Monday, August 19, 2013

F. D. Reeve

The spectacular intellectual as polyglot and bricoleur, Professor F. D. Reeve, passed away this summer. He was one of my favorite professors and personalities at Wesleyan University, and in the spring of 1991, I was fortunate enough to be enrolled in his 1909 class. Against the common catalog of course titles such as "classical philosophy," "modern poetry," and "Soviet literature," this was probably the most creative idea for a class I'd ever encountered.

The conceit of the seminar was that everything assigned, and there was too much good stuff to list here, was either written in 1909 or concerned that year or its neighbors, the turn of the century, etc. A main theme of the class was that despite American and French revolutions that had occurred over 100 years previously, the turn of the century was when class boundaries truly began to dissolve and the "Western world" moved into a distinctly more egalitarian period. Of course, Professor Reeve had a sense of humor about such sweeping period divisions, and his humor was partly why the once-a-week seminar was fun to attend.

So it's with some irony then, that for financial reasons, concerning money, if not class exactly, I had to graduate in seven semesters and shove almost seven course credits (equivalent to twenty-one credits at most schools) into that final season of Wes. For this reason, I certainly couldn't read every three- to five-hundred pager included on his book-a-week syllabus, but Professor Reeve did say all kind of unusual things when we'd meet, and a couple readings I enjoyed were Carl Schorske's Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture and Roger Shattuck's The Banquet Years.

F. D. Reeve was indeed Superman's father, or I should say that the actor Christopher Reeve was his son. Reeve Sr. was a larger than life figure and the kind of prolific talent who wrote novels, poetry, criticism, and then did translation in his spare time. Yes, quantity and range of publication should not be seen as everything, but with all overworked adjunct issues aside, Dr. Reeve was the sort of fellow who could make the rest of us walking into classrooms and calling ourselves "professors" feel somewhat like we're merely pretending, and our ranks are no doubt full of folks too scared or dishonest to admit as much. (This is one reason I always tell students to call me "Alex" unless that makes them uncomfortable.)

Around the time I was in Reeve's class, most likely summer of 1990 or 1991, he appeared at the Borders Book Shop in Philadelphia, the old one at 1727 Walnut Street off Rittenhouse Square and gave on-the-spot translation of a famous Russian poet. That Borders would be where I first worked after college, and those bookselling years were when I did my most substantial drafting of Cartoon Bubbles from a City Underwater, at the time titled The Appendix on Spark Park Poops (indeed!). Although I was reading a lot of fiction by John Barth, T.C. Boyle, and Don Delillo, I'd also dabble in philosophy, "critical theory," history, and the rest of it, so I enjoyed the fact that the old Borders had a copy of Reeve's The White Monk: an essay on Dostoevsky and Melville on the shelf. The policy soon changed, but when I worked there in the early nineties, Borders would procure a single copy of thousands of academic books, not merely the Michel Foucaults as Vintage paperbacks or Simon Schamas with glossy pages and photos, and the store was its own incredible contemporary library.

Before I drift too far from Reeve, I wanted to mention that Professor Licht from The Betrayal of Times of Peace and Prosperity is not Professor Reeve (and the Ward campus is not Wesleyan), but if I'm not mistaken, Superman's dad did bring a bottle of white wine and Dixie cups to our last seminar meeting, and so he is in a way an inspiration for my fictional character although he didn't say or do anything that Herr Licht does or says in my story.

I took reading courses almost exclusively as an undergrad, mainly history, political philosophy, and literature, and I handed in fiction three times for assignments, and he is one of two professors to be quite encouraging with his comments (the third fellow regretted that I wasn't funny). Anyone who has had me as a teacher, read me as a blogger, or spoken to me on the phone might appreciate that although Reeve's comments were generally positive, he suggested I hold off on the "ramblin'" and also that I read The Sinking of The Odradek Stadium by Harry Matthews. For whatever reason, I never read the book, but in honor of Reeve's passing, I'll try to do so this school year.

I hope I return to this and clean it up, maybe make the words conform more to the mood or moment of obituary, but for now, here is more information about Professor Reeve's life and work, and here is a Wesleyan Connection notice and writing from Wesleyan's current king of the MOOC, I mean president. (Roth's course on "The Modern and the Postmodern" seemed to be a free, fantastic online course I toyed with enrolling in even as I wondered about its negative economic impact on the rest of us knowledge cogs.) I learned of Reeve's passing somewhere on the homepage of The New York Times, but at the time of this writing I was unable to find that obituary.

Thank you, F. D. Reeve.

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