On July 9, 2002, early American literature lost a founding father. Everett Emerson died at his summer home in the Berkshires at Lenox, Massachusetts.
A large portion of Everett’s scholarly career was devoted to leading scholars and teachers to full awareness of early American literature as an important “field.” He was instrumental in giving that field organizational shape and coherence. At the 1965 MLA meeting he was among the thirty-seven scholars attending an inaugural conference of early Americanists who voted to create the Early American Literature Newsletter . That publication first appeared in the winter of 1966, edited by Calvin Israel, then at UCLA. After two years it was renamed Early American Literature and in its fourth year, 1969, Everett assumed the editorship. Those of us with an interest in colonial literature who were in graduate school or had recently begun teaching careers in the sixties greeted the establishment of such a publication with real excitement. Everett performed the critical role of editor with a unique combination of authority, understanding, and encouragement.
During the twenty years of his editorship of EAL, Everett faithfully laid on an annual party at the MLA conference, inviting all those he knew who shared enthusiasm for the literature of early America (and, as editor of EAL and an energetic correspondent, he knew more of us than anyone else). With his wife, Katherine, he provided an important opportunity for those gathered from all sections of the country to meet each other, exchange ideas, and formulate projects around mutual interests. He organized panels on various topics, including the teaching of early American literature. In doing so, while establishing EAL as a journal of high quality, he was a key figure in giving the field an identity. Under this encouragement more and more faculty members persuaded their departments to establish courses in early American literature. There had, of course, been earlier important scholars like William B. Cairns, Harry Hayden Clark, Lewis Leary, Richard Beale Davis, Babette Levy, Kenneth Murdock, Perry Miller, I. Bernard Cohen, Nathalia Wright, Edward Davidson, Robert Spiller, and still others who had prepared the way through their scholarship on early American writers, but bringing the diverse cluster of scholars with this central shared interest into a veritable movement in the final third of the twentieth century was the work of Everett Emerson more than of any other person. Many established scholars today received critical early encouragement from this man.
Everett was a native of Everett, Mass. , where he was born and grew up. On graduating from high school there in 1943, he entered the Marine Corps. After the war he earned degrees from Harvard (BA), Duke (MA), and Louisiana State (PhD). In his first position at Lehigh (1955-60) he received recognition as an outstanding assistant professor. He then became a founding faculty member at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida (1960-65). It was chiefly during his eighteen years at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst (1965-1983), that he developed his leadership in early American literary studies. His own early work on the Puritans resulted in several important essays and his John Cotton (Twayne, 1965; rev. ed. 1990). He then turned to the founding of Virginia and produced Captain John Smith (1971; rev. ed. 1993), also for the Twayne series. He organized a collection of essays by various scholars on nine Major Writers of Early American Literature (University of Wisconsin Press, 1972), which immediately became an invaluable resource for the teachers of the burgeoning number of courses in the field. A sequel followed in 1977, American Literature, 1764-1789: The Revolutionary Years . In the same year his third sole-authored book appeared: Puritanism in America . He did important archival work in pulling together letters written from New England to the “native country” in the earliest years of New England settlement: Letters from New England: The Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1629-1638 , a volume given handsome shape by the University of Massachusetts Press in 1976.
Everett’s later career was devoted to later writers. While still in Amherst, he developed a deep interest in Emily Dickinson, serving as a volunteer guide at her house and helping establish the Emily Dickinson Society. Still later, after moving in 1983 to the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill as the Alumni Distinguished Professor of English, while continuing to edit EAL from his new location, he also pursued his interest in Mark Twain, ultimately producing two books, The Authentic Mark Twain (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1984) and Mark Twain: A Literary Life (Univ. of Pa. Press, 2000), while founding the Mark Twain Circle.
Many Early Americanists will remember the stimulating and in some ways watershed conference at Chapel Hill in 1989 to celebrate Everett’s 20-year editorship of EAL, which he was then ceding to his colleague Philip Gura. Appropriately, the conference was titled “Prospects,” suggesting the forward-looking quality of Everett’s long-standing role as guide and shaper in early American literature. He had brought the field a long way and knew it was just the beginning.
Those who knew Everett in the context of the various campuses and communities he inhabited would have many other points to stress, for he was active in campus and local causes. While at U. Mass, for instance, he not only directed the campus Honors Program, but served as Director of the United Way campaign on the campus. His service contributions at UNC were also abundant. He was a grand, generous man, and a dedicated scholar of Americana, in a broad sense. We all share a sense of loss and extend sympathy to Katherine, who herself became the friend of many in the field, and to their son, Stephen.
John Bascom Professor of English and American Literature
University of Wisconsin