Barbara Lewalski Awarded The Paul Oskar Kristeller Lifetime Achievement Award - 4. 4. 16

lewalskiThe Paul Oskar Kristeller Lifetime Achievement Award

Laudatio composed by James Simpson for the RSA awards ceremony, April 2, 2016:

“This award honors a lifetime of uncompromising devotion to the highest standard of scholarship accompanied by exceptional achievement in Renaissance studies. It is intended for a scholar whose accomplishments call to mind the example of Paul Oskar Kristeller. The award is designed to honor a scholar for lifetime achievement rather than an individual work or works of scholarship. The recipient must be a living scholar who is, or has been, a member of the Renaissance Society of America.”

The 1998 cult movie The Big Lebowski (1998) deserves a sequel, titled The Big Lewalski. The 1998 movie shares, after all, two things with Barbara Lewalski: it has a cult following; and its title figure is a person of mighty stature. Barbara also has a cult following, of the generations of graduate students she has shepherded into the profession, not to speak of the thousands of Renaissance scholars who have followed the mighty avenues of scholarship she has opened up. And many aspects of Barbara are nothing if not big – mighty and magnanimous of spirit, her learning is vast, sure and deep. There is one quality that the big Lewalski does not, however, share with the big Lebowski: Lebowski of the movie is comically idle; the heroine of our projected movie The Big Lewalski is, by extreme contrast, dauntingly tireless. As Dante says, “seggendo in piuma, / in fama non si vien” (Inferno 24. 47-48). Barbara Lewalski cannot have spent a single moment of a long scholarly life sitting around on comfy quilts: her great fame rests instead on a decisive, ever active spirit.

Barbara Kiefer Lewalski was the William R. Kenan Professor of English Literature and of History and Literature at Harvard University between 1982 and 2010. Between 1956 and 1982 she was at Brown University, where she was the Alumni‑Alumnae University Professor between 1976 and 1982. Across this mighty 54 year career, Barbara was, it must be said, a tremendous collegial citizen, a bulwark of forceful, trenchant, good sense, who did not merely seem, but was “a pillar state.” I remember one meeting of the Harvard English Department at which Barbara pronounced in her lucid, trenchant way, cutting clean through a set of Gordian knots to settle a matter that had tangled the meeting for far too long. The matter thus definitively settled, another colleague leaned across the table and said: “Barbara, promise us that you will never retire!”

Barbara has also been an active, leading, lifelong member of many professional organizations in which she has promoted study of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century British writing. Within the institutions of both Brown and Harvard she was also in a very small class of the very great PhD advisors of students in the field of Renaissance Studies. Barbara worked tirelessly both as a candid critic of doctoral students’ work, and as an indefatigable champion of her own students in their testing passage towards a job. At a retirement symposium for Barbara, a former graduate student spoke for all Barbara’s students when she wrote thus: “Thank you for organizing this [symposium] for the toughest, strongest, most supportive adviser ever.”

Barbara Lewalksi’s institutional contribution to Renaissance Studies is, in short, untiring and massive; it runs unwaveringly across a period of more than 60 years, and has by no means ended! All that, however, is merely the opening salvo in any laudatio for Barbara. Let me turn to the matter of her monumental scholarship, “aere perennius” as it is.

Milton’s Brief Epic: The Genre, Meaning and Art of Paradise Regained appeared in 1966. It has none of the qualities one expects of a first book. It has all the hallmarks of Barbara’s entire scholarly corpus: total, no-nonsense confidence in the organization of the material; complete, ready command of the classical, Biblical, and medieval literary background; no lesser command of the history of Western scholarship and theory from Plato forwards; and pin-point accuracy in bringing all that knowledge to bear on elucidation of the poem in question. The book marshals great learning in the service of understanding a specific artefact, without swamping the artefact. This is a first book, but the book of a scholarly Athena, sprung whole and fully armed from the fountainhead of scholarship.

To be sure, across the career, the focus of attention extends from (even if it always returns to) Milton; new scholarly resources (notably the material history of the book) will be brought to bear; profound changes in the discipline (notably the changes caused by feminism) will inflect the subject matter of the books to follow. But all the qualities visible in Milton’s Brief Epic are also brought to bear to extraordinary effect in each of the trail-blazing books to follow: Donne’s “Anniversaries” and the Poetry of Praise: The Creation of a Symbolic Mode (1973) deploys hermeneutics, rhetoric and theology to elucidate Donnes’ Anniveraries; the mighty Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric (1979) totally transformed our understanding of the astonishing production of religious lyrics in seventeenth-century England, by learned understanding of the rigors of Protestant hermeneutics; Paradise Lost and the Rhetoric of Literary Forms (1985) brought deep and precise knowledge of Renaissance poetic theory to bear on Paradise Lost as an epic of mixed forms, revealing the ways in which Milton’s poem dynamically transforms a wide range of classical poetic genres and topoi; Writing Women in Jacobean England, 1603-1625 (1993) brought the extraordinary, contestative literary production of women in Jacobean England to light, and set it definitively in context; The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography (2000) is, in however crowded a field of Milton biography, indispensable for detailed grip on the textual and biographical context of Barbara’s abiding focus, John Milton.

Barbara Lewalski, in short, does not write lightweight books; each of her six monographs is definitive; each will endure as such. They are accompanied by ceaseless publication of articles – each a decisive intervention, as well as by ever-active and – that word again – definitive editorial work, most recently Milton’s Shorter Poems for OUP’s Complete Poems and Prose of John Milton (2012), but also, among many other editions, a superb edition of Paradise Lost in 2007.

Barbara has been the recipient of many prizes for individual books; she has been recognized by her students with a Festschrift. Today we recognize the lifetime achievement – the ongoing lifetime achievement – to a field of study of one of the profession’s most formidably learned, hugely productive, tremendously generous and magnanimous figures. Whether or not Hollywood will take up options our projected movie The Big Lewalksi I cannot say. I can, however, say with certainty that the Renaissance Society of America will join me in unanimous acclaim as we award the Paul Oskar Kristeller Lifetime Achievement Award for 2016 to Barbara Kiefer Lewalski. Laus Barbarae!


James Simpson

March 2016