Judith Phillips Stanton, who graduated from the UNC PhD program in 1978, was honored on October 12 at the Distinguished Alumni Awards Ceremony. Dr. Jeanne Moskal gave the awards speech honoring Judith and celebrating her long and groundbreaking academic career with the works of Charlotte Smith:
(Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)
Judith Phillips Stanton, Distinguished Alumna Award Recipient
Presented by Jeanne Moskal
Judith Phillips Stanton—poet and novelist, scholar and mentor—earned her PhD from UNC’s English department in 1978, writing her dissertation, under the encouraging direction of Albrecht Strauss, about the British poet and novelist Charlotte Turner Smith. At that time, if scholars knew of Smith at all, the beginning and end of their knowledge was Wordsworth’s cryptic tribute to “a poet to whom English Literature is more indebted than it is ever likely to acknowledge.” At that time, The British Romantic Period was a coterie of six male poets: Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. At that time, experts relegated Smith’s prodigious output to an antiquarian, closed-off, unusable past. Nonetheless, armed with vision and grit, Judith Stanton undertook the herculean labor of locating Smith’s widely-dispersed letters, sometimes to the surprise of librarians who did not realize they held Smith materials. Judith meticulously transcribed these letters, supplying authoritative annotations about their occasions, their recipients, and the complexities of Smith’s world. These labors culminated in Judith’s authoritative edition, The Collected Letters of Charlotte Smith (2003). In the meantime, leading Romanticists such as Stuart Curran, Duncan Wu, Anne Mellor, Susan Wolfson, and Paula Feldman—having discovered Smith’s virtuosity and profundity—launched new, Smith-based interpretive and editorial projects, notably the multi-volume edition of her oeuvre helmed by Stuart Curran. Generous with her knowledge even before the Letters’ publication, Judith enabled a whole generation of literary scholars to contextualize Smith's creative works within her life and times. As a result of the collective scholarly effort devoted to Smith and other women authors, now The British Romantic Period is constituted as much by Wollstonecraft as by Wordsworth, as much by Charlotte Smith as by P. B. Shelley. In short, Judith Stanton’s leadership helped to change what we talk about when we talk about Romanticism—to change, in fact, Romanticism itself.
For the non-Romanticists in the room, I’ll measure Judith Stanton’s impact on the toughest audience of all: undergraduates. Soon after its publication, teaching anthologies offered selections from Smith to undergraduates, registering and consolidating a sea-change. Recently, Professor Kathleen Béres Rogers, from the College of Charleston, analyzed for conference attendees her experience of teaching Smith’s poem The Emigrants, which was occasioned by the arrival in England of French priests exiled as the Revolution turned Deist. Her students were riveted by Smith’s characterization of one refugee priest receiving assistance when he arrived on English ground: having “receive[d], amazed, / The Pity, strangers give to his distress,” the priest is chagrined that he and his co-religionists formerly “condemned [them] as heretics.” For these undergraduates, Smith’s representations of religious bigotry and forced human migration felt—as Law & Order puts it— “ripped from the headlines.” They went on to critique Smith’s Protestant smugness in assuming it was the Catholic who needed to repent; they then applied this same critique to some present-day charitable efforts. This is important. The students initially recognized philanthropic smugness in one eighteenth-century instance, where the particulars differed from their own world. Having thus gained some detachment, they saw the present with fresh eyes, recognizing present-day occasions for the same critique. This would never have happened if Charlotte Smith had remained in the antiquarian cabinet. Smith epitomizes a past in living conversation with today’s social problems and with the voters and activists of the future.
Judith Stanton’s lucky friends and protegées know well this conversation among past, present, and future. When we are chatting with Judith seamlessly about our current concerns, sometimes one comment will calve off from today and catalyze Judith’s unparalleled knowledge of Smith’s world. Past and present dance. Our present yields to Judith’s conjuring of Smith’s past—say, a novel’s denouement, or an incident in her struggles with money, family, work, and justice. After such dances, I for one return to my present struggles with surprisingly similar matters, but newly strengthened by an unexpected solidarity with one of the past’s eminent authors.
And to those in the room who work in disciplines other than the Humanities, I can suggest a further significance. Judith Stanton’s achievement demonstrates that the past isn’t static. It speaks to the present. It can inform the future. The past itself changes in that conversation, revealing more of itself. Therefore it’s a mistake for us, as teachers, to neglect this infuriating, shimmering, always-changeable past. Neglecting the past impoverishes even those students in disciplines that focus on the present or the future. Judith Stanton’s example invites us, instead, to enrich their education with a capacious, historical understanding of the world we study and in which we live. Thank you, Judith, and congratulations!