Friday, May 21, 2010

English Department Convocation Keynote Address

A British playwright of considerable fame wrote, “There is a tide in the affairs of…”, well, you know the rest of the quotation.  The tide in my affairs seems to have borne me, inexorably, to the English Department at the University of New Mexico.  My first encounter with one of its graduates came early in my career when I taught with a senior colleague named Gilbert Neiman.  Gilbert, who earned his PhD at UNM, published a rather well-reviewed novel entitled THERE IS A TYRANT IN EVERY COUNTRY.  Unfortunately, it appeared in the same publishing cycle as Henry Miller’s TROPIC OF CANCER.  You can imagine what ensued.  But Gilbert remained connected to the writers of the time.  For years, he exchanged correspondence with Anais Nin, the Spanish-born, scandalous, avant-garde writer who held such fascination for all of us.  His closest friend was Robert Creeley, who visited him regularly and appeared frequently at our campus.   Another friend was Richard Wilbur, who also visited and gave readings for our students.  When Gilbert died, a colleague and I were asked to organize his papers and categorize his library.  We found personal letters and notes of thanks from virtually all of the Beat writers, as well as signed first editions of their works—Kerouac and Ferlinghetti included.  Memorably, there were letters of gratitude from Henry Miller who had lived at Gilbert’s house during periods of poverty—at the time we would have said, “crashed at his pad” on Lead, near UNM.  Near the end of our survey, we found documentation that Gilbert had been married for a time to Gene Tierney, one of the gorgeous film actresses of the day.  With that, I concluded that the UNM English Department must be a very glamorous place!

As my literary interests expanded, I learned that Scott Momaday, the first Native American novelist to win a Pulitzer Prize, is an English Department graduate; that Leslie Marmon Silko, considered by many the most influential contemporary Native American fiction writer, holds a BA from this department; that Paula Gunn Allen, whose book THE SACRED HOOP, with its confluence of Feminist theory and Native American aesthetics, educated a generation of us, earned a PHD from UNM.

The tradition of creativity and accomplishment from graduates of this department continues in the present.  Recently I served on Cynthia Segura’s dissertation committee.  She wrote a cutting-edge study of poetry in computer languages.  Cynthia went on to earn a second PHD in Computer Science, joined the State Department, and, this coming week, will be posted to Sidney, Australia.

You who are graduating today are borne along by a great tradition.  Your predecessor-alumni have established a tremendous tide of success.

Theirs is not the only great tradition from which you benefit.  Some years ago, at an MLA convention in New York, I listened to a panel on “Transformations of the Bildungsroman in Contemporary Literature.” (doesn’t that sound like a title  English professors would create?)  The first paper, by Carlota Cardenas de Dwyer of the University of Texas, began by asserting, “For millions of young Americans, Bless Me Ultima is a more significant reading experience than Oliver Twist.”

Imagine my response as a confident young specialist in British Victorian literature!

Thus I discovered Rudolfo Anaya, and through reading him, a whole group of exciting Chicano/a writers who were quite new to me.  He, to my surprise, taught at UNM.  That was only the beginning. For part of my career, I drew on Hugh Wittemyer’s book on George Eliot for my own scholarship and teaching. He was a UNM English professor. When I was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for study in contemporary literary theory, I found that my director would be Morris Eaves, a UNM professor who was also editor of the Blake Quarterly, making him a major power in nineteenth century studies.  A few years later, I was awarded a Pennsylvania Faculty Research Grant for postdoctoral study in Native American fiction. Time and again, those I consulted about where to use the grant told me that Other Destinies, by Louis Owens, was the definitive critical work on the subject. Logically, I thought I should study with him.  And what did I find? Louis was a member of the UNM English Department.

That tradition of faculty scholarship and productivity in this department continues in the present.  Were I to begin to list the accomplishments of your English professors, I would far exceed the time I am allotted (Not to mention that I would almost certainly forget someone, who might be sitting behind me at this moment) .

You graduates have been prepared for today by the latest in a tide of important scholars, critics, theorists, and writers. I can speak this boast because I am IN the English Department, but not OF it.  Your professors are barred by modesty and academic tradition from such boasting.  No modesty need restrain my expression of their remarkable work.

During these days you are no doubt hearing many declarations about your brilliant futures and your potential to transform our society, to rejuvenate its institutions, and to solve its problems.  But I am a professor of Victorian literature, and so you won’t be surprised to hear very different messages from me!

First, I want to convey to you a burden of guilt.  You have so much to live up to, both to justify your place in the flow of your predecessors and to pass on the UNM tradition to those who follow.

Second, I wish to generate in you a sense of obligation.  You owe so much to those who have trained you in your field and to those, sitting behind you, who have supported you, encouraged you, and paid the bills.

As a Victorianist, I am thinking now of another quotation.  In “Ulysses,” Tennyson writes, “Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ / Gleams that untravelled world….”

Your “tide” has brought you to that arch, at the entrance to that untravelled world (the first benefit of my retirement is the freedom to mix my metaphors, as I just did, with no fear of reproach from my colleagues). Since I am retiring, I stand with you in that arch. While I bequeath to you those Victorian gifts of guilt and obligation, I do have three other gifts for you:
1.       My respect—it has been wonderful to spend these ten years with UNM students.  You have taught me the justice of this state’s claim to diversity.   You have delighted me with your intelligence, your curiosity, and your politeness, after years of more hard-edged, cynical students from the Northeastern cities.
2.       My gratitude.  I have learned so much from you—in discussions, conferences, papers, MA and PHD committees (Imagine how much I had to learn to work with a study of poetry in computer languages!)
3.       And one other gift. I look out today at many familiar faces. I recall the many students I have admired here in the UNM English Department.  And now I approach the most dangerous moment of this talk.  It is always dangerous for an aging Victorian to become emotional, but the moment cannot be avoided.  In addition to my respect and my thanks, you will carry through that arch, wherever your tide takes you,        MY LOVE

Ron Shumaker

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