UMass Amherst Commonwealth Honors College Dean Gretchen Gerzina Elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina
Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina

AMHERST, Mass. – Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, dean of the Commonwealth Honors College and the Paul Murray Kendall Chair in Biography at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is among 228 accomplished scholars, scientists, writers, artists and civic, business and philanthropic leaders elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The incoming class, which was announced today, includes philanthropist and singer-songwriter John Legend, award-winning actress Carol Burnett, Xerox Corporation chairman Ursula Burns, mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, immunologist James P. Allison and writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Founded in 1780, the academy is one of the country’s oldest learned societies and independent policy research centers, convening leaders from the academic, business and government sectors to respond to the challenges facing and opportunities available to the nation and the world. Members contribute to academy publications and science, engineering and technology policy studies, works on global security and international affairs, the humanities, arts, education and American institutions and the public good.

The new class will be inducted at a ceremony on Oct. 7 in Cambridge, Mass.

“I am enormously honored and delighted to have been elected to this august society,” says Gerzina. “Just looking at the list of members past and present has been very humbling.”

“I am thrilled that the AAAS has honored Professor Gerzina,” says UMass Amherst Provost Katherine Newman. “When we recruited her to become the dean of the Commonwealth Honors College, we recognized that we had added an academic star to our faculty. To find such a distinguished biographer was also a daughter of Springfield, an authority on the history of our region, and a well-known public intellectual, truly completed a stellar package.” 

“It is an honor to welcome this new class of exceptional women and men as part of our distinguished membership,” says Don Randel, chair of the academy’s board of directors. “Their talents and expertise will enrich the life of the academy and strengthen our capacity to spread knowledge and understanding in service to the nation.”

“In a tradition reaching back to the earliest days of our nation, the honor of election to the American Academy is also a call to service,” says academy president Jonathan F. Fanton. “Through our projects, publications, and events, the academy provides members with opportunities to make common cause and produce the useful knowledge for which the academy’s 1780 charter calls.”

Gerzina was appointed dean of Commonwealth Honors College in 2015 after serving a decade as the Kathe Tappe Vernon Professor of Biography at Dartmouth College, where she also chaired the English department and later chaired the department of African and African American studies. She is an expert in Victorian literature, biography, African-American literature and the story of black people in England. Previously, she was professor of English and director of Africana studies at Barnard College, Columbia University and professor of English and associate dean of the faculty at Vassar College. 

Most recently, Gerzina chaired the jury that selected the finalists for this year’s Pulitzer Prize in biography and autobiography. She was also a Pulitzer jury member in 2010.

Gerzina’s book, “Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary 18th-century Family Moved out of Slavery and into Legend,” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Frederick Douglass Book Prize and the NAACP National Image Award. The book recounts the story of two former slaves, Abijah Prince and Lucy Terry Prince, of colonial Massachusetts and Vermont, who became landowners and public figures, successfully defending themselves in court.

She also is the editor of three books, “Black Victorians/Black Victoriana,” the Norton Critical Edition of “The Secret Garden” and “The Annotated Secret Garden.” She has also published numerous articles.

A native of Springfield, Mass., Gerzina previously hosted a nationally syndicated weekly radio interview program, “The Book Show,” for 14 years on WAMC, the NPR affiliate in Albany. In the U.K., she is a familiar guest on television and radio, commenting on race and history. A 10-part BBC Radio 4 series on Britain’s black past that aired last year was based on her book, “Black London: Life Before Emancipation.” Gerzina is also working on a biracial family memoir and another book, “The Black Wife in British Literature and Culture.”

Gerzina’s scholarly accomplishments include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Fulbright Foundation. Last summer, she was a visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome. She was the George Eastman Visiting Professor to Oxford, affiliated with Balliol College, from which she received an honorary M.A. The New York Times selected her book, “Black London” as a “notable book of the year” and as a book of the year by several British newspapers, including the London Sunday Times. Her book “Carrington” was also selected by that newspaper as a book of the year.

Gerzina holds a doctorate from Stanford University, a master’s from Simmons College, and a bachelor’s degree from Marlboro College.

Other academy members from UMass Amherst are Lila Gierasch, Distinguished Professor of biochemistry and chemistry, Katherine Newman, provost and Torrey Little Professor of Sociology, John J. McCarthy, dean of the Graduate School and Distinguished Professor of linguistics, and Barbara Partee, Distinguished Professor emerita of linguistics, and Richard Stein, Goessmann Professor emeritus of chemistry. Incoming dean of the College of Information and Computer Sciences Laura Haas is also an academy member.