Arm-waver: Prof lives to teach... and write
As UVA students converge on Charlottesville, English prof Mark Edmunson is working on his latest project, a book about the last year in the life of Sigmund Freud. He says he's just finishing the manuscript, due at Bloomsbury Press within the next five or six weeks.
"Of course, Freud had to think about death without the comforts of religion, in an unafraid and forthright way," says Edumundson. "While his view was different from mine, I admire his candor and courage."
Edmundson's a big fan of candor and courage.
"The best students are the most individual," says the scholar of Romantic poetry. "You can tell who they are on the first day of class they want to have interesting conversations. They're continually surprising."
"Continually surprising" could also apply to Edmundson himself, whose 1997 essay in Harper's, "On the Uses of a Liberal Education as Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students," touched off a national debate about the current state of academia.
As promised in that essay, Edmundson will be enthusiastically "arm waving" in his classes again this fall as he leads his students on a favorite exploration into the world and work of Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Blake– in his undergraduate Romantic poetry course.
The name of Edmundson's own favorite teacher is no secret: Franklin Lears, his philosophy teacher his senior year at Medford High School in Massachusetts. Unlike most of us, content to think nostalgically of our mentor once in a while, Edmundson wrote a book in honor of Lears and the influence he had on the lives of his students.
That book is Teacher, published last September. While Teacher earned mixed reviews as a memoir, the New York Times lauded its "animated prose," and the Washington Post called it "rich with metaphoric prose and inlaid with lovely storytelling."
Teacher helped Edmundson reconnect with Lears, who had left teaching for law school and was working to establish a legal system in the Federal Republic of Kurdistan.
"His response to the book was warm and generous," Edmundson says, explaining how Lears subsequently came to Charlottesville to visit. Although they had fallen out of touch over the years, their friendship is now reestablished and vital. Such is the power of teaching and writing.
What brought you here? I came to Charlottesville in 1984 to teach Romantic poetry at the University.
What's worst about living here? It can be too close to paradise– which sometimes gives you a warped sense of what's out there in the world.
Favorite hangout? Yoga classes at Studio 206: My down-dog, triangle, and back bridge are flawed enough, but I get a lot of instructor praise for being a precocious sweater.
Most overrated virtue? Being nice
What would people be surprised to know about you? T.S. Eliot talks about the writer's "necessary laziness." I take this quality to some remarkable heights.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I'd ask for a good left-hand shot in basketball (I'm addicted to pick-up games); in fact, I'd ask for a half decent right-hand shot.
What accomplishment are you proudest of? Getting through graduate school at Yale and an assistant professorship at Virginia and still being able to laugh.
What do people find most annoying about you? I'll skip this one in the interest of space.
Whom do you admire? William Blake– grand isolate and inspired Romantic poet, late 18th century.
Favorite book? I'll unilaterally claim the right to three: Emerson's Essays, Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents.
What subject causes you to rant? The contrast between our horrid current administration (Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, and the Front Man) and an America full of lots of decent , energetic, life-loving, inventive, etc. people
What thrills you about life in the 21st century? The prospect of seeing my son Willie keep on playing electric guitar and singing; the prospect of seeing my son Matthew surf and snowboard and invent new computers.
What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? The fact that the odds of my seeing it through to the end are not terribly high.
What do you drive? A 1990 BMW, old but beautiful
What's in your car CD/tape player right now? Tupac Shakur, All Eyez on Me, The Rolling Stones, Forty Licks, Bob Dylan, Rolling Thunder Tour: that is, the Romantic performers of the present, for better and worse
What's your next journey? I've been lucky: In the past few years, I've gotten to see The Great Wall of China and the Pyramids, two things I dreamed of seeing since I was a boy. Anything after that will be gravy.
What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? There are about a dozen things all tied for first.
What do you regret? Not learning to play electric guitar.
Favorite comfort food? Campbell's chicken noodle soup (almost daily); Anchor Steam beer (less often than that)
What's always in your refrigerator? Weird white boxes with gravy stains on them, two percent full juice bottles, fossilized fruit: My wife Liz and I are preoccupied writer-types: We forget to clean the thing out.
Must-see TV? I like NFL Prime Time, the best footage from Sunday's football games, with the marvelous Chris Berman, soon to be sullied, I understand, by the presence of Rush Limbaugh.
Favorite cartoon? Zap Comix. R. Crumb rampant.
Describe a perfect day. One where I get to talk with my wife, Liz, for the requisite two or three hours.
Walter Mitty fantasy? Lead guitar for the Stones, a drink with Shakespeare.
Who'd play you in the movie? If there's one thing you can say pretty confidently about being an English professor it's that There Will Not Be a Movie. (Scene 4– paper grading; scene six– more grading: not a promising scenario.)
Most embarrassing moment? Can't think of any. (I perhaps don't embarrass as easily as I should.)
Best advice you ever got? One of my dissertation directors, Hillis Miller, told me to try to write a little every day– even if it's only 10 or so minutes. Over time, the stuff mounts up.
Favorite bumper sticker? I'm a poetry fan– not enough room for due complexity on the bumper.