Don Pease on Literature and Dartmouth’s ‘Ineffable Something’

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(Photo by Rob Strong ’00)

By Dana Cook Grossman

The Dartmouth Professor Talks: Donald Pease, the Ted and Helen Geisel Third Century Professor in the Humanities and chair of Dartmouth’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program, joined the Dartmouth faculty in 1973. He’s been awarded Guggenheim and Mellon fellowships, is the author of several books, and is a fervent defender of the liberal arts. He talks with Dartmouth Now about teaching literature, his book about Dr. Seuss, and how an early passion for comic books inspired his lifelong love of books.

Your specialty is 19th- and 20th-century American literature. What attracted you to the field?
Simply put, the opportunity to engage with the literature I love. Writers of the 19th century as different as, say, Whitman and Emerson are from Melville and Poe illuminated the most profound problems of their times by developing in themselves and in their readers faculties to address—and in some cases resolve—those problems. Similarly, you find 20th-century writers as different as Saul Bellow is from Toni Morrison, or Louise Erdrich is from James Purdy, grappling with the problems of more modern times.

What are some of the problems these writers addressed?
In the 19th century, the rights of African-Americans, of other minorities, of women, as well as whether the United States was a nation-state or a congeries of states. Each writer had a different way of engaging each question.

The list of societal problems hasn’t changed much.
No, it hasn’t. After World War II, the United States began to organize itself once again as if it were a monolithic country, a union that didn’t need to acknowledge inner differences. But since the end of the Cold War, it’s the differences among the peoples of the United States that render the U.S. part of the global … let’s call it “transnation.”

Did you have any mentors?
Many. Two of my professors in graduate school, for example, came out of World War II with a sense that literature created the kind of America in whose name they wanted to fight, an America that inspires rather than disappoints. Later, I was influenced by Edward Saïd at Columbia, who saw literature as a means of generating a universal sense of humanity that’s intensified rather than polarized by differences.

You came to Dartmouth in 1973. What drew you here?
Initially, the beauty of the setting. I’d previously been at urban universities. There’s something idyllic about learning and teaching in an environment like this.

And what’s kept you here?
It’s now not only a place I inhabit, but also that inhabits me. I’ve taught at many universities: Oxford, the Free University in Berlin, University College Dublin, Columbia. I love all those places, but they’re all missing something that Dartmouth has. It’s richly cosmopolitan—a world‑class academic institution—yet deeply local, so local it’s almost singular. That ineffable something is what keeps me here.

Would you rather give a lecture or run a seminar?
I like both. Lectures provide a shared foundation of knowledge; you have to understand the basics before you can discuss a subject in an informed way. But true teaching requires give-and-take. I also love advising students on independent studies or senior theses because they invariably ask things you’d never thought to ask yourself, making it a learning experience for the teacher, too.

In addition to books in your field, you’ve written a biography of Theodor Seuss Geisel, Dartmouth Class of 1925—Dr. Seuss. How did you choose him as a subject?
I was named the Ted and Helen Geisel Professor of the Humanities in 1990, and I felt a debt to the chair’s benefactor—a debt I decided to acknowledge by trying to understand his creative process. He’d also taught many of my students to love reading, so I had a dual responsibility to Dr. Seuss—he’d given me students.

How did the book come about?
I’d delivered lots of talks on Dr. Seuss but never written about him. Then I was in a 2004 PBS film called The Political Dr. Seuss. Someone at Oxford Press saw it; she called and asked, “Would you write a book on Dr. Seuss for Oxford’s ‘Lives and Legacies’ series?”—which includes books on Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain… I said yes because Dr. Seuss cultivated ways of thinking that allowed my students to love Whitman and Emerson and Twain.

I understand Oxford put two conditions on the book.
They did, conditions unheard of for an academic. It had to be written for a general audience—which they considered “readers between the ages of 5 and 85″—and it had to be under 160 pages. One of my colleagues said, “Don, you can’t write a sentence that’s under three pages—and when a 5-year-old reads it, she’ll feel like she’s 85!”

Were you a reader as a child?
Yes. I loved comic books. My father would say, “You’re reading too many—they’ll never lead you to real literature.” But comic books made me love reading, so after I had read, say, the classic comic version of Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy, I’d read the book. Then I’d look for what had been translated into the comic and what hadn’t. There’s a visualization process that occurs as we read; that silent conjoining of words and visuals is a place of deep connection.

Is there any other career that might have been a good fit for you?
My father wanted me to be a lawyer, as he was, or a doctor. My mother wanted me to be a priest. In a way, I’ve become all three. Teaching is really caring.