English professor receives Thoreau Society Medal

Bill Rossi

April 15, 2024 - 11:00 a.m.

After a long career centered around a fascination for 19th-century American literature, William (Bill) Rossi will soon receive a prestigious honor: the Thoreau Society Medal. As a diligent professor emeritus of English, Rossi’s dedication to understanding the works of Henry David Thoreau has left a mark on literary scholarship and the University of Oregon.

Rossi’s academic career with Thoreau began while getting his doctorate at the University of Minnesota, where he began to work with the Thoreau edition, a comprehensive project aimed at refining Thoreau’s collected writings.

“I was already interested in British Romantic and 19th-century American writing,” Rossi said. “But because I spent so much time with Thoreau, it all just began to happen and has continued through the whole time.”

After graduate school, Rossi spent three years teaching at Texas Tech University before coming to the UO in the late 1980s. He was a prominent professor within the English department until retiring from teaching in 2022.

During his career, he taught and conducted research on Thoreau’s relation to evolutionary theory and worked on editing two of the 16 volumes of Thoreau’s journals.

“[Bill] was one of the pioneers of the environmental humanities in the US, and foundational to establishing the national reputation of the Department of English at the University of Oregon in that field,” said Mark Whalan, the head of the English department.

The upcoming award, to be presented in July at the Thoreau Society’s annual gathering in Concord, Massachusetts, marks a significant milestone in Rossi’s career.

“There was an outpouring of congratulations from faculty in the department when I announced this news, much of it reflecting on Bill Rossi's long career of fine scholarship but also on what a welcoming, kind, and friendly colleague he is,” Whalan said.

Rossi added, “[The award] is a sense of recognition that is very humbling, and also gratifying. To receive it kind of suggests that you’re done with your work.”

This is not the case for Rossi. Since retiring, he has remained steadfast in his commitment to his ongoing projects, such as his current book project about Thoreau’s relationship to the debate about evolution before Darwin. The Thoreau Society Medal serves not as a conclusion but as a reaffirmation of his life’s work. He said he plans to continue with this work and has turned down requests to do other tasks to finish working on his current project.

“Bill Rossi is just the nicest person, and so when something great happens for a person who is a great human being, it makes everyone feel good,” said Harry Wonham, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences’ humanities division and English professor. “He writes about the way scientific ideas are treated by literary figures, and he’s absolutely meticulous and extremely fact-driven. It’s refreshing to read literary scholarship that has a scientific rigor to it, which is unique and special about what he does.”

Through his unwavering dedication to Thoreau’s legacy, Rossi has illuminated the depths of US literature and left an enduring imprint on the scholarly community.

— By Codi Farmer, College of Arts and Sciences