Celebrating Davidson's 'Revolution and the Word'

Panel recalls the influence of professor's study on 18th century American literature

Eighteen years ago, Cathy Davidson "invented the 18th century."

At least that's the conclusion of Duke President Richard H. Brodhead, who participated in a Nov. 23 panel discussion celebrating the reissuance of Davidson's book, Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America.

The discussion at the John Hope Franklin Center was both academic and personal as colleagues and former students praised Davidson with an outpouring of appreciation. Davidson, the Ruth F. DeVarney professor of English and vice provost for interdisciplinary studies, was nearly speechless when she stood up at the end, saying later that "the panel discussion was one of those events where I felt like I was two people at once."

"One of those people learned so much from the other speakers. It was intellectually thrilling," she said. "The other part of me was almost numb with humility: it is humbling to have people one admires speak so warmly and eloquently about one's work. I'll never forget it."

Priscilla Wald, a Duke English professor on the panel, said the book came out when she was in graduate school, and it showed her that literature mattered.

"I remember the excitement it generated," she said. It "shook the foundation of the field and the discipline."

Brodhead, a scholar of American literature, said he remembered the time of year and even the chair he sat in when he first read the book -- in about three sittings.

"For many years, Cathy Davidson was, to me, the author of this book," Brodhead said. "You gave us the 18th century as an interesting area of study."

"Revolution and the Word" was an academic bestseller, and still is used in many courses across the country. In it, Davidson examined the American relationship with the novel after the American Revolution. She looked at the writings in the margins of the books, as well as diaries and reviews, to examine how a culture of words was established. She also argued that the widespread availability of books allowed all people -- especially women and lower-classes -- to gain literacy, thus strengthening the burgeoning democracy.

It has been reissued with a new introduction from Davidson by Oxford University Press, an event that has been celebrated at other institutions as well.

In her prepared remarks, Davidson recalled searching in attics and old bookstores to find what had been regarded as literary "detritus." She said she wanted to refute the notion that serious reading had devolved into cheap entertainment that no one took seriously. The readers and writers took their books seriously, she said. The novel was popular, yet feared, a fear that reflected the conflict over democracy in the new nation.

She drew a parallel to current fears about dissent in this country, saying, "You cannot have democracy without dissent."

At the panel discussion, participants discussed both the significance of the book to the academy and also expressed appreciation for Davidson personally.

Maurice Wallace, who received his Ph.D. at Duke and now is an associate professor of English here, delivered his remarks in the form of a letter of thanks to Davidson, who he said guided him at a time when he was an "earnest and aimless" graduate student conflicted over the ministry and the academy.

He praised "the grace about her person and her work that has distinguished Cathy Davidson as friend and phenomenon."

Other panelists included Joy Kasson, a professor of American studies and English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Sarah Deutsch, chair of Duke's history department.