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Madelon Sprengnether: A Meaningful Design

The retiring Regents professor reflects on a lifetime of advocacy and discovery--and anticipates the next stage
June 20, 2017

If there is a theme to Madelon Sprengnether’s time at the University of Minnesota and the Department of English, it is transformation. She was hired in 1971 as a Shakespearean, and retires in 2017 as a feminist psychoanalytic critic. Trained as an academic writer, she has discovered herself as a poet and memoirist as well and been instrumental in developing the Creative Writing Program. She arrived in Minnesota a fledgling teacher and ended up winning the University’s highest honor for graduate instruction. A self-described introvert, she became one of the Department of English’s most dedicated and effective advocates, particularly in lobbying for the renovation of Pillsbury Hall as the department’s permanent home.

“I ‘grew up’ here,” Professor Sprengnether declared with a grin at the May 5 retirement celebration she shared with Professor Shirley Garner. [Read her full remarks.] Through her changes, she helped to transform the department and the University, accomplishments honored by her 2008 Regents Professorship, the highest honor given to faculty at the University of Minnesota.

Sprengnether was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. As she recounted in her memoirs Rivers, Stories, Houses, Dreams (1983), Crying at the Movies (2001), and Great River Road (2015), her childhood was disrupted by her father’s death by drowning when she was nine years old and her stepfather’s death by suicide when she was 18. In retirement, Sprengnether aims to complete a fourth memoir, titled Ghost Work, as well as a fourth full-length poetry collection, tentatively titled The Violence of Love.

Bringing feminism to the academy

Sprengnether received her BA at Bryn Mawr College and her PhD at Yale University. After contract teaching at Middlebury College, she was hired by the University of Minnesota as an assistant professor. The campus, like the nation, was in ferment; feminism had moved from the streets to the courts and the Capitol. Two women welcomed Sprengnether to the Department of English: Assistant Professor Garner and Associate Professor Toni McNaron. Together they would bring feminism firmly into the academy by helping to establish one of the nation’s first women’s studies programs and a feminist graduate program (united now as the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies) and by introducing women writers and feminist scholarship into the English curriculum.

It was a tough sell, in both the department and the University. “That’s what gets lost with the success,” recalls Sprengnether, “that these things that we take for granted did not exist until somebody made them come into being—and that took a huge amount of energy and resistance and serious individual courage. These initial steps were all fought—and fraught.” Sprengnether laughs. “I don’t think we had thick skin: it just hurt.” [Their efforts have been honored with the Garner-McNaron-Sprengnether Dissertation Fellowship.]

Sprengnether saw early on the importance for literary study of philosophy and psychoanalytic theory by the likes of Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida. After she taught a graduate level seminar on the topic, she and Garner and Claire Kahane edited The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation (1985). She would go on to publish The Spectral Mother: Freud, Feminism and Psychoanalysis in 1990 and numerous articles since, building to her forthcoming 2018 publication, Mourning Freud (Bloomsbury).

"Both poetry and memoir provide
ways to integrate the scattered
parts of my life into meaningful
design. These designs keep
changing, of course, but that is
the beauty of writing."
            - Madelon Sprengnether

“Professor Sprengnether’s seminar on psychoanalytic theory influenced my work,” says Brenda Daly (PhD 1985), Iowa State University Professor Emerita. “She and Professor Garner were Shakespearean scholars, whereas my field was contemporary women writers, yet their studies of the theories of the maternal encouraged me to explore its significance in my life and employ it in my scholarship and teaching.”

Sprengnether, Garner, and many community members also initiated, edited, a produced a “feminist review,” the legendary broadsheet Hurricane Alice, from 1983 to 1992, which included interviews, essays, book reviews, and poetry by women—some of the latter by Sprengnether. “In my mid-thirties I found poetry as a way to give expression to parts of my experience and awareness that did not fit into the genre of literary criticism,” Sprengnether recounts. “The same is true for memoir writing. Both provide ways to integrate the scattered parts of my life into meaningful design.

“These designs keep changing, of course, but that is the beauty of writing. I see writing as a form of discovery that facilitates personal transformation.”

Advocating for creative writing

At the dawn of the 1990s, Sprengnether began teaching creative nonfiction in the MA in Creative Writing Program within the department. The faculty all agreed it was the wrong degree; a Masters of Fine Art is the standard in the field. “At that time, we received fewer than 50 applications for admission per year, and our students had no funding and took as many as six to eight years to finish their degrees,” Sprengnether remembers. “Needless to say, we had no national profile. We spent about a year deciding the shape of the MFA degree, and then the question arose of who would write the proposal.”

Sprengnether stepped up, first writing the proposal and then guiding it through a lengthy University approval chain, an intensive year-long process. She also helped set up the “architecture” of the program, including hiring additional faculty and staff and securing student funding. In 1996, the first MFA students entered the Creative Writing Program, which is now regularly ranked among the top 10 to 15 MFA programs in the country with more than 350 applications for its 12 annual student openings. “The success of our alumni, as evidenced by careers, awards, and publications, is nothing short of phenomenal,” she notes.

Professor Madelon Sprengnether in the Minnesota Daily
Professor Sprengnether, from a 1990s Minnesota Daily profile

“By creating a three-year degree and combining cross-genre work, we established an atmosphere of communal endeavor among our students, many of whom have remained friends and supported one another’s aspirations post-degree.” Sprengnether continues, “I believe that our program has the potential (with appropriate support from the College and the University) to become the premier MFA program in the country.”

The year the first MFA students arrived was also the year then English Chair Garner realized, under pressure to move the department out of Lind Hall and the College of Science and Engineering (CSE), that the Department of English had to mastermind its own future [read more from Garner]. Garner credits Sprengnether for seeing the possibilities latent in Pillsbury Hall, a beautiful building with a tired interior that no longer served the laboratory needs of its inhabitant, Earth Sciences. “A great department deserves a great building,” Sprengnether has argued, and the historically and architecturally iconic Pillsbury Hall is that. Neither professor could know that the process of securing the renovated hall as English’s permanent home would take more than 20 years.

On to Pillsbury Hall!

Through three University administrations, Sprengnether and Garner have attended endless meetings with University administrators (from presidents to members of space planning committees), consulted with representatives from the literary and historic preservation communities, and met with members of the extended Pillsbury family whose ancestor, Minnesota Governor John S. Pillsbury, paid for the hall’s construction. Since 2016, after President Eric Kaler’s administration included Pillsbury Hall on its Capital Bonding Bill for 2016 and 2017, they have lobbied for the project at the State capital. [Read more on the history of this project.]

"In a renovated Pillsbury Hall,
we will serve as a vital hub
for student engagement, for
graduate and undergraduate
programs in creative writing,
and for interdisciplinary work
in the humanities.”
       - Professor Sprengnether

The 2017 Bonding Bill signed into law by Governor Mark Dayton funded three University building projects, leaving Pillsbury Hall in good position for next year’s state bonding bill. The Pillsbury Hall Renovation will also be featured in the University’s upcoming capital campaign, to help meet the University’s $12 million obligation for the $36 million project. [Giving information here.] For Sprengnether and Garner, their long-time goal is becoming reality. The stakes have always been high.

“The English department is 'invisible' in Lind Hall, which is part of the CSE district,” Sprengnether points out. “Anyone unfamiliar with the campus has difficulty finding us. More importantly, our students are ill-served by the lack of study space (students sit on the floor outside of the main office), the lack of gathering spaces to work on communal projects, the lack of film screening and lecture and reading spaces for visiting scholars and writers, and the lack of state-of-the-art technology.

“For a department of our distinction,” she concludes, “this situation is nothing short of shameful. In a renovated Pillsbury Hall, at the heart of the Humanities District, we will serve as a vital hub for student engagement, for graduate and undergraduate programs in creative writing, and for interdisciplinary work in the humanities.”

Sprengnether states that she is “not ambivalent about retirement” and looks forward to having more time for her creative projects (including her monthly blog post at, travel, and grandchildren. But she is not retiring from the Pillsbury Hall effort. After the office is cleaned out, and the congratulatory cards all read, she will be looking forward to the next legislative campaign. Because Sprengnether understands that transformation doesn’t happen with a magical snap of the fingers: it’s a lifetime’s work.

Thanks to the Creative Writing Program and CLAgency for sharing their Sprengnether interviews.