Elizabeth Young

Citation for 2000 Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship

Elizabeth came to Mount Holyoke as one of the most promising scholars of her generation, a rising star in the firmament of both American Studies and Women's Studies. She has more than fulfilled that promise with a series of dazzling articles and the publication this winter of her book, Disarming the Nation: Women's Writing and the American Civil War.

Elizabeth's research defies neat pigeonholes. She moves with confidence, indeed brilliance, from literature to history, feminist theory to film. She is at home with the canon and with the anti-canon, with Frankenstein and Frankenhook. She is not afraid to introduce wit into serious discussions or to take popular culture seriously. What's more she writes with a style that excites pen envy in her peers. How many of her colleagues secretly wish they had come up with titles like "The Rhett and the Black" or "A Wound of One's Own"? As an ailing referee wrote in delight: "Reading her work became a kind of tonic for me that pulled me out of my prescription-induced stupor. Antibiotics put me to sleep: Elizabeth Young woke me up." And she added apropos of her book manuscript, "There is, quite literally, never a dull moment." One has barely digested the remarkable insights in one sequence before she is on to the next round of "astonishing ideas." Others agree that Elizabeth is already such a master stylist that it is hard to believe this is a first book. It is, they concur, an instant landmark in the field. No wonder a half dozen presses competed for the right to publish it!

What peers especially single out is Elizabeth's uncanny ability to bring new insights to familiar texts such as Uncle Tom's Cabin and Gone with the Wind, as well as to bring them into dialogue with little or unknown texts. In the words of one, "she offers brilliantly elucidating 'first readings' of historical figures and texts that have received little or no attention, but she also unreads and rereads the always-read." She also has the extraordinary ability to interweave her literary criticism with an abundance of historical detail that sets old texts in new context-to "bounce" the fictions of her texts "off the 'facts' of the historical moment."

Elizabeth's work also marks a milestone in feminist literary criticism. Her tour de force in taking Topsy from Uncle Tom's Cabin as a metaphor for the topsy-turviness of women's writing characterizes her own relation to the tradition of women's literary criticism: she contributes to the tradition all the while turning it inside out and upside down. Much as Young is versed in theory, she avoids both the jargon that has often blighted the field and the tedious debates that have often bogged down feminist discussions of the body and various strategies of subversion.

Another aspect of Elizabeth's research and writing that has won praise is her ability to weave both race and gender into her narrative of women's writing. The same holds for her film criticism where she also shows a mastery of queer theory. How many literary scholars can move so effortlessly from the written word to the screen, from Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Mitchell, Iola Leroy, and Elizabeth Keckley to "The Birth of a Nation" and "The Silence of the Lambs" and the "Bride of Frankenstein?" Elizabeth's two published essays on film have already established her as one of the leading theorists of film. Her book in progress, Women and Other Horrors: Film, Feminism, Frankenstein, she sees as complementing "Disarming the Nation" in that it is a "study of the interconnections among gender, race, and sexuality in American culture and in feminist theory."

Many of Elizabeth Young's students may be disgruntled that we have chosen her for the research rather than the teaching award. Perhaps foremost among the qualities they praise in her teaching is an "awesome" ability to bring them into the conversation, making them feel they have more brilliant things to say about the texts than they ever imagined. If her writers could talk, they might say the same thing-that she has found a richness in their work that even they didn't know was there.