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Stanford Report, May 24, 2000

'Generous intellectuals': English professors Al and Barbara Gelpi

At their campus home in 1986, Al and Barbara Gelpi hosted the wedding of colleagues Tom and Joyce Moser, who were married by a rabbi and a Protestant minister.

"We stood in front of their mantel, with a statue of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus on it and an enormous needlepoint of a Georgia O'Keeffe orchid by Donald [Al Gelpi's brother, a Jesuit priest] hanging behind us," Joyce Moser, a lecturer in Writing and Critical Thinking, recalls. "It was the most ecumenical service. Al stood there, holding the braided candle from the Jewish wedding, with this absolutely beatific look on his face."

English Professors Barbara and Al Gelpi enjoy a backyard that features a terraced garden and large trees. They often open their home up for social functions with colleagues. (Photos: L.A. Cicero)

That a devoutly Catholic couple would bless a Jewish ritual comes as no surprise to their friends. In fact, colleagues in the English Department suggest that the curiosity and accessibility that animates the couple's personal lives is reflected in the breadth of their scholarship. Barbara teaches both Victorian and Romantic literature, as well as feminist literary criticism, while Al's courses reach from early 19th-century to 20th-century American literature and poetry, with a related interest in Southern writing and the connections between American letters and paintings.

"They are an absolutely defining presence at Stanford, with their grace and warmth and great openness," says Irish poet Eavan Boland, the Lane Professor in the Humanities and head of the Creative Writing Program. "And they are community-building people -- scholars who believe tremendously in the communal and collegial life."

"They also have a very remarkable marriage, as great friends, partners and colleagues," Boland adds.

Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Joseph Gelpi have been an inseparable team since their marriage in 1965, after meeting in graduate school at Harvard. They have raised two children together and -- a rare occurrence in today's academy -- taught together in the same department.

In 1984 the Gelpis also were blacklisted together, when their names appeared on a U.S. Information Agency list of 84 people who were banned from speaking abroad in programs funded by the government -- a mistake for which the director of the agency apologized publicly, in print.

"Neither of us has any notion of why we're on the list," Al Gelpi said at the time, adding that he and Barbara found themselves in good company, including TV newscaster Walter Cronkite, consumer advocate Ralph Nader and Pulitzer Prize winner N. Scott Momaday.

"We've signed peace initiatives and anti-nuclear initiatives. But we're not political radicals -- just old-fashioned liberals."

That good-humored response is characteristic of the way the Gelpis deal with life's vagaries, according to those who know them best. Students who've sampled Al's homemade pasta and breads, and friends who've helped to celebrate the arrival of a new painting at their home, say the Gelpis are happiest when they're opening the front door for another department party or New Year's Eve gathering.

"One of the things that has meant a lot to me personally has been watching Al and Barbara live out their scholarly ideals and interests in their lives," says Terry Castle, chair of the English Department. "They're both very open to the new, while at the same time preserving tremendous affection and respect for older models. They're just wonderfully generous intellectuals."

Unlike many in the professoriate who are "extraordinarily focused on the negative," Castle says, the Gelpis "always look for the best, for what's valuable" in their criticism of poetry or Victorian literature.

"They also allow others to share in the joy they've found in life, and it's a marvelous presence to be welcomed into. I've especially enjoyed being present for the concoction and consumption of the sazarac, which has given me a very warm feeling toward New Orleans."

Made with bourbon laced with Pernod and two kinds of bitters, the sazarac is a potent reminder of Al's Southern roots. He grew up in New Orleans, spent his undergraduate years at Loyola University and stayed on for a master's degree at Tulane University. When he finally left the South, it was to pursue doctoral studies at Harvard.

Barbara was born in El Centro, Colombia, where her father headed the accounting department of an oil company. She was educated in a convent school in Canada before enrolling at the University of Miami for undergraduate studies. She, too, headed to Cambridge for her doctorate, studying at Radcliffe Graduate School of Harvard University, as it was then known. A member of the last class of 'Cliffies to be awarded separate degrees from Harvard, Barbara won the 1962 Howard Mumford Jones Award for the best dissertation in the fields of 19th-century British and American literature.

"They were friends, in a group of pals, for six or seven years," Tom Moser, professor emeritus of English, says about the Gelpis' Harvard years. "It took Al a long time to wise up, and it was [British poet] C. Day Lewis who eventually encouraged him in his courtship of Barbara."

In the mid-1960s Day Lewis was lecturing on poetry at Harvard as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor, and he often sat in on classes Gelpi was teaching to learn about such modern American poets as Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. When Al and Barbara were married, Day Lewis celebrated their wedding with "A Marriage Song," a poem from his California travels, which now is framed and hung in their bedroom.

At Harvard, the Gelpis also met Adrienne Rich, who would become a central presence in their personal and professional lives.

"I was a resident tutor at Lowell House . . . ," Al begins on a recent morning, as he and Barbara recall their first conversation with Rich.

"And Lowell House was, of course, all men at that point," Barbara adds. "The women were in dorms that were quite distant, so that we had to bike through the rain and snow to dinner."

"She was leaning against the mantel in the house master's neo-Georgian living room before a formal dinner," Al continues. "And I went up to her and said, quietly, 'Are you Adrienne Rich?'"

"And she said, very cautiously, 'Yes?'" says Barbara.

Al: "She'd just published Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law: Poems 1954-1962. And I said, 'Oh, I like your book so much.'"

Barbara: "And when Al said he was finishing a book on Emily Dickinson, Adrienne said she was intensely involved with Dickinson, and she ended up sending him a poem, 'I Am in Danger-Sir-,' that he used as the epigraph."

A grand friendship was launched beside that mantelpiece, and in 1970 Barbara and Al named their newborn daughter for the poet. Five years later they paid homage to her work by co-editing Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose, which still is widely used as a textbook in women's studies courses.

That is the only book, to date, on which the Gelpis have collaborated. But they have co-taught, for the Continuing Studies Program and for Stanford's Oxford campus, a course on Romanticism and Modernism, and they constantly read and critique each other's work.

"Although Barbara's a specialist in 19th-century British literature and I'm an Americanist, the fields are close enough that we've been able, over the years, to be the first reader of each other's writings," Al says.

Barbara Gelpi's first area of interest was the 1890s, and the book that grew out of her dissertation, Dark Passages: The Decadent Consciousness in Victorian Literature, regularly is hailed as a landmark publication in the field. After teaching at the University of Miami, Harvard, the University of California-Santa Barbara and Brandeis University, she became a lecturer at Stanford in 1969. She received a tenure-track appointment in 1982, and became a tenured full professor in 1992. The following year she received the Lillian and Thomas B. Rhodes Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching.

Barbara also has an international reputation as a scholar of contemporary feminist theory and criticism, as well as psychological literature. Between 1980 and 1985 she edited Signs: The Journal of Women in Culture and Society, the leading academic publication for women's studies in the United States, which was housed at the Center for Research on Women (CROW), now the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. At CROW Gelpi also was associate editor of the 1981 book Victorian Women: A Documentary Account of Women's Lives in 19th-Century England, France and the United States, and in 1982 she was co-editor, with Nannerl Keohane and Michelle Rosaldo, of Feminist Theory: A Critique of Ideologies. The following year she edited, with Estelle Freedman, Susan Johnson and Kathleen Weston, The Lesbian Issue of Signs.

Publication in 1992 of Shelley's Goddess: Maternity, Language and Subjectivity, which explored the ideology of maternity in the poetry and life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, was a showcase for Barbara's combined expertise in 19th-century literature, modern psychoanalytic theory and feminist criticism. She currently is working on a book titled Working in Common, which is about Oxford as a center for Victorian medievalism.

Al Gelpi is a specialist in American literature and poetry whose expertise ranges from pre-19th-century American literature to 20th-century Southern writers. Since coming to Stanford in 1968, he has served one term as chair of the English Department. He also has been associate dean of graduate studies and research and has directed the American Studies Program four times. He received the 1995-96 Humanities and Sciences Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching.

In his first book, Emily Dickinson: The Mind of the Poet, Al placed Dickinson in the context of American poetic and intellectual culture. His 1975 work, The Tenth Muse: The Psyche of the American Poet, was the first volume of a projected three-volume study of the American poetic tradition and focused on American Romantic poetry; its sequel, A Coherent Splendor: The American Poetic Renaissance 1910-1930, related American Modernist poetry to its Romantic antecedents. Al also edited The Poet in America: 1650 to the Present and Wallace Stevens: The Poetics of Modernism.

In 1998, Al published Living in Time: The Poetry of C. Day Lewis, which offered a revisionist look at the Oxford-educated poet. He currently is working on an edition of the correspondence between poets Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan. After that will come volume three of the history of the American poetic tradition and, possibly, a study of the incarnational vision of American Catholic writers.

The list of their combined titles is impressive, and students say the Gelpis' in-class creativity is equally memorable. Some recall the day Al whipped off his tie and jacket to energize a class that wasn't sufficiently enraptured with a Walt Whitman poem, while others talk about his eye for detail -- how he'll notice and compliment a student on a new hat or piece of jewelry.

"Al has the most amazing slide collection, and if there's any kind of material culture that supports the literature he's teaching, he'll bring it to class," says Doree Allen, who earned her doctorate in English with both Gelpis on her dissertation committee. Allen now directs the oral communication program at the Center for Teaching and Learning.

Allen adds that there is a garret-like room in Green Library's South Mezzanine where Barbara likes to send students to pore over 19th-century journals. While she's a devotee of the printed word, Barbara also has signed on to the technological resources of the Web. For graduate seminars on such image-rich fields of study as Victorian medievalism and the Brontës, she has linked the Chadwyck-Healey database of English poetry to class websites and encouraged students to create hypertext versions of specific passages on their own pages.

"I was led into the Web by my fantasies of what could there be accomplished; in the Web I now plan to continue my intellectual and pedagogical life," she wrote for the spring 1997 newsletter published by the Program in Writing and Critical Thinking. "I'm staying on."

The Gelpis are known for keeping in touch with former students, and a call from one Stanford graduate took them to Madrid last fall, to lecture to classes at University San Luis.

In the class he visited, Al Gelpi read poems by Denise Levertov to illustrate the dramatic shift in her style after she arrived in the United States from Britain and began to retool her poetic voice.

In another classroom, Barbara Gelpi tackled the concept of androgyny, peppering her remarks with passages from an Angela Carter novel about a man who'd been a sexual sadist and who was then transformed into a woman by a mother goddess figure.

Two weeks later, the Gelpis were in the Canary Islands, lecturing to college students there.

Al spoke in Las Palmas about the work of poet Adrienne Rich.

"I suggested that as a poet she increasingly is taking on an oracular, almost prophetic voice," he said. "I told them she no longer feels marginalized as a woman or a feminist or a lesbian poet -- but that she's actually taking on a national voice, something like what Walt Whitman did."

In the class she addressed in Tenerife, Barbara explored feminist theory.

"They were familiar with whatever concept I introduced, including post-structuralist critics such as Kristeva and Cixous -- heads would nod 'yes, yes, yes,'" she says. "But they seemed most interested in hearing the experience of someone who'd actually been involved in feminist criticism from the time it started in 1969, right through to the present."

And in a follow-up session in Tenerife, Al says, a student who heard Barbara's talk asked him, 'Do you call yourself a feminist critic, too?' "

"And I said, 'Well, why not?'"

The years Barbara spent at CROW, working with other feminist scholars who were learning one another's disciplinary approaches, were a creative period for her -- and for Al, who says he was "a witness to a satellite of activity and ferment."

"But the most creative work is mothering," Barbara says with no apologies. "That's where you have to turn your intelligence every which way and shake it around."

The Gelpis' son, Christopher, is an assistant professor of political science at Duke University who specializes in conflict resolution, and their daughter, Adrienne, recently finished her doctorate in early childhood development at the University of Michigan and is returning with her husband to the Bay Area.

George Dekker, professor of English, noted at a recent English Department gathering that Al Gelpi "has arguably done more than anybody else to bring diversity to our little community." In addition to recruiting Arnold Rampersad, Horace Porter and Robert Warrior to the department, Dekker said, Gelpi also had been the key figure in the appointments of Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Marjorie Perloff and Shirley Brice Heath.

Given Al's history of supporting women and minority candidates in the department, some colleagues still criticize department politics for making Barbara's appointment so difficult and hard-won.

"She was a terrifically distinguished scholar that the department wouldn't let in because she was a woman and a spouse," says Tom Moser, who was chair of the English Department when Al Gelpi was hired -- and who fought, unsuccessfully, to bring Barbara onto the faculty at the same time.

"I remember one letter from the British critic I. A. Richards, who really wanted to talk about Barbara in his letter of recommendation, even though Al was the one being hired," Moser says. "I was furious with some of my oldest friends here because they wouldn't give her the position she deserved."

Today Barbara Gelpi looks back on the 13 years she taught at Stanford as a part-time lecturer, before being appointed to associate professor in 1982 and full professor in 1992, with remarkable equanimity.

"When we came to Stanford, it was still taken as the norm that if you were a woman and married and had children, you were not going to be a full professional," she says. "Instead, you would do a little teaching on the side.

"But I was in the swing generation that finally said, 'No.' I wanted to go forward in my profession while also being a mom."

Noting that "Barbara often joked that she expected to become a full professor just about in time to retire in rank," Diane Middlebrook, professor of English, was one of many colleagues who toasted the Gelpis at a retirement party held -- where else? -- in their home last June. Although both Barbara and Al retired officially, they both already have been recalled to teach.

"We still need them," Terry Castle says, "We haven't really adjusted to their departure in a healthy way, and we're hanging onto them for dear life."

And long-time friend Joyce Moser speaks for many others who have admired the couple's work at Stanford.

"Barbara and Al have both had absolutely brilliant careers, and one of the nice things is what a kick they get out of each other's work," Moser says. "They are deeply religious people who believe in grace and forgiveness and who have honest-to-goodness charity, and they simply did not permit themselves to feel permanent enmity over the past.

"Of course, if you said that to Al, he would scream with laughter. Or he'd say, 'I have a long way to go.' " SR