Academic journal article MELUS

Remembering Katharine

Academic journal article MELUS

Remembering Katharine

Article excerpt

"How will you recognize me?" she said, echoing my question. "Well, just look for someone who resembles a bear," she added, chuckling.

As I write these words now, I find myself smiling, for this is what I remember from a telephone conversation with Katharine Newman nearly three decades ago. She was organizing a meeting to be held at a room she had secured at the New York Public Library, and she invited me to participate in the future of MELUS, and, more to the point, the future of ethnic literature in the United States. She told me she was a small woman, but in her bulky winter coat she could be mistaken for a friendly bear. When I arrived at the library, she was easy to spot, but it wasn't so much the coat: there she stood, this eager woman, arms laden with papers, her eyes vibrant and inviting. Here, I realized, was a woman with a mission.

Katharine had a passion: to reinvent American literature. In those historic days she was often a distant voice in an unresponsive academic wilderness. Back then those of us who were involved in the study of ethnic/immigrant literature labeled it the "New Ethnicity," for "multiculturalism" hadn't assumed the political and social cachet it now has. Katharine knew the battle would be fierce and tremendous: the hallowed halls of education were often hostile to change, and the old-boy networks were still reeling from pointed assaults by the feminists who dared believe students might like to read women writers. What about ethnic writers? I'd been mentored by Jules Chametzky who taught me to love and value such literature, and Prentice-Hall had just published my anthology American Letter." Immigrant and Ethnic Writing. Hence Katharine's call to me: she was ferreting out people like me, passionate believers in ethnicity, many of us hidden away at distant outposts of academe, in my case, a community college in Connecticut.

From that initial meeting, Katharine and a bunch of us--I recall Jean Fagan Yellin, Armand Chattier, to name two--began to build MELUS and its literary journal: to secure us a place at the MLA table, to convince publishers to reissue novels and texts, and to redefine the contents of the anthologies we used in the classroom. We talked of redefining the entire canon, and ideas like ethnic interfacing became commonplace with us. It was, frankly, an exciting time. And Katharine was the wellspring of that beautiful delirium. Not only was she a woman of incredible and enviable vision-she sometimes fantasized about the future American literature classroom, where ethnic literature was not merely tangential (or invisible) but integral to the teaching--but she was also a nuts-and-bolts practitioner. Meetings, letters, phone calls, discussions, sermons--you name it. She wanted younger people to be a part of the movement, so she wanted me to be President of MELUS. I balked, but she assured me that Robert DiPietro and I would be a good team to help build the organization. Those two years were hectic, fumbling, rewarding, and downright wonderful. She was always just a phone call away when I was at my wits' end.

I also remember a meeting she orchestrated at Italian American scholar and poet Rose Basile Green's home outside Philadelphia, where a group of us went to talk with eminent scholar Robert Spiller, the general editor of the Literary History of the United States. Armand Chattier and I drove to the magnificent estate--I seem to recall peacocks resting on the spacious lawn, but I could be wrong--and we lunched with Spiller and others. Katharine had the idea that MELUS would expand the "Mingling of Tongues" chapter of the History, turning its one elemental chapter into a multi-volume study of the ethnic dimension of American literature. Spiller, a remarkable, compassionate man, heard us out and gave us his blessing. It was a wonderful afternoon, all of us upstarts, edgy and feisty, garnering the imprimatur of the venerable professor.

In short order, multiculturalism bloomed, and the multi-volume MELUS history never materialized. …

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