The Pleasures of the Unfamiliar

What kind of person are you?

by Curtis Perry (U of Illinois)

If you read this and come see me at the University of Illinois, I think you’ll find me to be generous and helpful but not chummy.  I am myself a private and somewhat reserved person—which is why I’ve chosen to write about my scholarly rather than my personal life here—but I do like to be helpful and I love meeting earnest students who want to get the most out of their college experiences.

When I was roughly mid-way through graduate school, I found myself torn between two different fields of study.  It is not impossible to change fields in mid-career, but it is difficult and somewhat rare: an English PhD student’s dissertation is usually also the kernel of his or her first book, so the dissertation is likely to be the main credential a person has for the first decade or so of a career.  In choosing a topic, one charts a path that is difficult to leave without leaving the academy altogether.  I had been admitted to graduate school as a potential scholar of John Milton and seventeenth-century literature and was still strongly drawn to the study of early modern English literature (e.g., Shakespeare, Milton, and contemporaries).  But I also became, for a time, obsessed by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and so I was seriously considering becoming what is called, in the biz, an Americanist.  As a life dilemma, this probably all sounds pretty rarified and abstract, and of course to some degree it is.  I had won a fellowship covering the early years of graduate schools and so, though I was living on less than $15,000 a year at the time, I had no student debt and was given real freedom to obsess about such things.

I had never read Emerson until graduate school, but I found him in many ways immediately familiar, possibly because I had grown up in New England and probably because my father came from a long line of Unitarian ministers dating back to the days when Emerson himself was ordained in that faith.   My paternal grandfather was a Unitarian minister who combined an old-fashioned sermonizing style with progressive, even radical, political views, and to me growing up that was what religion was supposed to feel like.  Reading Emerson was like a homecoming in a way, or at least like a return to one section of my own personal heritage.   Reading early modern literature was exciting for different reasons: for all the talk one hears about Shakespeare as universal, I always experienced his plays as profoundly alien and fascinatingly weird.   And that goes double for almost any other early modern writer.  Learning how to make sense of a sixteenth-century play or even a work like Paradise Lost meant, for me, learning to see things in terms of values and assumptions that were often profoundly unfamiliar, and I always have found it bracing to do that because in the process, I found, I wound up seeing my own values and assumptions in a new light.  The choice, then, came down to this: did I want to spend the rest of my life reading things that felt familiar or things that felt unfamiliar.  I chose the latter, and have been reading, writing about, and teaching early modern British literature for the last quarter century as a result.

I’m still happy with the choice, and I’ve thought a lot since then about why I gravitated to the material that was less familiar.  The answer, I think, is this: for me, there is no greater intellectual pleasure than the moment when some primary document which had been baffling clicks into place.  When that happens—and it is a great privilege of being a scholar that I can put myself in position to repeat the experience again and again by reading new texts and asking new questions—it is as if I’ve been gifted out of the blue with a whole new way of seeing the world.

Guided by my own sense of the pleasures and rewards of scholarly inquiry, I have always thought of it as a goal of my teaching to put students in position to have access for themselves to that same moment of pleasure, clarity, and comprehension.  It is one of the things that English classes—which routinely invite students to think hard about stories told from different perspectives and in different conventions—are good at.

Curtis Perry is a Professor of English at the University of Illinois (and, until August 2013, head of the department).  He teaches classes at all levels on Shakespeare, Milton, early modern literature, and the history of western drama.   He is the author of numerous books and articles on these same subjects including Literature and Favoritism in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2006).   Students curious to read some fabulously weird old plays might also enjoy his edited book Eros and Power in English Renaissance Drama: Five Plays by Marlowe, Davenant, Massinger, Ford and Shakespeare (McFarland, 2008) 

Author: Brooke Allen

Founder – Viral Virtue, Inc.

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