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  • A Personal Retrospective Response
  • Annette Kolodny

The lists of books, articles, professional honors, and teaching awards on my curriculum vitae appear to suggest an unblemished record of career success. The realities behind my record of employment suggest another story altogether: it's been a bumpy road. And there is no way to talk about my supposed career success without also addressing my employment record.

I was born in 1941 and raised in the post−World War II economic boom years when, according to the reigning mythos, nice Jewish girls like me went to college not to prepare for a career of our own or even solely to get an education. Instead, we went to college in order to meet and make ourselves eligible for marriage to a future doctor, lawyer, or other upscale professional. Those of us who could not fit comfortably into that mold found ourselves liberated by the advent of The Pill in 1961 and validated by the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963. We were a wedge cohort, often the first of our sex to push up against one or another barrier of the gendered status quo.

After graduating with honors from Brooklyn College in 1962, with years of high school and college experience in editing campus-based newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks, I was hired by Newsweek magazine. But after eleven months of successive promotions, I hit the proverbial glass ceiling. In 1963, no matter how talented or qualified, women at Newsweek did not become writers or editors. So I decided to go to graduate school under the naïve impression that academia was a true meritocracy.

During my six years at the University of California−Berkeley, 1963–69, like so many other graduate students, I became involved in the major political and cultural upheavals of the period. In addition to working on several candidates' political campaigns, I also participated in civil rights protests, the Free Speech Movement, the boycotts and protests of the United Farm Workers Union, and, from 1965 until I left Berkeley, the anti—Vietnam War movement. Gradually, women's issues emerged from these various movements [End Page 921] and became a cause of their own. By the time I was writing my dissertation, I was a full-fledged women's libber.

Two of my most important mentors at Berkeley, my dissertation director Norman Grabo and the critical theorist Stanley Fish, shared neither my politics nor my feminism. But, as with all my other professors, those differences never impinged on the relationships we forged as teacher and student. The only bump I hit in graduate school was one I never knew about at the time. Not until I read Larzer (Larry) Ziff's eloquent 2002 "In Memoriam" tribute to Norman Grabo did I discover how close my dissertation proposal had come to not being approved.

In the spring semester of 1967, in his capacity as chair of graduate studies in the English Department at Cal, Larry had convened a small committee of senior professors to review my dissertation proposal, question me about it, and then decide whether I could go forward. Recalling that occasion, Larry wrote about an afternoon when "a student named Annette Kolodny met with timorous faculty responses (from myself among others) to her revolutionary proposal to write the dissertation that became The Lay of the Land." Larry then added that what persuaded him and the other "timorous faculty" to approve my proposal was solely their high regard for Norman's judgment as a scholar. As long as Norman expressed confidence in and "supervised the project," Larry and the others would not stand in its way ("In Memoriam").

As many have noted before me, at the beginning of the 1960s, early American materials were still regarded as only a minor subfield of American literary studies, taught more for their historical interest than for their literary merit. Most other Americanists viewed us as intellectual historians rather than literary scholars. At best, the writings we examined were seen as origin texts or as precursors to what would emerge later. They weren't real literature.

Initially, however, that worked for me. Although I had first flirted with becoming a medievalist, it...


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