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Paula Rabinowitz: Hidden Histories

Lauded for her commitment to graduate studies, the retiring professor next sets her sights on Cold War family secrets
June 24, 2016

Image of Professor Emerita Paula Rabinowitz

Image of Professor Emerita Paula Rabinowitz
Professor Emerita Paula Rabinowitz with some of her collection of Depression-era literature and scholarship

Paula Rabinowitz didn't set out to be a professor. Born in New York, raised all over the US, and schooled at the University of California, Berkeley, during the years of regular student strikes (1969-71) against the Vietnam War, she spent the mid-1970s hitchhiking through the US and Northern Africa, and from Boston to Brazil. Then she married a theater director and actor, David Bernstein, who was starting a theater in Detroit. With a "Five-Year Plan" to return to New York together, Rabinowitz applied at the Ford factory, but she didn't weigh enough. Thinking to work at a free clinic in Brazil, she considered medical training—but was needle-phobic.

A friend in the University of Michigan's American Culture doctoral program seemed to be enjoying herself, so Rabinowitz applied. She got in. Besides her studies, she worked on the magazine of a feminist collective, started a performance space, and wrote poetry (for which she won Michigan's Hopwood Award). "When I was about two years into graduate school, I was driving a friend who was in David's theater company," remembers Rabinowitz over a macchiato at Common Roots Cafe, "and I said, 'There's something the matter with me: I've become one of THEM. I think I'm going to become a professor.'"

Her dissertation, "Female Subjectivity in Women's Revolutionary Novels of the 1930s," received a prize from the American Studies Association. She applied for a position in feminist theory and women's and minority literature at the University of Minnesota's Department of English; she got it.

This spring, nearly 30 years later, Professor Rabinowitz retires. The former student irked about joining the Establishment leaves behind a striking record of scholarship, teaching, and service, notably as a dissertation advisor and reader for over 50 graduate students.

"I could not have wished for a better mentor," declares Anca Parvulescu (PhD 2006), Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis. "From the first email I sent her (from across the world), Paula has shown me unparalleled intellectual hospitality and generosity. Over the years, she read hundreds of drafts and supported countless applications, always with her signature grace and sense of humor. It is difficult to imagine I could have ever had an academic career at all without Paula's mentorship and friendship."

Maria Zavialova (PhD 2008), curator at the Museum of Russian Art, found her dissertation advisor at once exacting and "life-affirming": "And this is how I see her until this day: understated but profound wisdom in things professional, and non-conformist free-spiritedness and refreshing, youthful positivity as a friend."


Rabinowitz also served as Department of English chair, director of graduate studies (for both English and American Studies), American Studies director of undergraduate studies, and member and chair of numerous committees at department, college, and University levels. "I did my part for the University," she states firmly, "and it did right by me." Yet she still seems bemused that she has spent decades writing and teaching about literature. "I don't believe in professions," she jokes.

Image of Labor and Desire book
Rabinowitz's LABOR & DESIRE, and a 1930s-era volume from her collection

Depression mothers to Cold War dads

It's easy, though, to see the adventurous hitchhiker in the free-ranging scholar of 20th-century American women's art and literature, with an emphasis on working-class, pulp, and popular cultures. Within seven years of arriving at the University, she had published two well-received books—Labor & Desire: Women's Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America and They Must Be Represented: The Politics of Documentary—and co-edited another, Writing Red: An Anthology of American Women Writers, 1930-1940 (with a foreword by Toni Morrison). 

In the past five years, when she might've been expected to slow down, Rabinowitz has co-edited six volumes on subjects ranging from 19th-century women's clothing to connections between revolutionary politics and desire in the 20th-century Asian Pacific. And her 2014 book American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street (Princeton) garnered her the most critical and popular attention of her career, not only netting a feature review in The New Yorker but the George A. and Jean S. DeLong Book History Prize from the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP). The University Libraries Special Collections are archiving her pulp collection, extensive primary and secondary sources from the 1930s, and related papers. (This past winter she also donated over 2,000 feminist journals, poetry chapbooks, pamphlets, books, and other materials related to the evolution of feminist thought to St. Paul's East Side Freedom Library.)

“Paula taught me that glamour
and feminism are not incompatible.
In her writing, teaching, and
wardrobe, ideas are worth
luxuriating in. While I could never
approximate her sartorial flair,
I am grateful that she has
throughout my career influenced
my intellectual style and its
political substance.” — Carol
(PhD 1996), Professor &
Chair of Gender & Women's
Studies, University of Kentucky

"On a personal level, it's been great here at the U," says Rabinowitz. "I've done anything I've ever wanted; I worked on whatever I wanted. The college has always treated me very well." Within CLA, she has been named Dean's Medal recipient, Scholar of the College, and Samuel Russell Chair in the Humanities.

Her writings have also gained her the respect of her peers: She was elected to both the Modern Language Association's Executive Council and the American Studies Association's National Board. And her scholarship has attracted multiple fellowships (two Fulbrights, two Rockefellers, a Mellon, numerous University and college awards), which have allowed research trips to Italy, China, Japan, and Australia. She visited the latter just this spring as Visiting Fellow at the University of Sydney investigating a new project entitled Cold War Dads—a more personal story that nonetheless aligns with her continuing interest in the 20th-century political and cultural Left.

Two decades ago, Professor Rabinowitz discovered that her and her husband's fathers shared a bizarre distinction: Both were on government lists to be rounded up in the event of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Her father, who worked at the Pentagon for ARPA (now DARPA) Project Defender, would "go into the mine shaft like Dr. Strangelove," Rabinowitz notes wryly, "but not me, my brothers, and my mother. And David's father was to be detained as a Communist. He was designated 'DetCom.'"

When the files from the Venona Project, a counter-intelligence program (1943-48) first started by the Army Signal Intelligence Service and carried on by the CIA, were made public in 1995, David's father Joseph was identified as a Soviet agent. Rabinowitz's theory is that the Soviet agent codename "Marquis" discovered by US code-cracking was linked to Joseph with the help of the FBI, who had already been watching him.

"He was under FBI visual surveillance, phone taps, mail opening for 40 years," Rabinowitz describes. "That's what US tax dollars were doing. Following some nebbishy French literature scholar." A first-generation Jewish immigrant educated at Yale and the Sorbonne, Joseph Bernstein was never indicted and died in 1975. Rabinowitz, who never met him, has reviewed every document in his FBI file, which fills three boxes. What she found, she says, is the "logic of surveillance": "The whole purpose of the files is to keep them going. Even though every few years the agents recommend that they close the case due to lack of evidence, every time J. Edgar Hoover says, 'No. Keep it open.' And 40 years of being open, well, there must be a reason!"

Rabinowitz tried to get her two boys to write about their grandfathers; they pointed out that she's the writer. "My dad is 91, so it's time," Rabinowitz says. "He talks about his work now. Before, everything was secret."

More hours in her day

Professor Rabinowitz also intends to continue working as Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Her daunting task? Solicit editors and commission authors for the hundreds of substantial essays that will consolidate Oxford University's treasure cave of original manuscripts, critical scholarship, encyclopedias, the OED, etc., into "the scholarly answer to Wikipedia." The first set of materials will be launched on the website next February. Julia Kostova, senior editor at Oxford, selected Rabinowitz primarily for the breadth of her interests: "She's worked on a wide range of topics and across many subfields that capture the richness and complexity of the discipline, and that's rarer than you'd think," writes Kostova. "I also really appreciate her general global perspective. Paula has followed international scholarship closely and has collaborated with leading thinkers worldwide. I'm so thrilled to be working with someone of her caliber."

Book covers from Rabinowitz collection
More books from Professor Rabinowitz's collection

In addition, there are contracted articles to finish, and a tennis game to revive. She wants to get back to a provocative art project started during the first Iraq war utilizing her extensive vintage map collection to "remap the world for peace." Inspired by the pajama-wearing residents of Shanghai, she aims to kick off a worldwide holiday in which everyone dons PJs and doesn't kill anybody.

Ambitious? "She's one of these people who seems to have more hours in her day that the rest of us," relates former advisee Sara Cohen (PhD 2011), editor at Temple University Press. "She's able to read everything, see every movie, see every art exhibit, produce tons of scholarship, cook, travel, exercise, and still have time for family and friends. I look to her example often and marvel at what she's able to accomplish."

Sarah Carlson (BA 2015) asked Professor Rabinowitz to advise her on her summa cum laude thesis, which eventually won the department's Mark David Clawson Award. "It was clear after my first class with Paula that she was the ideal faculty advisor," states Carlson, now UMBRA project manager for the University Libraries, "because she is always compelling, always curious, and always entertaining."

"I have always felt that my job is to help the junior scholars," reports Rabinowitz, "that I owed the profession and the senior scholars who helped me." At this point, she adds, helping means making room for the next generation. "We need to have new people come in with new ideas and new ways of doing things."

"I cannot imagine how my career might have looked without the wisdom and scholarship of Professor Rabinowitz," asserts Jack Halberstam (PhD 1991), Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, Gender Studies, Comparative Literature, and English at the University of Southern California. Describing Rabinowitz as "one of the most brilliant and effective scholars I have ever met," the gender theorist expects her mentor-turned-friend to remain an engaged and vital peer: "I am excited to see what happens now that she has even more time for research and writing."

But first things first: At the moment, Rabinowitz is packing up and moving to Long Island City, as she and David return to New York, finally making good on that (thirty-) five-year plan.