Professor Larry Rosenwald Receives Guggenheim Fellowship for Work in Literary Criticism

larry rosenwald
Professor Larry Rosenwald’s (right) wide-ranging work includes literary criticism, translation, and relations between literature and war resistance. Rosenwald co-directs the Peace and Justice Studies Program with Nadya Hajj (left).
April 30, 2020

This spring, Larry Rosenwald, Anne Pierce Rogers Professor of American Literature and professor of English at Wellesley, was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, one of 175 recipients chosen from nearly 3,000 applicants from the United States and Canada. The Guggenheim Foundation cited Rosenwald’s wide-ranging work in literary criticism, including his current project, “an attempt to define pacifist criticism”; War No More, an anthology he edited of three centuries of American antiwar and peace writing; his literary and scholarly translations from German, French, and Yiddish; and his verse scripts for early music theater.

Here, Rosenwald reflects on what it means to be awarded this fellowship, his ongoing efforts to define pacifist criticism, and his role in Peace and Justice Studies at the College.

What does receiving this Guggenheim fellowship mean to you?

Larry Rosenwald: I’ve applied for the Guggenheim five or six times before (whenever I was about to go on sabbatical). The great Catholic pacifist Dorothy Day liked to say, “all strikes fail except the last one,” which seems pertinent.

How does it feel to have gotten it? First, and as a caution, I should say that just as I tried not to be too cast down by past rejections, so now I’m trying not to be too elevated by this present honor. (Not entirely succeeding—I’m still high as a kite—but that’s an aspiration.)

Beyond that—well, getting the fellowship means I have to modify my sense of myself, in my public intellectual life. Never having gotten any fellowship before, I’d cast myself as an eccentric in that life, managing to publish a fair amount of work but not thinking of myself or my topics as central. And maybe that’s still true, but the fellowship is a validation of the project (on which more below), and maybe that means that my work is more central than I thought of it as being.

Your work focuses on peace and justice studies, and antiwar and peace writing, including the recent anthology you edited, War No More. What inspired you to study these areas?

LR: In some ways it’s simple: I’m a fundamentalist pacifist, have been that since 1987, and in the work you refer to I’m trying to describe and figure out some of the traditions I feel connected to. (In the course of putting together War No More I had lunch in New York with one of the Library of America editors, to talk over some details of the anthology. Halfway through lunch he looked up and said to me, “This is personal for you, right?” He was correct.)

“To teach is to be responsible to matters of fact, to a history, and I hadn’t learned that history. So I set out to do that, and most of my work on this topic has arisen from that process of learning.”

Larry Rosenwald

In other ways it’s not so simple, as most of the work I’ve published since 1987 isn’t concerned with these topics. What brought this topic to such prominence in me was my teaching at the College. Until 2000 I was, as noted, a pacifist, a war tax resister, a person doing some activist work with people on the nonviolent left. But for the most part I wasn’t studying nonviolent traditions, I was just in them.

In 2000, though, Victor Kazanjian, then co-directing the Peace and Justice Studies program, knowing of my activist work, invited me to teach a course in that program. I proposed a course on nonviolence and American literature, the two terms expressing the two commitments that characterize me. Teaching that course revealed to me how much I didn’t know, couldn’t say, couldn’t explain to my students, about my own political traditions. To teach is to be responsible to matters of fact, to a history, and I hadn’t learned that history. So I set out to do that, and most of my work on this topic has arisen from that process of learning.

You’re currently working on a project to try to define pacifist criticism. Could you describe what that entails? Do you see a connection between this work and our future as a society? 

LR: As noted above, the first teaching I did in peace and justice was right in between being a pacifist and being a literary critic. I wasn’t at the time trying to figure out the relations between those two commitments, those two selves, but in several pieces I’ve published in the intervening years the relations, the tensions between those commitments are what I’m focusing on. But they’re relatively small pieces, and they don’t go far enough; the present project is an attempt to go further.

Does this matter to anyone but me? Does it, as your question asks, have something to do with “our future as a society?” I can’t be impartial. I would, though, note that some recent work in history, including military history, and political science suggests that maybe war is on its way out, that a future without it can be not only imagined but maybe realized—Joshua Goldstein’s Winning the War on War, for example, and Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s Why Civil Resistance Works. And if a future without war is within the range of human accomplishment, then pacifism becomes not just an aspiration but a philosophy and a political program. And if it’s that, then in some ways it’s like Marxism or feminism, it’s a radical and not starry-eyed principle, and figuring out its effects in every sphere of life—economics, pedagogy, literary and cultural criticism—becomes urgent.

You joined Wellesley’s faculty in 1980. What effect has being a part of the College community had on your work? 

LR: I touch on that above, but want to say something more. The first time I taught in P&J, I proposed a course that had an escape hatch. If it didn’t work out for me to talk about nonviolence, I could always retreat into talking about literature. But I liked talking about nonviolence—about politics, history, ethics. I liked the students, their zeal, their eagerness to heal the world—what Jewish tradition calls tikkun olam, repairing the world. I liked how unjaded they were, and how fierce. I liked learning what I was ignorant of, and I liked learning what I knew but hadn’t known I knew—a student would ask a question, and suddenly I was giving an answer that had been lurking somewhere in my mind without my being aware of it. Without that first experience, without the similar experiences that followed it, I can’t imagine arriving at my present project. And I can’t imagine it in its present shape without Victor’s initial push, or without my very happy, challenging, edifying collaborations with Craig Murphy and Catia Confortini.

What are you most proud of regarding the Peace and Justice Studies program? What are your hopes for its future?

LR: This is maybe a strange thing to single out, but one thing I’m proud of is how it has become a strong and rigorous intellectual program—has become, in the best sense, more academic. In the ’80s it had, as Victor told the story, a political purpose—its leaders were people involved in antinuclear work—but it didn’t really have an academic center of gravity, a discipline. It has retained its political purpose, its commitment to a set of values, its forthrightness in dealing with controversy. But it has grown in academic rigor, in the intellectual demands it makes on its students (and on its faculty), in the range of academic disciplines represented on its advisory board.

I’m also proud of our students, who remain both fierce and idealistic. And as someone nearing the end of a career at Wellesley, I’m close to rapturously delighted when I think about how Catia Confortini and Nadya Hajj will direct, reshape, reanimate, and expand the program in the years to come.

This interview has been edited for length.