Pitch Earns Humanities Award for BMCC Professor

November 11, 1998


Ugoretz wins one of five awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities

The connection between carnival barkers and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales may seem tenuous to most people. But Joe Ugoretz sees a multitude of similarities between the two, and his research has earned him a $30,000 award from the National Endowment for the Humanities, one of only five given for faculty study at traditionally black colleges and universities this year.

Ugoretz is on the English faculty at Borough of Manhattan Community College. He says a childhood interest in barkers, or pitchmen as they’re more properly called, led him to the study of oral performance, particularly as it pertains to literature.

During the summer months, Ugoretz can often be found among the sawdust and canvas of the carnival or county fair, listening to and studying the art of the pitch. Like the oral storytelling tradition it grew out of, the pitch involves an audience and uses it to further a goal.

“A pitchman has to control an audience in a subtle way and with confidence,” Ugoretz says. “This means dealing with interruptions and incorporating them into the pitch. And because the audience is aware that they’re being manipulated or even cheated, the pitch is a form of seduction. There’s an attraction or fear. There’s an edge of excitement. And that’s the appeal of it.”

According to Ugoretz, the storytelling tradition that has given us the pitchman, is also one that has influenced literature. He says many writers, including The Canterbury Tales author Geoffrey Chaucer, use the pitchman’s technique as a narrative device when writing a story.

“What the pitchman does is an art form that’s very basic to humanity,” Ugoretz says. “In fact, the idea of using spoken words to convey a message is probably the very first art form that ever existed. Like the pitchman, Chaucer’s writing comes from the tradition of oral performance. And the whole of The Canterbury Tales is presented as if it were an oral performance, complete with interruptions and asides. Some of it reads as if it were a pitch.”

Ugoretz says the pitchman, like the storyteller, is trying to lure the listener into reacting by spinning his oral presentation in a certain way. An essential part of the pitch is its moral ambiguity, the idea that the audience knows it’s being cheated. He says this aspect of the art of the pitch is used to great effect in Joseph Conrad’s novella, The Heart of Darkness.

“The book itself is about morals and moral ambiguity, but the story is told by an oral performer, a pitchman,” Ugoretz says. “The main character, Kurtz, is a hero but he’s also an embarrassment. The narrator tells Kurtz’s story from a distance, he keeps himself separate from the story. It isn’t clear how the narrator wants us to judge Kurtz. That’s left to the reader, just as, in a pitch, the manner in which the pitch is received is left to the audience.”

Ugoretz’s research on pitchmen and their literary counterparts will form the basis of his doctoral dissertation. He says the NEH award will allow him to take time off from teaching and concentrate on writing and research.

Borough of Manhattan Community College, the most diverse community college in the history of The City University of New York, provides quality programs and services in Lower Manhattan to nearly 17,000 students in 20 degree programs. Nationally, BMCC ranks #1 in awarding associate degrees to African Americans, #2 in awarding associate degrees to minorities and #5 in awarding associate degrees to Latinos.

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