“An ample field would be opened”: A Roundtable Honoring Sharon M. Harris
OEIAHC-SEA Joint Conference, 20 June 2015, Chicago
Theresa Strouth Gaul, Professor of English and Director of Women and Gender Studies, Texas Christian University
Today’s roundtable honoring the contributions of Sharon M. Harris (or Sherry, as she is familiarly known) takes its title—“An ample field would be opened”—from Judith Sargent Murray’s essay “On the Equality of the Sexes.” It seems to me that this quotation succinctly encapsulates the effects of Sherry’s work in the field of early American women’s writing: her work, in its various forms (scholarly, editorial, organizational, mentoring, pedagogical, and administrative) opened up an ample field of inquiry to all of us that we continue to explore and develop and for which we must be grateful. Sherry has contributed three monographs, thirteen editions or anthologies, and dozens of articles to that field herself. But she has also influenced it in countless other ways, some of which the presenters will discuss today. Sherry’s career began at Temple University and concluded at the University of Connecticut, where she directed the Institute of Humanities, and included stints at the University of Nebraska and Texas Christian University, where I had the honor of being her colleague. Actually, I was in the unique and I now know fortunate position of being in the first year of my first job when I was placed on the search committee to hire an endowed chair in American literature, a search that would result in the hiring of the person who would become the most influential mentor in my career. I remember freaking out when I saw that she had applied for the job, and I remember freaking out even more when I was waiting to pick her up at the airport. I was going to meet someone famous! And then imagine my embarrassment when on the way home from DFW airport with this celebrity figure in my car, in a metropolitan area where I had lived only 4 months, I proceeded to get lost SIX times (and this before GPS, of course). Yet Sherry remained unflappable throughout, calm and kind, seeming not to register or judge my confusion or errors. And those traits were a fair predictor of how I would continue to perceive her in the years to come.
I now count myself among the legions of scholars whom Sherry has mentored. When I found the texts that formed the basis of my first book, I honest-to-goodness didn’t know what to do with them! The stages from discovery to publication were a nearly complete mystery to me. After telling Sherry about them and why I thought they were important, she helped me develop—or to be more accurate—presented to me, while letting me think that I had developed it—an “action plan” that gave direction, focus, and agency to a young, pretty much terrified, assistant professor. Sherry’s gift as a mentor is an unusual ability to empower the recipient of the mentoring. I’ve encountered other mentors who are too directive, too detached, too overpowering, too dedicated to an ethic of “tough love,” too emotionally manipulative. But Sherry is always “just right.” When one benefits from Sherry’s mentoring, one has the sense “I’m doing this all on my own. Look how smart and talented and successful I am!” Yet one can inevitably draw a straight line from her mentoring to any resultant proof of intelligence, talent, or success. Her mentoring embodies pure professionalism, constant support, and, almost miraculously, self-effacement of herself as mentor, something I try to emulate with my own students today, though with no doubt less success.
Sherry’s retirement in 2014 in no way marks the end of her contributions to the field of early American literature, American literature more broadly, or women’s writing. Indeed, I think it’s possible her retirement will mark a period of new scholarly productivity: several books are in progress and/or forthcoming, as is work in digital humanities. But the participants in this roundtable, at the invitation of the SEA leadership, are nevertheless taking the opportunity the marker of her retirement grants us to evaluate the importance of her contributions to the field. Each of the presenters is taking a different angle on her work– addressing her editing, work on women writers and on medicine in literature, collaboration, institutional work in developing SEA, teaching, mentoring–as you will hear in their remarks. Even so, taken together, we still cannot cover the range of her work or the impact she has had. I do wish therefore to direct you to two tribute articles printed in Legacy 31.2, written by Susan Belasco and Nicole Tonkovich. And I hope that after the roundtable concludes you will move with us to the reception for American Literature, a journal in which Sherry has published and for which she served on the editorial board, and take the opportunity to personally wish Sherry well with her future ventures.
Rosemary Guruswamy, Professor and Chair of English at Radford University in Virginia, founding Vice-President of SEA
When I agreed to serve as one of the founding scholars of the Society of Early Americanists in 1992, I became aware of the beginning career of Sharon Harris, and her interests in early American women writers. Coming from a traditional Ph.D. program, my knowledge of early American literature focused mostly on male writers and most particularly on Edward Taylor. Through my acquaintance with Sherry and our years together on the executive board, my knowledge of women writers grew, as did all of ours, through her research into parts of our early literary heritage that had fallen fallow in most of our academic institutions and library holdings. As all of us in the upcoming generation of early American scholars increased our sophistication in accessing the archives, Sherry took the lead in editing for us—and bringing to our delighted attention—works by female novelists, Native American women, African American slaves, businesswomen, and women interested in the politics of the time. Especially her two edited collections that came out in the 90’s—Redefining the Political Novel: American Women Writers, 1797-1901 and the ground-breaking American Women Writers to 1830: An Oxford Anthology—were instrumental in the increase of our knowledge. Following up with Early Women’s Historical Writings, 1790-1830, Executing Race: Early Women’s Narratives of Race, Society, and the Law and the more recent U.S. Letters and Cultural Transformations, 1760-1860, co-edited with Theresa Gaul, Sherry opened our eyes even more and, more importantly, allowed us to demonstrate the entire cultural relevance of women in colonial times and the early Republic to the many classes we have taught and younger scholars we have nurtured. Hardly resting, she also studied early women editors as well, and published a collection of periodical literature, co-edited with Mark Kamrath, and a collection of women editors of periodicals. In short, her editing work produced as books has aided our discovery of the many contributions to discourse, both in manuscript and print, that women made in the early days of America.
Besides the books edited, Sherry also served as editor of Legacy journal from 1996 to 2004, and advisory editor from that point on. Nicole Tonkovich has written an informative article in volume 31 of the journal that reveals essentially that what she did with her books, Sherry also did with this journal; in Tonkovich’s words: “[Harris] provided a point around which those interested in recovery work, archival research, literary analysis, and cultural studies could find common ground.” During the same period of time, related to the amount of work she did to redesign and enlarge Legacy, she founded and served as president of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers, this during the time she was also serving as President of our Society. Then, since she apparently wasn’t busy enough, she responded to the closing of the Rutgers University Press American Women Writers series by negotiating with the University of Nebraska to produce their Legacies in Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers series, which she edited until 2012, when Theresa Gaul succeeded her as editor.
Both the Society of Early Americanists and the Society for the Study of American Women Writers have attempted to open up their academic areas to a vast number of disciplines beyond literature, such as history, religious studies, sociology, art history, and many other fields. In turn, because Sherry’s work and that of others had taught us that the earlier construction of literary life in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries that told us women writers were Anne Bradstreet and maybe Phillis Wheatley was patently false, we have all participated in an explosion of the canonical definition of what it means to be an early American woman writer.
But always, as I plan my early American courses, I turn to her Oxford edition. Here we find women writers from a vast number of the colonies; women writing on education, from learning how to grind the Native American way to learning how to divert their minds from their household tasks; women writing letters to ensure successful business transactions; women writing diaries and travel journals; women so caught up in the religious fervor of the times that they are having mystical visions; women of different classes writing about the issues of their class; and of course women writing plays and novels. Through Sherry’s work we have come to understand the “damned mob of scribbling women” that Hawthorne identified was a much larger horde than prior literary history led us to expect.
Although we only saw each other occasionally over the many years the Society has been in existence, I have noticed in Sherry’s demeanor and her work all the factors that make an academic an excellent scholar—the ability to conquer the archives (putting up with dust and small print), the capacity to believe in one’s research despite criticism; and the application of context to all literary findings enhanced by insatiable curiosity and incredibly wide reading. As Joanna Brooks said in her review of Executing Race: “Harris steadily and unsentimentally reconstructs the lives of these women authors. She never reduces their stories to simple scripts of resistance and she acknowledges their complex humanity, moments of complicity, and failures of vision as well.” This summarizes what my students and I, over the years, have found to be true of Sherry’s research when it leads to teachable moments in my classroom: not only do the individual women authors come alive, not only do their works take on contemporary meaning, but the whole complexity of woman’s place in the writing of early America becomes known.
There is still more to do, and younger scholars are doing it. But all of them rest on the shoulders of this woman, Sharon M. Harris, and her devotion to her editing work over these many years.
Mark Kamrath, Professor of English at University of Central Florida
How does one begin to prepare remarks for an occasion such as this—a retirement from the university—when he has neither the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin nor the wit of Abigail Adams? One Googles, of course, like our students, to see what the world has to say about “Sharon M. Harris.”
As I stared at “about 85,900,000 results,” from numerous “Sharon M. Harris” Facebook profiles (some of which highlighted the music of Miley Cyrus, others who liked the movie “Hotel Transylvania”), I also saw hundreds of links to publications, Twitter accounts, book reviews, and genealogy trees, and I began to think I’d have better luck with Amazon. My hunch was right. . . .
Instantly, I learned that Sherry had published much more than I had imagined. Sherry is involved with a book series entitled “SEALS of Summer 2: A Military Romance Superbundle” (to be released July 7, 2015). She has recently co-authored Cain’s Shadows from the Past, a novel which teasingly asks,” “Is Cain Matthews a modern day girl glimpsing pieces of a past life, or is she Charity Kingston glimpsing pieces of a future life?” And she also published Exposing the Pain, an autobiography about her experiences living with a drug dealer and raising two children in south-central Los Angeles.
As I pushed on through the pages of results, I began to see more familiar titles such as the Selected Writings of Judith Sargent Murray (1995) and Women’s Early American Historical Narratives (2003). The more I clicked though, the more titles I saw until I encountered the “Harris School of Business” and, finally, “Harris Communications”—a mail order catalogue for the hard of hearing. Surely, I thought, I now know what Sherry has been up to all these years. That would not be true, of course, because we all know that there are databases that continue to document the scholarly productivity of “Sharon M. Harris” in terms of journal articles, book chapters, book reviews, and other publications. My task today, however, is not bibliographical, nor even biographical; rather it is to say a few words about Sherry’s professional “collaboration”—what Noah Webster called “co-operation” or “the act of working, or operating together.” Toward that end, I would like to share some observations about: 1) my own work with Sherry; 2) what I know of her collaboration with some of you, her colleagues; 3) and, finally, what kind of impact she has had over the last 20 years in regard to her work with organizations and societies.
1) Let me begin by borrowing a few words from Susan Belasco at the University of Nebraska. She has observed in a recent edition of Legacy, “That so many of Sherry’s publications have been produced in association with others is a sign of her extraordinary commitment to scholarship as a collective enterprise. Her collaborations include co-editorships with colleagues such as Theresa Strouth Gaul, Linda K. Hughes, Mark Kamrath, Jeffrey Richards, Robin L. Cadwallader, and Janice Lasseter. . . Perhaps the most impressive example of Sherry’s commitment to collaboration and the promotion of the scholarship of others is her work as a major force behind the Journal Legacy” (151-152).
I first met Sherry at the University of Nebraska and talked with her around September, 1992. I say “around” because our first conversation took place at a backyard graduate student party one evening, near a keg of beer. I have no recollection now of conversation details (or why she was playing around with the keg tap handle), but I do still recall my impression of how easy it was to talk with her about, of all things, early American literature. One semester and conversation led to another, and I found myself asking Sherry to be on my dissertation committee and to help me figure out what was going on in the historical writings of Charles Brockden Brown.
While her mentoring at that time was a form of collaboration, it would be a few years later in 1996 when, about to leave for Florida, we talked about an edited collection that would eventually be entitled Periodical Literature in Eighteenth-Century America. I will not rehearse here the whole story of how we found contributors, structured the book, dealt with a “new” database called “American Periodical Series Online,” found still more contributors, or divided our editorial labor. I will say, though, that working with Sherry gave me the opportunity to develop a collaborative work ethic that would serve me well on other editorial projects. Publication of our book in 2005, after nearly 9 years of work, was deeply satisfying because it brought together interdisciplinary scholarship from both older and younger scholars and made use of database access that was at the time just emerging. We rode the wave, as they say, and I am, I think, a better scholar, editor, and collaborator for it.
2) But I am not the only person who has benefitted from collaboration with Sherry. There are many others, some of whom are in this room today. For instance, Robin Cadwallader, who edited Rebecca Harding Davis’s Stories of the Civil War Era in 2010 with Sherry, wrote to say: “Sherry is a scholar, mentor, and friend. But my comments here will be limited to her mentoring. She has always been extremely generous to new scholars and has done so much to include them in her scholarship. She has graciously shared her research and resources with me (as well as others, I suspect) and continues to encourage me in new directions in my own scholarship. She is also a wonderful collaborator.”
Linda Hughes, a colleague at TCU, co-edited with Sherry A Feminist Reader—a four volume set of 1,904 pages, published by Cambridge University Press in 2013, that had a shipping weight of 7.3 pounds. She also reflected warmly about her memories of working with Sherry. She recalled that after doing endless proofing of selections, then galleys, then proofs for the Feminist Reader, she and Sherry also ended up having to do their own index for some 780,000 words. She says (quote) “There was no rejoicing at that news. We each took 2 of the four volumes requiring indexes and at the end swore we would never, never, never do our own indexing again. Sherry displayed an iron ability to endure tedium and minutiae on a scale that would be the envy of no one.”
3) Finally, just as Sherry has collaborated with several of us on a range of scholarly projects, she has also served on many editorial and advisory boards, and taken the lead, or worked with others, in standing up organizations and societies. The list here, again, is long and impressive, and includes her role as President and Founder of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers (from 1998-2003). But I want to highlight her work with the Society of Early Americanists.
Along with Carla Mulford and Rosemary Guruswamy, Sherry was a Founding Officer in 1992 of the Society of Early Americanists, and served consecutive terms over seven years as its Executive Coordinator, Vice-President, and President. During that time, she demonstrated her commitment to scholarship as a collective enterprise by contributing her energy and talents to growing the field of early American literature. Here are some interesting facts and numbers. In 1992, membership in SEA was probably around 150 people; today membership stands around 350-400 people. Also, at the inaugural SEA conference in 1999 in Charleston, SC, around 180 people presented; this weekend, there are over 400 people participating. In addition, SEA now offers topical conferences and is about to offer annual workshops. All of these measures are a testimony to the impact she and others made on the field, and the kinds of scholarly opportunities SEA leadership, past and present, has provided faculty and graduate students.
In sum, I think all of Sherry’s collaborators would agree that she was “superb”: always intellectually engaged, always sure to do her part, always cooperative and proactive, always scrupulously fair and generous, and always producing excellent work.
Our good friend and colleague Jeff Richards who loved early American theatre is no longer here, but I want to give him the last word. If Jeff were here, I think he’d say, on behalf of all of us (and with his trademark smile), “Sherry, we’re so glad we were able to create these projects, large and small, together. Thanks for your hard work over the decades; thanks for your warmth and generosity as a scholar and human being; thanks for being a good early Americanist “chum” and . . . despite whatever Google says you’re doing in your retirement, thanks for being ‘Sharon M. Harris.’”
Carla Mulford, Associate Professor of English at Penn State University, founding President of SEA
She was always in her office, always working. The offices for the English Department at Temple University were in “pods” – three or four or small offices connected to a central space via once-sliding walls, all dressed in the office gray, cream, and tan of the “modern” 1970s. Overhead fluorescent lights, metal desks, yellowish/white rubber floor tiles, stale odors – these were the “mod pod” sterile spaces where Sharon M. Harris fruitfully opened her scholarly career. Her colleague Louis Cellucci introduced me to Sherry as the new early Americanist in his department. I was intrigued, because their colleagues were not very interested in early American studies. I knew that, having taught at Temple as a full-time equivalent while writing my dissertation. Sherry would discover this for herself. I hoped to entice her to Penn State, where I thought we might together work on projects that would help my then stagnant and dysfunctional department re-design itself in American literature and culture studies. Sherry knew I was disappointed that she decided to accept Nebraska’s offer – she called me to let me know she was pulling out of our search – but I think she never knew just how disappointed I was that she didn’t even come for her campus interview before deciding that Nebraska was where she wanted to be.
I figured out another way to get a chance to work with her – by inviting her to become the Executive Coordinator for the Society I was in the process of developing. When I called her to inquire about her possibly taking on the onerous job of Executive Coordinator of the Society-in-the-making, I learned that she already knew how to file IRS papers to gain non-profit status, how to define and operate a separate account for a non-profit organization, and how to field questions of a business sort that would make our formation go most smoothly. When Rosemary Fithian Guruswamy then agreed to become the founding Vice President, we all met for the first time and began pulling the organization together. Or, perhaps more accurately, Sherry pulled it together, filling out our paperwork, keeping the files on members, making sure our treasury was sufficiently operable, and keeping track of ongoing business related to the American Literature Association conferences. When we would meet with the larger group of selected advisors of the Society, Sherry was amazing in her capacity to address myriad questions about the Society.
When I look back over Sherry’s career, I realize that while she was starting up the Society and handling our most difficult and time-consuming roles, she was also publishing or putting together several books, including Rebecca Harding Davis and American Realism (1991), Redefining the Political Novel: American Women Writers, 1797-1901 (1995), Selected Writings of Judith Sargent Murray (1995), American Women Writers to 1830 (1996), American Prose Writers, 1870-1920 (2000), and Rebecca Harding Davis, Writing Cultural Autobiography (2001). She became the editor of the journal Legacy in 1996, right in the middle of her years as an officer of the SEA, and she was developing her own Society, the Society for the Study of American Women Writers, just as her stint as an officer of the SEA concluded. Sherry’s devotion to the profession and to her work in feminist studies remains my strongest memory of working with her during those years of the formation of the Society of Early Americanists.
For those who are relatively new to the profession, it is perhaps hard to understand the difficulties we might have faced as three women working to develop a new Society in a field area inhabited primarily by men. To be sure, there were important women scholars who preceded us in early American and early women’s literature – Annette Kolodny, Cecelia Tichi, Jane Tompkins, Cathy Davidson – but they were all very busy making their careers. Some like Annette were in important administrative posts. Others were working on materials no longer in the early field. If they supported our efforts in those earliest moments, it was a silent support from the sidelines. Some in early American studies continued to write laments about the changes going on in the profession and our field. They looked around and engaged in verbal hand-wringing about the fact that the study of Puritan men no longer formed the preponderance of scholarship in the field and that a whole cluster of writings by women and persons of color were being studied and published on. When we were attacked – and it’s hard to believe, I’m sure, but we were sometimes attacked – some complained that we put graduate students on our conference panels, while others worried about what they perceived to be an insufficient number of papers on “major” writers in our sessions. We needed the support of Leo Lemay and Bill Scheick in those first days, because their significant presence on our Advisory Council lent credence to our endeavor. Bill’s important and timely newsletter helped us seal the deal with Alfred Bendixen that we were a viable Society.
Our reward, as officers, was that those who were entering the profession in our field would report to us, again and again, that the SEA and its panels at conferences “feel like home.” The ALA conferences and then our stand-alone conferences *do* feel like home for many early Americanists.
Sherry Harris made the Society possible by working as hard as she did, when she did, to sustain its operations and stabilize its offices. I wish I were there with you to celebrate her inestimable contribution to making possible the Society you are enjoying today.
Zabelle Stodola, Professor of English Emerita, University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Independent Scholar, past president of SEA
I’ve known Sherry for so long that I don’t actually remember when we first met. But I think it was after Carla, Sherry, and Rosemary founded the Society of Early Americanists and began to sponsor sessions at the American Literature Association. And that was years before the first stand-alone SEA Conference held in Charleston in 1999. I do recall (and this will really date me) attending the Prospects Conference on early American literature which Everett Emerson organized at Chapel Hill in 1989. I don’t think Sherry was there but Carla was. He was then editor of the journal Early American Literature and the thought and reality of a small conference devoted to literature from early America made those of who attended feel as if one day the field might really arrive in terms of wider recognition by the profession. Even though the Prospects Conference focused largely on mainstream male Puritans, it was a stepping stone to a time when the definition of “early” and “American” would be challenged and changed; when far more texts by and about women, Native Americans, and African Americans would qualify for inclusion in the field; when the Anglocentric bias would be toppled; and when the area’s complexities warranted increasing attention to contemporary theory.
Not long after that—probably in 1992—Carla sent out a questionnaire to eleven hundred scholars asking “Should there be a Society of Early Americanists?” I was one of them. I wonder if she was surprised at the sheer number of people who emphatically responded “Yes!” though if you look at her account of the history of SEA on the SEA website you’ll see that a few of the letters she received were vehemently and nastily negative. Carla quickly enlisted the help and support of Sherry and Rosemary (who had responded particularly positively to her questionnaire) and they all envisioned that the SEA would be a haven not only for early American literature specialists but for those in other disciplines such as art, music, gender studies, Native studies, material culture from the colonial and pre-colonial periods, and, of course, history. Those of us involved with the SEA during its early days also recognized the significance of three women launching the Society and challenging the field’s subaltern status in terms of its not being early American history and not being the more canonized 19th- and 20th-century American literature.
The next step after SEA got going as an organization was to guarantee a number of panels at the annual American Literature Association conferences. And although the MLA Division on American Literature Before 1830 always sponsored several sessions at the MLA Convention, it’s worth noting that the ALA was formed as a direct challenge to MLA’s privileging of English and European literatures over American literature. As SEA developed its own identity and ethos, it deliberately emulated some of the ALA’s inclusiveness—welcoming graduate students and junior faculty as presenters, scheduling sessions on pedagogy, recovering the works of women and other minority writers, and leveling canonical and non-canonical texts, for example.
I thank Rosemary (who was founding vice president of SEA) for going into her archival folders to retrieve specific information about Sherry’s contributions. Sherry was founding Executive Coordinator of the Society. In some minutes Rosemary has from May 1993, she noted that Carla thanked Sherry for “her efficient, immense amount of work in getting the Society started and organizing its non-profit status.” Sherry also set up the membership rolls and the finances. She helped Rosemary organize the first conference attendance at SEA-sponsored panels at ALA in summer 1994 and they both put together the original directory of early American scholars in late winter 1993, at which point there were 231 members. Sherry also handled the ratification of the By-Laws and Constitution and the first election of officers (after the original slate).
I came to know Sherry quite well at what became three and sometimes four guaranteed early American sessions at the American Literature Association. Later our friendship was consolidated at SEA’s stand-alone conferences and at the conferences sponsored by the Society Sherry herself established—the Society for the Study of American Women Writers. And as I pondered what to say in my remarks today, I realized that I wanted to present Sherry as a model academic citizen, someone who shows us all how to live up to the ideals of our profession. You’ve already heard testaments to Sherry as a mentor, teacher, editor, scholar, leader, and collaborator, and these roles indicate her ability to negotiate the different demands of academia. Not all of us find ourselves able to do so with the same grace or success. But let me elaborate.
It takes a tremendous amount of energy and commitment to excel in the three standard areas on which we’re judged at our institutions and beyond: research, teaching, and service. Look at Sherry’s resume and you’ll see her many contributions in each of these domains. Is it sixteen books at this point or more than that? Has anyone else in this room published four books in the same year as Sherry did in 2009? Note that these book-length publications span a variety of intellectual gaps including critical monographs, biographies reclaiming the lives of women writers and activists, reference works, editions, pedagogical aids, and theoretical explorations of feminism. Her ground-breaking books have appeared with premier academic and trade presses such as Cambridge and Penguin, and several of them were nominated for important awards.
Others have discussed Sherry’s teaching skills so I will not dwell on them. But it’s significant that she was recognized for her pedagogical contributions at several universities where she taught. At Texas Christian University, graduate students selected her as teacher of the year in the English Department while undergraduates there voted to accord her “Undergraduate Student Recognition” for several years. I know first-hand that Sherry is a wonderful teacher because my colleague Jim Levernier and I invited her to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to teach a class and give a public lecture. She is not just knowledgeable but passionate about the subjects she teaches.
Sherry has handled an astonishing amount of service at all levels from the departmental to the profession at large. A small sampling will illustrate what I mean. Series editor, “Legacies of 19th-Century US Women Writers” for the University of Nebraska Press; editor of Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers; editorial board member at various times for American Literature, Legacy, and Early American Literature; member of the faculty senate at the University of Connecticut, and on and on.
You know, earlier I said that I wanted to present Sherry as a model academic. But a model academic is also a model human being. Hard-working, generous, collaborative, energetic, productive, kind, fair-minded, innovative, and humorous. These are just some of Sherry’s qualities and I’m happy to draw attention to them. Here’s one of my favorite stories about her. In 1999 she was outgoing president of SEA just as I assumed the duties of Executive Coordinator, so unfortunately we did not work together as officers. But I knew how much effort she had expended to help found SEA and then serve six years in office. So as she stepped down, I said that I imagined she would be happy to take some time off from the demands of heading a professional group. She looked dubious and mildly amused. “Er no,” she replied, “I’m actually in the process of founding another organization and I expect I will serve as its president.” She then asked me if I’d have any interest in running for office with SSAWW while also fulfilling my six years as an SEA officer. I don’t recall my exact words, but I know what I was thinking, “Not on your life!”
I do believe that SEA’s identity has continued to embody the ideals of its founding officers. It is a welcoming, egalitarian locus for people who like to work, think, and play hard. Even when SEA’s greatest visibility was at the American Literature Association conferences, we always made time to gather snacks and beverages for an impromptu get-together (or two) in someone’s room. The organization didn’t have the money then to pay for more formal receptions and there weren’t that many of us anyway. And at the very first SEA conference in Charleston, organized and hosted by David Shields, the highlights involved not only intellectual stimulation but also the conviviality of several receptions, including one in a historic ante-bellum house on a balmy spring evening with plentiful wine, conversation, and canapes flowing.
I was in touch recently with Pattie Cowell, who was an important presence in the early days of SEA and who did formative work on early American women poets. As senior scholars, she and I discussed the phenomenal growth of early American studies over the years. Isn’t it satisfying, she said, and here I’m quoting from her, “to think we have been part of something so dynamic and transforming.” I couldn’t agree more. SEA has played a key role in the field’s expansion, and for that we must thank the vision of all three founding officers: thank you Carla (wish you were here), thank you Rosemary, thank you Sherry.
Maureen Tuthill, Associate Professor of English, Westminster College
Sherry once wrote that Rebecca Harding Davis “preferred to write about other women’s lives, not her own.” I imagine that Sherry is feeling a little bit of that sentiment right now. Her colleagues and friends, who deeply respect her, often remark on her “hidden hand” (Tonkovich), her understated way of moving an entire scholarly field forward, and with it, the individuals who have sought her help, advice, and collaboration over the years. I am happy to have the chance to describe what it was like to have her direct my dissertation at the University of Connecticut. I met Sherry after I had completed coursework and exams at UConn and while she was working on her NEH grant, just prior to her arrival on campus in 2006.
In my first interactions with Sherry, I was struck by how accessible she was as a person. She was easy to talk to, and she listened. She was smart, and she was real. Susan Belasco comments in Legacy on Sherry’s “characteristic genuine interest” in people, including young scholars whom she meets by chance at conferences. She had come to UConn with great fanfare; the English faculty was ecstatic to have a scholar of her caliber join their ranks. Because of her reputation, I thought she would be formal, and perhaps, limited in the amount of time she could give me. But she never once made me feel that way. She responded to my first email immediately and we met in her still empty office at UConn in a matter of days. Establishing that relationship with Sherry changed the entire course of my graduate study.
I had already chosen medicine and literature as the focus of my dissertation, but Sherry’s input made it vivid. Her own investigations into the history of medicine, her research on Dr. Mary Walker, her long-standing interrogations of the way women have intervened in male-dominated professions such as medicine and the law—all of these areas of inquiry burst open my initial conception of the topic. And Sherry’s impact on my graduate experience was more than just about business. The way she related to me as a person began to shape my self-perception as a scholar. I’m not sure what she thinks about the term “mentor” because it suggests a hierarchical relationship. I will say, instead, that she has always been a judicious sounding board, someone whose assessments are astute, someone who has the map for navigating through this profession. Sherry noted that the female character that Davis liked to create was “a woman of confidence”: natural, intelligent, a person of “uncompromising honesty.” These words also describe Sherry. As a seasoned scholar, she lived far “across the gulf” from me, but she did not make a point of testing me and challenging me in capricious fashion, just to keep me on my toes, which had been my experience with some other grad school professors. She worked with me.
I loved the way she contextualized the literature, situating it in the specific world that produced it. Most of my literary study, from college through the end of my Ph.D. coursework, was steeped in the New Critical mode of revering the text in isolation, or beyond that, fitting it into whatever critical framework was trending at the time. It wasn’t until I started having conversations with Sherry that I began to see the author as a person who has specific motivations for writing, and those motivations are personal and cultural and gendered and racialized. The writer employs art to comment on, and sometimes, shift reality. These are the literary and human tasks that interest Sherry, and they are reflected in her own work as a critic and a biographer. She once wrote that Davis rejected the “belief that authorship incorporated prophecy.” Well, neither does literary criticism incorporate prophecy. And literary critics do not constitute an exclusive club with esoteric requirements for access. Sherry refers to graduate study as “training”: you work, you prepare, you collaborate, you produce. It is a practice that can be methodical and objective, and incredibly relevant to present reality.
Right from the start, Sherry helped me to sharpen my critical focus. The first piece of my dissertation that I submitted to her was an analysis of illness and healing in Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple. I wanted to demonstrate my thorough scholarship, so I packed it with references to some of the “greats” from four decades prior—Robert Chase, Leslie Fiedler. Sherry waved it all off—too old, too long ago. She wasn’t just telling me to engage the current scholarship; she was telling me not to chase after the field because parts of it were broken. In describing her own work on the recovery of women’s writings, she notes, “I had to acquire a new critical language to explain what I valued in these fascinating but largely nontraditional texts.” And she was right. For example, Leslie Fiedler’s Charlotte Temple is unrecognizable to me now. Like many of his male contemporaries, he tended to take a broad, theoretical view of the whole of American literature and name it. He referred to Charlotte Temple as “subliterate myth.” Subliterate? Because a woman wrote it or because it has to do with women’s lives or with emotion or with moments of experience that exist before we wrap them up in language? And, myth? Because Rowson’s novel doesn’t deal with commonplace reality? The gradual death of a young girl who is pregnant out of wedlock and cannot find anyone on American soil to help her is not the stuff of myth. Where Fiedler saw “seduction and virginity,” Sherry directed me toward the social and political issues of medicine and pregnancy.
Her work has always concentrated more on these material, literate, and unmythologized truths because they tell us about actualities, not theories. She always moved away from the established paradigm, and in this, I see her critical sensibilities converging with those she identified in Rebecca Harding Davis. Sherry observed that Davis disliked any “capricious reliance on theory,” and “devoted her life to debunking mythologies, of the past and the present, recognizing them as the process of glossing over the harsh realities of life in favor of a romanticized vision.” Sherry doesn’t romanticize. As she says of Davis, reality is her muse. She doesn’t overlay her critical assessments with pontificating or theoretical posing. She puts herself way in the background of her critical analyses. As Nicole Tonkovitch recently remarked, Sherry abounds in “skills of gentle persuasion and rhetorical deftness.”
Sherry’s work on Dr. Mary Walker clearly benefitted me as I was dissertating. She acquainted me with the racialized, gendered scientific discourse that has informed Western medicine from its inception. It permeates everything—the literature, medical theory and practices, and standards for who will be admitted to the profession. Sherry’s next book directly interrogates that discourse in 19th-century America, focusing on what she terms the “medical imaginary,” or the linked narratives of medicine and national progress, which, by and large, refused to include women. Early in her work on Davis, Sherry identified some of the curious alignments between medicine and fiction, and now she is well-positioned to assess the entire discourse. And isn’t it sadly ironic that we are here today talking about Sherry’s work in this field in the wake of a Twitter firestorm created by women scientists who are tweeting “distractingly sexy” photos of themselves at work, after Nobel prize-winning scientist Sir Tim Hunt said he can’t seem to stay focused with “girls” in his lab? Even the Royal Society of London distanced itself from Hunt—the Royal Society, which by the way, began codifying racialized, gendered scientific discourse when it was formed in 1660. Perhaps Mary Walker herself was #distractinglysexy in her 19th-century men’s clothing. We don’t know for sure, but Sherry describes how Walker steeled herself against a public discourse that dismissed her, and she did so with incisive retorts and a quick wit. In the biography, Sherry includes this, written by Walker:
“I have a woman’s mind, and know that all my conclusions are obtained through the reasoning powers and not through instinct. Let no man dare say that woman jumps at conclusions through instinct, for no man is capable of fathoming a woman’s mind; for woman reasons by telegraph, and his stage coach reasoning cannot keep pace with her’s.”
If we didn’t know about women like Mary Walker, or in general, about the women of confidence that Sherry spent her career finding, recovering, and writing about, would women in science today be responding with “mirth,” as CNN reported, to Tim Hunt’s eventual resignation from University College London? We, in the humanities, are under fire to prove that our scholarly work has an impact in the real world. Sherry shows how it happens.
There are many different ways of modeling success for a professional woman, and Sherry’s specific style has been extremely important to me. One of the biggest concerns I’ve had about my own entrance into academia is that I was a non-traditional student, i.e., I started late. I worked for years as a reporter and a freelance writer as I inched my way through an M.A. program until I could devote myself fulltime to Ph.D. study. I got here as soon as I could, but I’ve often felt behind. Sherry always eased my mind on this score because she had a career in business before academia. When I would sometimes lament that I was older than my fellow grad students, Sherry, would say, “It was the same for me.” So, she helped me to change that part of my personal narrative. I didn’t start late. The Ph.D. was merely part of the natural progression of a life of work, a career path that I had chosen, one that fit me.
Sherry was great with those big picture questions, but she was also excellent in the small moments of working with a graduate student. The original plan I had for my dissertation outlined no less than 12 chapters. She immediately, and diplomatically, set me straight on that one. Once, something I had given her to read inexplicably contained both footnotes and endnotes. (I don’t know why.) That was the only time she ever seemed a little frustrated with me, and then, as Ann Bradstreet might say, she stretched my joynts to make me even feet. Another time, I handed Sherry a draft of a chapter, she took it, pivoted in her desk chair, and dropped it on the floor behind her with a plunk. When she turned back around, she looked me right in the eye and said, “I do that with all my papers.” She was that way—very particular about making sure that I knew she respected my work and my time. If we were meeting at Starbucks to discuss my dissertation, she was always already there waiting for me when I arrived. It got to the point where I tried to get there earlier and earlier to beat her, but I never did. If she was going to be traveling or otherwise caught up in something, she would let me know ahead of time, so that if I emailed her and she didn’t get right back to me, that would be why. She never put me on a backburner. She gave me her phone number and let me know that I could call her at any time. When I got a job offer and was sitting at the airport in St. Louis in the middle of snowstorm, trying to figure out if I should take the position, I called her. She carefully talked me through the pros and cons. In that conversation, Sherry pointed out that having a tenure track job was of major importance—it didn’t have to be permanent, and who knew what the market would be like next year? So, I took that job in the fall of 2008, and a few months later, the entire US housing bubble burst. But I had a tenure track position, and now I have tenure.
I defended my dissertation on a hot day in July, and afterwards, Sherry took me and my husband out to a champagne lunch. It was one of the nicest afternoons I’ve ever had. My husband still talks about how generous she was, not just on that day, but for the whole time she worked with me at UConn. We had a chance to relax and talk about some of the lighter things in life. That’s when Sherry told me she was beginning to think about her retirement. No one wants someone like Sherry to retire. We want her to keep on going, doing what she does in our field, because she lifts us all up with her. I want her to always be there if I have a burning question. But true to form, even in her retirement, Sherry is still accessible; she is still writing and energetically involved in a host of projects that continue to stretch her and draw on her unique talents.
Congratulations, Sherry, on your retirement, and thank you, for your kindness and generosity toward me. I will close with this thought, written by Davis’s son on the occasion of her 70th birthday: “No woman ever did better for her time than you and no shrieking suffragette will ever understand the influence you wielded, greater than hundreds of thousands of women’s votes.”