Sacvan Bercovitch, the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature Emeritus, has won the Bode-Pearson Prize for outstanding contributions to American studies.
Awarded by the American Studies Association since 1975, the Bode-Pearson Prize is one of the oldest and most prestigious awards in American studies. It is given annually to an individual for a lifetime of achievement and service within the field.
Bercovitch, who taught at Harvard from 1983 until his retirement in 2001, is considered by many of his colleagues to be a pioneer in the study of American literature and culture. His influence on criticism and scholarship has been powerful.
John Stauffer, professor of English and American Literature and Language and professor of African and African American Studies, called Bercovitch “one of the great literary historians of the 20th century,” Bercovitch, Stauffer said, was “one of the first American scholars to analyze the ideological and rhetorical functions of literature and to link art to political and cultural themes.”
Born in Montreal, Quebec, in 1933 to leftist Jewish parents who gave him his unusual first name to honor the Italian immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, executed for murder in 1927, Bercovitch has always regarded the United States as a fascinating and perplexing foreign land.
“In my outlook I began as an outsider,” he said, “and I think I’ve retained that sense of marginality. I suppose I’ve become a bit Americanized. I guess you might say I have an inside-outside perspective.”
Bercovitch said that when he came to the United States in the 1960s, he was overwhelmed by the vision the nation seemed to have of itself.
“Canada does not have a vision of itself. Mexico doesn’t. The United States alone has forged a new kind of identity.”
For Bercovitch, it is the country’s vision and rhetoric that make it exceptional, not its history. “The history of the United States includes slavery, genocide, racial discrimination, war — in other words, it’s a country like all others. What is exceptional is that this country has created a vision of a new world and a new human being. Through its rhetoric, its poetry and prose, it has succeeded in investing the word ‘America’ with enormous symbolic power.”
But the vision that the United States has crafted of itself is not necessarily empty or false, since, as Bercovitch points out, “rhetoric can also shape reality.”
Bercovitch has developed his analysis of the United States and its unique identity in a series of challenging and influential books, including “The Puritan Origins of the American Self” (1975), “The American Jeremiad” (1978), “The Office of ‘The Scarlet Letter’” (1991), and “The Rights of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America” (1993).
Bercovitch is also the editor of the eight-volume “Cambridge History of American Literature,” which has become the standard work on the subject.
His current project is a study of modern Jewish intellectual history, encompassing the period from 1880 to 1940. During those years, a series of persecutions, culminating in Hitler’s “final solution,” prompted large-scale emigration among Jews, accompanied by an enormous outburst of creativity in science, literature, and politics.
“It’s a big undertaking,” Bercovitch said, “so I can’t tell you when it will be finished. It’s kind of an indulgence because it’s a way for me to learn about my own Jewishness.”