⇢Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award: Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar

Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award: Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar

From the NBCC: The National Book Critics Circle presents the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award to an individual or institution who has made a significant and lasting contribution to American letters. Named after a founding member of the NBCC (and the organization's first president), the Sandrof Award is presented this year to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Perhaps the most influential of all feminist critics, Gilbert and Gubar have shaped what and how we read more than almost any other living Americans. The Madwoman in the Attic (1979) is a ground-breaking and nuanced study of the tenuous position of women writers and women characters within a patriarchal culture. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985), which they co-edited, is a landmark attempt to establish a canon of women’s writing but also, by implication, to insist on the integral place of women within the canon of English literature. Their three volumes of No Man’s Land offer a sophisticated and encyclopedic survey of modern women's literature. Gilbert is professor emerita at the University of California, Davis, where she has served as mentor to several generations of grateful poets and critics. Gubar is professor emerita at Indiana University.

Eli Nadeau, on behalf of the New School Graduate Writing Program and the NBCC, discusses the work of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, the winners of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.  The interview was conducted via video chat on 1/20/13. 

Eli Nadeau has a BA in Anthropology from the University of Minnesota. She is an MFA student with a concentration in nonfiction at The New School Graduate Writing Program, and the Poetry Editor of LIT.

Transcription of Video: 

Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award: Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar

Eli Nadeau: Hello, my name is Eli Nadeau, and I'm at The New School in New York City speaking with Sandra Gilbert in California and Susan Gubar in Indiana: recipients of the 2012 National Book Critics Circle's Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. Congratulations to you both!

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar: Thank you very much.

Eli Nadeau: The Sandrof Award is but the latest in the series of well-earned laurels acknowledging the significance of your collaboration. Your co-written texts include The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination, published in 1979; and No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, a three-volume work published between 1988 and 1994; as well as several co-edited anthologies, such as The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, first published in 1985, and The Norton Reader in Feminist Criticism and Theory, released in 2007; all of which have helped to establish a feminist canon and continue to galvanize critical, literary, and cultural discussion today. In these foundational studies, you named for the world the anxiety of authorship: an affliction common to women writing in English during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. But as we've discovered, it's an infection widespread across generations, nations, and languages. This concept is now well known, but in '79 when Madwoman exploded onto the literary scene, the gendered ways we write and publish have yet to be examined comprehensively. Susan and Sandra, you've helped name and trace these phenomena. And yet, unlike the subjects of your scholarship, neither of you seemed particularly prone to this anxiety when you began. Perhaps you could offer some thoughts about the way your collaboration unfolded. Not just the impressive feat of producing volumes such as this one - Madwoman - without the benefit of email and other technology; but primarily the way you developed a shared consciousness through your writing that was not part of your experience before coming together at Indiana. In other words, how did you come to recognize yourselves as feminists through your scholarly interaction with the texts and with each other?          

Sandra Gilbert: Thank you for those lovely words and for that wonderful introduction! It's such an honor to be in this position and to have someone being so gracious and incisive about us. Our experience interacting with texts and working on The Madwoman, which was preceded by teaching a class together, was truly electrifying. Maybe Susan wants to say a little more about this since we're going to alternate in our discussion.  

Susan Gubar: Yes, certainly. I'm glad you mentioned the classroom. It feels to me that it was an extraordinary intellectual adventure that was deeply pedagogic. We really did learn by creating lesson plans, by chatting with our students, by discussions, by talking on the phone the night before about what we were going to do that day, and what we had done in the classroom. It was an extremely exciting adventure shot through with learning for us as we were teaching.

Sandra Gilbert: This was a time when neither of us had done any kind of what would be called "feminist work." We had not studied women's literary history in school. In fact, I would say that when I was an undergraduate, the only woman writer that I read was maybe Jane Austen; I'm not even sure. I read Dickinson in elementary school, you know the one about the locomotive 

Eli Nadeau: Of course.

Sandra Gilbert:  "I like to see it lap the miles." And I knew about Elizabeth Barrett Browning because she had those sausage curls and a wild romance with a poet. But I really had only one woman teacher in college, in graduate school; only one. And she wasn't into a field that was related to anything that was significant to me at that time; she was a linguist. And so I don't know what those of us who were going to graduate school in the '60s and '70s thought we were doing! And there were masses of us! But "professors" at that time were almost always people with tweed jackets, big heavy clumpy shoes, and pipes, and increasingly with beards. And we couldn't fit into any of those categories. So we forged ahead, but in the course of forging ahead, we were at first male-identified. I think Susan thought much more about images of women than I did. She thought a lot more about gender than I did, and her sophistication was a huge influence on me. At first I thought about gender and sexuality primarily because I wrote a dissertation on D.H. Lawrence's poetry.

Eli Nadeau: And Susan, you were writing about monsters, right, about 

Susan Gubar: Right, I was writing about female monsters in Eighteenth Century poetry, partly because I felt kind of monstrous myself because I got very large with my first pregnancy. But I think it's important to remember that when we met in an elevator at Indiana University in Valentine Hall in 1973, there was a women's movement. And somehow, I think for me, I really only accessed it through the intellectual journey of the collaboration. I think that it became a political passion through the intellectual engagement with Sandra and in the collaboration itself.

Sandra Gilbert: And in the classroom.

Susan Gubar: So it's true that I never had a female teacher in college or graduate school, and we studied very few women writers, but the women's movement was building at that point and I believe there were a few conferences we attended in the '70s where we did meet a few other people who were beginning  just beginning  to think about the concept of women's traditions in English.

Sandra Gilbert: Oh, it was thrilling. We met Elaine Showalter, we met Nina Auerbach, we met Susan Stanford Friedman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis. We met a whole number of feminists at a range of conferences which were tremendously interesting, and we learned a lot. But I think we learned the most in our classroom.    

Eli Nadeau: Absolutely. And you introduced texts into the classroom that had not been there before; in fact, you continue to bring texts into the classroom that are otherwise denigrated and we as women and men and feminists and literary scholars of every stripe are indebted to you for that.

Sandra Gilbert: These were the days of "Ditto-ing." And so we did an awful lot of "Ditto-ing." We "Dittoed" like mad.

Susan Gubar: There were so many texts in those days that were just starting to be recovered by other scholars who were interested in women in literature. And in the '70s or '80s it's hard to remember that people had not heard of Kate Chopin or Charlotte Perkins Gilman or of Zora Neale Hurston. These texts were beginning  really, only coming into print at that point. So then we had to xerox, or "Ditto" as Sandra says.

Sandra Gilbert: I myself had never heard of some of these people. I did not know the work of Kate Chopin at that time. I wasn't an Americanist. That's the other thing: neither Susan nor I was quite exactly in the field that we're in.

Eli Nadeau: So, unfortunately we are coming to the end of what our technology can sustain but I want to thank you so much for giving us your incredible body of work and for giving me your time and interview and I congratulate you the very best of health and writing in the future.

Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert: Thank you so much, it's a pleasure.

In conjunction with the National Book Critics Circle, this site is the work of students and faculty of the The School of Writing at The New School.