Dr. Len Gougeon
Dr. Len Gougeon BA'69 has an interesting perspective on reform movements.Having spent his entire academic career studying 19th century American literature in the period leading up to the American Civil War, Gougeon’s own foray into the world of academia began at an equally tumultuous time in political history.
It was the fall of 1965 when young Len Gougeon left his home in Northampton, Massachusetts to attend Saint Mary’s University, following in the footsteps of his older brother. At the time, the school was not yet co-ed, and students were required to wear jackets and ties to class and also in the dining hall. These things, as well as many others, would change over Gougeon’s four years at SMU.
A time of change
“It was a dramatic time, on campus and in society as a whole,” he says. “As young freshmen we just took it all in stride, but looking back, there was a lot happening around us.”
In Gougeon’s home country, the Civil Rights Movement had fought for, and won, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Following the deployment of the first US combat troops to Vietnam earlier that year, anti-war protests were beginning to heat up. Campuses across America, and Canada as well, became a hotbed of debate.
“Those discussions provided a very enriching experience,” Gougeon says, noting that although many of the debates would become heated, there was a strong sense of camaraderie among the students. “We felt ourselves to be a community of scholars.”
Following graduation, Gougeon moved back to the United States to continue his education, receiving both his M.A. and Ph. D. from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Flash forward to today and Gougeon is now entering his 40th year teaching at the University of Scranton, a Jesuit institution in Pennsylvania, where he has been honoured as Distinguished Professor of American Literature.
Emerson: A voice for reform
Along with his teaching achievements, Gougeon has written four books and numerous scholarly articles on Ralph Waldo Emerson and his circle. Emerson was one of the major literary figures of the pre-Civil War period, whose work Gougeon first studied while in graduate school.
From the protests over Civil Rights and the Vietnam War when he was a student, to the polarized national politics of the present day, Gougeon says he still finds Emerson a relevant voice.
“Emerson was a man very much shaped by his time. He was writing about reform and was part of the anti-slavery movement in the period leading up to the Civil War. When I look at the polarization between the 'red' states and the 'blue' states now, I can see definite parallels from Emerson’s time,” Gougeon says. “His writings continue to be rich ground for American scholars.”
In 2008 Gougeon received the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society's Distinguished Achievement Award for his scholarship on Emerson and his book Virtue’s Hero: Emerson, Antislavery, and Reform, which was first published in 1990 and re-issued in a 20th anniversary edition in 2010.
“It’s been a real career highlight to have written a book that continues to have a recognizable impact in my field,” he says. “I’m proud of that.”