2006 Commencement

Honorary Degree Citation
Joyce Carol Oates
May 28, 2006

(The transcript of Joyce Carol Oates's speech is not available.)

Joyce Carol Oates--Distinguished teacher; learned critic and editor; provocative and insightful reviewer and commentator; and most especially prolific, versatile, and gifted writer of over 125 books in a range of genres--you are America's preeminent "woman of letters." You have suggested wryly that your tombstone should read: "She certainly tried." Well, not only have you tried, you have succeeded brilliantly. Your work is distinct, unique, yet deeply enriched by American culture, history, and literary tradition. Henry Louis Gates Jr. has commented that a future archeologist, equipped with nothing but your collected body of work, could piece together postwar America.

You grew up in a working-class household and attended a one-room schoolhouse in rural western New York State, an area memorialized as Eden County in many of your most resonant works. You were a prodigious storyteller as a child and a precocious student. The first member of your family to finish high school or go to college, you graduated first in your class, with a degree in English and philosophy, at Syracuse University. (You were gleeful when your valedictory address was rained out; no such luck today, I'm pleased to say.)

In the 60s, you settled in Detroit. Its "brooding presence" and relentless "pulse," you said, "made me the person I am, consequently the writer I am for better or worse." Your Detroit-inspired novels chronicle the migration of the poor to the city, the sterile lives of the suburban rich, and the malaise of civil unrest. You look critically at major societal institutions--medicine, law, education--and the struggles of radically dislocated characters.

Since 1978 you have been at Princeton University, where you are the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities. While you have occasionally satirized the academy, you also value its sanctification of the inner life, its rich heritage of ideas and art. You have portrayed repeatedly a young woman's intellectual awakening at a university and the attractions and dangers of the unconscious as a generating source of creativity. You write, as John Barth has said, "all over the aesthetical map," including several boldly experimental and parodic reimaginings of nineteenth-century genres with sly feminist subtexts. And many of your more recent novels are insightful studies of the complexities of female selfhood within an often tumultuous, dislocating, and assaulting culture. Your work, like your characterization of America itself, is "a tale still being told--in many voices--and nowhere near its conclusion."

Joyce Carol Oates, you have received many honors, but Mount Holyoke would like to call you one of our own, because, in so doing, we acknowledge the profound and abiding value we place on reading, writing, teaching, intellectual rigor, creative brilliance, and sheer hard work. So it is with a sense of deep appreciation and great honor that we confer upon you the degree doctor of humane letters, honoris causa.

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