Yesterday I spent some time with my teenagers reviewing their English literature reading from the past month. We are supposed to do this on a weekly basis, but it is one of those things we find easy to slough, particularly when life gets complicated. Luckily, my current class is composed of excellent readers. Not only do they actually read what I assign, but they understand it! In fact sometimes I wonder if they really need me. The book is brimming with information and I am not. I used to have more in my head, but I don't live and breathe this stuff anymore. Luckily, as far as my current students are concerned, I have realized that much of what I used to do as a classroom English teacher is not necessary for them. Many of my former students had to be dragged kicking and screaming to their literature books. More often than not, classroom time was spent reading what didn't get read at home or trying to make sense of what was read but not in the least understood. My own kids don't need that. And the older I get the less benefit I see of imposing on them the kind of close, analytical reading I did as an English major. All I really want is for them to read and enjoy their Western literary heritage. And I think that is what ultimately makes it beneficial for us periodically to sit down and talk through some of their reading assignments. More than anything else, it's fun. (For some reason our literature sessions seem to awaken the comedian in all of us.)
Anyway, back to yesterday's "class." My teenagers have already read and/or seen a respectable amount of Shakespeare, but since our survey of British literature has brought us to the Elizabethan period it seemed time to do another. This time around it was Macbeth, and today we had a little fun considering that play's potential as a murder mystery. Then it was on to the carpe diem tradition with Marlowe & Raleigh & Herrick & Marvell, and finally, the loss of paradise with Milton.
I was fortunate as a graduate student to take a Milton seminar with one of the preeminent Milton scholars of the 20th century. Not only was he brilliant, but he was a dear, grandfatherly man and a product of the traditional, old-school style of literary criticism. I don't remember having read Paradise Lost in high school, but I read it in its entirety, as well as other works of Milton, for this class. It was pure pleasure each week to sit around the table with Dr. Hunter and my fellow grad students as we considered Milton's life, craft, and theology. Some scholars view the narrative voice in Paradise Lost as a persona that Milton created to tell his story; Dr. Hunter believed the narrator was Milton himself and that Milton had earnestly set out in the epic "to justify the ways of God to man," and that's how we approached our consideration of the text.
Yesterday, while perusing my Milton notes with Trevor and Caitlin I stumbled on something I had forgotten: with Dr. Hunter's encouragement, I had submitted one of the papers I wrote for his class to the scholarly publication Milton Quarterly. Although Dr. Hunter wrote an accompanying recommendation, my article was rejected (turns out someone had already written something similar a few years back). That was pretty much the end of my scholarly publication hopes, but it wasn't the end of my time with Dr. Hunter. I was privileged to take another seminar, this one on Shakespeare's history plays, with him the following year.
Dr. Hunter was already retired when I took his Milton class almost 20 years ago. He was to the point in his professional life that he was only teaching what he wanted when he wanted. I figured chances were good that by now he was no longer living. But maybe . . . . The kids and I did an online search. Was he still alive? We found the answer to our question here.
Even though I wasn't surprised, I was sad to see that he was gone. I'm glad that I still have one of his books, dated December 12, 1990, with the inscription: "To _____ _____, who worked with me on some of the difficulties in Milton." Wow. Such a grand and generous man, to address me as a scholar and an equal when I was only a skull full of mush benefiting from his expansive knowledge and prodigal kindness.
As I think back to my time in college, both as an undergraduate and graduate student, I am astounded at the absolute luxury of it. To sit and read for hours on end without being interrupted. And then to spend more hours talking, just talking, about what was read. Did I really do that?
I did. And at times I got to do it with the best. To Dr. Hunter and to others like him who handed me a basket and bid me gather some rosebuds all those years ago, thank you. I think I still have a few of them saved somewhere, pressed between the pages of a long forgotten book.