This curiosity has driven Dr. Gubar to be a remarkably prolific and diverse writer; she has published an astounding bibliography in a range of genres including feminist theory, Jewish studies, race studies, the medical humanities, memoir, and journalism. For Dr. Gubar, writing and academic study are not hermetic practices—rather, they inform and are informed by the experiences, conversations, and needs of life. As a result, she is able to articulate exactly why engaged study of the humanities is so urgently needed as a means of addressing some of society’s most pressing issues.
Dr. Gubar’s curiosity is not restricted to well-trod ground, an aspect of her character that has been true since her first entry into academia. She was uninspired by what she found to be the outdated elements of her undergraduate and graduate educations—feminist criticism, for instance, was “hardly a rubric” at the time—leading her to leave her first graduate program to become a teacher in New York City. There, she discovered the passion that would ultimately bring her back to academia: teaching. Primarily on the basis that it would allow her to teach undergraduates, she entered a Ph.D. program at the University of Iowa. Her coursework, which she found just as outdated, still bored her; she said, “I would go out to the corn fields and just scream to the corn about how dull it was.” Teaching, however, was rewarding enough for her to persevere, and so she went on to complete her degree and be hired as a professor of English at Indiana University in 1973.
Academia still had challenges in store for her: “I was in the office for the first time to get my mail,” she said, “and a senior professor came up to me and asked me to type his syllabus because he assumed I was a secretary.” However, together with fellow professor Sandra Gilbert, now Distinguished Professor of English emerita at the University of California, Davis, she taught a class in women’s literature that would later inform their co-authored landmark work of feminist scholarship, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979). The influence of their work is difficult to overstate; at the time the book was written, Dr. Gubar says, “women’s literature was not a genre yet.” On teaching their class, she continues, “we couldn’t get Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. It wasn’t available. It wasn’t in print.” The same went for “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, both of which they mimeographed for use in their class. Hurston’s text is now considered a classic of African-American literature, and all three texts have since found their places as cornerstones of both women’s literature and the literary canon at large. Madwoman is still credited as a landmark work of feminist, psychoanalytic, and Victorian literary criticism alike.
For Professor Gubar, the relationship between teaching and writing is one of profound mutual generosity and generation. The unknown is not to be feared; her passion for exploring the boundaries of her own capacity for understanding is instead a deeply motivating force. Of teaching, she says, “In a graduate seminar my aim was to give enough background information to get my students to a point where they were asking a question about the text that we could not answer, and that answer would sometimes spark their writing [as well as] my writing.” Academic study for Dr. Gubar is not a cloister or an ivory tower; instead, it is a collaborative experience with others engaged in the pursuit of knowledge and a deeper understanding of the world around them. Her vision of teaching is one that thrills, enlightens, challenges, and stimulates growth in teacher and student alike.
Dr. Gubar’s writing process mirrors this experience; while she could have rested comfortably in the realm of expert feminist literary critic, she instead says that each successive book she has written has been driven in part by a desire to recognize and address the “blinders” in her own work. Just as the goal of her teaching is to generate questions as much as answers, each book, by her description, gave rise to the next as she strove to address the gaps in her last. Racechanges (1997), a text that explores blackface and minstrelsy’s ongoing legacy in the United States and argues that “these traditions are still alive and well,” was an attempt to explore race’s profound entanglement with gender to an extent that was not possible in a text like Madwoman. Here, she again jumps seamlessly from academic study to the issues of public life; she points out a mirrored entanglement in the cross-pollination between women active in the Civil Rights Movement who went on to become feminist activists in the 1970s.
Dr. Gubar’s jump from literature to history is not coincidental; she sees a study of the humanities as a means of effecting real change. In a description of one of her works of Jewish studies, Poetry After Auschwitz (2003), she acknowledges that with many of the last survivors of the Holocaust dying, we need to find and understand a means for those who may not have been first-person witnesses to remember those events. She says of the power of writing to preserve these precious legacies in urgent times, “poetry has always historically served that purpose; it testifies, and it protests, and it makes auditory statements, and it tries to make you understand something about a moment in history…the poet does not necessarily have to be there at the Trojan War to record a record of the Trojan War.” It is not so much that Dr. Gubar joins life and literature, but rather that she recognizes them as having always been joined.
Dr. Gubar is a figure who makes one believe utterly in the value of the humanities. After her diagnosis of ovarian cancer in 2008, she became a prolific writer in the field of medical humanities, seeking to give medical experience “a language, and a rich language.” She has written hundreds of entries in a New York Times column entitled “Living With Cancer” and has written Memoir of a Debulked Woman (2012) as well as Reading and Writing Cancer: How Words Heal (2016). While her initial prognosis estimated that she had three to four years remaining, an experimental treatment extended her life long past all original estimates. Rather than focus on her own struggles, her mind turns perpetually to how she can use her analytical powers for good: “There’s transformational things going on in science and medicine, and patients need to understand them. One thing a medical humanist can do is translate science and medicine into everyday language that patients can understand.” Another thing they can do, she argues, is to explicate the process and cost of producing a drug and wield rhetoric to advocate politically for changes to the consumer cost of medical treatments.
With years she was initially told she would not have, she has turned her sights to exploring the topic of aging with nuance and care not usually afforded such subjects. Late Life Love (2018) explores her marriage to fellow Professor emeritus in English at IU, Donald J. Gray, while blending in literary analysis; Dr. Gubar says, “I wanted to recover a literary tradition of old lovers, and I did find quite a bit of interesting work about aging men and women, and men and men, and women and women in loving partnerships.” While aging and its unique challenges are often dismissed, Dr. Gubar brings the richness and complexity of life that is possible as we age.
Her latest publication, Still Mad (2021), co-authored with Dr. Gilbert, profiles activists of feminism’s second wave while very consciously addressing a Trump-era America. Crucially, as in all her work, Dr. Gubar resists defeatism. When asked, as an academic and activist, whether she worried about the wave of political anti-intellectualism, she said, “One of the things we trace in Still Mad…is that there was always a backlash against feminism from the ’60s on until today.” Dr. Gubar sees this backlash not as a rejection, but rather as a similar sign of the great political progress made by activists and intellectuals in recent years.
With this kind of résumé, Dr. Gubar has more than earned a peaceful retirement, but her curious mind still finds questions unanswered. She is currently researching for a new book entitled How She Aged in which she explores the “last years of long-lived women writers.” Dr. Gubar’s curiosity, it is clear, is inextinguishable. She says she is interested in “how not just women writers, but women sculptors, women poets, women painters, how they managed to sustain their creativity in their last decade—because I think I need to know.”