Freida High's painting "Hypericons: Homage to W. J. T. Mitchell," 2007. © Freida High. Photo by Jim Escalante.
By Sara Patterson
Prof. W. J. T. Mitchell may be the only living iconologist on the planet. He draws on ideas from ancient and modern mythology that treat pictures as living things. As a historian of cultural images, Mitchell studies the relationship between words and images, cultivating visual and verbal literacy.
For his immense scholarly work in iconology and his 42 years as the editor of UChicago’s well-known humanities journal, Critical Inquiry, Mitchell will receive the Modern Language Association’s Award for Lifetime Scholarly Achievement on Jan. 5, 2024, in Philadelphia. He will be given the 2024 CAA Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art on Feb. 14, 2024, in Chicago. It is also a fitting finish to his teaching career at UChicago, which officially ends in January 2024. He has promised, however, to hang around Hyde Park, showing up for lectures, teaching an occasional course, and skating on the Midway.
The MLA Lifetime Scholarly Achievement Award is given every three years. Previous winners include well-known professors Maynard Mack at Yale University; J. Hillis Miller at University of California, Irvine; Susan Gubar at Indiana University; and René Girard at Stanford University.
The CAA Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award is presented annually since 2003 to an individual who has achieved the highest standards in scholarship and teaching in the arts, as well as making an impact nationally and internationally. Past recipients include Wu Hung at UChicago in 2022; Molly Nesbit at Vassar College in 2019; and James Cahill at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2007.
“Words are arranged in sequences in time, while images are in space,” said Mitchell, the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor in the Departments of English Language and Literature, Art History and the College at UChicago. “The study of iconology has led me down both of these winding paths.”
His fascination with iconology began when Mitchell studied 18th-century literary and artistic genius William Blake’s work. He turned his dissertation at Johns Hopkins University into his first book, “Blake’s Composite Art,” (1978) showing that Blake’s engraved illuminated books successfully worked to create a dialogue between the two vigorously independent means of expression.
A prolific author of books and essays, two of Mitchell’s books on visual culture and theory, “Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation” (1994) and “What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images” (2005), received the University of Chicago Press’s Gordon J. Laing Prize for the faculty book published during the previous three years that delivers to the Press the “greatest distinction.” Picture Theory also won the College Art Association’s Charles Rufus Morey Prize for “an especially distinguished book in the history of art.” His other books include examinations of English landscape painting, the dinosaur as a cultural icon, racism and a memoir about his son’s schizophrenia.
“Everyone can point to a number of colleagues who have been successful chairs of a department,” said James K. Chandler, William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature, Cinema and Media Studies (CMS) and the College and the chair of CMS at UChicago. “Quite a few colleagues win teaching awards. A much smaller number have written or edited influential books that number in double figures. Perhaps a smaller group still can claim to have had a role in bringing into the world a new field as important as visual studies. And it is possible there is someone else who has shepherded a major journal like Critical Inquiry during a period of more than four decades. Tom Mitchell has done all these things, and that’s why he is so clearly deserving of the MLA’s lifetime-achievement award.”
Mitchell’s eclectic tastes stem from his interest in vision and how human beings see the world. He looks at the optics of visual and verbal culture.
“From his early work on Blake’s multimedia poetry to now, Tom has been investigating how words and images interact—a question that has become more pressing with every passing year—as more and more of our culture fuses with electronic delivery channels,” said Haun Saussy, University Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures and the Committee on Social Thought at UChicago.
“He has not sought to build a monument or an edifice with his scholarship, but rather a nomad tent open to all winds, curiosities, and unforeseen events. His cheerfully non-reductive work has circulated in a dozen languages and inspired responses from a great many publics.”
Creating editorial legacy at Critical Inquiry
From 1978 to 2020, Mitchell served as the editor of the quarterly journal Critical Inquiry, expanding its reach and widening its range of topics. Each month, he and his co-editors read 300 pages of academic prose, deciding which essays to include that best expressed new ideas in the humanities, culture and even science when relevant.
“Tom Mitchell’s taste, judgment and tact have made Critical Inquiry the most important journal in the humanities,” said Robert Pippin, the Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Philosophy and the College at UChicago.
In addition to his editorial legacy at Critical Inquiry and scholarship in iconology, Mitchell finds both his UChicago colleagues’ and students’ work stimulating and courageous. He teaches both undergraduate and graduate students and enjoys the mix of students who haven’t specialized in their studies with those who have decided on their niche. About 10 years ago, Mitchell helped initiate an undergraduate core curriculum course in Media Aesthetics, encouraging students to range across the arts of literature, music and the visual arts.
Shattering scholarly mold
Always an innovator, he broke out of his scholarly mode to write “Mental Traveler: A Father, a Son, and a Journey Through Schizophrenia” (2020), a memoir of his son Gabriel’s battle with schizophrenia and death by suicide in 2012. He had to revise his early draft of the book after consulting with his colleagues in Creative Writing. Once Mitchell realized the story had to be told in a very particular order, the memoir took on a momentum, making it easier to write about his and Gabriel’s personal lives.
“Tom Mitchell is a giant in literary studies, art history and media studies,” said Deborah L. Nelson, Dean of the Division of the Humanities and her title in the Department of English Language and Literature. “His work has transformed these fields not once, but multiple times. And the books only tell half of the story. As the editor of one of the humanities most influential journals, Critical Inquiry, Tom’s openness and curiosity kept the journal at the forefront as interpretive paradigms changed.”
His current project is going back to revising a work called “Seeing Through Madness,” which Mitchell started writing before “Mental Traveler.” However, he placed the book project on hold to complete the memoir and is revising to broaden the question of madness—defined as being “a danger to oneself and others”—to a consideration of species identity and human beings’ emerging relationship with intelligent machines.
“Once you pick up the theme of madness, you find it everywhere—poetry, opera, plays, movies—even in the mirror,” Mitchell said.
His retirement from teaching will not stop his scholarly pursuits and his engagement in iconology and his discovery of fresh ideas.