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A Passion for Getting It Right

Essays and Appreciations in Honor of Michael J. Colacurcio’s 50 Years of Teaching

Edited By Carol M. Bensick

For 50 years Michael J. Colacurcio has been a leader in the criticism of early and antebellum American literature. In The Province of Piety, New Essays on The Scarlet Letter, Doctrine and Difference, and Godly Letters, as well as editions and often-reprinted reviews and essays, Dr. Colacurcio has continued to defend a rare vision of the political and intellectual depth of America’s serious fiction and the aesthetic power and charm of its religious poetry and prose. In light of many honors such as the Book of the Year Award from the Conference of Christianity and Literature and election in 2007 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, UCLA raised him to the rank of Distinguished Professor. Yet for all his dedication to research, his students know him as an unforgettable teacher, who has continued to win several teaching awards at both Cornell and UCLA. The present volume aspires to celebrate Dr. Colacurcio’s 50 years of transformative teaching through an exciting bounty of original and classic essays by some of his most talented students and eminent colleagues from his very first years at Cornell up to and including his current students at UCLA.
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What Is the Custom-House?



“What is the custom-house?” says the earnest undergraduate in a course on which I’m sitting in to repair some of the ignorance caused by my own bizarre judgments in undergraduate school.

With multiple levels of Jesuit learning summoned and marshaled, Michael Colacurcio lifts off on the most learned and brilliant impromptu I’ve ever heard. The man who argued that most Hawthorne criticism was insufficiently researched certainly had not made that mistake himself. Nor had he succumbed to the custom of giving the easy and short answer, just to spare student self-esteem and professorial energy. This guy was smarter than hell, deeply informed, and entirely committed. Literature, philosophy, history, and theology were all brought to bear, at an extraordinary level of specificity and precision, then articulated, joined together, in paragraph after paragraph of finely ordered prose, punctuated by some self-deprecating humor. I must confess that I was grateful for the humor primarily because it helped me catch up on taking notes. This was what Emerson called a “luster,” and I knew it even then.

I shall not attempt to recreate the content of that explanation, but I shall say that I was an ardent Americanist and, for a grad student, a fairly well informed Hawthornian, and I was learning by the second.

When Mike concluded this special season of God’s favor, the undergrad said, “No. What I mean is, ‘What’s the custom-house?’”

We were off again,...

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