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About Me

During my decades as a professor of English, teaching at Harvard and then at Swarthmore,
my appetite for writing and publishing literary criticism was boundless.  

As the aims and assumptions of such criticism changed--in the 1980s and 1990s--my writing changed accordingly.  One specialized vocabulary got replaced by another,  and the newer work was successful.  Reputable scholars read what I had to say about Faulkner and other modernist writers.  I was invited to scholarly conferences, gave learned talks, sought to stay current on professional issues.


But as time started to catch up with me, I began to realize that--beneath the surface of my literary criticism--I was all along trying to catch up with time.  However decked out in scholarly terms, the passage of time was my abiding concern.  The question I could not escape became: what happens to personal identity over time?  I wanted to pursue this question openly, in transparent, jargon-free language.


I wanted to understand how we trick time into following our drum beat, and how we later grasp that time is tricking us, changing us unawares, as we pass through it.  Personal, exploratory essays, I realized, would best allow me to pursue these concerns.  I would talk now about my life and about my career, yet with no interest in writing a memoir or autobiography.  (Who am I to write an autobiography?)  Instead, I would press my personal experience to yield impersonal insights--about changing in time.  

Perhaps it takes retirement to permit the perspective needed for this inquiry.  At any rate, so long as there still was time, I wanted to shed light on how time plays with identity.  

This is how I came to write the essays that make up Soul-Error.

Once I grasped my central interest--how identity changes, all unawares, over time-- I understood that I was no longer writing literary criticism.  I discovered as well that, since my new work no longer fit into the categories that university presses endorse, I would have trouble appealing to a university press.  I was not writing something highbrow like academic literary criticism or philosophy.  Nor was I writing an easy-to-read how-to book or trying to tell some sensational new story.  I was not, really, even telling the story of my life.  So what was I doing? 


This is how I came to write the essays that make up Soul-Error.

In sum, I was doing the following. The ten essays that make up Soul-Error attend to my life experience without attempting to turn it into an autobiography. They draw extensively on literature (Shakespeare, Thoreau, James, Kafka, Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, and Beckett appear often in these pages), but not in the form of literary criticism. I am using these authors to think harder, further, about life (mine and others'), not the other way around.


Eventually, a dedicated independent press--The Humble Essayist--recognized that this book of essays that fit no scholarly category was a significant piece of work. The Humble Essayist saw that all the essays echo each other--whether they are about my childhood or old age, or about life's impersonal challenges, or about my profession's strengths and weaknesses, or about the fallout of a drug experience when I was twenty-eight.  

The Humble Essayist said Yes,

this book needs to make its way into the world.

Soul-Error is now available for purchase on Amazon.

Paper Abstract

It is impossible to say exactly what will come next, but this much I can say. 

It will involve candid engagement with my readers, by way of my blog, How It Looks From Here, my courses on Zoom, or my responses to their inquiries.   


The realm of higher education that I worked within for a half-century--and whose critical language I learned and deployed--is often called an ivory tower.  That derogatory term indicts higher education as withdrawing from life's most serious questions.  It is an unfair indictment.  Rather than flee from the most serious questions, universities are committed to analyzing them.  But their commitment all too often draws on vocabularies so specialized that "untrained" readers can make little or nothing of it.  In troubling ways, then, perhaps an ivory tower after all?

So I promise this. 

There will be no ivory tower imposed between the claims I may make and the responses you may communicate.  Going forward, let us both do our best to understand each other.

My Work
Becoming Faulkner: The Art and Life of William Faulkner
The Work of Modernist Fiction
Jonathan Franzen: 
The Comedy

of Rage
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