I like the American Express ad, where Tina Fey says that her "Most interesting souvenir" is "an Amish baby doll with no face." I wonder where she purchased hers? I found this pair at Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, and my neighbor John Woodin photographed them for my book jacket:
at last have some small works of art,
some short poems, short pieces of music
[. . .] some intimate, low-voiced, and delicate things
in our mostly huge and roaring, glaring world?"
~ Elizabeth Bishop ~
A few months ago, I had the good fortune to reconnect on facebook with one of my former professors, Dr. Herman P. Wilson. Back in the 70s, I was enrolled in several of Herman's classes, such as History of the English Language and Structural English Grammar, as well as some graduate reading seminars in Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and D. H. Lawrence.
Upon learning what I had been doing since my days as his student, Herman did me the great honor of going out of his way to purchase my book and read it from cover to cover, a feat -- let me tell you! -- undertaken by very few. He was then kind enough to send me his response, as follows:
Throughout all my teaching career, as I've watched some of my students working on graduate degrees, I've always wanted those students to "go beyond me." I wanted them to pursue studies of writers / materials about which I have little or no knowledge.
You have fulfilled my desires. For that reason I am grateful for the opportunity to read your work. The "doll" as a literary topic had never occurred to me. I like to explore such new topics as I see references to them. So you have given me both personal and professional pleasure.
You have produced a scholarly study, for which you have done extensive research to support the theories and ideas which you develop. I'll take a guess: is the work your PhD dissertation? Had I been on your PhD faculty, had you invited me to be one of your readers and explained your research plans, I would have responded, "Yes, I'll be happy to be one of your readers, but you will need to educate me as we work together on your research. I have limited knowledge of your topic." You have provided me some education on the "doll" in literature. I now have beginner's knowledge of your subject matter.
I've worked with many of your sources--Swift, Hawthorne, Lawrence, Hoffman, Mansfield, Yeats, Atwood, French, Hardy, and Atwood. I'm aware of and have limited knowledge of the "psychiatric, psychological, theoretical linguistic" writers--Rank, Freud, Eco, and Lacan. You have enhanced my knowledge of both familiar and non-familiar writers.
Your prose is well written, with ideas carefully supported, and has a pleasant mixture of serious academic topics and delightful human interest stories of the "doll" in our world and in literature. A beautiful bit of irony: yesterday I went to the grocery store. While waiting for my driver, I noticed a woman, holding one hand of a little girl, whose other hand clutched a little doll to her childish breast. Simple? Yes, but that scene made me think of you and the work I was reading.
Thank you for a new, pleasant, delightful experience. I remember you as a careful writer; my reading of your work has strengthened that memory.
Peace, joy, and happiness ~
Needless to say, I was overwhelmed by the generosity of Herman's praise and the time he invested both in reading my entire book and in writing to share his thoughts. I will let his letter to me and my reply serve as today's blog post:
Thank you so much for reading my book! You have given me by far the kindest words, the highest praise, the most encouragement that I have ever received on that project, along with the support of my dissertation advisor, Dr. Leonard Orr. I was lucky to have him on my side; and you are so right -- if you and I had still been at the same institution, you too surely would have been on my committee and seen me through the long process!
At the first "guidelines for dissertations" meeting I attended at Notre Dame (Fall 1984), a rather uncheerful professor discouraged everyone in the room from attempting a "theme" study, such as "ships in literature" -- yes, that was the example he gave -- I have never forgotten! So I kept quiet about my "dolls in literature" idea, even though I had been longing to write a book on that topic, and slowly but surely amassing good examples, ever since reading The Women's Room back in 1978: Marilyn French's revealing image of the little Barbie serving as mother to the giant Baby doll had never left my mind.
I felt sure that doll imagery was powerful and important, but I began to doubt myself and fear that it was perhaps not a weighty enough topic for a dissertation, so I put the idea on hold and began casting about for a "single author" focus -- maybe Virginia Woolf? But nothing felt right and the time for submitting my proposal was drawing near (by now it was 1988).
Then, in a totally unrelated conversation, Leonard was describing his ideas for an article on animation, and I mentioned that one day -- in the distant future, after my dissertation -- I was going to write a book on dolls. He was astonished that I had never told him this before, for he had already been my advisor for several years. He asked me why I was struggling with research that didn't speak to my heart when all along I knew exactly what I wanted to do? I said, well, I thought maybe it wasn't important enough or academic enough, so I was hiding it under a bushel. He said, Nonsense! and loaned me Susan Stewart's amazing theoretical study, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection and Jane Gallop's fascinating collection of autobiographical criticism, Thinking Through the Body .
Although I wanted to focus primarily on "the miniature," Stewart's inclusion of "the gigantic" reminded me of a long essay that I had written several years before on Victor Frankenstein's urge to create in his own image. At the time, it had been well received by a couple of my professors; so I pulled this old paper out of my "saved" file and it became a chapter in my dissertation.
I had also written a shorter paper called "Gulliver in the Dollhouse" for an 18th Century class that I took at Notre Dame. I received only a "B" on that paper because the professor felt that the idea needed a "larger theoretical context." Well, perfect! I now had that "larger context" -- so the Gulliver paper became another chapter. I had studied Yeats' poem ("The Dolls") in Irish Literature, and the D. H. Lawrence story ("The Captain's Doll") undoubtedly came from one of your classes, Herman. So I had a solid rough draft almost instantly, thanks to all those earlier inspiring courses and paper topics.
I finished the dissertation in 1990 and then in 1998 did the editing (not too much really) to repackage it as a book. Thanks for listening to this saga, Herman. And most of all, thanks for reading my study of the doll with so much patience, for responding to it so thoroughly, and for always encouraging me in the seriousness of my work.
THE MINIATURE & THE GIGANTIC:
The Mystery of the Matryoshka: Within Within Within
Fun Fall Food!
The Miniature & the Gigantic
Memoirs to Read in the Summertime
And my list ~ Dolls in Literature ~
on amazon's Listmania!
And lastly, the voice of a skeptic in this recent article
concerning the value (or not) of dissertations.
SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
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