The Conference on Christianity and Literature honors Lawrence Buell as the recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award — We do so with great appreciation and gratitude for his extraordinary contribution to literary studies. He has profoundly shaped our understandings of American literature, especially New England literature, even as he has urged us to widen our frame to the hemisphere, the planet, and beyond. He has prompted us to think more carefully, ethically, and humanely about the environment. And he has encouraged us in his own inimitable way not to ignore the abiding, if also changing, relationships between Christianity and literature.
Lawrence Buell Commendation
The recipient of the Jay B. Hubbell Medal in 2007 for his extraordinary contribution to the study of American literature, Lawrence Buell’s work has contributed much to our understandings of transcendentalism, New England literary culture, environmental literature, and religion in the United States. It is difficult to overstate the importance of his work to a generation of scholars. Indeed, he has written so many important books, and over such a long period of time, that he has influenced several generations of literary critics. As a professor at Oberlin College and then for many years at Harvard University, where he also served as Dean of Undergraduate Education, his teaching has touched the lives—and launched the careers—of countless students over the years.
Professor Buell’s first book Literary Transcendentalism (1973) established him as a leading authority on Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists. His second, New England Literary Culture (1986), was a masterful work of literary excavation, mining the archive to develop a thorough account of early U.S. national literature in what was undoubtedly its most vibrant region in the nineteenth century, New England. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, New England Literary Culture remains a landmark book in U.S. literary studies.
His next book, The Environmental Imagination (1995), signaled a new direction in his scholarship and helped give rise to environmental criticism at a time when climate change and sustainability were just beginning to register as among the most pressing problems of our time. His many other contributions to that field include Writing for an Endangered World (2001), The Future of Environmental Criticism (2005), Literature and Environment (2011), Ecocriticism: Some Emerging Trends (2012), and Uses and Abuses of Environmental Memory (2013). With Wai-Chee Dimock, he has co-edited Shades of the Planet: American Literature as World Literature (2007), which considers U.S. literature across deep time and within global or planetary frameworks. He has also written an elegant biography of Emerson, Emerson (2003). Throughout his career, Buell’s scholarship has been a model of what Clifford Geertz called thick description, embedding American writers in their rich historical and cultural contexts.
Like New England Literary Culture nearly thirty years ago, his most recent book The Dream of the Great American Novel (2014) is encyclopedic in its range and depth, providing insightful, pithy readings of an astonishing array of great American novels, hence explicitly rejecting the notion that there could be only one. With his customary brilliance, he shows just how productive the dream of the Great American Novel has been.
Accepting the Jay B. Hubbell Medal, Lawrence Buell had this to say about his life and work: “Speaking for myself, at least: when it comes to measuring the possible value of my own work whether as scholar or as teacher, I’d rather not think of how it maybe helped to build or further this or that school of thought but of what it might have set in motion, what it stirred up, not what it settled down. To be thought of as having actually done something in this vein in return for all I’ve been given is the greatest honor of all.”