The Times They Are A-Changin’
Earlier this year, Cecelia Tichi, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English, accepted the Hubbell Medal from the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association of America for lifetime achievement. In her acceptance speech, abridged here, she championed the role of literary scholarship in defining a country, reflecting an era and helping future generations make sense of contemporary events.
The founding year of the Hubbell award—1964, the year in which I graduated from the Pennsylvania State University—is significant and in many ways it has proved to be a major pivot point. At that moment—the mid-1960s—the post-World War II generation of Americanist critics (those awarded the Hubbell medal in the first decade of its existence) had published the landmark studies that all of us younger scholars of American literature relied upon for our exams, our dissertations, our entry-level work. We thought “so‘t’ would last for aye,” to quote a phrase from the Puritan verse of Michael Wigglesworth. We did not know that contemporary events were about to challenge us to undertake scholarship, criticism and the formation of course syllabi in a radically different direction.
Events of 1964 and thereabouts augured a new American literary-critical future. The origins of a half-century of new angles of vision (to borrow Wallace Stegner’s title) can be read in a backward glance. It was in 1964 that President Lyndon Johnson met with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, approving covert operations in Vietnam, and later that year dispatching 5,000 troops to do battle in Southeast Asia.
In that same year, some ten thousand persons, mainly students, rallied on the Berkeley campus of the University of California to call for the lifting of a ban on political speech and for freedom of speech for students everywhere.
In 1964, Martin Luther King conferred with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover concerning FBI surveillance of the civil rights leader, while Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam and formed the Organization for Afro-American Unity. In Mississippi, three young civil rights workers—Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney—disappeared near Meridian, their bodies found more than 40 days later. The year 1964 marked the federal Civil Rights Act and the ratification of the 24th Amendment forbidding the poll tax in federal elections.
It was in 1964 that China detonated a nuclear bomb, while social critic E. Digby Baltzell coined the term WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). Panamanians staged a lethal protest against American control of the Panama Canal. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique appeared in a paperback edition for 75 cents. And it was the year Rachel Carson died, the author of Silent Spring having concealed her fatal breast cancer to prevent dismissal of her work by critics—really, chemical companies and their political apologists—on the grounds of personal female animus.
On a light note, 1964 saw the introduction of the Ford Mustang, Pontiac GTO, and the Billboard hit “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by a British rock ‘n’ roll quartet called The Beatles.
Radically New Literary Scholarship
This farrago of events in and around the year of the first Hubbell award is an augury of the radically new and nationally burgeoning literary scholarship and criticism of the succeeding 45 years, and I am proud to have been a part of it. To cite the Bob Dylan album title of 1964, The Times They Are A-Changin’.
Hubbell awardees in recent years chronicle the richness and contiguity of numerous areas whose epistemic origins can be traced to dynamic events circa 1964. The change has long been self-evident in African American and diverse ethnic literary studies; in Native American literature and multicultural work; and in popular culture studies, including film, feminist studies, eco-criticism and disability studies. My own work has benefited enormously from the foment of that period of the Sixties and from the vigorous intellectual debate instigated and propagated by it.
Students need to understand literary engagement as a civic engagement.
But what of this moment? The times are always “a-changin’,” and our challenges are unrelenting. A man of color has been elected to the presidency, but no woman has yet occupied that office. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on and on, and the militarism of our culture and society deepens. These, and the so-called Great Recession, summon us to a new literary-scholarly engagement. At this moment some 15 million Americans are jobless, 46 million without health care, millions more underinsured. The sociopathology of Wall Street continues, while populism flares at both ends of the sociopolitical spectrum. “Food insecurity” is the new euphemism for hunger (those who are “insecure” report this problem upward of eight months of the year). And climate change grinds on, as political and civic action lags badly.
Literary Engagement as Civic Engagement
We owe ourselves, our graduate students and our undergraduates the scholarly and pedagogical projects commensurate with attention to these conditions throughout the continuum of the literary canons in which we operate (and which we delineate). Our graduate students deserve the encouragement to venture boldly. Our undergraduates deserve the courses that demonstrate to them that literary engagement is important to their lives in the present and in the future.
Students need to understand literary engagement as a civic engagement. Reluctant to acknowledge rivalry with colleagues in other fields, we must face the fact we indeed compete for our students’ time and thought. Literature and the humanities are tremendously pressured in the era of dominant science, technology and business. Quality of life is regarded in some quarters as synonymous solely with salary and wages. The monetary costs of higher education are questioned, and the humanities regarded as a costly distraction and (some suspect) irrelevant to students’ main endeavor: future employment. The terms “training” and “education” threaten to become interchangeable.
Yet we are uniquely positioned to read these times in all their complexity, to address them in the classroom and in scholarship, and to guide students and peers into the prior centuries of literature that speak fully and richly to the ongoing present.
We are well-situated to recognize the bases for encouragement in the work engendered by the equally critical decades of the later 20th century. We can thereby anticipate that new strengths and resources will disclose themselves and inspire our work in the years to come.
photo credit: Steve Green