American 'defiance of the rules' fascinates Fulbright visiting scholar


Fulbright Visiting Scholar Gabriella Voo, a Hungarian professor born and raised in Romania, has embraced America since she was an undergraduate in Budapest.

Gabriella Voo.She could only view from afar until her first trip, a six-week U.S. Information Service grant in 1996, further whetted her appetite for all things American. Voo is a month and a half into her second one, in SUNY Oswego’s English and creative writing department.

Voo’s fascination with this country has led to a career in American studies that feeds her interests in 19th century literature, popular culture and empire building.

“What caught my eye in American studies, American literature, was this defiance of the rules all the time,” said Voo (pronounced veux, as in the French deux, which means two). “It seems Europe set the rules, but Americans came along and overthrew them.”

Voo, an assistant professor at the University of Pecs, teaches a course here on novelist Herman Melville in the era of manifest destiny. She is quick to point out that his most famous novel, published in 1851 as “Moby-Dick; or The Whale,” has layers of meaning beyond American expansion: race relations, politics, religion and much more.

“Melville was a man who never stopped experimenting,” Voo said. “Many authors decline after a time. He always took one step forward until the day he died.”

Connections matter

Traveling here has been a big step for Voo, whose 16-year-old son accompanied her and attends Oswego High School. Her husband, a software engineer for Hungary’s post office, stayed home with their 22-year-old son, who attends a university in Budapest.

She credits her friendship with Robert Moore, a SUNY Oswego English professor and associate director of the college’s honors program, for her Oswego residency.

“I wanted to have a friend like Robert to be around,” Voo explained. “I wanted to come to a smaller place, to be more cozy.”

Moore has helped Voo get settled since her selection by the Hungarian-American Fulbright Commission for Educational Exchange. The U.S. State Department helps administer prestigious, highly competitive Fulbright grants, in cooperation with partner governments and academia around the globe.

Moore said that to have professors of other nationalities on campus “really broadens our students’ perspectives.”

For Voo’s part, it has worked the other way, too. She finds Oswego students refreshingly open and eager to learn. She recalled that a student in her Melville class, amazed with Voo’s knowledge of American literature and history, wondered aloud how a Hungarian professor could know more about America’s past than many Americans.

“Students are very open and willing to take in things about their heritage,” Voo said. “They like to find out things about their own past.”

Author study

Voo has invested a career in probing authors like Melville, Stowe and Poe for clues to America’s 19th century passion for empire building, treatment of blacks and Native Americans, and popular obsessions like phrenology—a pseudoscience of the day that, among other things, studied bumps and contours of people’s skulls to determine their personality characteristics. She knows far too much about these authors, particularly Melville, to sit still for shallow treatment of them in Eastern Europe.

“I even know Melville’s recipes for coffee,” said Voo, who is writing a book—in Hungarian—to deepen interest in those authors.

Yet she quests to know more. She wants to visit Fort Stanwix; the hero of the Revolutionary War siege there was Gen. Peter Gansevoort, Melville’s grandfather. There’s Cooperstown, too, and Fort Ontario.

But the governor’s budget showing the popular Oswego landmark dating to the 18th century as a candidate for closure shows America’s resistance again, as community members organize to support Fort Ontario.

“I personally think national heritage is important,” said Voo. “You have to know about that. It should not be a financial question.”

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(Posted: Mar 03, 2010)

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