2015-Ann Douglas



Nancy Bentley, University of Pennsylvania

Leonard Cassuto, Fordham University


The Jay B. Hubbell Medal 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. This year the committee consisted of Leonard Cassuto, John Richard Ernest, Trudier Harris, Susan Griffin, and Nancy Bentley (chair). On behalf of the Committee and the American Literature Society, it is an honor to announce that the recipient of the 2015 Hubbell Medal is Ann Douglas.

Professor Ann Douglas received her B.A. from Harvard University and later earned a B. Phil from Oxford University and a Ph.D. from Harvard. She was the first woman hired in the Princeton English Department, where she was recognized for her distinguished teaching with a Bicentennial Preceptorship. She has spent most of her career at Columbia, where she is now the Parr Professor Emerita of English and Comparative Literature. Professor Douglas has received numerous awards and honors, including Columbia’s Lionel Trilling Award, the Alfred Beveridge Award, and the Merle Curli Intellectual History Award.

The Beveridge and Curli Awards are honors bestowed by professional history associations. The distinction she has earned in the eyes of historians is one sign of depth and breadth of her scholarship, work that has transformed literary studies as profoundly as it shaped historiography. Her classic The Feminization of American Culture exploded the tendency among critics and historians to treat nineteenth-century American women as ciphers with little impact on cultural history. Throwing down a gantlet, this brilliantly researched study sparked debates that have continued for decades. Her next book Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s didn’t just dazzle scholars; it also reached a wide audience of intellectuals and devotees of New York history.

Like all of her work, both books exhibit fierce analytic intelligence and mange to sustain complexity while bringing together vast amounts of material. In Douglas, lives and voices long considered marginal found a scholar able to illuminate their fullest significance.  In doing so, she changed the very shape of what we understand as American culture.

Ann Douglas’s contribution has also come through her work as a devoted teacher. She has directed dozens of PhD dissertations—her students fill English departments all over the United States.  Those students frequently describe studying with her as an exceptionally stimulating, even wondrous experience. Professor Chris Castiglia describes his experience this way:

“I was a graduate student in British modernism when I took my first class with Ann Douglas.  By the end of that semester I was a nineteenth-century Americanist.  It wasn’t so much that I was captivated by the marvels of that period’s literature.  I was captivated by Ann. Those who have been privileged to hear her talk about American literature know that she is—I can’t think of another word for it—a visionary: she gets a far away look in her eyes, like she’s gazing out over the course of history and the width of the continent and seeing something that might set a mind on fire. I’ve never read Emerson’s claim that ‘America is a poem in our eyes’ without thinking of Ann Douglas. She believes in literature, its abundance and its wonders, and she makes you want to see those too, with the same generosity she brings to her students and to the texts she studies.

“In her teaching as much as in her field-changing scholarship, Ann is witty, capacious, quirky, brave, sometimes vexingly aphoristic. She would assign four or five seemingly unrelated texts that no one could figure out the rhyme or reason for bringing together.  By the end of class, Ann could make one believe Melville had been reading Roland Barthes or that John Winthrop had been deep in conversation with Bruce Springsteen.  She has that kind of synthetic, speculative, and sympathetic mind, and I’ve never read any scholar of American literature whose erudition and range of knowledge is as wide as Ann’s.”

We don’t talk enough about undergraduate teaching when we present these awards.  Ann Douglas’s passion for it dates back to her own graduate student years in the 1960s.  Ann Douglas was my [Leonard Cassuto’s] teacher at Columbia when I was an undergraduate in the late 1970s.  I will never forget her electric presence in front of the room in Hamilton Hall.  Columbia is filled with learned professors, but none wore their learning with the vibrancy that she did.

Ann’s commitment to the material was palpable, but so was her commitment to her students.  She restricted the size of her undergraduate classes so that she could offer a more personal experience to her students, including weekly brown-bag lunches that she scheduled so that she could get to know her students outside of class.  The attendees usually outnumbered the chairs in the room, so latecomers sat on the floor.

Many graduate students can trace their presence in graduate school to the influence of one teacher.  For me, Ann Douglas was that teacher.  She inspired me to try graduate school.  Many of my other professors gave the impression of having descended from Olympus for a few hours, but Ann Douglas came across as a person doing a job that she enjoyed—she was human, and she was having a great time.  Her example helped me think of her work as a job that I might like to try. I didn’t think I could do it as well as she did, but she humanized the profession for me.  She’s been taking ideas seriously for her whole career, and the energy with which she’s done so has resulted in writing that changes minds—and more important, people who do their jobs because of the example that she set.

All of which makes it a great pleasure to recognize her brilliant scholarship and teaching.  We award this medal, the highest award in our field, to Ann Douglas.


Ann Douglas, Acceptance Speech for Hubbell Medal, January 2016

I thank you for this honor, the most meaningful to me of my career. I have always considered myself a cultural and literary historian, and my work has usually been regarded in that light; the Hubbell Medal represents the only award I have ever received from a literary body. Yet I’ve never doubted that I belong in an English department. I was lucky enough to do my undergraduate and graduate work at Harvard, which at that time disdained any dividing line between history and literature. Perry Miller and Morton Bloomfield trained me to see the literary work and its historical context as inextricably intertwined; they taught me to use the close-reading skills I brought to the literary text to the historical document as well. I was fortunate again in coming to the Columbia English Department in the mid-1970s when Steven Marcus and Lionel Trilling were expanding the notion of “narrative” to include Freud’s case studies and Marx and Engels’ pioneering critiques of capitalism. Everything and anything could now be viewed as a text, and to do so was to increase, not diminish, the text’s historical specificity, a discovery which was part of a larger movement that had already begun to open the canon to literature by women and people of color and to visual models of narration long considered unworthy of serious critical attention.

It still amazes me that “real” historians seem constitutionally unable to grasp the obvious truth that literature is not a decorative secondary source – good, at most, for a choice quote here and there to signal that they are not altogether immune to the magic of imagination – but itself a primary source of the highest order, the clue to the rhythms of a given historical moment, how it actually worked. I have always wanted to understand, to pick a famous (and cherished) example, why T.S. Eliot could not have written “Prufrock,” nor met the same success du scandale, at any time but the years just before and during the Great War. “Prufrock” was also the first long poem I ever memorized. Against all odds, I identified unequivocally and completely, with its narrator; “Prufrock” is, after all, about embarrassment, what it means physically and psychologically to blush, the only subject in which an adolescent can claim to be an expert. (Irony was, in my case, a later gift.) To this day, I urge students to commit poems and passages of prose to memory, an accomplishment all the more attention-catching – a CGI-free zone declared here! – and intrinsically valuable, in the age of instant electronic recall. Memorization of this kind isn’t rote learning: it’s an insight-intensifier, a radical move into an intimacy more sure than any we achieve with even the dearest people in our lives.

For literature is of course more than a clue to history or a dialogue with those who lived and expressed it. A friend of mine, a fellow professional also in her 70s and the only person I know other than myself who doesn’t own a cell-phone, recently explained to me why she was buying one. “I’m a 21st century woman. Why should I be stuck in the 20th century?” she said. “Forget the 20th century,” I told her. I am proud, at least on this front, to be a woman of the 19th century, and to believe, as John Stewart Mill discovered he must, in a culture of the feelings. When my fiancé ditched me while we were both graduate students at Oxford in the winter of 1965, I became acutely aware that England in general and Oxford in particular was ferociously unheated inside and out, and entirely built of stones. I feared I’d actually fall down on one of its cobbled streets from sheer grief. But something happened. I remember the moment as if it were yesterday: I was walking through the arch (all stones) leading to the courtyard of Merton College (more stones) and a line from Macbeth came to my mind as clearly and definitely as an object slipped into my hand: “Angels are bright still though the brightest fell.” It has seen me through.

Finally, there’s the writing itself. Teachers and scholars, I’ve always thought, are only featured players, not stars, in that activity: ours is at root a service profession. Yet, whether the task at hand is a book or a letter of recommendation, the toil of revision and the goal are the same. “People are always seeking expression,” C.L.R. James said, and “where they… find it, they stay.” Trying to make the inside and the outside speak the same language, hoping to catch sight of Rilke’s elusive and pinpoint-sharp “Das war es” (It was here) hallucination – that is our craft.

As it happens, the Hubbell Medal comes at the half-century mark of my life as a teacher. Fifty years ago next September, I walked, terrified, into my first class as a TA in a drama survey course at Harvard. Our text was Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, and when I emerged an hour later, I knew I had found the place where I belonged. That conviction, however uneven my own performance, has never wavered.
Again, thank you.