Hubbell Medal 2004

Sacvan Bercovitch


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. The members of this year's Hubbell Award Committee were Wai Chee Dimock, Gordon Hutner, Viet Nguyen, Cheryl Wall, and Richard Millington (chair). On behalf of that Committee and the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association, it is a pleasure and an honor to present the Jay B. Hubbell Award for 2004 to Professor Sacvan Bercovitch.

Professor Bercovitch, born in Montreal, Quebec, received his B.A. at Sir George Williams College and his Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate School. He taught at Brandeis, the University of California-San Diego, and, for many years, at Columbia; he finished his teaching career at Harvard, where he held the Powell M. Cabot Professorship in American Literature and is now Professor emeritus . In conferring this award, we follow the example of, among others, the Huntington Library, the John Carter Brown Library, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Guggenheim Foundation, who have recognized his work with fellowships.

Let me begin by recalling the names of the recent recipients of the Hubbell Award--Paula Gunn Allen, Nina Baym, Paul Lauter, Annette Kolodny, Houston Baker. To read these names is to recognize that it has been an exhilarating time to be a member of the Hubbell Committee, for it has been our privilege to recognize members of our profession who have not only written powerful scholarly works but who have transformed our sense of what we do and why we do it. It is, of course, such a scholar that we honor this evening.

Sacvan Bercovitch's writing has transformed not one scholarly field but two. His earlier books, The Puritan Origins of the American Self and The American Jeremiad changed definitively our understanding of the structures of expression and feeling that composed the writing of Puritan New England, and proposed an understanding of the origins of a distinctive American ideology that powerfully competed with Perry Miller's foundational synthesis. Even as he was identifying and exploring the expressive culture of Puritan New England, his work was reaching forward, toward a description of a distinctive American ideology. That ambition, brought to fruition--excuse me if I fall into the prophetic mode--yielded his great books of the nineties, The Office of the Scarlet Letter and The Rites of Assent , which in effect complete the writing of the history of American middle-class culture begun in the earlier work--a history that persuasively and provocatively specifies how, in America, acts of withering dissent are put to the service of a vision of American consensus. In The Office of the Scarlet Letter , in particular, we encounter that rare thing, a text that remains perhaps the most powerful instance of the intellectual approach it is engaged in inventing. (As someone who has worked to preserve a fairly traditional sense of Hawthorne's achievement, let me say that The Office is that work of Americanist literary criticism that I'm most afraid is true .... I believe this to be one of the higher forms of scholarly praise.)

What is utterly remarkable about Professor Bercovitch's work--what accounts for its originality and persuasiveness--is the perspective one hears in that scholarly voice: mordant, acute, deeply learned, oddly sympathetic. It is as if the Recording Angel had decided to do some slumming as a scholar of American literature. But the best description of the animating perspective that has given us this remarkable body of work is his own. This is from the "Introduction" to The American Jeremiad : " . . . What first attracted me to the study of the jeremiad was my astonishment, as a Canadian immigrant, at learning about the prophetic history of America. Not of North America, for the prophecies stopped short at the Canadian and Mexican borders, but of a country that, despite its arbitrary territorial limits, could read its destiny in its landscape, and a population that, despite its bewildering mixture of race and creed, could believe in something called an American mission, and could invest that patent fiction with all the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual appeal of a religious quest. I felt then like Sancho Panza in a land of Don Quixotes."

The scholarly achievement I have been describing would, in its influence and exemplary force, be enough to explain the Committee's choice. But like the other recent recipients of the Hubbell Award, Professor Bercovitch has achieved his transformative effect on the practice of American literary scholarship by concrete effort as well as scholarly example. His work as an editor has been a particularly important and consistent feature of his career. Ideology and Classic American Literature , edited with Myra Jehlen, and Reconstructing American Literary History were key texts in the shaping of the historicist consensus that now governs American literary study, and, in his work as General Editor of the Cambridge History of American Literature, Professor Bercovitch has given us a magisterial collective form to the new perspectives and understandings that have made this a wonderful time to be an Americanist. Through his teaching at Columbia and Harvard, Professor Bercovitch has reshaped our field in still another way, directing the work of many students who have themselves gone on to do important work in our field. And he has done distinguished professional service as well, serving as President of the American Studies Association.

In acknowledgment of all of these achievements and in profound gratitude for the richness of his work and the example of his career, we present the Jay B. Hubbell Award for 2004 to Sacvan Bercovitch.

Richard Millington
Chair, Hubbell Award Committee

Acceptance Speech

It is surely a landmark of some kind when a Division of the Modern Languages Association honors someone named after Sacco and Vanzetti. The credit here goes to my mother, a Russian Jewish immigrant to Montreal, who had fought in the 1917 Revolution and did not give up her ideals after she became disillusioned with Stalin. She left me her left-wing legacy and an abiding sense of my Jewish identity but not much else, and so, with no other prospects in view, I left high-school for a socialist Israeli kibbutz. Six years later I returned to Montreal, with a wife and children to support, and got work where I could, which happened to be Steinberg's Supermarket. I take this occasion to express my gratitude to Steinberg's Personnel Department, which made me a junior executive and encouraged me to go to night-school. And Sir George Williams College, now Concordia University, then the adult extension of the YMCA, opened the vistas of academia. I owe special thanks to an exhilarating teacher, Neil Compton, through whom I recognized what a joy it is to read and discuss literature, and what a privilege to be able to earn a living by it. My thanks, next, to Claremont Graduate School, which gave me the freedom to develop - which is to say, the patience and faith--that most larger or elite universities (where type-casting is instantaneous) would not have allowed. And to complete this initiation story, my thanks to Quentin Anderson and Lewis Leary of Columbia University, who risked hiring the raw outsider I then was.

What struck me most about the Columbia English faculty was its receptive spirit. I refer to the fluid relations within hierarchical structures--junior and senior, tenured and untenured--and to the sense within those structures of a certain class solidarity. Lionel Trilling lived above my means but not absolutely beyond them. He also taught as many courses as I did, and sometimes the same kind of courses. Salaries were notoriously low in comparison to those of "worldly" professionals -- this was the era before the star-and-adjunct system--and it made for a kind of adversarial democratic pride. Everyone complained about income, and everyone felt superior to the capitalist market-place. I am aware of the delusions and exclusions (including anti-Semitism) embedded in that genteel sense of superiority. Nonetheless, it encouraged genuine intellectual exchange that could be seen as an alternative to the spheres of financial exchange. Things have changed since then, at Columbia and elsewhere; it's now increasingly hard to distinguish the ivory tower from the market-place. And again, I'm aware of enormous benefits involved in this transformation: the opening of academia to women and minorities; the enrichment of the canon in response to those new constituencies; the expansion of the Old Boys Network to a pluralistic maze of competing centers of influence. No doubt Houston Baker and Annette Kolodny have a different story to tell about that genteel adversarial spirit. But this is my story - not a jeremiad, not a lament for some storied golden age, but a gesture of thanks for the welcome I received into the community of scholars and critics.

I taught at Columbia from 1964 to 1966; then for family reasons moved to Boston, where I taught for two years at Brandeis, and from there for a year to California and UCSD. Those were the years of student protest, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Feminist Revolution. What a fantastic time to be a college teacher! The study of literature took on a moral immediacy undreamt of by Matthew Arnold. Students debated the texts as though the future of society depended on their interpretations. They showed me the capacity of American literature to convey something of the excitement of what the Greek and Roman classics must have brought to the Italian Renaissance. My gratitude extends above all to the students at Columbia, where I returned in 1970, and to those at Harvard after 1983. It was with them that I put into practice what I'd learned about teaching. And from them I learned, sometimes grudgingly, new ways of literary understanding. They brought arcane theories to class, they insisted on including strange, marginal texts. I found that learning could be a difficult dialectic, requiring the capacity to sustain dissonance, rather than to reach a synthesis. But I found, too, that it could be a sustaining dissonance. The essays and books I wrote and edited during that period, using terms like ritual and ideology, historicism and dissensus, owe a great deal to a wonderful procession of students. I can honestly say that through them I came to understand what Plato meant by the connection between teaching and love.

What a privilege to feel part of such a community! A community of students become colleagues, and of colleagues become friends, extending globally from Boston to Beijng. I think of the many conferences I attended abroad - East and West and Middle-East - each in its way a source of personal and professional enrichment. Mainly, of course I think of my local affiliations. I feel particularly grateful in this regard because I have never been a proper institutional man. Temperamentally, and often against my will, I have remained an outsider--an uneasy, marginal participant in departments and on committees. I consider it one of the highest attributes of our profession that it has the generosity to accommodate marginals; and I recall with gratitude the faculty interchange that recurrently enhanced life and nourished the mind, as well as temporary communities that formed for new intellectual ventures, like the band of Puritan colonialists who gathered early in my career, in the belief that we were breaking fresh grounds of inquiry, or the diverse group of scholars, representing the diverse approaches current in the field, who contracted together twenty years ago to rewrite American literary history, and in effect to set the standards against which a new dissensus will emerge.

So I end with a tribute to our profession. I refer now not only to my sense of place in it, but to the work I did to earn my place. I stand here as an example of what I consider to be the most compelling and problematic aspect of the American myth: I have forged an immigrant success story through a concerted adversarial critique of America. This is not the time for a discourse on the paradox of resistance and containment. I've wrestled with it for many years, and have yet to find a resolution. But I can affirm that there's an alternative to mere cooptation. I still believe, with Sacco and Vanzetti, that all institutional powers corrupt, including those in academia, and that our highest ethical imperative is to speak truth to power. And I believe further, with the Hasid Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, that the surest way to truth is to "flee from fame." And yet, from this podium, I can testify that the institutions of American literary study have provided not just a forum, but an incentive towards that radical dream. With that extraordinary gift in mind, and deeply moved by the honor of this occasion, I thank the Hubbell Award Committee.

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