A Life of Persistent Curiosity

Susan Gubar follows her own lights to illuminate the humanities.

Sarah Kriner

To understand the impact Susan Gubar has had on our culture, it helps to imagine the United States in 1973, when she began her long career at Indiana University, hired as an “18th century person” with expertise in Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. At that time there was less than a handful of women on a faculty of 75 within the Department of English. 

In 1973 “women’s liberation,” described as a radical new women’s movement, was gathering momentum from the 1960s. “Feminism,” a word met with skepticism and hostility, was entering common currency again after a first wave during the suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ms. magazine published its first issue in the spring of 1972, featuring a goddess on the cover with visible reproductive organs. Her many arms juggle an iron, steering wheel, mirror, phone, clock, dustmop, frying pan, and (at last) a typewriter.

It was both a thrilling and a trepidatious time to enter the profession. Fresh from earning a Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, Gubar brought a love of teaching — first discovered as a seventh-grade teacher in Spanish Harlem — to the College. She met Sandra M. Gilbert, another recent hire, on an elevator in Ballantine Hall.

Within months they were asked to design a course on the works of women writers, a “be careful what you ask for” moment in English studies. Gilbert and Gubar realized with some astonishment that they had never taken one, nor had they been offered classes led by women professors in any field. Feverishly constructing a syllabus for an undergraduate course they called “The Madwoman in the Attic” (referencing Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre), they abandoned previous research projects to examine the 19th century literary imagination. After years as dutiful students who had been exposed to almost nothing about this particular body of work, they discovered women writers who felt subversive and complex, with criticism that tacitly derided them.

Developing the outlines of a proposed feminist poetics, the Madwoman course explored such themes as isolation, confinement, maternity, property, and self-expression. It situated Mary Shelley, the Brontë sisters, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, George Eliot and others in relation to the “fiercely patriarchal structure of Western society.” Examining the “underpinning of misogyny upon which that severe patriarchy has stood,” Gilbert and Gubar collected withering quotations to prove their case, assembling a chorus of male custodians of culture who expressed disdain for forms of women’s self-expression.

Even after Gilbert moved on to a new job in California, the collaborative fever continued. Communicating via costly long-distance phone calls, intense working rendezvous, and snail-mail drafts composed on the typewriter (while raising children and juggling other demands), they eventually produced the massive book published in 1979 by Yale University Press. You have to carefully study the introduction to determine which author wrote which chapter, so interwoven is their observant voice.

The rest is herstory. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination was recognized for breaking open literary studies. Women writers, and the feminist imagination, finally entered the classroom and commanded attention.

Gubar at her home office in Bloomington.

An award for lifetime scholarly achievement

Susan Gubar was honored with the 2020 Modern Languages Association Lifetime Scholarly Achievement Award last January, during the first time the MLA conference took place online. Attendees logged in on a cold winter night, revealing small-frame glimpses of themselves, bookshelves in many backgrounds. What normally takes place in an overflowing hotel, complete with celebratory toasts and reunions, was instead an uncharacteristically somber COVID-era gathering, connecting attendees on computers across the world.

The theme of the gathering was “perseverance,” fitting for a scholar whose persistence and productivity have been so impressive. In her acceptance remarks, Gubar added “precarious” to the list, reminding the audience of institutional uncertainty, especially within the arts, humanities, and social sciences. 

“I was totally shocked,” recalls Gubar, thinking back on the occasion. “I would never have expected anything like that. I was astonished. But I was also moved, and it made me very grateful for the institutional support I've gotten to follow my own curiosity."

Gubar received the award — one that so far has been given to only nine people — after statements read by luminaries and friends. “I very much wanted to accept the award with a diverse group of women who in the 70s basically brought women into the academy, not as tokens but as people who could integrate the humanities, networking together to facilitate feminist issues. And so that was a very great thrill to have those women on the Zoom with me.” She recognized not only those who were present but also the “peers and mentors who have not survived to see the day of our full recognition—the people who made possible my work, and that of subsequent generations of feminist scholars.”

Sandra Gilbert remembered the early years: “In those days Susan wore rather noisy clogs, and you could hear her hurrying down the hallway the whole morning and afternoon.”

Known for her extraordinary ability to inspire, others praised Gubar’s kindness, wit, and “brave and brazen voice issuing out of the Midwest.” The word “generosity” came up again and again.

A foundation for women’s studies

Eventually, the collaboration with Gilbert evolved into a desire to define a distinctively female literary tradition “in its entirety,” taking on canonical questions. Three coauthored books in a series titled No Man’s Land: The War of the Words; Sexchanges; and Letters from the Front, examine 20th century women’s writing in relation to modernism. A coedited volume called Shakespeare’s Sisters (1979) collects feminist essays about women poets. MotherSongs (1995) gathers poems scanning maternity.

In their most encyclopedic effort, Gilbert and Gubar serve as editors of the two-volume Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (now in its third edition), compiling writing from the Middle Ages to contemporary times. The inauguration of this anthology elicited a letter of exultation from Erica Jong (who said it moved her to tears), and an ecstatic poem praising “Gilbert and Gubar/Gubert and Gilbar” from Ursula LeGuin, now collected with other Susan Gubar papers in the archives of the Herman B Wells Library. In 2007 they assembled a Norton Reader reflecting the remarkable advancement of Feminist Literary Theory and Criticism.

Gubar poses beside a painting by her friend and colleague Judith C. Brown, an associate professor of English at IU.

Stretching the provenance of literary criticism

Gubar pursued other avenues of scholarship as well. In 1989, with Joan Hoff, she co-edited For Adult Users Only: The Dilemma of Violent Pornography, intervening in a debate that produced rifts both in and beyond academia. Gathering the perspectives of researchers from many disciplines, the book explores the complexity of legal and philosophical questions concerning the definition and effects of pornography.

Later, with Jonathan Kamholtz, she coedited English Inside and Out: The Places of Literary Criticism (1993). There, she responds to the multidisciplinarity that had by that time reshaped debates within departments of English. Critical theory, cultural studies, and identity politics had each made their mark on the humanities and social sciences, creating newly permeable boundaries among fields such as anthropology, law, religious studies, philosophy, psychology, and history. Women’s studies programs came into existence, many evolving over time into gender studies. Collaboration, once veiled and discouraged within the study of literature (typically conceived in terms of individual genius and an “anxiety of influence”) became more acceptable and inventive. Literary criticism — as altered by feminism — played a leading role in these transformations.

Extended investigations

Then there are the many books under Gubar’s name alone. Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture (1997) set the stage for an extended period when Gubar focused on the mutability of racial and social identities, investigating conceptions of otherness. Gathering evidence from literature, magazines, film, fine art, and popular culture, this book exposes the history of white mimicry, mockery, minstrelsy, and blackface, contrasting these with practices of passing for white. She considers colorism, the conflicted psychology of white guilt, and the subordination of people of color at the center of racist ideology. Toni Morrison noted that “Gubar’s readings are marvels of precision and insight.”

Critical Condition (2000) was her response to intimations of feminism’s “mortality and immorality,” announced with some fanfare in popular media during the final years of the 20th century. There, Gubar considers gender alongside other conceptual lenses to examine emerging configurations of race, ethnicity, caste, class, and religious difference. Written over 20 years ago now, this book anticipates many of the compelling conversations holding our attention today.

She also made persuasive contributions to Jewish studies, exploring the racism of anti-Semitism. In Poetry after Auschwitz (2006), Gubar wrestles with philosopher Theodor Adorno’s famous contention that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric... it has become impossible to write poetry today.” Within this acknowledgement of abject despair, she looks at poets who nevertheless give voice to the ravages of the Shoah. Later, in Judas: A Biography (2009), she traces the history of prejudice against Jews through fictive depictions of Judas Iscariot. Gubar had personal reasons for her interest: three of her German-Jewish grandparents had died because of the rampant anti-Semitism that issued in the Holocaust.

True Confessions: Feminist Professors Tell Stories Out of School (2011) collects personal essays from eminent professors exploring the reach of women’s scholarship. They tell mesmerizing stories from within a wide variety of fields about the dramas of academic achievement. The book sprang from “an urgent desire to find forms of writing less formulaic and tired than academic discourse as usual.”

Bloomington in fictive form

Perhaps her most experimental book is Rooms of Our Own (2006), inspired by Virginia Woolf, arguably the first feminist literary critic. Gubar had written the introduction and footnotes to the first annotated edition of that “incandescent” text with the help of graduate research assistants. Emphasizing the need for support for future generations of scholars, she notes, “All of my books have profited from the expertise of my fine grad assistants, who of course get paid out of research money supplied by IU.”

Rooms of Our Own is a fast-forward imaginative recasting starring a fictional persona, a professor of English in a small town. “I was very much trying to locate educational issues on a campus very much like Indiana University in Bloomington,” she explains, looking back on this glimpse of the inner life of a teacher of English. Shifting at the very end of the book from the quasi-autobiographical character to her own voice, Gubar provides a suggested readings section that further maps exploratory terrain within literary studies.

Like the musing voice in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929), Gubar’s narrator considers obstacles that curtail women’s creative endeavors. On a snowy night, she takes a break from grading student blue books to walk a dog past the president’s house on a wooded campus, wrestling with intimations about what two female students — and one defensive young man — may have learned in her course.

In a chapter titled “White Like Me,” the professor considers poet bell hooks’ contention that white feminists have dominated and silenced women of color, perpetuating their subjugation. She attends an oral exam for a gender studies Ph.D. candidate, an Asian student proposing a thesis on lesbian criticism, only to witness a careless male professor crudely attempt to derail her presentation. She ponders the fact that the study of English is becoming infused with “the panoply of life in so many different countries, breaking the rhythms, introducing new cadences, widening our lexicons.” While appreciative of cultural difference, she uneasily admits that “these encounters, settings, and perspectives with other people in other places defy my comprehension.” 

At one point the speaker summarizes her research efforts: “We had rewritten history, found and recorded the lives of the obscure as well as the eminent, filled the empty shelves with tomes of rare worth so as to make our knowledge of the past less lopsided.” Then, characteristically, she tries to imagine what comes next.

"In all of this work, I have received nothing but support, which strikes me as something quite unique ... You’re very much encouraged to follow your own lights here. And that is something very valuable that I think should be protected."

Making vulnerability visible

What came next for Susan Gubar was a diagnosis of ovarian cancer, detected in 2008. Not one to be undone, even by such devastating news, she describes her illness and its ongoing treatment in two volumes, Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer (2013) and Reading and Writing Cancer: How Words Heal (2016). “All of a sudden, in the midst of a cancer diagnosis, I felt the need to start writing about what it means to be a patient from the inside out,” she recalls. In 2012, as a survivor of “debulking” surgery and an experimental drug trial, she began writing the column “Living with Cancer” for The New York Times, work that continued until the winter of 2021.

Addressing the largest and most diverse audience of her career, Gubar describes in intimate terms the challenges faced by those who endure disability and illness. She speaks frankly about failures of medical science, particularly in relation to women’s bodies. Committed to retaining her personhood throughout the many degrading dimensions of cancer treatment, she recognizes once again that reading and writing provide her with a critical lifeline. Even while bravely facing mortality, she hangs on for dear life.

Love and work during a pandemic

Illness forced Susan Gubar to retire from IU earlier than she would have liked (“I really miss teaching,” she confesses) though she remains professionally engaged in countless ways. It also helped her evolve toward her current preferred genre, something she calls narrative criticism. In 2018 she published Late Life Love, the story of how, in a second marriage for them both, Donald J. Gray, a Victorian studies emeritus professor from the IU English department, became her beloved companion. Interwoven with the personal story, where deep affection confronts both fulfillment and the undeniable prospect of loss, Gubar continues to practice literary criticism. Reassessments of books she once thought she understood stand next to discoveries concerned with aging and amorous relations.

Meeting over Zoom on a snowy day in February 2021, nearly one year into the pandemic, Susan assures me that she and Don have both had two doses of the vaccine. She had just stepped briefly out into the winter sun (“I wore cleats,” she says) and had baked bread earlier that morning.

“This feminist has become the most feminine of Mrs. Beetons,” she admits, referring to the author of a book about the domestic arts in the Victorian period. “Isabella Beeton was synonymous with cooking and needlepoint and staying home and being a homebody. And during the pandemic I have cooked like I’ve never cooked before. I have baked like I’ve never baked before. I have quilted, I have knitted 20 pairs of socks.”

In celebration of Indiana University's bicentennial, Associate Professor of Painting Caleb Weintraub recently created a mural in Wright Quad, which depicts Gubar among other IU luminaries.

Not surprisingly, she has drafted a new manuscript, called Simmer on a Low Flame: Savoring Small Projects in Old Age. “I don’t want to call it late life now. I've had my late life book. I want to just admit that at 76, I’m in my old age. Don, of course, is 93 and we cannot go out. We are just too vulnerable. So, I do these sorts of things, like baking bread or quilting or knitting.”

She also reads the galleys for another book written with Sandra Gilbert, Still Mad: American Women Writers and the Feminist Imagination. A culmination of their collective achievement, this one reflects again on the status of women in their personal, professional, poetic, and political lives.

“The argument of the book is that literary women played an enormously important role, that they furnished the vocabulary and the tactics and the ideas and the strategies that fueled the second wave of the women’s movement. So, we cover women writers from the 1950s to the present — people like Lorraine Hansberry and Sylvia Plath, Toni Morrison and Alison Bechdel, and we argue that in the process of coping with the paradoxes in their own lives, through their art, they really gave the women’s movement its range of targets and issues and passions — and most of all, its language.”

Gubar’s work is infused with the belief that interest and imagination provide sufficient license for intellectual scrutiny, beyond the limits of assigned identities. She cannot be defined by generational stereotypes about early “boomer” status, nor does she accept dismissive assumptions about second-wave feminists. Instead, she cultivates connections across centuries, geographies, and generations, tracing (and advancing) the many ways questions continue to evolve. She offers unflinching honesty about even the most difficult topics, including her own blind spots and aspirations. 

“In all of this work, I have received nothing but support, which strikes me as something quite unique,” Gubar says. “In many English departments, you are locked into a niche, the Renaissance person, or I was, for example, hired to be the 18th century person. And I haven’t done any work on the 18th century. You’re very much encouraged to follow your own lights here. And that is something very valuable that I think should be protected.”

Convinced that feminist inquiry can improve the lives of everyone along the gender spectrum, she is after all a dedicated humanist, arguing for the value of the humanities and the human ties they reveal. Her life work has been defined by labors of reading, revision, and recollection, driven by a persistent life-affirming curiosity. And because her curiosity begs to be shared, she has become an unforgettable teacher.

Ellen Kennedy Michel

Ellen Kennedy Michel first encountered the work of Susan Gubar when studying English and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota. As a writer and teacher, she helped establish The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and taught English at Trinity College Dublin before moving to Bloomington with her family. Now a content specialist within the College of Arts and Sciences, she brings a wide range of interests — in food studies, the arts, humanities, and literature — to her engagement with the many fascinating dimensions of Indiana University.