~By Jefferson Beavers, Communication Specialist, Department of English
Dr. Jean E. Pickering, a feminist literary scholar and Fresno State professor emerita of English, passed away on Sept. 15. She was 87.
An editor, literary critic, and writer of both fiction and memoir, Dr. Pickering taught literature and writing courses at the University from 1970 to 2004. She specialized in modern and contemporary British literature, with deep interests in feminism and international politics.
According to Dr. Lisa Weston, chair of the Department of English, generations of Fresno State students will remember Pickering as “a fiercely passionate teacher of writing” and respected scholar.
“She lived the feminist theory her work espoused,” Weston said, “especially in modeling the critical and ethical practice of feminist collaboration.”
Pickering was the second woman to chair the English department, since the transformation of the Fresno Normal School into Fresno State. In the early 1970s, she was one of only three women — with Dr. Lillian Faderman and Dr. Judith Rosenthal — on the tenure track in the department, alongside 30 men.
Weston said Pickering mentored younger female colleagues, many of whom she recruited to campus as department chair in the 1980s.
“Hers was the voice on the phone inviting me to join the faculty here, and over the years she became for me a role model who inspired me to take risks with my own teaching and research,” Weston said. “For her younger colleagues, Jean leaves a legacy of engagement and support as well as rigorous and insightful writing.”
Faderman, a professor emerita of English who taught at Fresno State from 1967 to 2007, said she was “thrilled” when Pickering came to the department. She remembered Pickering as a wonderful colleague: “warm, witty, brilliant.”
“I recall my first meeting with Jean as though it were yesterday,” Faderman said. “Her wonderful British accent, her impressive Ph.D. from Stanford, her purposely cultivated and amusing ‘Wife of Bath’ persona. She was an outspoken feminist too, as I was so happy to discover. This was, of course, at the height of the feminist movement.”
Faderman — who in 1971-72 became the first woman to chair the English department, before serving as acting dean of what was then the School of Humanities — said Pickering did a fine job managing what has always been a complex department. “Jean was a terrific chair,” she said. “Fair and intelligent.”
As an educator, Pickering was popular among students, Faderman said. On one occasion when Faderman was traveling on a book tour in the early 1980s, Pickering temporarily took over a class for her. “I just remember how my students raved about Jean,” Faderman said, “what fun she was in the classroom, her sense of humor, her great insights.”
As a scholar, Pickering drew respect from students and colleagues alike. Rosenthal said Pickering would most want to be remembered as “a feminist literary critic from Fresno State.”
“Jean’s critical work helps us to understand her beliefs,” said Rosenthal, a professor emerita of English who taught at Fresno State from 1971 to 2007.
“Feminism” has many divisions, Rosenthal explained. She said Pickering’s feminism placed her firmly in the theoretical camp of Anglo-American new historicism, which is a critical lens that treats texts as historical artifacts that emerge among particular social, intellectual, and economic circumstances.
Rosenthal said Pickering was an expert on the British novelist Doris Lessing, the feminist icon who was called an “epicist of the female experience” after winning the Nobel Prize in literature.
“Both Doris Lessing and Jean Pickering had strong ideas about international politics,” Rosenthal said.
Pickering’s best-known book is 1990’s “Understanding Doris Lessing,” published by the University of South Carolina Press. She also edited and wrote the introduction for the essential 2003 critical edition of Lessing’s two short novels, “A Home for the Highland Cattle and The Antheap,” published by Broadview Press.
Perhaps Pickering’s most widely read and cited book is the 1997 anthology “Narratives of Nostalgia, Gender, and Nationalism,” co-edited with Suzanne Kehde and published by NYU Press.
Pickering’s essay in the anthology, “Remembering D-Day: A Case History in Nostalgia,” interrogates the official American narratives about the D-Day landing, on the landmark event’s 50th anniversary, June 6, 1994.
According to Rosenthal, Pickering argued that her own personal history undercuts the memorialization of the 9,000+ dead, as she contemplates the “police actions” of U.S. foreign policy since 1944, including the abortive “Vietnam conflict.” The public memory of the survivors of Omaha beach, Pickering explained, is further undercut by later betrayals.
“The enemy of clear thought is the elegiac nostalgia part of both personal and public memory,” Rosenthal said. “Jean argued that although this nostalgia is inevitable as we age, it can distort and blind us about the past.”
Born in East London in 1933, Pickering emigrated from the U.K. to the United States in 1954 after graduating from the University of London, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen. She earned a master’s degree from San Francisco State, and a Ph.D. from Stanford University. Her doctoral dissertation analyzed comic structure in the novels of Jane Austen.
According to Pickering’s son, Ed Clubb, she grew up in London except for a period when her family was evacuated to the countryside at the height of bombing during World War II.
Pickering’s father was a factory manager and efficiency expert, and he served in the Royal Air Force during the war. Her mother worked in the home and taught her and her two younger sisters to read, well before starting school.
Clubb said reading was his mother’s favorite pastime when she was growing up, and she was a voracious reader her entire life. She also became an avid tennis player later in life, he said, and she spent many summers traveling throughout Europe.
“I think she would want to be remembered for her achievements as an educator and scholar,” Clubb said. “She was a respected and cherished professor and colleague who enriched so many lives.”
Pickering is survived by her spouse, son, two grandchildren, and sister. No services were held.