Pontiac GTO (muscle cars) and the Billboard hit, “I Want to Hold Your hand” by a British rock ‘n’ roll quartet called The Beatles.

This farrago of events in and around the year of the first Hubbell award is an augury of the radically new and nationally burgeoning literary scholarship and criticism of the succeeding forty-five years, and I am proud to have been a part of it. To cite an album title of 1964: Bob Dylan’sThe Times, They are A-Changing.  The Hubbell awardees in recent years chronicle the richness and contiguity of these numerous areas whose epistemic origins can be traced to the dynamic events of circa 1964. The change has long been self-evident in African American and diverse ethnic literary studies, in Native American literature and multicultural work, in popular culture studies, including film, feminist studies, eco-criticism, disability studies. Even as we occupy departments of English with traditional British-based positions in Medieval, Early Modern, Romantic, Victorian, etc., we Americanists have become a sort of archipelago, our mutual shared space often concealed beneath “sea level” as we appear from the surface to be so many discreet islands. My own work has benefited enormously from the foment of that period of the Sixties and from the vigorous intellectual debate instigated and propagated by it. The Hubbell awardees of recent years testify to the achievement in the foregoing fields of study.

But what of this moment? The times are always “a-changing,” and our challenges are unrelenting.  A man of color has been elected to the presidency, but no woman has as yet occupied that office. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on and on, and the militarism of our culture and society deepens. These and the so-called Great Recession summon us to a new literary-scholarly engagement. At this moment some fifteen million Americans are jobless, forty-six million without health care, millions more under-insured.  The sociopathology of Wall Street continues, while populism flares at both ends of the socio-political spectrum.  The term “food insecurity” is the new euphemism for hunger, which afflicts increasing numbers of families (those who are “insecure” reporting this problem upward of 8 months of the year). And climate change grinds on, as political and civic action lags badly.

We owe ourselves, our graduate students, and our undergraduates the scholarly and pedagogical projects commensurate with attention to these conditions throughout the continuum of the literary canons in which we operate (and which we delineate). Our graduate students deserve the encouragement to venture boldly. Our undergraduates deserve the courses that demonstrate to them that literary engagement is important to their lives in the present and in the future. I would add that students need to understand literary engagement as a civic engagement.  Reluctant to acknowledge rivalry with colleagues in other fields, we must face the fact we indeed compete for our students’ time and thought. Literature and the humanities are tremendously pressured in the era of dominant science and technology and business. Quality of life is regarded in some quarters as synonymous solely with salary and wages.  The monetary costs of higher education are questioned, and the humanities regarded as a costly distraction and (some suspect) irrelevant to students’ main endeavor: future employment. The terms “training” and “education” threaten to become interchangeable.

Yet we are uniquely positioned to read these times in all their complexity, to address them in the classroom and in scholarship, and to guide students and peers into the prior centuries of literature that speak fully and richly to the ongoing present. We are well situated to recognize the bases for encouragement in the work engendered by the equally critical decades of the later twentieth century. We can thereby anticipate that new strengths and resources will disclose themselves and inspire our work in the years to come.

Cecelia Tichi