Friday, December 02, 2011

Dickens and a debt of gratitude

I mentioned in Wednesday's post that the bibliography for Claire Tomalin's new Dickens bio included Philip Collins's collection of period reviews of Dickens's novels, Dickens: The Critical Heritage (1986)--but I didn't even begin to convey the excitement I felt when I saw that listing. I think it likely that as I read the bibliography I briefly looked like a Loony Toons character, eyes popping, spine straightening, ears twitching. I'd been looking for that book off and on--not knowing its title or editor--for years, ever since I saw it in the hands of a favorite English professor when I was an undergraduate. It was in my undergrad years when I really fell for Dickens. Northwestern offered a course in Dickens, taught by Lawrence Evans, who had been on faculty there since 1962; Evans was an unapologetic avoider of fashion and theory, a slightly frumpy, slightly affected lover of literature who entered the ranks of the English Department in simpler times and stayed, never losing his enthusiasm or ebullience, for decades. His publication record tells you that he came from a different era: he published but one book, with Oxford, The Letters of Walter Pater (1970), which seems likely to have been a revision or extension of his Harvard dissertation (1961). Is there a less fashionable author than Pater? Is it possible to conceive, these days, of a near-half-century career at a major university that sees but one publication? The above should not be taken as a slight against Evans. He was a wonderful teacher of undergraduates, exactly the sort of English teacher regularly encountered in movies but rarely seen in real life--the one who leaves you loving literature, inspired and challenged by it, more than ever. Decades into his career, he still brimmed over with love for all manner of English literature. And if he had little truck with theory, he had less truck with shirking. In his nine-week Dickens class, we read Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, Little Dorritt, Dombey and Son, and Our Mutual Friend--4,500 pages in total, and we were expected to know it cold for class discussions, papers, and even quizzes. He expected us to share his enthusiasm for reading and commitment to these books, which was a good way of weeding out the slackers. For someone like me, whose essential nature as a reader and a student is that of a dilettante who loves fiction beyond all description and simply wants to know better how and why it works, Evans's method of close reading combined with just enough historical and biographical information was a dream. By the end of that nine weeks, I was a Dickens fan for life. Add the fact that other of his courses were the first to introduce me to Ford Madox Ford, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and Graham Greene, and you've got a debt I could never hope to repay. As students will do, I lost touch with Professor Evans years ago. I knew him for a time as a graduate, when I worked in a scholarly bookstore near campus that sold books for his courses, but since I left the store more than twelve years ago, I hadn't been in touch. I remembered hearing several years ago that he'd had a stroke, and that he'd subsequently retired. Looking him up tonight, prompted by the joy that the volume of Dickens criticism had brought me, I learned that he died not quite a fortnight ago, on November 20, as, halfway through Tomalin's biography, I was as wrapped up in Dickens as ever. So in memory of your own English teachers, the ones to whom you owe a lifetime of reading and re-reading a favorite author, please join me tonight in raising a glass to Lawrence Evans. In exchange, I'll promise to regularly share the best of what I learn from this volume of Dickens criticism. Tonight, I'll close with this, from the Autobiography of Henry James--who could be as cutting a critic of Dickens as anyone, but who here acknowledges the Inimitable's glories:
There has been since his extinction no corresponding case--as to the relation between benefactor and beneficiary, or debtor and creditor; no other debt in our time has been piled so high, for those carrying it, as the long, the purely "Victorian" pressure of that obligation.
Thank you, Professor Evans. Rest in peace.


  1. Maggie Bandur7:39 PM

    When I took the British science ficion seminar with Professor Evans, he was the sole college professor who held me to any level of scholarly rigour when he pointed out that just writing about how C.S. Lewis was religious was not the same as explicating a(n unfortunately non-religious) work. This was the only time when someone demanded more than high school level work out of me. Of course, Evans suddenly warmed to me, however, when he found out I knew Levi Stahl, a great favorite of his, and he got the erroneous impression Levi's dog was named after me.

  2. Anonymous2:35 AM

    Hi, Levi, I hope you get email alerts so that you might see this comment on a very old message. For reasons I can't remember, I decided to look up some old English faculty favorites at Northwestern - I was a literature minor '00. I went in to Evans' Dickens class with fairly low or at least neutral expectations, and like you, ended up a great fan - of Dickens, of the joy and value of deep literary analysis, and most importantly, of Professor Evans. I was sad to learn of his passing and so grateful to have had him twice as a teacher during my undergraduate experience, when I was possibly the most detached and depressed I've been in life, save for some truly stellar English classes.

  3. Oh, I'm glad you posted. It's great to find another reader who has similar memories of Professor Evans. There really wasn't anyone in my college experience quite like him.