To say that Dr. Sheila Delany has been busy since her retirement from the Department of English in 2006 would be an understatement. For the past seven years, Delany has continued to pursue the academic, community, and political work that shaped her career, which began as an undergraduate at Wellesley College, as a graduate student first at Berkeley, and later at Columbia.
Reminiscing about her early scholarly life, when she brought previously unstudied—or narrowly considered—medieval texts to light as a one of the first Marxist medievalists, Delany offers sound advice about scholarly life, describing the central role of books—whether in libraries, archives, or bookstores—in her research. And while Delany acknowledges and even lauds the ways digital archives make scholarly research more accessible for a wider group of students and academics, she nevertheless upholds the value of traditional archival scholarship. As she puts it, we can sometimes find the most interesting information in the margins.
Speaking candidly about her involvement with community-based organizations such as the Canadian Cuban Friendship Association, the Society for Seriously Free Speech, and Independent Jewish Voices, Delany’s academic work has, in her words, “always been informed by her politics.” As she describes her work with the Seriously Free Speech committee, an organization that was mobilized in response to legal action resulting from a satire-version of the Vancouver Sun, Delany navigates the complex issues of copyright infringement, free speech and intellectual freedom, and political activism with ease.
These issues come up again and again as she discusses her most recent research project: a translation of an eighteenth-century epistolary novella set in pre-Revolutionary France titled La Femme Abbé. Written by the author profiled in Delany’s award-winning Anti-Saints, Sylvain Maréchal, La Femme Abbé is currently out of print and exemplifies the same spirit of revolution embodied in Maréchal’s unconventional hagiography brought back to scholarly light by Delany’s 2012 publication. The influence of seemingly-unrelated political issues in her most recent work of excising and recuperating forgotten literary histories and texts quickly becomes apparent: characters in the novella struggle with representation and identity, they struggle to enjoy freedom of movement, and they struggle against oppressive religious doctrines shaping the world they inhabit.