Patricia Smith Yaeger died of ovarian cancer July 25, 2014. A member of the University of Michigan Departments of English and Women’s Studies since 1990, Smith
Yaeger was named Henry Simmons Frieze Collegiate Professor in 2005.
As editor of PMLA from 2006-2011, she reimagined what the journal could be, most notably in the innovative Theories and Methodologies section and her Editor’s Columns. The latter she often transformed into conversations, inviting scholars to think through issues ranging from the future of postcolonial studies to the import of different forms of energy for literary periodization.
Key to her critical genius was an irrepressible imagination and limitless curiosity that allowed her to see things and make connections others couldn’t. Also key was an aesthetic sensibility that brought intriguing color and design to the covers of PMLA and made those images objects of critical thought in their own right.
Smith Yaeger’s editorship was only one of the highlights of an illustrious career during which she pioneered feminist scholarship of literature and culture, particularly of the American South. “Honey-Mad Women: Emancipatory Strategies in Women’s Writing” appeared in 1988 and the award-winning “Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women’s Writing 1930-1990 in 2000.” Her edited volume, “The Geography of Identity” (1996), and the co-edited collection “Nationalisms and Sexualities” (1991), extended her purview beyond the United States. She turned to issues of trauma in the landmark “Consuming Trauma; or, the Pleasures of Merely Circulating” (1997).
Smith Yaeger’s more recent publications in material culture and the environment, specifically those on cities, infrastructure, oceans, trash and energy, will shape the environmental humanities for years to come, her colleagues say. Her Editor’s Column, “Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power, and Other Energy Sources” (2011), led to “Fueling Culture: Energy, History, Politics” (forthcoming), an interdisciplinary collection of essays on keywords related to energy she was co-editing at the time of her death.
Spanning the wide arc of Smith Yaeger’s scholarship, from her formal training as a Yale Romanticist in the age of high theory, to “Luminous Trash,” the book manuscript underway when she died, is the spirit of what she termed “a female sublime,” a sublime not of mastery but of undoing. She valued the restlessness and excess of her curiosity, which even as it opened new intellectual territories, rounded back upon those adventures in knowing to trouble their authority. She embraced that reflexive return, troping it as a prolific violence. She loved the line from Yeats’s “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop”: “For nothing can be sole or whole/That has not been rent.”
Smith Yaeger was a luminous scholar, vibrant teacher, gracious colleague, supportive mentor, fiercely loving wife and mother, passionate gardener, inimitable dancer, wondrous conversationalist, and precious friend to many. A scintillating interlocutor, she talked seamlessly about poems and politics, critical theory and travel, gardens and girlfriends. Students describe her as generous with her insights about literature and life, a facility that was recognized by an award for Distinguished Graduate Mentoring in 2013.
She was asking canny questions and generating dazzling ideas up to her death. Upon hearing of her illness, many people remarked, in protest or disbelief, that she was so extraordinarily alive. Her boundless charisma expanded the worlds of all who knew her.
She is survived by her husband Dr. Richard Miller, daughter Kiri Miller and son Noah Miller.
A session in memory of Smith Yaeger will be held at the 2015 Modern Language Association Convention in Vancouver. A symposium in her honor will be held on campus sometime in late fall or early winter.
— Submitted by the Department of English