Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Remembering Patricia Yaeger: A Written Roundtable

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Remembering Patricia Yaeger: A Written Roundtable

Article excerpt

Andy Crank

University of Alabama

THE FIELD OF LITERARY STUDIES LOST ONE OF ITS BRIGHTEST LIGHTS WHEN, on July 25, 2014, Patricia Yaeger died after a battle with ovarian cancer. While Patsy was a prominent scholar in many fields--she was editor of PMLA and a hugely influential figure in feminist, American literary, ecocritical, and film studies just to name a few--her influence in Southern studies was unparalleled.

I was in graduate school when Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women's Writing, 1930-1990 first appeared in 2000; it was like a bomb had gone off in our discipline. In her introduction to the work, Patsy wrote that she wanted to "dynamite the rails" of the Dixie Limited with its condescending paternalism and loose definitions of essentialism, authenticity, and canon (34). That she was successful in dramatically shifting the discourse away from a white, neo-Agrarian obsession with lost empires and phantom causes is impressive enough, but how she went about her work was even more compelling to me as a young scholar. Dirt and Desire was the first monograph I encountered that succeeded largely because of its style, one of elegant determinism: Patsy knew what she wanted to say, and tied into her rhetoric was a personal investment that touched many of us deeply. I remember reading that book and thinking for the first time that I could do the kind of work I wanted to do and, most importantly, I could continue to remain invested in (and hold accountable) a field that had captivated me since my childhood. Through that one book, Patsy opened a space for a generation of scholars.

I know her influence was felt so deeply in part because when I took to the usual avenues for grief--social media, emails, conferences, and conversation with friends and colleagues--all of those I spoke with felt this same tremendous sense of loss. I knew few scholars my age who had actually had a close, personal relationship with Patsy, and yet all of us thought of her as a cherished mentor. Patsy was as much our teacher as if we had taken a seminar with her or had her direct our dissertations. Our work would not have been the same (or, indeed, have existed in many instances) without Patsy's voice leading the way. There was a sense that we should do something, anything, to articulate to ourselves and to our field the importance of Patricia Yaeger and her scholarship.

We were not alone in meditating on Patsy's impact: in January 2015, I saw Patsy's legacy firsthand when I attended her memorial session in Vancouver at MLA and heard directly from her friends, students, and colleagues. Though I knew she was a huge presence in my scholarship and professional life, I was stunned to learn her influence crossed so many boundaries, disciplines, fields, and discourses. She was truly a foundational voice and was missed terribly by countless scholars in many different fields of study. In March, I traveled to Ann Arbor for a conference celebrating her life; the gathering was appropriately titled "Patsy Yaeger: The Luminous Mind." There, I attended panels that did everything from celebrate Patsy's legacy, to articulate her influence in current scholarship, to explore ways in which one could integrate Patsy's spirit into pedagogy. It was a refreshing and invigorating day, but we all ended it with a sense of sadness. In all the voices talking about Patsy, we were painfully aware of the absence of her own.

Shortly after learning of Patsy's death in July, I reached out to several scholars in Southern studies whom I knew she had deeply influenced. All of them were more than willing to talk about her legacy and the way she supported, influenced, and enriched their professional lives, as well as how their relationship with her affected them personally. The eight scholars presented below give voice to the truth that I learned despite never having spoken with Patsy, nor exchanged emails or even a single word at a conference: there is a joy and spirit that Patsy emanated from the very core of who she is, and it is that sense of playful ecstasy, an aesthetic of whimsy and love that made her and her work so compelling, so vital. …

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