On Saturday, January 9, 2021, Susan Gubar, University Distinguished Professor of English emerita, received the Modern Language Association’s Award for Lifetime Scholarly Achievement, the first event during the awards ceremony at MLA’s virtual convention. No one who knows — or even merely knows about — Susan Gubar can doubt the rightness of the award. It simply affirms what we already know, that Professor Gubar is among the most distinguished of the most distinguished American literary scholars and critics of all time.
Susan Gubar Wins MLA Lifetime Scholarly Achievement Award
Indeed, this is not her first lifetime achievement award. She and her long-time collaborator, Sandra M. Gilbert, received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle in 2012, and she has been elected a member of both the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. There have been too many other awards, distinctions, and fellowships to mention here, but it’s important to note that these include awards for her excellent teaching, which many readers of this newsletter know from their own experience.
Professor Gubar’s many publications warrant all the recognition. They have changed the ways in which we think about literature, gender, race and ethnicity, and American culture generally. Her collaborations with Gilbert are central to her influence. In the same year they published the foundational The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979), they also published a collection on Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women’s Poetry (1979). In the long decade that followed, they changed literary criticism and the canon of Anglophone works under consideration thoroughly and permanently. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985) — now in its third edition — was followed quickly by The Female Imagination and the Modernist Aesthetic (1986), then the three volumes of No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century (1988, 1989, 1994). With Diana O’Hehir, they edited MotherSongs: Poems, by, for and about Mothers (1995), and they produced the wicked, hilarious Masterpiece Theater: An Academic Melodrama (1995). We can look forward to their forthcoming Still Mad: American Women Writers and the Feminist Imagination — “a brilliant, sweeping history of the contemporary women’s movement told through the lives and works of the literary women who shaped it” — which will be published later this year.
This core collaboration is only part of Professor Gubar’s career, however. She is also the author of Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture (1997), co-editor with Joan Hoff of For Adult Users Only: The Dilemma of Violent Pornography (1989), author of Critical Condition: Feminism at the Turn of the Century (2000) and Poetry after Auschwitz (2003), editor of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (2005), then author of Rooms of Our Own (2006) and Judas: A Biography (2009), and editor of True Confessions: Feminist Professors Tell Stories Out of School (2011).
One realizes, taking the two previous paragraphs into account, that there are hardly enough years available for publication of Professor Gubar’s books. Many of her articles and essays have proven durably important, too, but, again, there are too many to list here. The number of them, though impressive, is not the point: they are as important as they are because they have inspired — still inspire — generations of women and because they have rearranged the way so many of us think, both in and out of the university. Research, teaching, criticism, public service — her work is all these things.
Professor Gubar joined the Indiana University faculty in 1973, after taking her Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, and retired in 2009, after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Since then, she’s added new chapters to both her life and work. She has become America’s most present writer of medical humanities, writing in new, less academic genres, notably Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer (2012). On November 27, 2013, she began writing for The New York Times; she has contributed more than 100 installments to her column, “Living with Cancer,” since. Some of those pieces were revised into Reading and Writing Cancer: How Words Heal (2016), and she has recently returned to memoir in the much acclaimed Late-Life Love (2018).
At the MLA ceremony, several of Professor Gubar’s most illustrious colleagues spoke feelingly about her importance, among them Sandra Gilbert, Ann duCille, Judith Fetterley, Nancy K. Miller, Elaine Showalter, Shirley Lim, and Hortense Spillers. They praised her for leading them all to the highest standard of feminist criticism but also for modeling collaboration as a mode of scholarly work and for being as great a friend as she is a scholar and teacher. After they’d had their say, Professor Gubar spoke for a few moments about how essential the arts and humanities and the leadership of universities are to the ongoing democratization of America. Hundreds attended the ceremony, including dozens of Professor Gubar’s IU colleagues — among them President Michael McRobbie, Provost Lauren Robel, and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Rick Van Kooten — and former students — including the current Executive Director of MLA, Paula Krebs. She looked us straight in the eye through Zoom, spoke firmly, as she does, challenged us and lifted our spirits at the same time.
From all of us — faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends — congratulations! We are privileged and proud to be in your department, Professor Gubar.