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Diane Middlebrook, Ovid, and the metamorphosis of Stanford feminism

Jan 17 2013

We think of them engraved on urns. Sculpted in white marble. Crowned with laurel wreaths. Wrapped in togas. Anything but feeling human beings. 

Yet, Diane Middlebrook demonstrates just that by illustrating the humanity of the ancients. In her recent, posthumously-published essay, “20 March, 43 BCE: Ovid Is Born,” Middlebrook moves beyond listing the poetic accomplishments and historical influence of Ovid. Instead, she introduces the Roman epic poet to readers by vividly picturing the messy drama of his birth.

“Streaky with shredding vernix, and swathed in blood,” Middlebrook imagines baby Ovid gasping and expelling a “gratifying howl” as he left his mother’s womb and met the harsh world of ancient Rome. By illustrating the rituals of Roman birth, Middlebrook brings Ovid — and the reader — into the hidden world of women.

Middlebrook reveals the feminine world of storytelling that  “enrich[ed] the world of the poem and broaden[ed] its emotional and social reach” as young Ovid sat at his mother’s feet. These “spinning tales” shaped Ovid’s literature and would later be spun into the canonical ancient Roman poems  “Metamorphoses,”Amores,” and “Ibis.”  And these poems, in turn, would come to lay the foundation for much of Western literature.

There could be no better illustration of the butterfly effect — all of Western literature emerging from the stories told by women at their chores. And, in a way, Middlebrook’s own career also demonstrates the long-lasting effects of small conversations.

Professor Myra Strober, with Stanford’s School of Education and (by courtesy) the Graduate School of Business, remembers a private conversation in the faculty club as part of the formation of Stanford’s program in Feminist Studies.  With “just a handful” of women faculty at Stanford in the 1970s, Strober recalls how Middlebrook used the newly formed research institute on women to champion a teaching program. This program would later be called Feminist Studies at Stanford — a program that, as with all of Middlebrook’s legacy, would have profound influence on coming generations of students and scholars.

A scholar, a biographer, a feminist legacy

Middlebrook’s scholarship was distinguished by her rich and human treatment of literary greats like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Many expected her biography of Ovid to be no different. Though Middlebrook planned a full-length biography of Ovid, her project was tragically shortened by a diagnosis of cancer. “20 March, 43 BCE: Ovid Is Born” was prepared for its publication in “Feminist Studies” by her literary executors – Leah Middlebrook, her daughter and a professor in romance languages and comparative literature, and Nancy Miller, a close friend and professor of English and comparative literature. 

Middlebrook left behind a large group of colleagues, students, and friends who sorely miss her as both a scholar and as a woman of enormous talent and compassion. Strober remembers Middlebrook as a “mesmerizing lecturer” with an impeccable sense of style and an infectious enthusiasm for her life’s work. 

Bringing feminist studies to Stanford

Strober and Middlebrook worked together in the early founding of the Stanford Center for Research on Women (now the Clayman Institute for Gender Research) and taught feminist courses together over their long tenure as Stanford faculty. As the founding director, Strober remembers how “(Middlebrook) created a task force to look into the creation of Feminist Studies.” Although Stanford already had a research institute, in the late 1970s it still lacked a teaching program.  Middlebrook was quick to change this. Co-founded with history professor Estelle B. Freedman, Feminist Studies was instituted in 1981 and remains a strong interdisciplinary undergraduate minor and major. 

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the administration intimated that the “Feminist” part of Feminist Studies was, well, too politically feminist for their liking. They preferred the tamer, more palatable title of Women’s Studies. Yet Strober, Middlebrook, and Freedman resisted watering down the new program, insisting that it wasn’t “just about women, but about men and feminism!” 

This political spirit persists in Feminist Studies. Courses such as “Women and the Creative Imagination” or activities like the “Feminist and Queer Studies Book Salon” bear the trace of Middlebrook’s particular sensitivity to the gendered aspects of art and literature. Simply put, Strober remembers Middlebrook in plain language that belies its emotional weight: “She was a great lady.”

Ovid, Middlebrook, and a life cut short

Middlebrook revisited Ovid’s poetry over her long career. Her theoretical approaches ranged from the psychoanalytic to deconstructive but Middlebrook’s greatest contribution was her sensitive reading of the men and women behind the writing. In her 1999 Introductory Seminar on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” Middlebrook introduced Stanford freshmen to complex terms like poststructuralism and metonymy but did so couched in her passion for poetry’s beauty, its elegance, and its enormous historical influence.

And it is Middlebrook’s return to “Metamorphoses” that speaks to her larger roles in the many metamorphoses of the people whose lives she touched. Her role in the metamorphosis of her students, blossoming from hesitant undergraduates to the dozens of articulate, mature young writers (often women) that Middlebrook mentored. Middlebrook also participated in the metamorphosis of memoir, helping transform the genre from an often a dull record of biography and fact to one of rich imagination and acute psychological insight. And metamorphosis, too, of her thousands of readers inspired by Middlebrook’s argument for literature to bear testament to the wonder and power of human creativity.

A gender lens
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