Renowned literary scholar named FSU’s 2008 Lawton Distinguished Professor

Stanley E. Gontarski

Florida State University Professor of English Stanley E. Gontarski, an internationally acclaimed scholar and critic, influential editor, innovative dramatist and inspiring teacher and colleague, has been named the 2008-2009 Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor. It is the highest honor bestowed by the FSU faculty on one of its own.

Stanley E. Gontarski

“We have an extraordinarily productive faculty here at Florida State, across all disciplines, and so to have one’s own work singled out for such attention is simultaneously exhilarating and humbling,” Gontarski said.

“The Lawton Distinguished Professorship is a truly fitting honor for Stan, who embodies what it means to be a model FSU colleague,” said Joseph Travis, dean of FSU’s College of Arts and Sciences. “He is an extraordinary scholar whose work has been recognized around the world and whose dedication to teaching has been recognized all over our campus.”

Among his prolific array of scholarly, literary, editorial and teaching achievements, Gontarski is considered the world’s foremost authority on the writings of acclaimed Irish author, poet and dramatist Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). In fact, he’s the “dean of Beckett studies” who has made Tallahassee “the world capital of Beckett scholarship,” according to the 2008-2009 Lawton citation prepared by Ralph Berry, chairman of the FSU English department.

Joseph Travis
Joseph Travis

“If not for Stan Gontarski, a one-man compendium of the history of literary modernism, where would Beckett now be?” Berry said. “Beckett likely would have retired to the margins of academic criticism as so many writers contemporary with him have done. Stan has been one of the most illuminating interpreters of Beckett’s dramas. He has provided the scholarly introductions to the standard editions of many of Beckett’s major works, including “Waiting for Godot,” and has served as the editor of many of Beckett’s previously unavailable texts and as publisher of the principal journal devoted to Beckett’s study.”

What’s more, few scholars have done as convincing a job as Gontarski at demonstrating the central role that publishing and editing have played in the major movements of modernist literature over the past century, according to Berry. He has produced a vast list of published works, a significant portion of which has been translated into as many as eight languages. Among those works are dozens of essays, several edited volumes, and books—many considered groundbreaking in his field.

“In the humanities in particular most of our work is done in almost monastic seclusion,” Gontarski said. “Our greatest challenge is finding the time to do the necessary reading, thinking and writing it takes to produce a body of work that has some, if small, cultural impact. Having colleagues from a variety of disciplines recognize that work is especially gratifying.”

Gontarski joined the FSU English department faculty in 1988, after having held faculty and research positions at Ohio State University (where he earned his Ph.D.), the University of California-Riverside and the Georgia Institute of Technology. He already had earned wide acclaim for his scholarly work, which reflected not only rhetorical skill and critical sophistication but also his specialized training as a textual editor. Soon after arriving at FSU, Gontarski became editor of the Journal of Beckett Studies, a position he then held for nearly 20 years. Over the same period, he also produced a book series in European literature and philosophy and served as guest editor for “American Book Review” and “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” among other prestigious volumes.

Colleagues have described him as an “intellectual ambassador who superbly, and frequently, represents Florida State University on an international stage.”

Gontarski has been the recipient of more than 20 grants and fellowships, including five from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He won two Fulbright professorships as well as fellowships from the American Philosophical Society, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, and the American Council for Learned Societies.

He also is well known and highly regarded as an influential director and innovative dramatist, and has overseen productions of Beckett’s plays both in major U.S. cities and abroad, including for audiences in London, Edinburgh, Madrid and Paris.

“Throughout my almost 20 years at FSU, the university’s research support has steadily increased and that support has been invaluable to my work,” Gontarski said. “FSU’s International Programs also have been indispensable to me. I’ve taught regularly at the FSU London Study Center and in Florence, Italy, and given the focus of my research, each time is virtually a research semester for me.”

Closer to home, Gontarski has served on FSU’s Graduate Policy Committee and the Provost’s Quality Enhancement Review, chaired the university’s Professional Excellence Program, and served as the English department’s director of Graduate Studies.

His commitment to his students has been an inspiration to his colleagues, Berry said.

Gontarski has received four university awards for outstanding teaching, and since 1992 has overseen to completion a total of 14 doctoral dissertations, four master’s theses and numerous undergraduate honors theses. For more than a decade, Gontarski has volunteered to lead his students in an informal weekly reading group that meets over lunch to read aloud and discuss James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake.” Under his tutelage his students together have generated more than 40 publications from their final projects, and many now serve as professors themselves in English departments at colleges and universities around the country.

“I’m delighted but not at all surprised that Stan Gontarski has been named a Lawton Professor,” said Paul Shields (Ph.D., literature, 2005), a former doctoral student of Gontarski’s and now an assistant professor of English at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. “He is remarkably insightful, generous with his time, and very funny. He immediately made me feel welcome at FSU, and during the seven years I studied under his direction, he always made time on the busiest of days to listen to my ideas or introduce me to important scholars, actors and directors at international conferences. A prolific researcher and writer, Stan also is prolifically concerned about his students and their needs.”

Current FSU graduate student Dustin Anderson of Anchorage, Alaska, calls Gontarski one of the major reasons he chose to undertake his doctoral degree work at faraway Florida State.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Dr. Gontarski as a student, an editor and an administrator, and his handiwork as a mentor is clear in the development of my career as both a teacher and as a research scholar,” said Anderson, on track to earn his Ph.D. in literature next year. “A few years ago at an FSU-hosted international conference marking the centenary of Samuel Beckett’s birthday, I saw first-hand how Dr Gontarski’s influence had impacted students worldwide. The comments and questions directed to him by top scholars from Japan to Brazil confirmed the high esteem in which he is held by some of the most influential critics and theorists writing today.”

The Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professorship was named for the late Robert O. Lawton (1924-1980), who served with distinction on the FSU faculty and administration for 31 years.

“On the scholarly side, I think that anybody who produces a substantial body of work in any discipline will tell you that the singular, indispensable personal characteristic is dogged persistence,” Gontarski said. “Teaching, on the other hand, is driven by the desire to share the results of those labors. If you’re not excited about your teaching and research, if you don’t get up each morning eager to tackle the issues at hand, find something else to do with your life. To my mind there is no teaching without research, and much of the fun of research is making it public, on paper and in the classroom.”