UCLA multiculturalism advocate selected for richest prize in humanities

December 20, 2006

A UCLA English professor and former administrator renowned for his study of the role of racial and ethnic minorities in American literature has been selected as the recipient of the richest prize in the humanities.

Eric J. Sundquist, who has taught on and off at UCLA since 1989, will receive $1.5 million over three years as one of four 2006 recipients of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's Distinguished Achievement Award, the foundation's board announced Tuesday.

Going into its sixth year, the Mellon Foundation award is intended "to underscore the decisive role the humanities play in the nation's intellectual life" and to "honor scholars who have made significant contributions to humanistic inquiry and enable them to teach and do research under especially favorable conditions," according to the foundation's Web site. Recipients are selected through a confidential process.

"I was surprised and delighted to get the news," said Sundquist, who is the UCLA Foundation Professor of Literature and former acting dean of humanities at UCLA. "I've known people who have gotten these awards and it has allowed them to do new and exciting work with their students and colleagues at their own universities and other schools. I'm very excited about the opportunity."

Sundquist is the first UCLA recipient of the award. He is best known for illustrating the influence of African American culture in the historical evolution of American literature, but he plans to use the award to expand on a relatively recent line of inquiry.

"I hope to use award to continue my own research and teaching and to expand the opportunities for others to study the place of the Holocaust in American literature and culture, along with its influence beyond Jewish culture, whether in different American traditions such as African American literature or other national literatures," he said.

Sundquist's final plans are subject to approval in March 2007 by the Mellon Foundation's board of directors, said foundation spokesperson Martha Sullivan.

At $1.5 million, the award is worth more than the MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called the "genius grant," which is awarded to individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in creative pursuits. Unlike that better-known prize, however, the Mellon Award goes to the institution as well as the individual, and it comes with the expectation that recipients will devote some of the resources to programming and instruction at their home institution so that students and other faculty benefit directly.

Sundquist returned to UCLA in 2002 after leaving in 1997 to serve as dean of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University. At Northwestern, he expanded the size of the faculty and launched several interdisciplinary degree programs in such fields as Asian American studies and science in human culture. Prior to leaving UCLA in 1997, he had served as chair of the English department for four years and had taught for nine years at UC Berkeley. Sundquist received his bachelor's degree from the University of Kansas in 1974 and his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1978.

Sundquist is the author or editor of nine books in the area of American literature and culture. He is best known for "To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature," which received the Modern Language Association's 1993 James Russell Lowell Prize for the best book published during the year. It is widely viewed as one of the most important books of literary history and criticism on 19th-century American literature.

His most recent book, "Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America" (2005), looks at the complicated relationship between American Jews and blacks as manifested in literature, historical writing, sociology and popular culture over the past 60 years.

His other works include "Home As Found: Authority and Genealogy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature" (1978), "Faulkner: The House Divided" (1983), "The Hammers of Creation: Folk Culture in Modern African-American Fiction" (1992), and "Empire and Slavery in American Literature 1820-1865" (2006), from work originally published in "The Cambridge History of American Literature, Volume 2." He also has assembled essay collections or anthologies on American Realism, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, W. E. B. DuBois and Ralph Ellison.

"As measured by that deadly but inescapable phrase 'quantity and quality,' Eric Sundquist is the most productive American literature scholar of his generation," said Ross Posnock, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. "Indeed, given his age and his accomplishments, it is no exaggeration to say that his is among the most impressive academic careers in the humanities for several generations."

Born of Swedish extraction to a carpenter father and a school secretary mother in a small town in Kansas, Sundquist isn't an obvious champion for multiculturalism.

"In my high school graduating class of 200, there were only two Jewish students and one African American, and no other minorities," he said. "But perhaps because I traveled as a musician in high school and college, I interacted with a different group of people than I might otherwise have done. Along with being encouraged to read widely, I credit the experience with opening my eyes to the diversity of cultures in the U.S."

Having gone to college in the early 1970s, Sundquist became part of the first generation of academics who sought to interpret American literature and culture through a more multicultural lens.

"Sundquist stands out as the most accomplished figure among the cohort of American literature scholars who entered the profession between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, just as the paradigms that previously defined the field had begun significantly to change," said Lawrence Buell, the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard University. "The combination of broad erudition, subtlety of reflection and deep conviction that marks all of Sundquist's work is exceptional, if not unique. I predict that he will be remembered a generation hence as one of the scholars most responsible -- perhaps the single most important figure -- for shifting the model for writing American literary and cultural studies from the monocultural 'Puritan legacy' paradigm that tended to hold sway through the 1980s to the more multicultural and transnational modes of inquiry that have since displaced it."

Since returning to UCLA, Sundquist's research and teaching have dealt prominently with the influence of the Holocaust and Jewish culture in American literature. He said he would like to use the award to sponsor visiting speakers, writers and postdoctoral scholars with the hope of producing one or more collections of essays devoted to the issue and a published work of his own on the topic.

The recipients of the Mellon Foundation Awards were selected through an intensive process of nomination and review. Final selections were made by a panel of distinguished scholars chaired by Patricia Meyer Spacks, the Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English at the University of Virginia. The selection panel also consisted of Bernard Bailyn, the Adams University Professor Emeritus at Harvard University; Elizabeth Cropper, dean of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art; J. Paul Hunter, the Barbara E. and Richard J. Franke Professor Emeritus in the department of English language and literature at the University of Chicago; Jerome B. Schneewind, professor emeritus of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University; and Heinrich von Staden, professor in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study.

Recipients are chosen from such fields as classics, history, the history of art, musicology, philosophy, religious studies and all areas of literary studies, including the study of foreign literatures. Recipients of the awards must hold tenured appointments at U.S. institutions of higher education.

"The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has, from its inception, been dedicated to enabling first-rate scholars and institutions to cultivate and to advance humanistic learning and understanding," said William G. Bowen, the Mellon Foundation's president emeritus. "These awards are made in recognition of individuals who have excelled in that mission and whose work and influence continue to enrich the broader community of humanistic studies."

University of California - Los Angeles
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.