From Ammons to Pynchon, scholars consider Cornell's literary legacy

With no Ph.D., poet A.R. Ammons joined the Cornell faculty on the strength of his writing and over his 40-year career at the university became one of its most accomplished literary figures and influential teachers.

English Professor Roger Gilbert related this story at a March 4 panel on Cornell writers. He also described Ammons' early struggles in job after job, and writing poetry without support or formal training. After giving an inspiring reading on campus and publishing in Cornell's literary magazine, Epoch, Ammons was offered a one-year position as an instructor. "At that time, a doctorate was required for tenure-track professorships," Gilbert noted.

Gilbert and fellow English faculty members Molly Hite and Mary Pat Brady -- who discussed authors Thomas Pynchon '59, Loida Maritza Perez '87 and Manuel Muñoz '98 -- were participating in a panel discussion in Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium, "Cornell Scholars on Cornell Writers," part of the Centennial Plus Five celebration of creative writing at Cornell.

Continuing the Ammons story, Gilbert said that Ammons published five books in five years (1963-68) and received successive Guggenheim and American Academy fellowships. He soon joined the Cornell faculty, earning a professorship in five years. After winning the National Book Award for "Collected Poems 1951-1971," Ammons became the Goldwin Smith Professor of Poetry.

"Both by his example and his influence, Ammons showed that creative writers were capable of engaging with ideas at the highest level of philosophical abstraction and with a degree of imaginative freedom denied most critics," Gilbert emphasized.

Gilbert noted Ammons' influence on his students, including Kenneth McClane '73 (now the W.E.B. DuBois Professor of Literature at Cornell), and Alice Fulton, M.F.A. '82, the Ann S. Bowers Professor of English. Ammons' poems "Still" and "Hymn" provided examples of structure and scientific diction that trickled into some of his students' work.

In her presentation on Pynchon '59, Hite joked, "I don't know Pynchon, never did, probably never will -- and in fact what I'm going to be talking about is mostly rumor."

Hite said Pynchon's novel "The Crying of Lot 49" references Cornell and describes an impossible sunrise on Libe Slope. "The description gives with one hand, and then takes away with the other," she said, noting that motif in his literary career as well -- he is a prolific and celebrated author yet has remained out of the public eye.

When Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" won the National Book Award, the author sent a comedian in his stead to the ceremony. Hite explained that such honors are not important to him. "Pynchon was not a performer ... he was an observer," she said.

Brady, discussing the work of Chicano writers Perez and Muñoz, admitted that "Cornell is an unlikely locale, in some ways, to support Latino letters" -- and the English department has integrated Latino literature as rigorous and valuable scholarship, she said.

Although Perez faced much adversity, from racial prejudices as a Dominican of African descent to witnessing a murder, "she did remember, with an extraordinary fondness, the faculty in the English department who had nurtured her," Brady said.

For Muñoz, Cornell is "a vague and amorphous 'over there' that is not Fresno, California," Brady said. "Perez and Muñoz are an odd pair to discuss together," she added, in that they embodied different writing styles and Latino cultural themes. She concluded that both, however, offer "a riveting vision worth knowing."

Laura Janka '09 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.

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Nicola Pytell