2012-Eric Sundquist


by Shirley Samuels

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 Eric Sundquist.

The Hubbell Medal recognizes scholars who have made major contributions to the critical and theoretical understanding of American literature.  This year’s winner has been a friend for more than thirty years, although he started that acquaintance as my teacher and as my dissertation director. (Let me say parenthetically that his name kept coming up from the time I joined this committee and I kept saying, no, he’s too young! But it’s great to be able to finish my term on the committee with this award.)  The pleasure of coordinating this citation is, of course, enhanced by the history that makes Eric a key part of my early emergence into an attachment to historicized explanations of the literatures of the United States.

Eric Sundquist began his career by posing some great questions: What is it to be at home? His first book on James Fenimore Cooper, Home as Found, showed a time in the nineteenth century when, perhaps as now, citizenship in the United States meant to alternate between alienation and belonging. His more recent book, Strangers in the Land, continues that motif. In between, Eric has presented astute treatments of William Faulkner, of Martin Luther King, and, of course, of a range of significant writers in his magisterial and prize winning work, To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (1998), (Winner of James Russell Lowell prize from MLA for best book of the year). To Wake the Nations appeared at a point when the African American literary critical enterprise was thriving and the field of “whiteness studies” was just getting started.  Perhaps the greatest contribution of this great book is its brilliant orchestration of a critical dialogue across the color line.  Today it is a virtual truism that the complexities of race in American literature need to considered from multiple perspectives–and the work of Eric Sundquist has done much to make that possible.

From the earliest attention to history in Home as Found: Authority and Genealogy in 19th Century American Literature to the great sweeping work carried out in Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post Holocaust America, the voice of Eric Sundquist has presented controversies in sympathetic terms that enliven recovery efforts and sweeping overviews alike. Throughout the work, texture and detail dominate to the point that theoretical terms drawn from psychoanalysis and new historicism aren’t as important as the sheer ability to understand conflict. After so much investment in more canonical writers, the turn in the later work to give voice to opposed figures, to find nuance in a crisis, has been most impressive. It also matters to understand figures who have been presented heroically, like Martin Luther King, as he did in King’s Dream: The Legacy of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech (2009).  A volume in the Cambridge history of American literature was published separately as Empire and Slavery in American Literature, 1820-1865 (2006). And he has a wonderful take on one of the great historians of the 20th century, William Faulkner, in a book subtitled The House Divided, a book that shouldn’t be forgotten in this time of commemorating the Civil War (1985). Eric has also turned to popular culture in The Hammers of Creation: Folk Culture in Modern African American Fiction (1992).

Eric Sundquist is a generous solicitor of the best work of others, as in his work as an editor, especially through the University of California Press. Early on, he did crucial editing work in books on American realism and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He followed that with important collections on Frederick Douglass and Ralph Ellison and an anthology of Du Bois. As an administrator myself, I appreciate the work he has done at Northwestern as dean of the humanities and at UCLA as acting dean. He has taught at UC Berkeley, UCLA, Vanderbilt, Northwestern, and Johns Hopkins. He has guided generations of students. My attention to his work has tended to focus on my own comfort zone of the 19th century. But really Eric Sundquist has done formative and transformative work throughout his career in two centuries, work that matters for its attention not only to landscapes and land claims, but also and emphatically to the many voices that one can now hear in the American landscape.

Hubbell Acceptance Speech

Eric J. Sundquist, John Hopkins University

When I received the surprising and humbling news that I’d been chosen as the 2012 recipient of the Hubbell Medal, I knew I’d be expected to reflect on the course of scholarship in American literature and my place in it.  To do so before an audience of people whose collegiality and friendship I especially cherish is all the more challenging and not a little perplexing, for I feel that I’ve never been particularly good at the grand vision or even the perceptive generalization.

My sense of scholarship in American literature is so much the product of the post-World War II rise of higher education and its multiple professional ramifications in which we all live that I find it hard to think beyond that paradigm—one that has certainly had a good run but may not be sustained very far into the future.

It seems likely that future scholarship in American literature will involve forms of book and media history along with textual analysis enhanced by new technical methodologies and rigorous attention to theories of mind and environment.  Books and readers as we know them have already begun an epochal transformation, and scholars will surely follow suit, but I don’t feel particularly well equipped to predict this future.  Universities as I’ve known them during my education and professional life may not exist even half a generation hence, having by then had to adapt to the challenges presented by a global panoply of educational platforms, but these changes are bound to be erratic and, for now, unpredictable.

The main reason that I won’t venture too far in speculating about the future of scholarship in American literature, however, is that I don’t know enough to trust my opinion.  And here I come to the topic on which you might expect I’d have something to say—namely, the shape of my career and the character of my scholarship.

This is not the first occasion that I’ve had to describe my scholarly methodology, but as I have thought back in recent weeks over a rather meandering academic path that has led from the American Renaissance to the Holocaust, trying to determine in what way it might constitute a “lifetime achievement,” I recalled an essay I first encountered in graduate school, Mark Twain’s 1890 send-up “The Art of Authorship.”

Trying to lay hold of his own methods of composition, which he reported “refuse to take shape in my mind” and remain “a jumble—visible, like the fragments of glass when you look in at the wrong end of a kaleidoscope,” Twain concluded his burlesque by declaring: “doubtless I have methods, but [if so] they begot themselves, in which case I am only their proprietor, not their father.”

I must have been introduced to Twain’s essay by my graduate school mentor, Laurence Holland, who had not only an exquisite prose style well suited to his favorite authors—James, Melville, and Faulkner—but also a sense of comic but decidedly moral purpose closely attuned to Twain.  (It was not a surprise to discover later, I might add, that Larry had written an eloquent essay on Invisible Man some years before Ellison became the one black writer safe to consider canonical.)  If Larry Holland was a scholarly father, however, I can’t claim to have found a method in his beautiful style except insofar as he paid exceptionally close attention to the text—an attention, it seemed to me, that went far beyond the New Critical techniques then still in vogue.  One might say that he dwelled, almost obsessively, in the intricate problems of Jamesian consciousness or Melville’s cosmic ironies or Faulkner’s storytelling labyrinths or Twain’s crises of conscience—most of all what he called in an Ellisonian essay on Twain the “raft of trouble” on which a boy and a man, free and slave, played out the historical drama of a nation whose very soul was at risk.

Although this sense of American literature as a national enterprise in which style and narrative form might carry moral, as well as epistemological and historical, meanings found its way indirectly into my dissertation and first book, it was only when I turned, a few years later, to the problem of race in Melville, Twain, and Faulkner that I came to appreciate fully Larry Holland’s profound example.  By then, he was gone.

It is not at all hard to find traces of psychoanalytic, deconstructionist, and New Historicist influences at work in my scholarly methods.  These grew, no doubt, from the critical ambiance of Johns Hopkins in the 1970s and Berkeley in the 1980s.  To the extent I thought of it at all, however, I came eventually to consider myself something of an “old historicist”—to the point that I’ve believed, from time to time, that I’d have been better off in a history department.

But that’s not right, of course, because I too much relish the improvisatory play of the literary imagination as it strains against the inadequate craft of literary history.  Especially drawn to the interweaving of historical moment, authorial purpose, and figurative enigma through which writers have dramatized the problem of slavery and its long aftermath, I’ve relied on a combination of instinct and wide reading.

In order to recreate the explosive tensions between liberty and mastery animating the work of Melville and Delany, I looked to their sweeping sense of the past and potential future of slavery in the Americas.  In order to get at the full force of Twain’s acid comedy about the nation’s racial delusions, I looked to segregation cases brought before the Supreme Court of the United States.  When I wanted to grasp the evanescent vocalizations in which Chesnutt, Du Bois, and Hurston found a vernacular language for the flash of the spirit that appeared when America became African, I looked to black music.

To understand the decay of the alliance between blacks and Jews, once mutual strangers in a strange land, I found it necessary to venture into African Americans’ long engagement with the biblical Exodus, the mythological substructure of the Nation of Islam, the often counterintuitive relationship of blacks with the state of Israel, and the transfiguration of the Holocaust from a cause for empathy into a source of heartless recrimination.

To comprehend the power unleashed when Martin Luther King, Jr., recited the simple words of “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at the March on Washington, I needed to discover who preceded him in making those lyrics their testament of freedom: Abraham Lincoln, James Monroe Whitfield, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Ida B. Wells, Robert Russa Moton, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Archibald J. Carey, Jr., and Mahalia Jackson, among others.

I said before that I simply don’t know enough to trust my opinion about the future of scholarship in American literature.  We never know enough, of course, but these few examples from my work are meant to illustrate that a historicist methodology may bring with it greater doubt about one’s capacity to place any given text, speech, or allusion in a story sufficiently dense to capture its meaning.  Even as attention to form, style, and voice has remained essential, my sense of textual boundaries has become ever more provisional, with the risk that I’ve tended to follow one intriguing path after another in search of interpretive evidence.

Somewhere along the way this became my method of composition, as Twain might say, and at times it may have created for others, as it has for me, the sensation of looking into the wrong end of a kaleidoscope.  I should like to think, however, that the archive of materials brought forth by the technologies of the future will make historicist scholarship at once imperative and more alluring.

In any case, since I’ve been blessed not only with colleagues and institutions that have supported my work, as well as presses willing to publish it, and wonderful students whose example remains continually inspiring, maybe these few words will count as an explanation of this wonderful honor you have bestowed on me.