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Nicole Roales
Office of University Communications

Last modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2008

English faculty recognized by "Choice" magazine

March 19, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Outstanding recent books by Indiana University Bloomington Department of English faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences have been recognized by Choice magazine, the official journal of the Association of College and Research Libraries, and by the Gutavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights.

George Hutchinson's In Search of Nella Larsen and Christoph Irmscher's Longfellow Redux were both named Choice Outstanding Titles by Choice magazine, while Susan Gubar's Rooms of Our Own was given honorable mention by the Gutavus Myers Center.

Through tireless detective work, Hutchinson, chair of the English Department, has reconstructed the life of Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen, overturning much of what had been written in previous biographies. Through her story, he examines the "color line" dividing white and black American culture, revealing how it affected not only her life but the assumptions of her biographers.

George Hutchinson

George Hutchinson

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"This book is a biography of the color line," Hutchinson said. "Nella Larsen's life is a way of investigating the history of the color line and the way that it has shaped Americans in general and where they fall in relationship to that color line."

The inspiration to investigate the color line in American culture came from his experience returning to the United States after working for the Peace Corps in West Africa. "I was shocked at how segregated it is here, how quickly Americans identify someone as one race or another," he said.

Initially he expected Larsen to be one of several figures in his book, but he soon found that her story encapsulated much of what he wished to describe. Born in 1891 to a Dutch mother and West Indian father, Larsen attempted to navigate a highly segregated society without losing touch with her multiracial identity.

Others who have examined Larsen's biography appear to have been influenced by the same racial assumptions that Hutchinson explores within the context of her life. For example, they imagined that she must not have had a close relationship with her Dutch relatives because her West Indian heritage would have caused her to identify solely as black. In fact, she did travel to visit her white relatives and held a more nuanced view of race.

"Larsen herself generally identified as black," Hutchinson said. "But at the same time, she was skeptical of race and the meanings of race and the way that both whites and blacks internalized race."

He hopes the book will inspire a critical look at the notion of an impermeable color line and how interracial families become "invisible."

"I would hope that it would cause more people to think about how the color line gets reproduced within us psychologically and how we are not even aware of how innately we make that distinction. I would like people to see themselves implanting that racial configuration and start recognizing and resisting it," he said.

He also hopes that more people will be inspired to read Larsen's novels, Quicksand and Passing. "I'd like to see her in the canon with Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes," he said. "I would hope this book could at least contribute to that and foster a greater understanding of Larsen and the importance of her work."

Christoph Irmscher

Christoph Irmscher

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In Longfellow Redux, Irmscher examines the contemporary academic approach to poetry by delving into the life of the first "popular" poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The English departments of the world, he said, "haven't really moved beyond the idea of a poem needing close reading and endless amounts of time to be spent in order to understand it, of course with appropriate guidance from people who know more than you do about it."

Conversely, "poetry that's written for audiences devalues the office of the poet." Longfellow, who not only was widely read but attained both wealth and celebrity status from his poetry, has been "kicked out of the canon," Irmscher said.

Anyone who has heard the phrase "one if by land, two if by sea" or "the patter of little feet" has been exposed to Longfellow's legacy. Born in 1807 in Portland, Maine, he produced a huge number of popular poems, including "Paul Revere's Ride," "Evangeline," and The Song of Hiawatha. He was also the first to craft a full English translation of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy.

Unlike any poet before him, Longfellow was embraced by hordes of readers during his life. In response to this appreciation, Irmscher said, he was the first to view the office of the poet as a civic duty. He felt that such a responsibility entailed "not disappointing the people that expect something from you."

While his egalitarian approach might have worked in 19th-century America, in which poetry was "not an elitist enterprise at all," the 20th-century distinction between high and low forms of entertainment caused Longfellow to be vilified by the academy.

"I think he served a convenient purpose for a long time in defining what poetry shouldn't be," Irmscher said. "But on the level of popular culture, the kind of poetry that he wrote has always lived on."

Like Longfellow's work, Irmscher's book is written for the public and is accessible to readers without any background in English literature. It comes out in paperback this year.

The teaching of literature also receives examination in Susan Gubar's Rooms of Our Own. Borrowing the structure of Virginia Woolf's similarly-titled classic, Gubar describes a year in the life of an English professor. She also investigates the history and status of the women's movement, noting its achievements as well as the battles that have yet to be won.

Choice deemed the book "Recommended" in its review, and the Gustav Meyers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights selected it for honorable mention. It is available in both hardcopy and paperback.