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  • Address to the Keats-Shelley Association of America January 9, 2016
  • Kenneth Johnston

My thanks to Nick Roe for his kind remarks, and to the Keats-Shelley Association of America for giving me this award. I am honored and moved to receive it. Since I am neither a Keatsian nor a Shelleyan, I thought at first it might be a mistake, and set about to rectify it. But then I paused with a second thought: if scholars and friends whose work I admire mightily wanted to honor me, why should I deny them? That would be an act of almost Wordsworthian arrogance. And I am especially happy to receive it since two of my most valued Indiana University colleagues, Stuart Sperry and Fred Beaty, have been awarded it before me, and they were certainly card-carrying Keatsian-Shelleyans.

I will try to avoid the "St. Peter" rhetorical temptation for this kind of occasion: i.e., my career-in-brief that led me to these pearly gates. Nor will I burden you with my achievements in Keats-Shelley scholarship, though I can assure you it would be a very light one to bear. I can only say it's been a very pleasant fifty years, from 1966 when I received my Ph.D. from Yale, to the present moment. Unlike 2016, 1966 was a very auspicious moment to be entering upon an academic career in the humanities. As my good friend Michael Rosenblum and I used to say to each other, fresh from the rigors of New Haven and Chicago, coming to Bloomington was like we'd died and gone to heaven. We only had to do what we wanted to do, for the most part. Sometimes I thought, or have thought since, that I should have had to face more challenges. I was never part of a school or movement; my implicit controlling focus has been on how things fail, or almost fail, or succeed with difficulty, in literary structures, movements and careers (e.g., The Recluse, or "The Lost Generation of the 1790s"). The "Yale School" of deconstructive criticism began just after I left there, though I had been a member of a grad student reading group that invited Paul de Man from Cornell to speak. Yet the summer I left I was involved in organizing a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. The point being that two movements with such very different trajectories could engage the same person. The New Historicism, ca. 1983, re-activated me—a New Critic with a commitment to politics, but not necessarily a political critic. Though new historicism as currently practiced seems to me more like retrospective cultural studies raised on an evidentiary base of imaginative literature—well, more power to it. Still, I have learned much from the keen balancing of poetry and politics in the work of many critics present in this room tonight, like Nick Roe, Stuart Curran, Susan Wolfson, Jeffrey Cox, and others.

And I have come to appreciate, historically, the unrealized-at-the-time, [End Page 26] built-in advantages of my own interpellations, as: white, tall, male, straight, middle-class, and even Middle Western. All those categories of normality have been exposed, expanded, and even exploded in the last half century, much to the benefit of the profession, to say nothing of the country. My history is also the history of U.S. higher education, 1966–2016. I graduated from Augustana College (Illinois) in 1959, when the big bang of the post-Sputnik boom was still expanding exponentially. Fellowships for graduate study were falling out of trees. You could find a job by throwing a dart blindfolded at a map of the United States. I remember thinking, about 1970, "Is there something I should be doing to prepare for tenure?" An inter-office memo seemed to be enough. We can all compare that with the color-coded, multi-boxed, large ring-binder notebooks for research, teaching, and service that now characterize and complicate that academic rite de passage. Much to the improvement of standards, to be sure, but not as much fun.

Have we become victims of our own success? Some pretty extreme positions were...


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