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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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April 16, 2007 began as a promising day, ended as one of the worst I had ever known, and later became, with Professor Colacurcio’s guidance, an experience of “the good of evil born.”1 Prof. Colacurcio had asked me to give a guest lecture to his students that morning, as he would be out of town. The topic was Emerson, and the situation was rather ironic: in writing my remarks on a man who spent his life seeking “an original relation to the universe” (27), I had tried to sound as much like Prof. Colacurcio as possible. The material for that class contained some of Emerson’s most famous aphorisms about the value of independence, but I was crossing my fingers, hoping I had sufficiently absorbed and approximated the ideas of my mentor.

The readings were Emerson’s politically charged essays of the early 1840s, and I had studied them with Prof. Colacurcio before. He had shown me that Emerson was a far more austere intellect than I’d previously realized, and that his anti-institutional thought didn’t just take on easy targets like “custom, and trade, and office” (126), but skewered far more sacred cows. I had been especially surprised to learn that Emerson flung his “rude truth” at the “bountiful cause of Abolition” in those years, criticizing the anti-slavery movement as a source of suffocating groupthink and arguing that true individualists should resist the “malice and vanity” that it had hidden beneath its...

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