Tributes to Emory Elliott (1942-2009)
Compiled and introduced by Louise Walsh
“April is the cruellest month…”
It was with profound shock and sadness that I learned of the untimely death of the esteemed University of California, Riverside, Professor, Emory Elliott, in April of 2009. The Academy is the lesser for his passing.
During my Master’s Degree in July of 2007, I had the decidedly good fortune of meeting Professor Elliott. Presenting what was one of my very first academic papers at the Transatlantic Studies Association Conference in University College Cork, Professor Elliott was among those in attendance. An extremely early career scholar, I felt panic stricken and out of my depth at the prospect of presenting my own research alongside those of my fellow panellists, to an audience of academics whose commensurate expertise and experience was full sure to eclipse my own. Having blundered through my presentation and struggled with one of the questions posed to me following my paper, I was feeling decidedly glum about the whole experience when Professor Elliott raised his hand. His kind words about my paper, directed to me and the rest of the room, lifted my spirits to no end. He approached me afterwards and continued with his warm encouragement and words of advice.
In May of 2009, I had begun the process of organising a conference of my own and, pulling his dog-eared card from my wallet, thought to ask Professor Elliott if he would consider being a plenary speaker. It was only then that I learned of the tragic news of his passing. Although I only had the briefest of meetings with Professor Elliott his genial encouragement, sincerity and palpable warmth impacted upon me, and my confidence as a scholar, indelibly. I owe him a debt of gratitude for that.
Growing up in a working-class neighbourhood of Baltimore, Elliott’s own life epitomised the very best of the American bootstrap ideology. A future titan of American Studies, Elliott was the first in his family to earn a college degree, being awarded his BA from Loyola College. Beginning his career as a high school teacher, Elliott subsequently earned a Master’s from Bowling Green State University and finally a PhD from the University of Illinois.
The gamut of Elliott’s professional career boasted many auspicious academic appointments. During his seventeen-year tenure at Princeton University, three of which were spent in the capacity of chair, Elliott published three seminal works of American literary scholarship; Power and the Pulpit in Puritan New England in 1975, Revolutionary Writers: Literature and Authority in the New Republic, 1725-1810 in 1982 and the Columbia Literary History of the United States in 1989. These studies were applauded for their innovative inroads into interdisciplinarity in their interrogation of, and considered treatise on, social and cultural history tracts, a nascent trend in the contemporaneous Academy; the latter winning the prestigious American Book Award thereby inducting Elliott into the company of academic luminaries such as Henry Louis Gates Jr (who also won that year), Susan Howe and Barbara Christian.
Professor Tim Morris
(Department of English, University of Texas at Arlington)
Emory Elliott didn’t know me from Adam when I showed up in his office to ask him to direct my dissertation. He saw an excessively scruffy graduate student, fresh from general exams in medieval and Renaissance literature, who had suddenly decided it was a good idea to become an Americanist. And not only that, but a 19th-century scholar, not even in Emory’s primary field. But he agreed to direct my work, with the patience and resourcefulness of an academic born to multi-task. It’s a lesson that I have taken very much to heart, and I think that Emory exemplified to the profession at large: listen to students. It’s not about you; it’s about them and their hopes and dreams.
I finished that dissertation less than two years later; Emory read it with a keen eye to what a dissertation should look like, but without intruding his own ego or agendas into my work. Another great lesson: trust your students to reach the next level, and let them write about what they are most concerned with. They’ll actually discover things that way.
All while I was writing, Emory was at work on his own research agenda in 18th-century American literature, and on what would become the Columbia Literary History of the United States, the centerpiece of innumerable editing and writing projects. He would become an administrator at Princeton, chair the Princeton English Department, and then reinvent his career a continent away in Riverside. I kept in touch with him too sporadically after I left Princeton for various adjunct jobs and for my current position in Texas. But when I would meet him, at several conferences over the years, he was always first and foremost interested in what I was up to. I am an appallingly bad networker, and Emory was a brilliant one, and I think that was his secret: he was genuinely interested in other people, and not very much in himself. He always gave you the sense that you were worth something, and that your ideas mattered.
Emory presided informally over a tremendous paradigm shift in the field of American literature. He came from a potentially dry and literally backward-looking subspeciality, colonial and early-Republican literature, and from his position of unquestioned authority in early-American studies, he encouraged scholars across the world to remake literary history and reforge the canon. Far more important than his publications will be the attitude he disseminated across the profession to those of us who learned from him: an unquenchable openness to the new ideas of others.
Elliott joined the faculty of the University of California’s progressive Riverside campus as Professor of English in 1989 and was appointed University Professor in 2001. In his capacity of University Professor Elliot became a resource for the entire university and was one of only thirty six academics in the entire UC system to be so honoured. He revelled in the University’s dynamic reformist environment and ready embrace of interdisciplinarity. Ever the students’ champion, Elliott embraced the opportunity to work with students bereft of the ‘package association’ advantages of the Ivy Leagues.
Professor Perry Link
(Chancellorial Chair for Innovative Teaching, Comparative Literature and Foreign Languages, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, University of California, Riverside)
Like Emory, I decided to come to UCR after teaching many years at Princeton. I must say, as well, that Emory is one of the reasons I made my decision. When I visited UCR for an interview about two years ago, I asked Emory how he felt after leaving Princeton. He said (roughly–I am taking this only from my own memory) this:
“I feel great. Never looked back. I’ve always felt I can make a difference at UCR. I can teach some bright kids who don’t have the background of the Princeton students, and who also don’t quite have their confidence. But they are diamonds in the rough, and a person can really make a difference with them. I also feel especially free at UCR. I can teach what I feel passionate about–and we all know, of course, that teaching from passion makes for the best teaching.”
When I arrived at UCR last August I called up Emory to have lunch. We talked about many friends whom we knew in common from Princeton, and we talked about exciting things to do at UCR. I still can’t fully comprehend that he is no longer with us. It feels somehow as if that heart attack was a mistake, and that we should be able to back up and run March 31st again–doing it right this time, avoiding a cruel twist of chance that never should have happened.
More recently, Elliott, as director, had become synonymous with UCR’s Centre for Ideas and Society. In no small part due to Elliott’s leadership, the Centre is recognised for its promotion of multidisciplinary exchange and scholarship, and, during his tenure as director, received funding from such exalted bodies as the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations.
A truly inspirational scholar, Elliott’s advocacy of the increased recruitment of minority students and faculty, and his efforts towards the improvement of race relations earned him the Rosemary S. J. Schraer Award for Humanitarian Service. His efforts to extend the canon to authors it had traditionally discounted, as evidenced in his award-winning Columbia Literary History of the United States, was no doubt driven by this pluralist impulse. In recognition of his work as an educator, Elliott was also conferred with a distinguished teaching award from the UCR Academic senate and became one of the first recipients of the Senate’s Graduate Student Mentor Award.
Professor Piya Chatterjee
(Department of Women’s Studies, UC-Riverside)
Remembering An Open Heart
When I first came to UCR in 1994, I remember hearing about Emory—there was always a buzz about him: this very distinguished English professor, who left Princeton to come to the provinces, who was making things happen at UCR. I heard that he was opening doors especially for faculty of color in the Humanities, encouraging colleagues to work with each other in innovative and progressive ways. As a junior professor, I remained tentative about reaching out to him directly, not trusting Big Men and academic systems of patronage. In 1997, when we organized a conference on women, war and resistance, I realized how open Emory was to risky ventures, even if they might have actually made him uneasy. At this conference, Frontline Feminisms, which privileged grassroots activists from all the over the world, over three hundred women—primarily Third World and U.S. women of color—simply took over Highlander Hall and created a bazaar, an amazing cacophony of plurality, contest and learning. The amazing staff at the CIS, green- lighted by Emory, made this very risky and unusual conference possible. Though Emory was not there physically, (which was probably a relief for him), the fact that he was “open” to this kind of adventure made a lasting impression.
About five years later, I had a chance to work with him directly on a large three-year grant which was shared with senior scholars at UC-Irvine. The details are not as important as what I learned about him and from him: his genius at delegation; his unerring instinct and ability to get folks to work in ways that they didn’t realize that they were working; his capacity to let things be, and not sweat the small stuff; his extraordinary charm.
But forget his ambassadorial talents, his genius of benevolent patronage: I miss his open heart, his kindness, his laugh. For someone like me, a foreigner and immigrant, with no family in the US, it was this deep sense of hospitality which I will always remember; a kind of hospitality that is very rare in the research university. I knew I could walk into that CIS office, in that old motel, and say something caustic and funny–and he would get it. And if he had a little bit of time, he would have no trouble gossiping like a girlfriend about something happening in the upper reaches of administration. It was astonishing—this ability he had to make you forget that he too occupied those rarefied fields of academic power. All it took was a twinkle in his eye and that shared guffaw. Emory seemed indomitable. His energy and enthusiasm, forever. Now, as we face the greatest crises to our public university system, I imagine Emory’s response. His sense of outrage would have been equal to ours—and then he would have rolled up his sleeves to make sure that those doors swinging shut, would not slam too tightly. I think I speak for many at UC-Riverside—we miss his kindness, his affection, and his generous, wide-open heart. Shanti. Emory. Shanti.
An international scholar in the best sense of the word, Elliott was among the vanguard of those in the Academy pushing American Studies as a paradigm, beyond America’s borders. In fact internationalism and transnationalism were not merely abstract notions for Elliott; rather they were ideals which guided his professional and personal life choices. Consequently, Elliott taught in many parts of the world, including Paris, Brazil, Beijing, and Poland and was a regular international plenary and delegate at international conferences Summer Schools and Seminars, such as the Transatlantic Studies Association Conference and the Kyoto Summer Seminar in Japan.
Dr. Heather Neilson
(Senior Lecturer, Department of English, University of New South Wales
Past President, Australian and New Zealand American Studies Association)
I first met Emory Elliott in August 1996 in Japan, at the Kyoto Summer Seminar in American Studies, hosted by the Center for American Studies at Ritsumeikan University. As a fairly junior academic at that stage, I was well aware how fortunate I was to have been invited to represent ANZASA at such a colloquium.
It was wonderful experience, not least because both Emory and the late Lawrence Levine were keynote participants. Both of these eminent scholars were warm, accessible men, genuinely interested in people. Although the hosts had divided the delegates into groups, placing me in Lawrence’s for the duration of the three-day event, it was Emory with whom I would subsequently have more sustained and lasting contact.
In 1997, Emory invited me to present a paper on current American political rhetoric at the Center for Ideas at Riverside. It was a great honour and opportunity to engage in discussion with an audience of the finest American scholars.
In 1998, Emory accepted an invitation to be a keynote speaker at the biennial conference of the Australian and New Zealand American Studies Association, held in Canberra. He was an enthusiastic, generous and popular participant – as one of the ANZASA stalwarts put it, “clearly the star” amidst a number of distinguished guests. Following the conference, he spent a short time as a visiting scholar in the School of English at UNSW@ADFA. He organized a video-conference between his Center at Riverside and our third-year students, then a sufficiently rare opportunity to generate great excitement. It was during this period that Emory forged friendships with various Australian scholars, most notably Professors Bruce Bennett and Paul Eggert, themselves distinguished teachers and researchers in the areas of Australian literature and literary history.
Towards the end of his time in Australia, Emory was invited to Sydney by the Consulate of the US Embassy. His duties completed, I suggested we might see the musical “The Boy from Oz”, which had recently opened with Todd McKenney in the role of Peter Allen. Emory had not heard of this, and assumed it was an adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz”. He politely agreed to the suggestion, expecting – as he later told me – to be bored. He loved it.
Sadly, that was to be Emory’s only visit to Australia. I last saw him at the ASA conference in Hartford, Connecticut in 2003. The advent of motherhood (belated and most welcome) has prevented me from travelling to the United States since then. He occasionally sent books, most recently McCarthy’s The Road and Roth’s The Dying Animal.
Since his death, many have attested to Emory’s extraordinary capacity to stay in touch regularly with colleagues, students and friends, no matter how pressed he was for time. He was – in the best sense – a conversationalist, a vivid and charismatic personality who worked himself to exhaustion.
Sometimes over the years Emory would express shock and sadness when informing me of the untimely death of a friend or colleague. I wonder if he could possibly have anticipated the extent to which his own sudden death has been so widely mourned.
‘He came like the water and left like the wind.’
However, it was Emory Elliott the person, the personality and the persona which impacted upon so many, and made him the rousing academic, mentor and friend that he was. In all of the tributes included in this piece, it was Elliot’s warmth, sense of fun and ready friendship which underscored and enhanced an intellectual esteem and enthusiasm which never failed to impress. Though his stellar legacy as a scholar threw his career, amongst the pantheon of American Studies pre-eminence, into high relief; like the best of them, it was the man that made the academic.
Professor Eric Lott,
(Department of English, University of Virginia)
An American Studies vision I know will never leave me is of Emory Elliott on the ASA convention dance floor. Surely a corny place to be, but over the last several years, with past ASA president George Sanchez at the turntable, a select group of colleagues and friends took the plunge and decided to risk looking ridiculous. Emory was always there, doing his bouncy dance. I think the image sticks with me because it conveys Emory’s commitment to the collective cultural utopian side of American Studies. From his work on Revolutionary-era writers to his extensive efforts on behalf of international American Studies to his own ASA presidency, Emory was a believer. He once told me he loved his Riverside colleagues, and I think he was proud of having helped forge a vibrant, young, diverse department there. I miss his energy, his buoyancy, his kindness, and his range of reference, and I’ll go on missing him, I have no doubt, til the last dance.
Emory Elliot was a recent past president of the American Studies Association. At the time of his passing he was Series Editor of “The American Novel” (Cambridge University Press) and “Penn Studies in Contemporary American Fiction.” He was a fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities, American Council of Learned Studies, Guggenheim, and National Humanities Centre, as well as a fellow at the Institute for the Humanities at the University of California, Irvine.
Professor Emory Elliott is survived by his wife Georgia, the Associate Vice Chancellor for Development at UCR, his five children and five grandchildren.