Friday, August 5, 2011

August 5, 2011 [Scholarly Review 4]: Lawrence Rosenwald

When I’ve written about scholarship and political activism in this space, I have tended to treat the two things, as I did in Monday’s post, as distinct and even (to my mind) opposed options for any AmericanStudier (or other academic). I certainly believe that to be the case when it comes to classroom teaching; espousing a particular political party or candidate in the classroom (which, as I wrote way back on May 11th, I believe that very few of us teachers do, despite the cultural stereotypes of indoctrinating liberal professors and the like) is for me anathema to complex, contextual, historical and cultural and literary and analytical and above all student-centered course work. Yet in a scholar’s work and career outside of the classroom, it’s entirely possible to be both a committed political activist and (what I have defined as) the best kind of scholar, a fact that’s exemplified by my friend and English and AmericanStudies colleague, Wellesley College Professor Lawrence (Larry) Rosenwald.
Larry’s particular kind of political activism has brought him a (relatively) good deal of attention, both because it’s unusual and because it’s at least potentially illegal: he is a tax resister, and specifically a war tax resister, an American citizen who refuses each year (at least those years when the US is fighting a war) to pay the portion of his taxes that he has calculated go to support our defense and military spending. Yet while these actions and choices are certainly individual, political, and in response to contemporary issues and realities, they are also, as Larry argues with great nuance and impressiveness in the essay at the first link, deeply scholarly and analytical, connected to a line of American philosophy and writing that extends back at least to Henry David Thoreau and his practice and ideas of civil disobedience. That essay of Larry’s is in fact a model for me of public AmericanStudies scholarship, a piece that does full justice to an American literary figure and historical moment and philosophical and political narrative, while at the same time foregrounding and engaging directly with Larry’s own and our national contemporary connections to all of those focal points.
That activism and essay would be more than enough to merit Larry a place in my Scholarly Review series, but they’re far from the only, nor even necessarily the central, impressive scholarly works of his. Larry has also made at least as valuable and critical a contribution to our national identity and conversations with his book Multilingual America: Language and the Making of American Literature (2008): that text acts as a very thorough and comprehensive survey and analysis of the multilingual canons and traditions that have been part of our national literature and identity from their origins; and at the same time makes a compelling case for redefining both that literature and our identity precisely through multilingualism. In other words, the book has a great deal to offer to students, literary critics, cultural historians, interested AmericanStudiers outside of the academy, and educators who work with multilingual student populations, among many other potential audiences; public scholarship, as I have tried to articulate in this space on multiple occasions (including this June 12th post), entails not only certain kinds of focal points and methodologies but also and at least as importantly broad and deep connections to a variety of audience members and communities, and Larry’s book, like his work in general, fits that definition perfectly.
I suppose my main takeaway here, and (I have realized) one of my main purposes for this blog, is that public scholarship is on a core level inherently political activism. That’s true when it aligns directly with overt activism, as with Larry’s performance and analysis of civil disobedience; and is true when it comprises instead a sustained illustration of and argument for a distinct and crucial vision of our national and cultural identity, as with Larry’s book. But even if you disagree entirely with those points of mine, Larry’s multifaceted AmericanStudies work is exemplary and well worth our communal awareness and response. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      An essay of Larry’s on Thoreau, civil disobedience, and tax resistance:
2)      Info on Multilingual America:
3)      OPEN: Any scholarly nominees for this series?


  1. Thanks as always for the thought-provoking post. America can be such a funny (I guess that's the word) place sometimes. You gotta love how there's this mainstream demonizing of all liberal political activism that takes place in our own country, and yet here we all are rooting for the liberal activists of the middle east to raise havoc, and get arrested, and promote democracy, and all of that good stuff. It's really related to a way bigger problem, which is the notion that our country is somehow the exception, that the "unbiased" wheels of capitalism are all fair and just,that we are this purely good country that does not need activism.

    If you ask me, I say that liberal political activism is awesome, especially in America. It is pro-people, pro-democracy, and the mark of a passionate engagement with one's topic of study. I do whole-heartedly agree, of course, that when it comes to the classroom, it's all about helping students develop their own views and positions.

  2. Larry was a very kind, generous colleague when I emailed with him about the Louisiana Francophone project I was working on, and I'd like to meet him in person someday! I didn't know about his civil disobedience, but I find it very interesting.

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Heidi - I too look forward to meeting! And deep thanks to Ben for his kind words, which certainly describe the sort of scholar-activist I want to be, even if they don't necessarily describe the person I am.
    One small note: I refuse to pay war taxes even during the years when the US is not at war; the size of the military budget, as one thing among many, reflects in my view the fact that the US is always a militarist country, always enmeshed in the war system.