Amherst Magazine

The Path-Breaker

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Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "impassioned defender of human dignity," in the 1980s
By Andrew Parker, professor of English

After living for more than 13 years with metastatic breast cancer, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick died on April 12, 2009, in New York City. She was 58. Sedgwick taught English at Amherst from 1984 to 1989, during which time she helped to create the Women’s and Gender Studies department. She also taught at Hamilton College, Boston University, UC Berkeley, Duke University and, since 1999, at City University of New York, where she was Distinguished Professor of English in the Graduate School. She was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the recipient of many fellowships and honors, including an honorary doctor of letters degree from Amherst in 2001.

Widely recognized for her path-breaking work in the field of gay and lesbian studies, Sedgwick was the author of paradigm-changing books and essays—among them, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, Epistemology of the Closet and Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity—which catalyzed new forms of alliance between feminist and anti-homophobic scholarship and between scholarship and activism. She also published a book of poems, Fat Art, Thin Art, and exhibited her work as a textile artist in group and individual shows. Lecturing on such topics as “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay” and “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” she found herself at the center of the culture wars of the 1990s and once was counted among David Horowitz’s “The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America.” Over the past decade, she continued to produce highly innovative work, including a book, A Dialogue on Love, which combined poetry with prose reflections on the course of her psychotherapy; a series of essays on Marcel Proust, Melanie Klein and Buddhist pedagogy; and an advice column, “Off My Chest,” for the breast cancer advocacy magazine MAMM.

Following her death, one of Sedgwick’s colleagues at CUNY wrote that her impact “on the intellectual lives of an entire generation of scholars cannot be overstated. As a writer, teacher, mentor and friend, her sophisticated, precise engagements with questions of sexuality, desire, affect and emotion have revolutionized literary and cultural studies, gender studies, critical theory and feminism.”

Sedgwick’s tenure at Amherst coincided with the 10th anniversary of coeducation and the early years of the AIDS pandemic—a turbulent span in the college’s recent history. Among her well-attended classes was “Communities of Women, Communities of Men,” one of the first courses in gay and lesbian literature taught anywhere in the United States.

She gave a witty and provocative Johnson Chapel talk in 1984 called “Sabrina Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” which the late Douglas Wilson reprinted in Passages of Time: Narratives in the History of Amherst College (Amherst College Press, 2007). Enlisting as a feminist icon the nude female statue that had been both glorified and abused throughout its long association with the college, Sedgwick took stock of a campus culture that had neither fully welcomed its female students and faculty nor had begun to acknowledge its homophobia. Since then, as Wilson noted in his introduction, “things have changed” at Amherst, which undoubtedly is true—though Sedgwick, today, might have asked us to consider “How much?”

When she received her honorary degree from Amherst, Sedgwick was praised by President Tom Gerety as “an impassioned defender of human dignity, of the simple fact—so difficult to register fully—that ‘people are different from each other.’ Your former college salutes you for the many lives you have touched and for your fearless pursuit of often surprising and sometimes painful truths.”

Photo by Frank Ward