Last night, in Philadelphia, I watched my mentor, Sacvan Bercovitch, receive the American Studies Association’s Carl Bode – Norman Holmes Pearson Prize for lifetime achievement. It was my pleasure and my honor to have nominated Saki for the award and to have gathered supporting letters from colleagues and students.
In conferring the award, the prize committee’s chairperson, Gordon Hutner (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaigne), described Saki as “the presiding spirit, in many respects, of American Studies. Through his writings, his intellectual politics, his service to the Association, Professor Bercovitch has made an unparalleled set of distinguished contributions over the past thirty years. Perhaps no single literary historian has exerted the profound influence over his field that Bercovitch has, for he has been the key figure in the ideological turn in American literary study and indeed has played a central part in galvanizing the source of its interdisciplinary practice.”
Hutner noted that the American Studies Association is “infinitely more robust” than it was the last time it met in Philadelphia, in 1982 when Saki was president and suggested that this robustness may well be “the fruit of Sacvan Bercovitch’s labors.”
I didn’t know Saki then (we wouldn’t meet for another couple of years when he had relocated to Harvard), and it was a revelation for me to hear about the central role that he had played in setting the ASA back on course after a period during which it was foundering. I was struck by the fact that he was even more deserving of the Bode – Pearson prize than my letter of nomination had suggested.
What follows is the text of that letter. As a tribute it’s inadequate, but at least it achieved what it was intended to achieve.
I am writing to nominate Sacvan Bercovitch for the American Studies Association’s Carl Bode-Norman Holmes Pearson Prize. Saki’s work – as a writer, editor, and teacher – has set the terms of debate for what now amounts to three generations of Americanists. I can think of no living scholar more worthy of the ASA’s award for a lifetime of achievement and service within the field of American Studies than Saki Bercovitch.
I met Saki in 1984 during what I like to think of as the second phase of his scholarly career. By that time, his first two monographs, The Puritan Origins of the American Self (1975) and The American Jeremiad (1978), had already revitalized the field of early American literature by both extending and critiquing the tradition of Americanist scholarship established by Perry Miller. Making a break from the consensus historiography that marked predecessors like Miller and F. O. Matthiessen, Saki’s first two books emphasized the importance of rhetoric in Puritan writing. Reading those books during my first year of graduate school, I marveled at the way that Saki revealed the links among religious thought, imaginative writing, and ideology. I saw that Saki had begun to trace the formation of a distinctive cultural symbology that, in his account, would reach fruition during the so-called American Renaissance. “Read it and be inspired,” a graduate school friend had said, pushing a copy of The American Jeremiad toward me across the table at Child Library. I did, and I was.
I had defied the usual advice by returning to my alma mater, but it proved to be a providential decision (as it were) because of Saki’s presence. He had joined the Harvard faculty the year before and brought something to it that had been missing during my undergraduate years: a sense of the fluid interplay between text and context, an approach that set itself against the grain of the formalism and traditional literary-historical approaches that I had learned as an undergraduate. Wednesday afternoons that first term were always a bit vertiginous intellectually: I went from a class devoted to close readings of the oeuvre of a single modernist poet to a seminar in which Saki was introducing us to what we referred to as “ideological” approaches to literary scholarship. He let us read drafts of the essays that were being collected in the volume that he was then editing with Myra Jehlen, Ideology and Classic American Literature (1986), and we had the sense that we were on the cutting edge of literary study. Saki gave me a new lease on literary life: intending to continue my undergraduate work on Anglo-Irish modernism (I had written my undergraduate thesis on Finnegans Wake), I became a convert to American Studies, and in between the second and third meetings of his seminar, I discovered the subject that would eventually become my dissertation, which, of course, Saki promised to advise.
During my second year in graduate school, I began to serve as Saki’s research assistant and watched as the second phase of his scholarly career, which produced The Office of the Scarlet Letter (1991) and The Rites of Assent (1993), took shape. I saw that Saki was performing the remarkable feat of becoming his own predecessor, exploring and amplifying the significance of his earlier work on Puritanism. The Office of the Scarlet Letter is a marvelous example of what Saki called “cultural close-reading”: his goal was “to explain the novel’s aesthetic design in terms of cultural strategies of control and to allow the culture to reveal itself in all its radical potentiality through its representation in the text.” The Office of the Scarlet Letter brilliantly exemplifies Roland Barthes’s remark that “whereas a little formalism might lead away from history, a lot of formalism will eventually lead back to it.” The Rites of Assent represents the synthesis of Saki’s thinking about “the myth of America,” tracing strategies of rhetorical appropriation in the writings of Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, George Bancroft, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thinking in The Rites of Assent about the trajectory of his career as a scholar of American culture, Saki writes, “I felt like Sancho Panza in a land of Don Quixotes. It was not just that the [American] dream was a patent fiction. It was that the fiction involved an entire hermeneutic system.” It is the genius of Saki’s scholarship to give us what remains the fullest account of the genealogy and dynamics of that hermeneutic system.
Any one of these four books would represent the high point of a typical Americanist’s career. Together they amount to a monumental achievement that should be sufficient ground for the awarding of the Bode-Pearson Prize. But, if Saki has always prided himself on his resistance both to American cultural symbology and to the shibboleths of the American academy, he has also proven himself to be a generous colleague and mentor, as the letters attached in support of this nomination will attest. What makes Saki the only real contender for the title of “Dean of American Studies” is the fact that his scholarship and teaching have been truly generative: they have enriched the field of American Studies by planting fertile seeds from which new scholarship has grown and itself become fruitful.
I think that my relationship with Saki is exemplary: he showed me a scholarly path, guided me down its first few steps, let me get lost and find my way back, and ultimately let me discover new directions that he himself had not foreseen. Saki did that for a lot of people around the profession.
I consider myself luckier than most of those because I had the opportunity to work closely with Saki during the early stages of The Cambridge History of American Literature. As a research assistant and then as the Associate Editor for the first two volumes, I watched Saki interact with a brilliant cadre of younger scholars, almost all of them now famous in our profession, whom he had collected because he was interested in their work and felt that by allowing them to stretch themselves by writing near-monograph-length essays on subjects in American literary history, he could forge an account of the U.S. literary tradition that truly represent the diversity and excitement that marked the field in the 1980s. I had the sense that Saki, like Henry James’s Ralph Touchett, just wanted to give them all that space and then see what they would do. Like Isabel Archer’s career, the History had its vicissitudes, but a much happier ending: the History did not end up returning to the confines of familiar patterns of thought and action and did not even hew closely to its general editor’s own brand of scholarship. The History is not Sacvan Bercovitch’s account of U.S. literary history: it is, rather, the account that Sacvan Bercovitch brought into being, that only Sacvan Bercovitch could have brought into being, by setting a group of Americanists on a path and helping them to find their own way. As a result, I believe, the History will have staying power and will continue to be read, admired, and critiqued for far longer than similar projects in other fields.
The Cambridge History of American Literature was intended to be a five-year project; it took more than twenty, not only because, as it turned out, scholars write monograph-length pieces at radically different rates, but also because Saki was willing to let the History change its shape as it needed to through the reconfiguration of volumes and authors. I ended up benefiting directly from Saki’s approach, as I became a contributor to the seventh volume on prose after 1940, writing a section on “Emergent Literatures” that had not been part of the volume’s initial conception.
As associate editor for the history, I was responsible for tracking our “coverage” of the field and tracking changes in the profession and in what people were interested in talking about at conferences like the MLA and ASA. When the Cambridge History was in its planning stages in the early 1980s, a progressive approach to contemporary American fiction meant foregrounding the importance of texts written by women, as Wendy Steiner was doing in her section of the seventh volume, or African American writers, as Morris Dickstein was doing in his contribution. As time passed, however, it became increasingly clear to me as the then-associate editor of the History that no account of American fiction after World War II could seem anything but hopelessly dated without an extended treatment of what I began to call “emergent American literatures.” I began to argue that some of the most vital writing in American fiction after the Second World War is being done by writers who are conscious of belonging to groups that have been constructed as minorities by American culture and who, as groups, have less cultural standing than the Jewish American or the African American. Indeed, in Dickstein’s account of the novel between 1940 and 1970, which takes a resolutely biographical approach to literary history, the big story was the interplay of these two traditions. Bellow, Baldwin, Ellison and Roth emerged as the heroes of his section of the History. I suggested that these other minority traditions needed to be included and needed to be included in a comparative way that made clear the structural affinities among those bodies of literature.
Saki listened. He needed to be persuaded, but he listened. My arguments eventually prevailed, and we looked around for someone who could approach these literary traditions in a comparative fashion. Today, almost all aspirants for jobs in twentieth-century American literature feel that they need to be able to teach ethnic or minority literatures of some kind, preferably in some kind of comparative way. But very few people were doing this kind of comparative work at that time. And so the job fell to me, and the “Emergent Literatures” section was born. My career had once again taken an unexpected turn thanks to Saki. It wasn’t a turn that either he or I expected. “Emergent literatures” wasn’t even a subject for which he had even trained me. It was, however, a subject for which he had prepared me: once again, he set me on a path and let me find my own way.
In retrospect, that seems to me like an allegory for what he has done for the field of American Studies, and therefore I urge the committee to recognize Saki’s contributions by conferring the Bode-Pearson Prize upon him.
Click here to go to an interview with Saki from the online Harvard University Gazette last September.