2013-Robert S. Levine


During the thirty years since Professor Levine began his career at the University of Maryland, American literary studies has developed in ways that challenge any neat summary.  Eric Sundquist has written about “the necessity of living with the paradox that ‘American’ literature is both a single tradition of many parts and a series of winding, sometimes parallel traditions that have perforce been built in good part from their inherent conflicts.”  Few scholars, though, have recognized this as a necessity, and fewer still have known what to make of it all.  Professor Levine, though, has led the way towards building an encompassing understanding that accounts for the dynamic tensions and inherent conflicts that define American literary history.  In Dislocating Race and Nation: Episodes in Nineteenth-Century American Literary Nationalism, Professor Levine writes of an “unknowingness that writers convey in their writings, an unknowingness that often takes expression as a resistance to cultural certainties,” what Professor Levine terms “a wise bafflement about the meaning, trajectories, and plots of the unfolding narratives of history.”  This quality can be found in Professor Levine’s work as well, and indeed it is this quality above all others that distinguishes Professor Levine as one of the most important and, indeed, wise scholars of our time.

Now, it might seem strange to say that what distinguishes a scholar–and sufficiently so to earn him the prestigious recognition of the Hubbell Award–is his unknowingness and bafflement, but in fact the calmness and clarity of Professor Levine’s openness to paradox, contradiction, and tension has produced some of the most influential developments in American literary study during the last thirty years.  Following his knowing wedding of conspiracy and romance in his first book, Professor Levine has consulted promising but troubled relationships, interrogated strange bedfellows, and crossed state, regional, and national boundaries in his search for an understanding of American literature capable of accounting for the complexities of American political and cultural history.  Whether in his consideration of the tensions between Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany, or in his assessment of the congruencies between the lives and writings of Douglass and Herman Melville, or in his hemispheric remapping of the literary and cultural terrain that defines the field, Professor Levine has worked to embrace and elucidate the complexity of American literature and literary history.

More significantly still, Professor Levine has approached scholarship as a collective endeavor.  Although he is one of the few scholars who can claim real authority as a scholar of white American and African American writers, and although he seems almost supernaturally aware of every development in the field, as soon or even before it arrives, the hallmark of Professor Levine’s career has been his collaborative work.  One sees this in the many books he has co-edited, including Hemispheric American Studies and A Companion to American Literary Studies, both with Caroline Levander, or Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville: Essays in Relation, with Samuel Otter, or The Works of James M. Whitfield, with Ivy Wilson.  To look at Professor Levine’s broad and deep body of scholarship is to look at a community of scholars engaged in genuine–purposeful and productive–scholarly exchange.  And as anyone who has been involved in these and other projects will attest, in these collaborations, Professor Levine has always been both a sure guide and a deeply interested student, ready to embrace the unexpected, to turn to new questions, or to reframe even his own sense of where the project might go.

It is this deep involvement in the many intertwined traditions that make up American literary history that made Professor Levine the natural choice for his current role as General Editor of the Norton Anthology of American Literature.  This distinguished  appointment requires a scholar equally comfortable with the global and the local, with theoretical nuances and historical details, and especially someone who can address the realities of emerging traditions pressing against traditional formulations.  Professor Levine is that scholar.

Professor Levine received his Bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, and his Masters and Ph.D. from Stanford University.  In 2007, he was recognized as a Distinguished Scholar-Teacher at the University of Maryland, and in 2013 he was named Distinguished University Professor.  He held a National Endowment for the Humanities Senior Fellowship in 1992-1993 and again in 2012-2013, and a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 2013.  Recently, too, he was named the first humanities scholar to be a Fellow at Texas A&M’s Institute for Advanced Study.  He serves on the editorial boards of some of the most important journals in the field, including American Literary History and ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, among others.

While a list of Professor Levine’s published work testifies to a distinguished, distinctive, and influential career, some of his greatest contributions to the study of American literature do not even appear on his vita, though they are indicated by his devotion to collaborative projects.  Above and beyond all else, Professor Levine is a devoted mentor to other scholars in the field.  He has a gift for recognizing and encouraging people’s gifts, and he seems never so happy as when he is helping people develop ideas, find their way towards publication, or building communities of interest.  In his work organizing sessions, or entire conferences, in organizing talks and other forums, or simply in reading drafts, commenting on ideas, or discussing ideas over email, Professor Levine seems both selfless and tireless in his interest in other scholars, and genuinely pleased when his mentoring takes him into unfamiliar intellectual territory.  To see how much Professor Levine has done for the field as a mentor, try a simple test.  The next time you are at a conference and find yourself surrounded by people you don’t know, turn to one and say, “So, you must know Bob Levine.”  Almost every time, the person you approach will respond enthusiastically and tell you how much Professor Levine has done for her or him.

In all of his work, and especially in his substantial encouragement of and commitment to other scholars’ work, Professor Levine has demonstrated a commitment to the field that is the mark of a genuine leader and exemplar.  As his record demonstrates, he holds himself to the highest of standards in his scholarship, his teaching, and his professional life.  And in his mentoring of others, he works to raises the stakes for himself and others, to shift the terrain, and to work towards new levels of discovery and knowledge while acknowledging a salutary unknowingness and wise bafflement.  In adding his name to the list of those eminent scholars who have won the Jay B. Hubbell Award, we recognize Professor Levine as belonging to a very exclusive community of scholars, but we give this award in recognition of his tireless efforts to serve and advance the many scholarly communities to which he has made such generous and innovative contributions.

Acceptance Speech

Robert S. Levine

Thank you, John Ernest, for your kind words on my scholarship, collaborative work, and mentoring. And my thanks to the Hubbell Committee for the great honor of the Hubbell Medal—and a surprise honor at that. When I first got the news from William Andrews, I thought the committee must have made a mistake and meant George Levine. Then I remembered that he’s a Victorianist. So I went on the Hubbell website and looked at the list of distinguished past winners, and my initial thought was something like what Henry Adams said about the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant: Here is the proof against evolution! Then I read through the Hubbell acceptance speeches, and I saw that just about everyone humbly says that they’re surprised to get the award and are unworthy of it. I spent some time studying the speeches, but I didn’t find anyone whose expression of surprise and humility quite matched what I had in mind for my own acceptance speech until I left the website and stumbled across the words of my distant relative Adam Levine. “I was just amazed and stunned and it almost seemed like they were kidding, but they weren’t, so that’s cool,” said kinsman Adam, lead vocalist of Maroon 5, upon learning last month that he had been named People Magazine’s sexiest man alive. I couldn’t put it better myself!  To be more serious about this: I’m still feeling like I’m a bit too much in the midst of things, in the way of a mid-career scholar, to be getting a lifetime achievement award. I can assure you that this award will inspire me to continue with the research and teaching that I hope one day will make me truly worthy of joining the Hubbard honorees.

I could thank lots of people, but I’m going to limit myself to five or six, starting with my dissertation co-directors, Jay Fliegelman and George Dekker, both of whom died much too young. Jay was an extraordinary interdisciplinary scholar whose work was charged by a sense of the otherness of the past and a fascination with cultural formations and transformations. He was also a legendary mentor to hundreds of graduate students, and I’m willing to bet there are some Fliegelmanites here today. George was a trans-Atlantic scholar before transatlanticism became fashionable; he was also someone who, despite being at Stanford, was happy to stay below the radar and just plug away at his teaching and research. Much of what I do in my own scholarship—including my interest in approaching authors as sources of knowledge who raise questions about the limits of our own knowledge—derives from being the student of these two great teachers and scholars. And of course both taught me much about the value of good mentoring.

I’d like to say a little more about collaboration.  Our profession is clearly changing in this our digital age, and collaborative projects of all sorts have become increasingly important to what we do. Textual editing, author and other sorts of websites, digital archives, and computer-based research projects are now crucial to our teaching and scholarship. My own collaborative work, which began in 1996, when I took on the editorship of The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville, is a bit more old-fashioned. After working with people like Lawrence Buell and Elizabeth Renker on the Melville Companion, I was hooked, and since then I have taken up a number of editorial and collaborative projects that have provided me with the opportunity to work with such dynamic co-editors as Sam Otter, Caroline Levander, Ivy Wilson, and John Stauffer. My work with Sam Otter and Caroline Levander in particular helped me to develop ideas that are now central to my research and teaching, such as interracial and transnational approaches to American and African American literary history.  Over the years, I’ve also come to value the collaborative editor. At the University of North Carolina Press, I published six books with editor Sian Hunter, who was involved with all facets of these projects. Without her support and creative editorial vision, my personal favorite of these books—the over 500-page Martin Delany documentary reader, which other presses didn’t want to touch—may still be sitting in my desk drawer. Ray Ryan at Cambridge and several other editors have also had a key role in my scholarly career. I am especially grateful for the editorial support and friendship of Julia Reidhead, the anthologies editor at Norton who is committed to the same things that charge me up every day I work as an editor of the Norton Anthology of American Literature: a desire to do the very best we can in introducing students across the country to the most fascinating American writers, while attending to the best recent scholarship and inevitable changes in the canon. The Norton, as my mentor and Hubbell medalist Nina Baym used to tell me, is devoted in large part to authors, and at a time of diminishing enrollments in English classes, and at the risk of sounding a bit retro, I think that engaging the complexities of great authors (instead of insisting on the merely instrumental or diagnostic value of our work) may help to bring back some of our disappearing majors.

A closing anecdote and thank you: Not too long ago I was invited to give a talk by the graduate student organization at a highly ranked English department.  At the reception, a group of students approached me with what they thought was a very tough or embarrassing question about what they clearly regarded as an unsuccessful aspect of my career, asking me why I had spent all of my years as a professor at just one institution. What they had seen modeled for them were faculty comings and goings, and thus mobility, from their perspective, signified real achievement. I patiently told them that I had had other opportunities, but when you have a job where you have excellent students; a job where you very much like and admire your colleagues; a job where you regularly learn from your colleagues to the point where (in my case) you take up African American literary studies because you want to be part of the intellectual conversation of some of your most accomplished colleagues (like Carla Peterson and Mary Helen Washington); and a job where you actually feel happy just about every time you come to campus, well, you could do a lot worse for yourself. So a warm thank you to my friends, colleagues, and students at the University of Maryland where, after 30 years in residence, I am proud to be a “lifer”! And my thanks again to the Hubbell Committee and to all of you here today.