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English Prof Named Guggenheim Fellow


It is not unusual to spot Michael Gorra’s byline on the pages of the New York Times Book Review. Gorra began writing reviews for the newspaper more than twenty years ago during his early days on the Smith faculty.

But Friday, April 6, his name appeared in a different section of the newspaper: as part of a full-page advertisement purchased by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Gorra is among this year’s 189 Guggenheim Fellows, selected from 2,773 applicants. Fellows, read the ad, “are appointed on the basis of unusually impressive achievement in the past and exceptional promise for future accomplishment.”

Next year Gorra, the Mary Augusta Jordan Professor of English Language & Literature, will use the fellowship to take time off from teaching for the research and writing of a book about Henry James.

“My fascination with James has been constant,” said Gorra. “ I teach him in some form every year…I have written about his travel writing, his criticism and his representation of sexual knowledge in the novels of the 1890s. I’ve always wanted to write at greater length about him – his work, his world, his life.”

Gorra plans to chronicle James’ career, the writing of his most popular novel “The Portait of a Lady” and his revision of the text more than 20 years after its 1880 publication. Gorra would like his tome to be called “Portrait of a Novel.”

When it was released, “The Portrait of a Lady” flouted convention by risking an ending that was both unhappy and open. It was the “bridge across which Victorian fiction stepped over into modernism,” said Gorra.

Using James’ correspondence, Gorra plans to reconstruct the rhythm of the author’s working life in the places he wrote, including London, Florence and Venice.

“I’ve already gone to Florence with this novel in mind,” said Gorra, “walking through the town with a 19th-century guidebook and maps, plotting the locations of the various places in which James stayed, and visiting the villa that he used as a model…in ‘Portrait’.”

In addition to Gorra, this year’s Guggenheim Fellows include playwrights, painters, sculptors, photographers, filmmakers, choreographers, physical and biological scientists, social scientists and scholars in the humanities.

What distinguishes the Guggenheim Fellowship program from others, according to the foundation, is the wide range of interest, age, geography and institution of those it selects as it considers applications in 78 different fields, from the natural sciences to the creative arts.

“I have been planning this book for some time now,” said Gorra. The grant will “allow me to push deeply into this book during the academic year 2007-08.”

Although he will not be in the classroom next year, noted Gorra, his travels will always lead back to his office in Seelye Hall, where he plans to do most of his writing.

4/6/07   By Kristen Cole
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