Christopher Benfey

Citation for 2003 Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship

At first, Christopher Benfey looks like he keeps pretty close to home. His Harvard dissertation on Emily Dickinson became his first book; since then he has published another book on Dickinson, a biography of Stephen Crane, and a book that interweaves the history of post-civil war New Orleans with the biographies of George Washington Cable, Kate Chopin and Edgar Degas. Nineteenth-century American Lit; American Studies; a worthwhile field for assiduous cultivation. But this picture is as fallacious as the notion Emily Dickinson's imagination was confined by the Connecticut River valley. A man of letters-Benfey would probably prefer to be thought of as a "person of letters"-Benfey often moves beyond letters and words to images, even portraits. He reminds us that painting and poetry are sister arts, and that the critic who (as Ezra Pound said) "writes to paint" can turn his eye and his pen to painting and painters. As expansionist as the America he began by studying, Benfey's imagination seizes outposts in France and Japan to remind his readers that the republic of ideas need have neither departmental nor national boundaries.

Chris Benfey resists orderly classification. In an era in which many literary critics define themselves by sharp-elbowed theoretical methodologies, he can seem quite old-fashioned in his attention to texts, images and lives. His book about New Orleans, and his forthcoming book about cultural transactions between late nineteenth-century New England and Japan reveal him as a denizen of archives, as a scholar in traditional modes. But he's well aware that critics create their subjects as much as subjects create their critics; his writings inhabit a world shaped by theory even though they eschew high theory's high jargon. As one reviewer of Benfey's work said, "He has a preference for narratives with holes in them-gaps that he is adept at filling in, and at knowing when not to." He seems as skeptical about master narratives as he is about boundaries; the "creole" qualities he admiringly describes in New Orleans could stand as a metaphor for his own critical approaches. He relishes odd juxtapositions and the self-inventions of his subjects; indeed, he was overheard saying to his departmental colleagues that his newest book is about how New England invented Japan. And he writes so well: one reviewer said Benfey's work "has what most academic scholarship and criticism lack-the stamp of a personality, conveyed in a prose of silky precision."

Far more than most academics, Chris Benfey writes for audiences beyond the academy. All except his first book come from trade publishers, not university presses. And he is a reviewer of great range and great distinction. He's reviewed dozens of books for The New York Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, the New Republic, the TLS-the places any reviewer most wants his work to appear. And he's created a kind of alternate career for himself as an art critic. For a time, he was the regular art critic for the on-line journal, Slate, and he's done year-end portmanteau surveys of art books for the New York Times Book Review. His work has even appeared in Fashions of the Times.

Not surprisingly, Chris Benfey's accomplishments have won recognition from most of the major national fellowship organizations: he held a Danforth as an undergraduate, and has won research support from Guggenheim, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Leaned Societies. Benfey's gift for making complex texts and ideas accessible makes him an outstanding teacher. Seniors twice selected him as their baccalaureate speaker. Benfey teaches English 101 and other entry-level courses with skill and enthusiasm, and is equally successful with our most sophisticated advanced students. He's served the College and his colleagues well by chairing the American Studies program and by co-directing the Weissman Center. The interdisciplinary vitality of lectures and events on campus owes much to his imagination, as well as to his colleague Karen Remmler's. In Chris Benfey's teaching and service, we see the same energy, vitality and intellectual vigor for which today we honor his scholarship.