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English professor a specialist in material culture
STANFORD -- Jay Fliegelman is on his hands and knees in his office, trying to find the telltale bald spots on a Middle Eastern rug.
"There are two here for the knees and one up there for the forehead three altogether, because this was used as a prayer rug," he says. "Over 100 years the rug retains, literally, the impression of the behavior or the ritual that it was part of. The object is showing you the presence of somebody who is no longer here."
In a flash Fliegelman moves to a nearby curved-back chair and runs his hand along the smooth finish of the wood.
"On colonial carved handpieces like these you can often see the wear from hundreds of years of people holding on to them," says the professor of English.
"For me, there's something deeply moving about that. The body has interacted with an object, like ocean waves striking a cliff, and over time the body has transformed the object, has left its mark in certain ways."
Fliegelman reads rugs, chairs, lamps and mirrors the way other professors of English might scrutinize manuscripts and poems. As the department's chief early Americanist and a specialist in cultural history, he is consumed with the objects and habits that defined the young nation in its formative years.
"Jay talks a mile a minute and his mind is constantly moving, jumping, making connections, looping back and leaping forward," says Al Gelpi, professor of English and chair of the American Studies Program. "I'm sure students find him dazzling and maybe a little bit hard to follow at times, but I think he's also tremendously exciting intellectually."
Fliegelman's enthusiasm fills freshman lecture halls and intimate seminar rooms. In 1992 he won an award for graduate teaching from the Associated Students and enrollment in the survey courses he teaches in American literature usually tops off at 100. He currently is directing nine doctoral dissertations in addition to his administrative responsibilities as chair of the English department.
Gelpi was a reader on Fliegelman's dissertation committee at Stanford and also chaired the search committee that hired him. But his earliest memory of Fliegelman dates from a lecture course Gelpi taught 25 years ago in 19th-century American literature.
"Jay used to sit toward the top, on the right side," Gelpi says, gesturing toward the back of a clearly remembered auditorium. "He was like a coiled spring up there, and his energy and intensity and fierce focus were very visible physiognomically, even before I saw it in the excellent papers he wrote. He was a real live wire."
As a past chair of the program in American Studies and a former resident fellow in the American Studies theme house, Fliegelman sees literature interacting with many aspects of culture not just belles lettres like fiction or drama, but intellectual, political and theological discourse. Students in his classes read sermons, political narratives, diaries and biographies of Indian War narratives.
"He is remarkable at being able to take an idea like paternity or filiality and see it expressed in the way people write poems and novels, theorize in political tracts and sermons and also in the way they make chairs, build houses and dress themselves," Gelpi says.
In the book that grew out of his doctoral dissertation at Stanford, Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority, 1750-1800, Fliegelman found evidence in primers, moral tracts, children's books, engravings, samplers and even wallpaper designs to suggest that changing ideas about family life in 18th-century America contributed to a redefinition of the nature of authority. He argued that the shift in the attitude of colonists toward parental England led them to adopt a new father figure in George Washington.
In his 1993 work published by Stanford University Press, Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language and the Culture of Performance, Fliegelman examined what he called the "spectacle of sincerity" in 18th-century political discourse. As Americans' expectations of public speakers increased, President Thomas Jefferson was a leader at a disadvantage "an ineffective and anxious speaker, a whisperer who on occasion feigned illness to avoid reading his speeches aloud," Fliegelman says.
Fliegelman is currently doing research for a new book, Caressing the Desk: The Emotional Life Led with Objects. The title is taken from a letter Jefferson wrote to a grandson-in-law, giving him the desk on which the Declaration of Independence was written.
"He imagines in the letter that the desk will be held up like a saint's relic in parades and 'forever caressed and interrogated,'" says Fliegelman, who uses the third president and other 18th-century case studies to examine the way in which purchasing objects became a defining behavior and those objects increasingly "stood in" for people.
"There was a sense that objects were preferred over people because they didn't leave you, they didn't talk back, and you could project a certain subjectivity and have an intense relationship with them, particularly with books," he says. "It was certainly the case with Jefferson, who, when his first house burned down, didn't inquire about the safety of his family, but only wanted to know about the safety of his books."
The multi-dimensional Jefferson continues to be a gratifying object lesson for Fliegelman's own eclectic interests. He not only is familiar with the president's collection of books on the art of reading aloud and public speaking, but also offers insight on Jefferson's personal habits.
"I'm particularly interested in the emergence, in a consumer culture, of shopping as a primary and therapeutic behavior a form of self-medication," Fliegelman says. "I look at a particular moment of shopping and a particular purchase, and ask, 'What does this tell us about that person at that moment?' "
Although it may be a "wild leap," Fliegelman contends that Jefferson was, in fact, a compulsive shopper.
"He left his family completely in debt, so that they had to sell Monticello and everything in it. He endlessly purchased French furniture and rare books, and pretty much on his own purchased the Louisiana Territory. That purchase was the culmination of his history of shopping, particularly of French purchases."
For the past 20 years Fliegelman's interest in "the degree to which objects satisfy emotional needs" has driven his pursuits as a serious collector of rare books. Specifically, he collects association copies, or books that previously were owned by key players from the centuries he studies.
"I find some reason to leave my office and go home before 2 o'clock most days," he says. "If a book catalog comes with something hot, and it's 2 o'clock here, then it's 5 o'clock back East, and I don't want to wait until the following morning to order.
"Partly this is a kind of middle-aged angst, a Don Juan syndrome the constant pursuit, the possession that's never enough. I wouldn't say that characterizes me much but a lot of collectors in their 40s or early 50s are driven by a kind of competitive passion and an unquenchable desire for something that actual possession doesn't satisfy. It's a compulsively reiterative behavior."
Fliegelman traces his self-described obsession with books to his childhood in New York, when he was hospitalized with a serious illness. He remembers hanging out in antiquarian book shops run by immigrant Jews on lower Fourth Avenue.
"I realized that I could buy some battered 17th-century book that was missing a couple of leaves so it had no market value and still have something that was 350 years old," he recalls. "What appealed to me was not the age, so much, as the caretaker relationship to it.
"I'd lubricate the leather and try to rescue it from its decayed status as a way of modeling to other people how I wanted them to heal me. That enormous impulse to preserve was heavily overdetermined by the fact that I felt so much personally in jeopardy."
Fliegelman owns books that were quoted from at the Continental Congress. He also has an autobiography that a former slave wrote and then sent to the English woman who purchased his freedom. But best of all are the books he discovers that have annotations in the margins.
"There are books in John Adams' library that have in excess of 5,000 words of marginalia in a single volume," he notes. "That says to me that he entered into a serious debate with a book, as if that book and the author were the same thing.
"I'm interested in not just a nice copy of book X, but in Y's copy of book X," he adds. "I'm interested in the relationship of particular individuals to books how and when they engaged a book, read and re-read it, and why it had some sort of real payoff in their lives."
Fliegelman contends that everyone runs a museum, called a house, and that welcoming friends is an attempt to share a kind of autobiographical record.
"I have students over to our house a lot and show them around," he says of the Palo Alto home where he lives with his wife, Renée, who was born in Milan and educated in Austria and speaks four languages in addition to English.
"Renée, of course, has no emotional connection to 18th-century America, and a lot of my stuff seems really perverse to her. She'll ask, 'Why do you want to hang a 200-year-old portrait of someone who isn't your ancestor?' So she has an adjacent gallery."
At a time when study of the fine arts is being redefined as an examination of material culture, Fliegelman is encouraging colleagues in his department to think more visually.
"Students love him for bringing objects, books, chairs and manuscripts to class," says Wanda Corn, associate chair of the art department and a proponent of visual studies. "It means that there is a lot of crossover between what we do in the history of American art and what Jay's students do, which makes for a great symbiotic relationship. His classes are truly interdisciplinary."
As chair of the English department, Fliegelman devotes equal energy to undergraduate teaching and graduate-student advising.
"There's a great pleasure in teaching freshmen because you're sort of being folded into their lives at a particular, powerful moment in which you can make a difference," he says. "And to some degree, you can 'convert' them to English. It becomes a way of trawling for majors."
For its graduate slots, the department currently accepts 12 or 13 students each year from more than 300 applications received. All are fully and "identically" funded, Fliegelman says.
"We don't bid up any stars, so there isn't the kind of horrific social Darwinian ethos, with students pitted against one another, that you find at some schools. The ethos, instead, is nurturing, and in the graduate setting I think that's essential."
In the widespread retrenchment that is being felt in the academy today, Fliegelman says that a graduate who is willing to go on the job market for three years has an 85 percent chance of landing a tenure-track position.
"Our students are still turning out extraordinary work, and a significant percentage of the best jobs out there are landed by our students but the jobs just aren't out there," he says of the department's success in placing graduates.
"The point is to stay excited about the work and not think about the job market."
By Diane Manuel
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