About me. . . .

I am a literary historian working in British literature, renaissance to romantics, with particular interest in the eighteenth century and in Scottish writers. Much of my research is concerned with how modern ideas about culture came to be invented as eighteenth and nineteenth century poets began to imagine new kinds of relationships between language, landscape, and forms of society. I tend to be sceptical about many of these imaginings, since one of the remarkable things about literature is the way it circulates freely among cultures: many of the things we think of as "local" in modern writing have origins in classical literature, and much of what seems "ethnic" in American writing has origins in Britain.

Sorting all of this out is a complicated business, and I spend much of my time documenting the meanderings of traditions in English poetry as they pass from place to place and from generation to generation, renovating themselves through exchanges with other traditions while telling stories about themselves that may or may not be true. The stories told by poets have a potent effect on how we imagine the identities of ourselves and others, and the stories about the origins of culture told by romantic poets have been particularly influential.

While I was born in Pennsylvania most of my life has been spent here in Virginia, where I graduated from Woodson High School in 1973, and did undergraduate work at the University of Virginia. I took my B.S. in architecture, though smitten with the humanities, I spent about as much time in the library as in the studio. I was obviously never intended to be a draughtsman, though the study of architecture was very stimulating: like many of my students at Virginia Tech I am very interested in "how things work."

In Charlottesville I met my wife; we married after graduation and in 1977 migrated to the University of Chicago where I began taking graduate courses in English literature. We returned to Charlottesville where in 1979 I entered the Ph.D. program in English. My interests were in renaissance and eighteenth-century literature. I was much involved the university's Theory Group — theory had yet to become an academic subject, so we had to pursue it on our own time. I wrote a dissertation on meditational writing with Ralph Cohen and Alastair Fowler as my directors. It began with Donne and concluded with Coleridge.

Upon graduating in 1987 I took a position at Virginia Tech where I could pursue my research interests in literature and theory, and teach the writers I love to some very lively students. I published an expanded version of my dissertation as my first book, Forms of Reflection, in 1993. By that time I was beginning to have grave reservations about some of the directions in which cultural studies was taking literature and literary theory. I undertook a study of the origins of "cultural" discourse, trying to turn the tables on those attacking literature by writing literary histories of culture in response to the usual cultural histories of literature.

These studies persuaded me that to know a literature it is not enough to specialize in a single literary period—one needs to know antecedents of course, but also what is said about literary works over the long stretches of time after they are written. I wanted to challenge our modern habit of thinking of literary periods as beads on a string, as though Shakespeare somehow belongs to the renaissance more than to the Romantics or the Moderns. To think about literature as "literature" is recognize that works transcend the historical conditions that give birth to them, how they enter actively into works, periods, and civilizations quite remote from their origins. Just as it takes hundreds of years to create a literature, so the literature of any period embraces works written over hundreds of years.

To make this point I wrote another book, Edmund Spenser: A Reception History (1997) which undertakes to demonstrate that Spenser's writings not only gave a peculiar shape to later English poetry, but to criticism as well, which often adopted Spenser's views about what a literature is and does, even taking up his modes of allegory, description, and character writing. If poetry and criticism have undergone dramatic changes since the sixteenth century, Spenser's writings came to play a key role in most of these changes: Spenser was a highly visible presence in Augustan literary criticism, British Romanticism, Victorian morality, and the beginnings of the academic study of literature in our own century.

To think about literature in such broad terms it is necessary to have access to large amounts of information, much of it not readily available in modern literary histories, anthologies, and reference works which tend to compartmentalize things by periods--which is to say in unliterary ways. To address this lack of information, I have undertaken a third project, an database entitled English Poetry, 1579-1830: Spenser and the Tradition. This pulls together not only a body of later poetry in which Spenser's influence appears, but thousands of biographical and critical remarks so that one can follow the lives, thoughts, and reputations of hundreds of other poets, critics, and scholars engaged in the creation of English literature during its formative years.

The confluence of literary history and computer technology will, I believe, eventually open up the study of literature by enabling us to think "outside of the box" imposed by a cultural criticism that relies far too much on outmoded biological metaphors. Biology has moved far beyond the point where it was when the "culture" metaphor entered into the humanities, and criticism would do well to take note of the much more sophisticated ways of thinking about identity and change being developed in other fields. When this begins to happen, and I'm sure it will, we may hope to see literary studies returning to the commanding position it once occupied in the humanities. For three thousand years serious students have looked to literature for the most acute insights into the human condition; while we can expect further dramatic changes in literature and literary criticism, what has been said and done by earlier writers will never be irrelevant, for literature, in all its diversity, will continue to be the collective memory of the human race.

How this will shake out remains to be seen. In the meanwhile, my students and I wander in the mazy corridors of English literature, puzzling over "the best that is known and thought in the world," attempting to shape a more desirable future by means of a better understanding the past. The challenge is large, but we have wonderful means at our disposal at Virginia Tech, not least the bright young minds that come here for looking for instruction and opportunity.

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