Interviews with Faculty Authors

Interview with Karen Marsalek

By Katharine Klotzbach ’07
April, 2007

When Karen Marsalek saw tears in Alexandra Johnston’s eyes at the party celebrating the publication of ‘ Bring furth the pagants': Essays in Early English Drama presented to Alexandra F. Johnston , she knew the project she had undertaken four years ago had been worth every minute.   Marsalek, along with her colleague and “dear friend” David N. Klausner, co-edited the collection of essays in honor of the retiring professor.   The essays in ‘Bring furth the pagants’ range in subject matter from the presentation of pageants on London Bridge, to the theological issues in medieval drama, to Marsalek’s own contribution: an examination of the final scene in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale .   Her essay, entitled “Awake your faith,” explores common features of the resurrection, both in Shakespeare’s work and in previous medieval dramas.   However, all of the essays reflect the influence and career of Johnston, an influential scholar, teacher, director, and producer in the field of English drama.

Marsalek’s face lights up when she speaks about Johnston, calling her “a terrific mentor and role model.”   Johnston, who was Marsalek’s dissertation advisor at the University of Toronto, has made it her life’s work to locate and publish drama performances in England until 1642.   She scours English schools, libraries, churches, government buildings and record offices, searching for manuscripts and other primary documents.   Today, she still directs the project, Records of Early English Drama (REED).   Marsalek calls Johnston’s contribution to the field “instrumental.”   “We know about the [medieval] plays and how they were performed because of her,” Marsalek continues, flipping through the pages of an impressive-looking REED tome in her office.

Putting together the essay collection for Johnston was “a project that needed to happen,” according to Marsalek.   She and Klausner, a professor of medieval literature at the University of Toronto, worked together to compile a list of contributors and critique the submitted essays.   Marsalek laughs when she recalls the completion of her last editing task in September 2006: determined to get the book to press, she insisted on checking the editor’s proof from the hospital, just hours before she gave birth to her son.   ‘Bring furth the pagants’ was published four months later.

Marsalek calls her collaboration on the volume “an honor,” and repeatedly emphasizes the privilege she felt while working with such prominent figures in the field of English drama.   Smiling, she adds how exciting it was to see her name next to David Bevington’s in the index.   After reflecting on the experience, Marsalek says what she values most is the sense of camaraderie within her discipline.   She says, “[Editing the book] made me feel like I was a part of a greater English community – and that feeling is both exciting and valuable.”

 

Interview with Karen Cherewatuk

By Lauren Fischer ’08
April, 2007

If relationships, the round table, or the Middle Ages interest you, you’ll be pleased to know that Professor Karen Cherewatuk’s book, Marriage, Adultery and Inheritance in Malory’s Morte Darthur, is now available in the United States. Published last fall in England by Boydell & Brewer, one of the leading publishers in medieval studies, her book arrived on U.S. shores in December.

In Marriage, Adultery and Inheritance Cherewatuk examines the concept of marriage in two main ways. She explores medieval marriage as the union is viewed today and also as means for families of power to keep their status. She examines the Morte Darthur, Malory’s story of King Arthur and his knights, and also looks at other male/female relationships, and their impact on the world of he Round Table.

When asked how she decided to focus on the topic of marriage in medieval times, Karen referred back to a paper she had written in 1993. After delivering the paper she realized she had a lot more to say on the topic. Cherewatuk also wrote her dissertation on Malory and has always loved Arthurian literature. It wasn’t until she came back to Malory with a feminist and cultural critique that she knew she was ready to write a book about the subject.

After twelve years filled with research and writing Karen completed her first monograph. She has edited other books in the past such as Dear Sister; Medieval Women and the Epistolary Genre, but this book is her first independent work. Karen said it was bittersweet to see the twelve years come to an end, “It is nice to have the book completed, but I love the writing and research aspect of it. I love having a big project to work on.” Cherewatuk hopes to pursue another project during her upcoming sabbatical.

Although she was already quite familiar with the topic, Cherewatuk learned some things during her book writing process. Two facts she found interesting: noble bastards were treated very well in medieval court, and strong willed women crossed class lines to marry for love.

Karen Cherewatuk earned her bachelor’s degree at the State University of New York and completed her master’s and doctoral degrees at Cornell University. Cherewatuk took her first teaching job at St. Olaf College in the fall of 1986 and had been at the school every since.

 

Interview with Mary Titus

By Anne Torkelson ’07
October, 2006

Mary Titus was a 2007 Minnesota Book Award Finalist in the general nonfiction category for The Ambivalent Art of Katherine Anne Porter, her first published novel. The book examines Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980), a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist, essayist, short story writer, and novelist.

The idea for the book began as Titus’ University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill dissertation, which she dropped for many years to work on other scholarship and learning. At first, the topic was a psychoanalytic study about language, fiction, and identity. “It wasn’t until I really became a student of American culture that I began to look at [Katherine Anne Porter] in another way,” Titus said.

That other way of viewing the Southern Renaissance writer was to put her life and letters in the context of her fiction and the intense debate about changes in the gender roles of American women that took place during her lifetime. Raised by her grandmother in rural Texas, Porter “lived through a century of changes in what it meant to be a woman,” Titus said. “Her writings — stories, letters, etc — all record this conflict she had between herself as an artist [...] and being a woman, which at that time meant raising children, and not being a public figure.”

To trace Porter’s ambivalent but continued interest in and examination of the relationship between art, gender and identity, Titus used Porter’s unpublished works and newly available editions of her early fiction, poetry, and reviews. Titus structured the book with one of Porter’s unfinished fictional stories about a young girl who is condemned to death for rebelling against her restrictive, “natural” society by inventing art and creating from it armor for herself. The Ambivalent Art of Katherine Anne Porter speaks to the relationship between nature and art, and the way Porter’s art protected her, damaged her, and made her a figure of both adoration and social scorn.

 

Mark Allister: Eco-Man

–Malcolm Richards, (’05), interviewer

As he immersed himself in teaching men’s studies and environmental literature, English professor Mark Allister identified a gap in the two subjects; namely that men’s studies did not incorporate nature and econcriticism came solely from ecofeminist positions. From this gap came Allister’s inspriation for compiling and editing Econ-Man, an anthology of essays on nature and masculinity.

The anthology of essays does not maintain one unified voice, instead representing a wide range of voices and opinions. The essays range from an examination of the urban wilderness in Stephen Mexal’s “Consuming Cities: Hip-Hop’s Urban Wilderness and the Cult of Masculinity,” to St. Olaf professor Jim Farrell’s description of the nature he finds in his day-to-day existence in “The nature of My Life.” Due to its diverse selection of essays, Eco-Man appeals to readers of varied interests.

Eco-Man highlights the great complexity of nature and masculinity in our society today. As Allister says in his introduction, “I believe, and the book’s essays taken as a whole suggest, that the social constructions of masculinity in relation to nature are a mix of good and bad, a mix that affects individual men and women, as well as our society.”

Allister’s own experiences of nature exemplify the diverse ways that males experience nature in our society. As a young man, Allister went camping and backpacking, but as he’s grown older his experiences of nature are more likely to come through gardening, birdwatching, or even teaching classes on environmental themes. The essays in Eco-Man have influenced Allister as well, as he occasionally finds himself incorporating aspects of the essays into his own thoughts and discussions.

 

Mark Allister: Refiguring the Map of Sorrow: Nature Writing and Autobiography

–Lacy Werner (’02), interviewer

“Writing as a way to work through grief is as old as art itself,” says Mark Allister in his new book, Refiguring the Map of Sorrow. In it, he brings together several prominent nature writers who have utilized reflection of the natural world to sort through and heal their grief.

Allister began working on the book more than ten years ago as an autobiographical studies project. Through his research, however, he became interested in a group of people who have written specifically about overcoming loss with the help of the natural world. He examines the work of Terry Tempest Williams, Sue Hubbell, Peter Matthiessen, Bill Barich, William Least Heat-Moon, and Gretel Erlich.

Several of the chapters were published before the entire book was released this year. For Allister, the work was an exercise in balancing his family life with his writing and academic lives. He is grateful for a six-month sabbatical from teaching in 1998-99 to be able to rewrite the entire piece from beginning to end to make it into a more workable book form.

Judging by the increased interest in nature writing over the last several years, Refiguring the Map of Sorrow is sure to reach an audience far wider than Allister’s expected group of scholars and environmental literature writers, because it discusses ways in which different types of people have-and can-find solace in the world around them.

Published by the University of Virginia Press, Refiguring the Map of Sorrow is part of the Under the Sign of Nature: Explorations in Ecocriticism series.

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Rich DuRocher: Milton Among the Romans: The Pedagogy and Influence of Milton’s Latin Curriculum

–Sarah Varner (’03), interviewer

It is no wonder that Richard DuRocher-a professor well respected and called “cool” by many of his students-took interest in writing a book that examines Milton as a teacher. His book, Milton Among the Romans: The Pedagogy and Influence of Milton’s Latin Curriculum was published last fall. The following interview took place in March over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

We asked: What is it about Milton that makes you want to be a Milton scholar?

Rich said: On the first day of class, I always get the “why Milton” question. Milton’s ideas and his language stimulate and provoke me in ways that no other writer does. It drives me to new positive insights…and it drives me crazy.

We asked: What motivated you to write Milton Among the Romans?

Rich said: Basic curiosity got me started. Any literary project begins with questions. I was most curious to see how Milton the teacher would affect Milton the poet.

We asked: How did you uncover the evidence to support your argument?

Rich said: We knew for a long time that Milton taught school. I read an account by Edward Phillips, Milton’s nephew, about the details of the school. [The students of Milton's academy] read all these works of Roman science-agriculture, architecture, medicine, astronomy and earth science. At the time, I thought, ‘that’s really odd,’ so I started reading the books, and went from there. I’m the kind of nut who likes reading old Latin science and Milton. I thought that since Milton taught this stuff and later wrote Paradise Lost, surely these subjects would come back and make an appearance.

We asked: Where does Roman architecture show up in Paradise Lost?

Rich said: Milton’s famous description of Pandemonium, the devil’s palace, is Roman architecture. It makes sense that the palace of Roman architecture was made for devils-Rome flourished and collapsed, not to mention the feeding of Christians to the lions. On the other hand, Milton is totally vague about what architecture is in heaven. We can guess that it probably wouldn’t be Roman, though.

We asked: What was challenging about writing the book?

Rich said: I’ve had years of Latin, but sometimes the challenge was reading something in a technical field. For example: how to make olive oil. I wasn’t sure if I was translating it right, because I’m not an expert on growing olives. As a scholar, you’re always trying to be true and accurate. My work is a study of influence, and requires good judgment. On the one hand, I was always trying to prove my case, but part of me was trying to second-guess myself-to be skeptical.

We asked: Until now, no one has examined the connection between the curriculum of Milton’s academy and his poetry. How is your book a new approach to Milton, and how does it feel to be pioneering the subject?

Rich said: I once gave a talk and was introduced by a scholar who said that my work is remarkable, because it is both true and new. I’ve kind of taken “true and new” as a silent motto. I don’t think my book has a new theory or a new tool. The tools are old fashioned, people have known of Milton’s use of the classics for a long time. The new part is looking and reading. Not many Milton scholars want to read hundreds and hundreds of pages of classics in search of possible connections. But I had a bizarre interest to make a connection. I often found stuff where I thought there would be the least payoff.

We asked: Are you working on any new writing projects?

Rich said: I have another book half finished already about grief, weeping and suffering in the epic tradition. It’s called Tears of Odysseus, and is a more wide-ranging, psychological study. My daughter’s chronic illness opened my eyes to this epic tradition.

We asked: Any last words?

Rich said: I’ve had so much help and support from people at St. Olaf, especially from students in my Milton classes. This kind of book can’t happen without students and colleagues who are open to ideas with support all up and down the line.

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Joseph Mbele: Matengo Folktales

–Lyndsay LeClair (’03), interviewer

In 1999 Associate Professor of English Joseph Mbele published his most recent book, Matengo Folktales, after 23 years of field research, scrupulous translating, and writing commentaries. The book, which contains ten folktales translated from Mbele’s mother tongue of Matengo into English, represents the culmination of the professor’s life-long project and passion.

Mbele, a widely-known and respected folklorist, began his research on Matengo Folktales during the summer of 1975 while pursuing his undergraduate degree at Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania. He was first introduced to the folklore field by a professor from Lesotho, South Africa, who joined the university during Mbele’s time there. “Through taking his course I discovered that I connected with folklore naturally. My own father was a great storyteller and storytelling was a very important part of my childhood. I was inspired in the field and never turned back.”

During the summers of 1975 and 1976, Mbele recorded folktales from area storytellers near his home in southern Tanzania, including three folktales from his father. After taking detailed field notes and recording each folktale on cassette tapes, he began the long process of translating the folktales from Matengo, an oral language, into written English. In 1999 after 23 years of translating and writing accompanying commentary, Matengo Folktales was published.

The translation process interests and frustrates Mbele, who explains that completely accurate translations are “an impossible dream.” He says, “In certain ways I feel that oral languages are richer than written languages, and to say we have translated accurately is to deceive ourselves. Compromises must be made.”One of Mbele’s goals for the book was to make it accessible not only for academic readers but for all people. Mbele says, “My father was a great conversationalist. He connected with everyone without distinction. I wanted this book to do the same.”

Matengo Folktales can be purchased from the St. Olaf College Bookstore. A complete listing of Professor Mbele’s work and praise for Matengo Folktales can be found at: http://www.stolaf.edu/people/mbele/

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Colin Wells: The Devil and Doctor Dwight: Satire and Theology in the Early American Republic

–Elizabeth Lund (’02), interviewer

EL: What inspired you to write this book?

Colin Wells: My inspiration was Dwight’s 778-line satiric poem “The Triumph of Infidelity,” which I read in graduate school for the first time. What struck me immediately was how apparently incomprehensible it was, which led me to try to “crack its code”–the unspoken assumptions that made it make sense to a number of people in 1788. Once I was able to do that, I realized both that virtually no one had gotten the poem right before, and that the larger story of its significance would take a book-length project to explain.

EL: What other work have you done with Early American satire?

Colin Wells: This is a long-time interest, but most of that time has been spent writing about Timothy Dwight and his fellow Federalist Wits–poets who waged satiric warfare against Jeffersonian Democracy in the early years of the republic (such poets as John Trumbull, David Humphreys, Richard Alsop, Lemuel Hopkins and Dwight’s brother, Theodore).

(Students: don’t worry if you’ve never heard of these writers; not many people have, but I’m hoping that someday they will.)

EL: What did you hope to accomplish in your writing? Do you feel that you have accomplished that?

Colin Wells: I wanted, first, to recover for a modern audience the literary, religious, political and ideological significance of Timothy Dwight’s campaign of satire and controversial writing at the end of the eighteenth-century. In addition, I wanted to make “The Triumph of Infidelity” “readable” again for teachers and students alike. (As an appendix to the book, I include the full text of Dwight’s poem.) Whether I’ve succeeded or not I’ll leave to my readers….

EL: How did you go about finding a publisher?

Colin Wells: While still working on the book, I applied for a fellowship from the Institute for Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, VA, to complete the manuscript. I didn’t get the fellowship, but the publications editor at the Institute wrote to say she was very interested in it, and asked me to submit it when finished. I did, and they accepted it (with further revisions, of course).

EL: Have you been happy with the response so far?

Colin Wells: Extremely: the only responses I’ve seen are by those who provided the blurbs for the cover, but I was struck by how these descriptions of the book matched my own sense of what I was trying to accomplish.

EL: Which part is your favorite? Which part was the most fun to write?

Colin Wells: There are particular passages, particular paragraphs that I reread proudly and remember the moment I wrote them for the first time. But I can’t call it fun; as the saying goes, I hate writing, I love having written.

EL: Did your opinion of Dr. Dwight and his work change over the course of writing the book?

Colin Wells: What surprises me is how Timothy Dwight–a figure whom other historians and critics have sometimes viewed unfavorably–appears to me as a better writer and a smarter social critic than when I started. He really is an unappreciated but fine satirist, and judging from the advance quotes, people are starting to recognize that.

EL: How do you balance academic work with teaching? Are there any ways in which they conflict?

Colin Wells: My own work on seldom-taught writers and their worlds is sometimes difficult to make fit with my courses. I’ve rarely taught Dwight in my courses, though much of what I write about in the book is Dwight’s allusions to Pope, Swift, Dryden and other famous figures. However, now that I’ve made the text of “The Triumph” available (with notes), I will try to teach it. I feel that part of what I’m supposed to offer as a teacher is my particular expertise, whatever that may be. As the world’s expert on this poem, I should make that knowledge available. So students, beware!

EL: Do you have any plans for future projects?

Colin Wells: My next book is a larger and wider look at satiric poetry in the Early Republic. Poets and satirists in the 1780s, 90s, and 1800s were engaged almost daily with the political issues of the times, and there is a fascinating story to tell about the “poetry wars” they waged against politicians and each other in the name of shaping America’s future. On my sabbatical, then, I’ve been engaged in a systematic process of reading every political poem written in this period (including poems published in newspapers). I’ve completed the 1790s, and the list of poems already tops 300. I’ve got about 25 or 30 more years to do, so look for me at the microfilm machine for the next year or so.