Reprinted with permission of the speaker, September
Text of Jeanne Campbell Reesman '77 Address at Centenary's President's Convocation 2003
Answering “the Call”: Life After Centenary
Jeanne Campbell Reesman, BA English ‘77
Thank you Dr. Labor. President Schwab, Provost Colson, Trustees, faculty, students, and distinguished guests: It is indeed an honor to speak here today—one every graduate would dream of. To be able to come home to Centenary to help celebrate the beginning of the new school year and the 100th anniversary of The Call of the Wild, and to see family and friends, not to mention you young scholars gathered here, is all pure joy.
Students, 30 years ago I sat where you are sitting, a brand-new freshman at Centenary. I want to talk to you a little about what I learned at Centenary, how it helped me answer my call to selfhood and career.
To find the first call Centenary issued to me, though, we have to go back even farther than thirty years. My father went to Centenary, and even though he majored in Economics he edited the campus literary magazine and the Yoncopin. From the time I can remember nearly every night my mother and father and I would sit and talk about books. I didn’t know how lucky I was; how many Dads want to sit and talk about T.S. Eliot after a long day at work?
Then, I recall being 12 years old and in Sunday School at First Presbyterian Church. I had distinguished myself the year before by arguing with the Sunday School teacher about the topic of evolution and the issue of interpreting scripture literally. I was told that God created the world from nothing and in six days, just as it says in Genesis. Well, maybe He did and maybe He didn’t, but I wasn’t buying it. Being a young person I of course was smarter than everyone. But in the world of Sunday School I was feeling pretty left out. But behold, a new Sunday School teacher took over, Dr. Lee Morgan. Dr. Morgan. I had never known of anyone called “doctor” who wasn’t a medical doctor. Here was a man who was a practicing intellectual, who held large views, who was a believer but a different kind of one than I had run across. And he was a Liberal, which I had never seen except on TV. I was floored. Now those of you who know Lee well should take special note of this: I was awed by his air of worldliness, his debonair sophistication. He was a person to whom ideas were clearly a life’s work, and debating different ideas a given. Here was magic.
Let me move forward to my self at the age of 16. Given my specialization now in American literature I am shocked to confess that I was bored in my 11th grade English course, which focused upon American literature. We were reading Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter. You feminists out there will be amused to learn that at that time we were taught that Hester Prynne was a fallen woman, a malignant force upon the book’s hero, the wonderful Mr. Dimmesdale. Just try to teach it that way nowadays! Anyway, our teacher had invited a professor from Centenary, Dr. Earle Labor, to come in and talk to us about Hawthorne and American literature. Contrary to what we had been taught, Dr. Labor gave a sympathetic description of Hester as an extraordinarily strong woman who refused to be defeated by Puritan prejudice and intolerance. I was again awestruck. He just seemed to fill the classroom, much bigger than we were. Here was another man easy in his acquaintance with all manner of intellectual material, who could teach with no teacher’s guide, who could entertain differing interpretations, who could actually display a sense of humor in teaching. He was bigger than our teacher, and he looked like he was having a lot more fun that she did.
And then I remember that first convocation 30 years ago in the chapel. I stood among the students, nervously fidgeting as the gloriously robed faculty paraded in. Who were these people with these fine robes in bright colors, and some of them with really strange hats? A solemn assembly, sort of like a room full of preachers, only in technicolor.
Well, it wasn’t too long until I wanted to be one of these people, these intellectuals, these doctors of the mind. The idea of getting paid for talking about literature and ideas was just amazing. What fun such a life might be. A life of constant learning, of constant becoming. After a few English classes I was definitely hooked and on the road to being an English professor myself. Now I don’t want to advocate a sort of Stockholm syndrome scenario for you, in which you are persuaded by your tormentors to join their side, but I do want to describe something that happened in my own life, and urge, you, whatever you do, use this time at Centenary and find your own paths and your own mentors. Whatever it turns out to be that makes your heart race, that makes you stay up all night with your reading, find it, and be true to it. You have a fantastic opportunity here to find your own inner call. And find those mentors who can help you.
I went to Baylor University for a Master’s then Lee (I want you to know it took me until I was nearly 40 before I could call him “Lee”) suggested the University of Pennsylvania for a Ph.D. The road I had chosen meant research, teaching, and learning and more or less immersion in literature. I clearly recall the nearly physical feeling in graduate school at Penn of having the inside of my head expanded each semester. I was thrilled to see the work of so many professors in print and reviewed in the New York Times for goodness sake. I was a little overawed by such Ivy League greatness, and as a first-year teaching assistant assigned to freshman English, I was also conscious of my Southern accent, where the students were mostly East Coast prep school grads or savvy New Yorkers. I could have been in trouble saying “I’m here to teach y’all English.” I hit upon the strategy of making Southern literature the theme of my courses, and they thought it was part of the act. Meanwhile I learned to speak a little differently. But mainly, I came to note how well-prepared I was by Centenary for such a competitive environment. For instance, I had read the classics, and I mean Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, and so on. Even Boethius. Most of the other doctoral students were missing these, and they are the very vocabulary of symbology in Western literature. And even Sunday School stuck—I new the Bible and they by and large did not. Also, my models of teaching seemed often more successful on the human level than theirs. I had had great models of teaching and a lot of individual attention, which, I can tell you, is hardly the norm for most undergraduates, especially at larger state schools. But this sounds a little lop-sided, as though Centenary had only given me a strong dose of tradition, and that would not have been enough. What I also absorbed at Centenary was intellectual flexibility and agility, and a hunger for new ideas, even if they conflict with ideas I held dear. In evolutionary terms it is called adapatibility. The clearest memory I have of noticing this trait at Centenary was in Dr. Labor’s class, when he would pull out a little black notebook to write down some thought from a student in class, because it was so good and made him rethink his own interpretation. Now that impressed me, the teacher being the student. It’s the great secret of academia, by the way: we can’t give up being students; that’s why we like to parade around in our graduation robes.
I have had a successful and meaningful career. I’ve won awards. I’ve known the thrill of seeing a new book of mine for the first time out of the box and the deep satisfaction that comes in teaching, and felt rewarded as an administrator creating new Ph.D. programs for students who are the first in their family to attend college. My mentors have become coauthors; I certainly never thought, when I was a freshman and using the Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature book as my textbook, that one day I’d be among its authors, with Drs. Labor and Morgan, Dr. Wilfred Guerin, and Dr. John Willingham.
Here are four things I either learned at Centenary or which it strongly reinforced; these have been quite meaningful in my life and career:
1. The first is faith in God. As part of its long tradition Centenary fostered a tolerant and supportive atmosphere for the practice of one’s individual religious faith. Furthermore, in some classes it allowed for the fact that God may have had a hand in human history. As I have known more and more people, what has become clearest to me is that there is no such thing as an atheist. Everyone has a god, that which you structure your life around and worship regularly, whether you want to or not. Perhaps one man’s god is success, perhaps another’s is money, and a third’s alcohol or another addiction. But there’s always a god. Be sure you make the right choice, and if you didn’t, then change it.
2. The second follows from the first: at Centenary I learned that the individual is always more important than the group. No “ism” no matter how grand could explain the unique gift of individuality. Among other things, this meant that it was ok for me to want to be a writer, the answer to an inner call. In later life I gradually realized that many people, it turned out, identify themselves in terms of groups rather than a well-lived sense of subjectivity. This may involve race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, music preference, automobile, or brand of beer. Studying literature is a good antidote for any restrictive definition of selfhood because it presents alternate ways of knowing.
3. Centenary was a strong community, offering a sense of the humanistic interrelations amongst disciplines. Among courses and faculty and students, it was a conversation wherein ideas could be related to local and global communities. I found out what it meant to have friends as passionately committed to the world of ideas as I was, and how important those lasting friendships would be. I am so grateful that London is so popular around the world, for I have friends in many far-flung places.
4. At Centenary I learned that that knowledge was always becoming and never arrived at. I could see in my professors the onward rush of their interests—they would not be reading from the same yellowed notes year after year, one could tell. Knowledge itself became a subject for me, and I eventually wrote my dissertation on how American writers Henry James and William Faulkner oppose certain kinds of knowledge for narrators and readers: knowing as a false certainty, a form of control over others, versus knowing as a dynamic process like that of their narrators with all their open-endedness. I’ve been working on this idea in American literature ever since. The pursuit of knowledge never grows old. Whatever your chosen profession, make sure it is something with staying power or something that will allow you to grow in other directions. Discern your calling. Your preparation here in the liberal arts will have been not only knowledge but learning how to respond to knowledge, a skill more and more needed today when we constantly confront new knowledge and new ways of knowing.
I see that the topic for the First-Year Experience being inaugurated is “Forbidden Knowledge” (knowledge which “imprisons or blinds”) as opposed to “liberal education” (or knowledge which “liberates or enlightens”). A great topic, and close to home, given my dissertation. I am relieved that I chose the side of “liberal education.” I note that this fall you will be focusing upon “The Quest for Knowledge,” looking at The Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, I Henry IV, The Call of the Wild, Their Eyes Were Watching God and other texts. This looks wonderful, a model program for first-year students. These texts are all about ways of seeing, of knowing, of belief.
The Call of the Wild is a great choice; it is indeed one of America’s great world novels, on the same shelf with Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick. Why is it when you ask which is the greatest American novel around the world these three are almost always mentioned? I think I know: they share a radically American point of view on the New World dream as contested by brutal conquest and race slavery. Their themes of freedom versus enslavement form a version of the Americas with global significance. Each of these great American books in its way is a slave narrative, and each climaxes with a moment of revelation and self-definition which is left open to further interpretation. Buck finds freedom in his leaving first the civilized world of the Southland and then the enslaving economics of the gold rush behind; eventually he finds nothing less than his place in nature, at the head of the pack under the dominion of the harsh God of the Northland who rules with unvarying hand the laws of Nature, and its many mysteries. It is an epic of self-knowledge read by children and adults the world over, and so well-fitted to your project of a liberal understanding of knowledge. And, a tip for you—take a good look at London’s other Klondike stories and note the number of times he refers directly to the Odyssey—interesting.
Well, I’ve told you about some values I drew from Centenary as preparation for living and even gone on a bit about my own theory of knowledge and readings of The Call of the Wild and American literature. I conclude with a couple of great passages of advice to young writers by Jack London and by Henry James. I don’t think anyone can improve on these. See if they come in handy as you craft those term papers on the First-Year Experience readings:
The first is from Jack London’s essay “Getting into Print,”
which was published in 1903 in The Editor.
He is so right.
The second piece of advice is from James’s essay “The Art of Fiction,” published in Longman’s Magazine in 1884. His subject is realism in the novel, and how a writer must be prepared to write from experience by preparing a certain kind of mind.
Experience is never limited and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind. . . -it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations. . . . The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it-this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience; . . .they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, 'Write from experience, and experience only,' I should feel that this was a rather tantalising monition if I were not careful immediately to add, 'Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!'
Writing from experience, they both suggest, is certainly important, but so much more important is the philosophy of life that allows one to be “one of the people on whom nothing is lost,” in other words, a seeker, a person of imagination. You have the opportunity at Centenary to lay the groundwork of a philosophy of life that I hope your own experience will confirm.
So, I’ve spoken on preparation and experience, and as those of you prepared by your experience of convocations, long enough. Thank you, and to you students, all the best wishes in the world as you follow your own calls to imagination at Centenary College.
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