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Making the Most of the Material Past, continued


Born in England in 1949, Stallybrass appears younger than his birth date would suggest. He has a youthful face and an effusive spirit and the graceful physique of a mountain climber, which, as it turns out, he is. Behind roundish glasses, his eyes spark as he speaks; his mouth breaks into easy smiles; he pushes his hand through a full head of misbehaving hair. When he sits, he sits anticipatively on the edge of his seat, his heels off the floor, the toes of his black boots pushed down. One senses, straightaway, that he is a man on a quest, a man who defines himself less by what he knows than by what he does not know quite yet.

Stallybrass arrived at Penn by way of Dartmouth in 1988, already deeply entrenched in notions of collaborative learning, already convinced of the inherent richness of libraries and old things. The son of a multi-lingual academic father, the nephew of one uncle who taught classics and another who split his time between editing, translating, and library work, the younger of two academically inclined brothers, Stallybrass grew up in a home where the parents had met as children through cultural events and where books were everywhere and, most importantly, were read out loud. Even now, at 90, the senior Stallybrass reads in several languages daily; he daily read to Peter’s mother until she passed away, two years ago.

It was a complicated family, but, also, says Stallybrass, an intensely tight-knit one, and by the time he’d reached 16, he’d decided that it was time to strike out on his own. He fled England for the south of France, where he lived briefly, and arrived back home at 17, to face the consequences of an interrupted education. To prove that he was ready to settle down into the academic life his parents had hoped he’d enter, Stallybrass took a job as a mortician.

A mortician?

“It was a hospital job,” Stallybrass says, the hint of a smile in his English accent as he acknowledges the, well, oddness of his early employment. “I was a trainee mortician, more like a porter. Mainly I literally took the bodies of those who had died down to the hospital mortuary, put the bodies in refrigerators, took them out of refrigerators, put them on tables, that sort of thing. But it was a small hospital and a very good one as well, so very few people died. So I just had lots of time to read, and that’s what I did: I read.” He was a teen obsessed with the things most teens get obsessed with—thoughts of isolation, alienation, death. Russian novels were his favorites, Dostoevsky in particular. Having been just a hobby in his early years, reading now intensified into something far more serious, nearly consuming. He remembers himself as “inwardly turned.” He recalls his early attempts at writing poetry, his passionate desire to fall in love.

He also suggests that, given his “checkered” academic career, he might not have gotten into any university at all had the University of Sussex not placed such a great emphasis on the interview portion of the application process. “I still remember that Sussex interview,” he says. “It was a wonderful experience.” Having gained entry to Sussex, Stallybrass stayed on for the next several years—taking undergraduate courses in literature, history, and anthropology, then entering a graduate program. At 24, sans doctorate, he accepted a lectureship at his alma mater, and, at that young age, began to teach the things that interested him. His favorite course had, he says, a terrible title: “Modern European Mind.” Through it he induced his students to think about forging bridges between European literature and European philosophy.

In 1978, Stallybrass set his sights on America, where he had never been. “I’d traveled a lot in Europe, but never to the United States,” he recalls. “My marriage had split up. I’d been at Sussex as an undergraduate, a graduate, and as a teacher, and I felt I should get away for a while. I wanted to go to Colorado because of the landscape—my father had been a climber; I’d grown up loving mountains. But very suddenly I was rung up by Smith College and offered the chance to teach English Renaissance poetry and Shakespeare for a year.”

So it was the east coast instead, and a job on a campus of smart undergraduate women, and a very different sort of teaching than he’d been doing at Sussex—all of which Stallybrass, with his adventurous heart, embraced. And there was something else he embraced as well—Ann Rosalind Jones, a colleague whom he met within his first week at Smith and whom he would eventually marry. By the time Stallybrass had to return to Sussex he was committed to making a life with Jones, even if that meant commuting across the ocean, from Sussex to Smith, over the next eight years.

Finally Stallybrass took the job at Dartmouth, which, he laughs gently, considerably shortened the commute. But there were more advantages to the job than the abbreviated commute, of course. There was the atmosphere, which was dynamic. There was the community of scholars, which, says Stallybrass, was extraordinary—a community that included Nancy Vickers (now president of Bryn Mawr College) with whom Stallybrass shares “a fascination with the overlaps between Renaissance lyric love poetry and contemporary popular music;” David Kastan (now professor of English at Columbia) with whom Stallybrass explores a passion for “second-hand bookshops and badminton;” and Matthew Rowlinson (who still teaches Victorian poetry at Dartmouth), with whom Stallybrass ran faculty discussion groups on Marxism and on Psychoanalysis and Literary Theory, and with whom he mountain-climbs and sails today.

As exceptional as the experience at Dartmouth was, after a while Stallybrass began to miss the challenge of teaching graduate students; he also tired of the long New Hampshire winters. When he was offered the job at Penn he took it, buying a house downtown, racking up frequent flier miles to Massachusetts, and indulging his students in every variety of theory—cultural theory, Marxist theory, literary theory—all taught with a historical bias. He was not yet obsessed with the history of the book, the field of study that, at Penn, has partly (but only partly) come to define him.

It was a book he read in manuscript form—“Shakespeare Verbatim” by Margreta de Grazia, a professor of English at Penn—that threw Stallybrass headlong into this new discipline. “If Margreta’s work is right,” Stallybrass explains, “it means that most of our work on Shakespeare is quite simply wrong. Wrong because we have transferred a wide range of our assumptions to a period which resists those very assumptions—about the individual and his/her detachment from ‘mere’ objects; about authorship and print culture; about originality and intellectual property; about the relations between identity, sexuality, and economic property.” Freeing oneself from inappropriate historical assumptions, seeing the past for what the past genuinely was, looking for clues in the absolute materiality of old books and paintings and musical scores were all challenges that evolved into yet another vital passion.

 

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