- Mary Jacobus
It is a great honor and privilege to give the encomium for Mary Jacobus tonight. Everybody in this room will have agreed—and disagreed—with Mary at some point. If you consider the range of backgrounds, levels of seniority, critical formations, hermeneutic approaches, and individual temperaments of the scholars assembled here, it becomes clear what an astonishing feat this is. Especially since the agreement or disagreement will not have come on a superficial level, but rather will have been on something substantive, and in a substantive way. Mary is a direct and deep presence (though she might slightly flinch at that word) not just for her students, such as myself, but for the profession at large.
After a very brief stint in Manchester, Mary in 1971 took up a position at Oxford, the place where she had also completed her D.Phil. She stayed there for almost a decade, becoming an increasingly important figure. During that time, she published Tradition and Experiment in Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads (1798) (1976) and edited Women Writing and Writing About Women (1979). This joint interest in Romanticism and feminism became a defining trait of her work. Mary's first monograph alone would have been enough to establish her as a major voice in Romantic studies, and it remains one of the single most important books on Wordsworth. Her readings re-defined not just Wordsworth scholarship but the field of Romanticism as a whole: we suddenly saw a more complex Lyrical Ballads, a beginning of Romanticism that was steeped in intellectual history and knowing experimentation, and was theoretically relevant to modernity.
In 1980—she had established herself firmly as a feminist Wordsworthian—Mary moved to Cornell. It is worth remembering how uncommon such a geographical transition was in those times. While 1980s Oxford was certainly not a hotbed of feminism and deconstruction, Mary's move across the Atlantic was active rather than re-active: the beginnings of academic globalization. In the Preface to Reading Woman (1986), Mary herself acknowledged how these new developments had deep theoretical implications: "one effect of that move [to America] was to take me closer to France." This closeness, and the ability to articulate across borders, can still be felt today.
If her first book had redefined Romantic Studies, Reading Woman redrew the map of feminism and enabled a new way of reading in Romanticism and beyond. Her accounts of Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot were only topped by that memorable question "Is there a Woman in this Text?" whose joke and context still stand as a wonderful deconstruction of the masculinist prejudice prevalent in much critical theory, then and now. It's important to stress that Mary's work, while sharp, critical, resistant, and sometimes polemic, remains deeply enabling in its analyses. It was a revelation, for [End Page 17] instance, to discover that there was so much sexual difference in The Prelude (another milestone in Wordsworth criticism), and to finally figure out how central this was to the way Wordsworth formulated his autobiographic project.
Throughout her twenty years at Cornell, for most of which she held the Anderson Chair of English and Women's Studies, Mary continued to explore the complexity of the psychoanalytic subject with tremendous productivity. You all know the three books that she published in a mere ten years: it began, appropriately enough, with First Things (1995), which introduced art as a titular subject of Mary's books. Beautiful renderings of immaculate conceptions, Mary Shelley, and the iconography of the French Revolution, were followed by Psychoanalysis and the Scene of Reading (1999), which explored Romanticism once more, but also trauma and the Holocaust. Melanie Klein emerged as one of the main touchstones of these works, and it was only logical that The Poetics of Psychoanalysis: In the Wake of Klein (2005) completed a trilogy, which, once again, shaped the discourse of the field.
You don't need to be a therapist to see the pattern: Mary is not somebody who follows a particular critical mood. She is ahead of the curve. This continues to be the case. If the sneak preview I've seen is anything to go by, her...