Wednesday, July 26, 2017

no beginning, middle or end - the professor who taught me literary history and literary anti-history

At some point it occurred to me that I might get an English degree.  I began taking survey classes to see what they were like, and because they were fun.  Read Shakespeare, watch Shakespeare, talk about Shakespeare.  All right!

But the life-changers were British Literature I and British Literature II, both taught right out of the Norton anthologies (5th edition), and both taught by the same professor, Chester Sullivan.

Sullivan was an Arkansas novelist and expert on Southern literature.  I have read his two most recent novels, Answered Prayers (1992) and Rattlesnakes in the Rock Chalk (2012); they are so specific to Lawrence, Kansas that I am not sure I could recommend them widely.  Micro-regionalism.  I loved the novels and pray that he does not need twenty years to finish the next one.

Why Sullivan was teaching Brit Lit survey classes I do not know.  Another prof had suddenly quit?  He lost a bet?  Later I took a “Southern Fiction” class from him.  That was a good class, too, but not the revelation of those surveys.

British Literature I was taught chronologically, moving steadily through the Norton anthology, hitting high points (Beowulf, Chaucer, Marlowe, Johnson) with more eccentric choices sprinkled in.  I remember the “Courtier” section of the Hoby translation of Castiglione’s The Ladder of Love to be especially baffling.  But as in Tom Lorenz’s “Innovative Fiction” class, the great question, over and over, was “What is this?”  It was in some sense a traditional “coverage” course that I took at the exact time I was ready for coverage.

I would not have used the term at the time, and chronology is, heaven knows, only one of many organizational principles, but it was in this course where I learned that literature is not just a collection of texts but a field of knowledge.  I have studied it as such ever since.

But it was Brit Lit II that was the real eye-opener.  The Norton anthology again, and for the first couple of weeks, we “covered” the Romantic poets.  I remember, after working through “To a Skylark” line by line, Sullivan saying (imagine a languid Arkansas accent) “I never cared much for Shelley,” and we turned to – I don’t know what – something else, something different, something we had not read in advance.  For the rest of the class, we ransacked the anthology.  In a single class – it was a three-hour night class – we would wander all over the book, jumping across writers and periods, from plays to poems to stories.  Much of this was planned in advance, since my table of contents is full of cryptic markings that I vaguely remember relating to assigned reading.  But often it was not.  “Let’s try page 2,483”:

A Martian Sends a Postcard Home

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings –

they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.  (ll. 1-4, Craig Raine, 1979)

Yes, exactly, the Martian is describing my Caxton, my Norton.  I wish I could remember if we, or Sullivan, read the poem aloud or if we all read it silently before diving in.

The class felt free, like we were playing with two hundred years of British literature.  Sullivan approached each text as if he were reading it for the first time, as if he were asking the same questions that we all were.  I now see his this as an act.  It worked on me.

It took me a while, and a lot of reading, to synthesize the classes, to combine the literary history approach of the first with the leaps of the second.  Henry Adams, writing about his discovery of fine art, laments that “Once drawn into it, one had small chance of escape, for it had no centre or circumference, no beginning, middle or end, no origin, no object and no conceivable result as education” (Ch. XIV, “Dilettantism”).  Right again, Henry!  I eventually discovered on my own that the same approaches were useful for painting, film, music, everything.  I eventually discovered on my own that the more I knew about the history of a field, the more fun it was to play with it.  Eventually I had the confidence to have my fun in public, here.

Thank you, Chester Sullivan.


  1. And so say all of us, all us (prospectively bereft) Wutherers: Thank you, Chester Sullivan!

  2. The politics involved in teaching assignments in English departments is often an ugly story. Your professor's assignment to BL when he was a specialist in AmSouthLit does not surprise me. Just hang around an English department and watch the power-struggles when course assignments are handed out. To some teachers, only one thing is worse than teaching survey courses: teaching English composition courses. I'm glad you had a good experience with a teacher who may have been out of his comfort zone.

  3. Yes, much later I realized that there must be more to the story, good or bad. But it was perhaps Sullivan's distance from the material that gave him some freedom.

    As far as I remember, I did not know in advance that he was teaching the second course, so it was just chance that I had this powerful lesson in different approaches to literature. Just luck.

  4. These posts about your teachers are lovely. If anyone ever wrote something like this about my classroom I'd be over the moon.

  5. Why don't more people write posts like about their great teachers? Honest question. I was waiting to relax my anonymity a bit (I'd never mentioned the University of Kansas before). Most bloggers don't care about that.

    Regardless, thanks. Someday, someone will. Or they will make a Booktube video about one of your classes.