Remembering Joel Myerson
It is with deep sadness and fond memories that we mourn the passing of Joel Myerson, who died on November 19, 2021. Joel was a giant in the field of American literary studies, and he played an indispensable role in the founding of the Louisa May Alcott Society, serving as the Society’s first President from its founding in 2005 to 2008. He authored or edited more than 60 books, including several volumes that have been essential to scholarship on Alcott, Emerson, Transcendentalism, Concord, and so much more. Just as his scholarship reshaped nineteenth-century literary studies, his mentorship and his always gracious support and personal kindness nurtured and advanced the careers of so many in the field. We offer our condolences to all of Joel’s family and friends, and we offer these personal tributes as our way of remembering him and his place in our lives.
Remembering Joel Myerson
When I first met Joel in 1977 at the annual gathering of the Modern Language Association in Chicago, he was just launching Studies in the American Renaissance [SAR], and I was just beginning an edition of Bronson Alcott’s behemoth Journal for 1837 for my dissertation and wondering, when it was finally finished and my Ph.D. completed, where it would ever get published. What I remember most clearly about that meeting many years ago was his genuine enthusiasm for getting to know and encouraging new toilers in the scholarly vineyard of 19th-century American literature and textual studies. I left the meeting heartened that my edition would be a candidate for SAR and was pleased to learn, later, that my name and address had been filed in what would become his legendary Rolodex. After the 1837 journal was published and then the 1838 volume, I had long happily counted him a good friend. By the time that SAR ended its remarkable twenty-year run, many more newcomers to the fold would see their work published in it, have their names and addresses added to his Rolodex, and come to regard Joel as friend and colleague. This spirit of inclusion characterized his entire career whether he was putting together panels or hosting drop-in parties at MLA and ALA or doing the same at less august professional get-togethers such as the Philological Association of the Carolinas. Joel always tried to make sure that younger as well as older voices were heard and felt welcomed—an estimable legacy.
Larry Carlson, Past President, Louisa May Alcott Society, and Professor Emeritus, College of Charleston
It was Joel Myerson’s work with Daniel Shealy and Madeleine Stern that drew me into Alcott studies. In my very first graduate seminar on women’s diaries, I encountered their editions of the letters and journals of Louisa May Alcott. Although I wouldn’t focus on Alcott until several years later, those letters and journals stayed with me and ultimately called me back. Joel’s work profoundly shaped nineteenth-century American literary studies, and I will never forget his amazing teachings on Transcendentalism at the NEH Summer Institute in 2017. But I am most thankful for Joel’s generosity as a scholar and his kindness to me as a fellow researcher. I remember being a little afraid of him at first. He was, after all, the Joel Myerson! When I clumsily splashed my drink just inches away from his jacket at an ALA reception, I was so relieved when he acted like it was no big deal and immediately started talking to me about a manuscript he’d been looking at. Later, when I began working on May Alcott Nieriker’s “An Artist’s Holiday,” I turned to Joel for advice. The questions he asked gave me the courage to begin my current book project. Once he learned of my interest in May Alcott, Joel kindly directed me to materials, even sharing one of his own unpublished papers with me. I don’t think I ever sent out an issue of The Portfolio that wasn’t met with a short, kind message of thanks and encouragement from him. I, like so many of you, will miss him greatly.
Marlowe Daly-Galeano, Secretary, Louisa May Alcott Society, and Associate Professor, Lewis-Clark State College
Dr. Joel Myerson, acclaimed editor and critic of 19th-century American literature, changed my career. As an M.A. student at the University of South Carolina, I signed up for his American Transcendentalism seminar one semester after doing poorly in a Renaissance Literature course. I wasn’t sure if graduate school was right for me. Myerson’s class mainly had doctoral students with whom I had to collaborate and compete. From the moment the course started, I was transfixed. Everything he taught about Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott (Bronson more so than Louisa May), and other 19th-centuryists spoke immediately to me – and I held my own in that course. He had other acolytes in that class, several of whom, including myself, have gone on to become full-time English faculty. His guidance led to that success.
Myerson eventually became my M.A. thesis advisor and provided general advice on that project, one on Emerson and Proust, the latter of whom he openly disliked. I want to emphasize how powerful he was as a pedagogue and educator, at least immediately to us students, more so than his role as a scholarly editor.
As a person, Myerson was friendly and open, but he was also pressed for time and quick in his interactions. He was a Northerner at a Southern university, so he stood out a little bit. But he was greatly respected by all students. I didn’t get much of a window into his personal life, though I could tell from the material in his office that he was a fan of African art. He admitted to us as a class that he was slightly worried about speaking at a Poe conference, as he didn’t consider himself to be a foremost expert. He left an indelible mark at the University of South Carolina; I can’t disassociate Myerson from my thoughts of that institution.
Michael S. Martin, Associate Professor, Nicholls State University
|Joel Myerson, Sandy Petrulionis, and Daniel Shealy|
Like many others, I first met Joel Myerson as a graduate student. My dissertation director, Bob Sattelmeyer, had arranged for a couple of us to go to lunch with them during SAMLA days in Atlanta. I remember being nervous and to some extent dreading this informal kind of meeting with such an important figure. As was his gift, though, Joel not only made us immediately comfortable but peppered us with so many questions about our dissertation research that we never got around to talking about his twenty or so irons in the scholarly fires. From that first interaction, it was clear to me that Joel Myerson was the real deal among distinguished scholars: he cared deeply about what we do for a living. And he greatly enjoyed the reciprocity of the academic life—sharing advice, poring over manuscript anomalies, and exchanging research tips were passions for him.
This generous interest in others was well-known in my own family. Growing up, my daughter, Laurel, often came to conferences or summer outings in Concord with me. Getting her to tag along to dinners with stuffy academics sometimes proved challenging. But when I could assure her that “yes, Joel is going to be there,” she would brighten up. “Oh good! I’ll come. He talks to me.”
As the founding president of the Louisa May Alcott Society when it organized in 2005, Joel was more than a titular figurehead. He committed to helping the society get established, including drafting the by-laws and constitution. In my memory, he never missed an annual business meeting over the years, and he volunteered often to chair conference panels, serve on committees, and attend outings with the society in Concord and environs. He also contributed a hefty check at the outset, “so that we’d have a treasury.”
As others have also related, my career was unquestionably enriched by Joel, not only by his advice on multiple projects but also by invitations to collaborate with him and Laura Dassow Walls on The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism; and to edit the volume on Thoreau in the Authors in Their Own Time series. He also served as an advisor on The Almanacks of Mary Moody Emerson: A Scholarly Digital Edition and often shared his wide-ranging knowledge of both textual editing and the Emerson family with me and my co-editor, Noelle Baker.
Although an illustrious scholar, Joel took pleasure in talking to general audiences as well as to the next generation of teacher-scholars. When directing an NEH Summer Institute on Transcendentalism, I was grateful when he agreed to continue in his previous role as one of the program’s project faculty. Although he forewarned me that his keynote seminar that year would be his last—emailing me that it was “time for younger folks to take over”—Joel changed his mind after interacting with that group of college teachers: “I so enjoyed myself—and hoped the others did as well—that I am reconsidering not appearing again.” Not surprisingly, many evaluations of the program point to Joel’s presentation as one of its highlights; he “provided an excellent foundation and context for everything else that was to come,” one said; he was “exceptionally knowledgeable and generous,” said another.
Louisa Alcott would have approved that Joel was at the forefront of scholarly efforts to publish her letters, journals, and, remarkably, unpublished novels. His life indeed epitomized her counsel to “keep good company, read good books, love good things and cultivate soul and body as faithfully as you can.”
Sandra Harbert Petrulionis, Past President, Louisa May Alcott Society, and Distinguished Professor, Pennsylvania State University, Altoona College
|Jan Turnquist, Joel Myerson, and Sandy Petrulionis at Orchard House|
From nearly the beginning of my career as a professor of English, Joel has been a presence. I remember finding the Little, Brown editions of Alcott’s Selected Letters and Journals at the University of Connecticut bookstore prior to writing my dissertation. I literally snatched them off the table, joyful that such distinguished scholars had invested their time and expertise in these volumes devoted to Louisa’s life and works. Those volumes became the essential texts of my career. Everything I’ve published on Alcott cites them, and most of the reader reports I’ve submitted have requested additional evidence from them.
The first book review I wrote as an assistant professor at Kansas State University addressed another of Joel’s ventures, Three Children’s Novels by Christopher Pearse Cranch, edited by Greta Little and Joel Myerson. This delightful volume reflects Joel’s impressive breadth of knowledge and interest in the Transcendentalists, of course, but it also demonstrates his presence in the field of children’s literature.
Without Joel Myerson, my career would not be what it has been. His generosity, enthusiasm, and vast knowledge have supported so many of the Alcott projects that my esteemed colleague Greg Eiselein and I have edited, including The Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia (1999). Joel provided recommendations. He reviewed our list of proposed entries. He suggested contributors. He introduced us to Madeleine Stern, who kindly wrote the introduction for our encyclopedia. From this first book project throughout our careers, Joel has been ever-generous, ever-complimentary, ever-appreciative. It meant so much to us that even in retirement, he was willing to write an entry on the third chapter of Little Women for our blog project, Little Women 150.
Joel was always encouraging and appreciative (sending many an appreciative note in praise of the Society’s increasingly substantive newsletters), always knowledgeable about Alcott Society By-Laws, always stellar at putting together panels (including one for the 2019 Children’s Literature Association conference where the audience filled the biggest of the meeting rooms), always attentive to Alcott letters and manuscripts that had surfaced, and always well connected to other societies and activities. With great power comes great responsibility, and Joel always used his power for good, to the benefit of so, so many of us.
Happily, we retain Joel and Daniel’s 2018 appearance under the auspices of the Concord Free Public Library, in a program titled “‘Duty chains me to my galley: Publishing Louisa May Alcott,” available to us via YouTube. There is comfort to be taken in watching these friends, gentlemen, and collaborative scholars in peak form.
Anne K. Phillips, Past President, Louisa May Alcott Society, and Professor of English, Kansas State University
On a cold, sunny November Friday in 2021, Joel Myerson and I enjoyed lunch in Concord, Massachusetts with Leslie Wilson, former head of Special Collections at the Concord Free Public Library. Like many of our lunches over the past years, most of our conversation gravitated towards the future, all looking forward to a maskless world ahead. Exactly two weeks later, on a warm Friday at Edisto Beach, South Carolina, Joel would die suddenly of a massive heart attack. As I sit now, two months on from that luncheon, a world without Joel still seems hard to fathom. He was such a large presence in my own life—a teacher, a mentor, but, most of all, a friend.
Having known Joel since the late 1970s when I entered graduate school at the University of South Carolina, I could reminisce about the many times we had shared together. Projects that we collaborated on all have fascinating back stories—the letters and journals of Louisa May Alcott, the publication of The Inheritance, Alcott’s first novel, with all of its media hoopla. All of these books were great fun, and I believe that all of them will endure—the letters and journals are still in print thirty-five years later—no small feat for academic publications. Our partnership with Madeleine B. Stern would also merit time for discussion. Her knowledge of Alcott seemed unending, and Joel always stressed how special it was to have her assistance on these books. I could spend an hour reliving that December night in the mid-1980s when Joel and I joined Maddy, as her friends called her, in her spacious apartment off Central Park in New York City. I especially recall Leona Rostenberg, Stern’s partner in the rare book trade, re-enacting her scream of delight when she discovered handwritten evidence that Alcott had penned a number of blood and thunder tales. When that tiny woman, who was nearing eighty years old, let out a piercing whoop, Joel—startled at the ferocity of the holler—jumped in his seat, causing Stern’s Dachshund “Laurie” to leap from his lap where it had been dozing as Joel stroked its back. But these stories are for another time.
Everyone knows that Joel was a prolific scholar. Called the “dean of the American Renaissance” by the award-winning biographer Robert Richardson, Joel performed significant scholarship on a number of authors, most associated at some time with Concord: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Fuller, and, of course, Alcott. But I will leave that discussion or tribute to others. Joel delivered the presentations, wrote the articles, and published the books. You can look them up. What I really want to address here is my friendship with Joel, a man who was generous, kind, and empathetic. One of the qualities that Joel always stressed was the idea that a scholar’s job, a teacher’s job, was to “pass it along.” Use the knowledge you had gained to help someone else; the words “scholarship” and “sharing” went hand in hand. I’ll never forget Joel printing out several two-feet-high stacks of Alcott’s “complete” letters once we had transcribed them and then mailing them to Orchard House for Jayne Gordon and her staff to use—two years before Selected Letters’ publication (These printouts even made it into fiction with the publication of Heidi Chiavaroli’s 2021 time-slip novel The Orchard House). Other scholars then working on Alcott, such as Sarah Elbert, received the same package. “Pass it on,” Joel said.
Joel taught me much about passing it on to others—not just one’s scholarship but other qualities as well. He especially taught me to appreciate the present moment. Joel and I often roomed together—at conferences, on research trips. Many long evenings were spent by the two of us, often sipping Tennessee whiskey and talking—long into the night. More and more recently, as life brought me both joy and obstacles to that joy, Joel would say, “Enjoy what you have right now.”
Looking back today, I feel extremely lucky to have spent five days with Joel in Concord this past fall, our old stomping ground. We strolled the town, noting its many changes over the decades. We made new friends with Anke Voss, head of Special Collections at CFPL, and we visited with old friends like the retired historian Bob Gross, whose The Transcendentalists and Their World had just been published. Late one afternoon, as the setting November sun spilled into the front windows of the Colonial Inn, we sat in the muted light of the small dining room, alone except for a pair of quiet tourists, with Jan Turnquist, the Executive Director of Orchard House, whom we had known long before she took the administrative reigns of Alcott’s home. Talk turned to memories as it often does on autumn days, Joel recalling a dinner he had been part of at Orchard House many years ago. He and his fellow participants had enjoyed eating at the dining room table in Orchard House, and you could tell he had delighted in sitting in that room, at that table where the Alcotts and, no doubt, Emerson and Thoreau had relished the community of friends and good food. Jan then reminded Joel that she was working at Orchard House at that time and had helped to serve the dinner!
As the shadows lengthened that afternoon, the three of us talked of future plans. Joel and I both were to be back in Concord this coming summer to participate in the NEH Seminar on Transcendentalism headed up by Sandy Petrulionis. Jan also assured us that we were always welcome to take part in the summer Conversational Series held at the School of Philosophy. When we hugged goodbye, Jan thanked us for all the work we had done on Louisa May Alcott over the years, and Joel, in a rather off-handed way, remarked that it was now time for others to carry it on. As the two of us wandered back to our room, down the hallway of the Inn’s Prescott wing with all of its framed pictures of the Alcotts and Concord staring back at us, Joel said: “That was nice.” And it was. The conversation had left both of us with a warm feeling. In hindsight, it was nicer than I could imagine at the time, spending days in Concord with Joel, tackling new research, and revisiting old friends and past times—looking forward and backward.
As always, when in Concord, Joel and I stopped by the Barrow Bookstore, tucked away just off Main Street. Nothing could light up Joel’s personality more than a rare book, especially one he had never seen. But he was a longtime collector; little could excite him as he had seen many books in his years. And he could remember them. When it came to books, his memory was sharp—sharper than the ax that Henry, as the apocryphal story goes, returned to Bronson after building his cabin at Walden Pond. He had the memory of a primary bibliographer and bibliophile. As we were browsing the shelves and making conversation with Jaimee Joroff, whose sister Aladdine owns the shop, Joel asked if they had anything else. Jaimee replied, “Let me show you something that just arrived. I’ll have to check on the price as we have just received this.” She then pulled out a copy of The Duties of Women by Frances Powers Cobbe published in 1881. Louisa May Alcott had met, or at least seen, Cobbe, a leading social reformer and woman’s suffrage campaigner in Great Britain, on her visit to England in 1866. But Joel immediately made a connection of his own to Margaret Fuller. The volume, he thought, would make a nice addition to his Fuller collection, now part of the Joel Myerson Nineteenth-Century American Literature Collection at the University of South Carolina. “I’ll take it,” he smiled.
Walking back through town, Joel was obviously delighted. It was, he said, his most significant purchase of the year. The pandemic had slowed down his rare book hunts. And eBay purchases were not as fun as in-person finds! Joel was happy. And he was relishing it. That early November, in the few weeks before the surge of Omicron, the Covid-19 pandemic looked as if it were beginning to slowly fade. Maybe in the spring, masks could be forgotten. Joel looked forward to completing his work on the account books of Emerson, the project that had brought him to Concord. But he was also enjoying the present moment.
Of course, what made Cobbe’s book more special was the inscription on the front wrapper. Scrawled across the top, in the unmistakable handwriting of Louisa May Alcott, was the following: "Mrs. Blanchard with Miss Alcott's regards. Please read & lend." In other words, pass it on.
As Joel and I parted at Logan airport, each taking a separate flight back to the Carolinas, we hugged and made plans to room together at ALA this coming spring. “See you in Chicago,” Joel said—his last words to me. Although Joel had been retired for well over a decade or more, he was never resting on his laurels. He was always looking to the future, to new work. It was the next project, the next book find, that caught Joel’s imagination. His life was about looking forward, helping others, and passing it on: “Please read & lend.”
Daniel Shealy, Past President, Louisa May Alcott Society, and Professor, University of North Carolina at Charlotte