Letter to the Editor: On Richard Slotkin

Dear Editor,

I recently participated in a Wesleyan symposium marking the 50th anniversary of Richard Slotkin’s landmark book, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860. Rich, the Olin Professor of English and American Studies, taught at Wesleyan from 1966 until he retired in 2009. At the symposium, scholars in American Studies and related fields had much to say about the enduring importance and influence of his work. On the alumni panel, I was among the former students who talked about how what we do comes from what he does.

When I think of Rich as teacher, mentor, and model, I return always to the six most important words I’ve ever heard in any class ever—something Rich said circa 1985 in response to a question asked by another student. This student was going on about how people are fools who are duped by culture and suffer from false consciousness and so on, and Rich said, “Remember, people aren’t stupid; they’re crazy.” He went on to explain why thinking about culture as a hustle put over on hapless clowns doesn’t really get you anywhere in understanding how it works. He doesn’t even remember saying it, but pretty much every day gives me occasion to think about that mantric piece of wisdom, characteristically generous and hardboiled at the same time.

My first impression of Rich (I called him “Mister Slotkin” back then) was of a big bearded guy with a commanding voice, though as I took more classes with him and got to know him I came to hear his voice as more interested in getting things right than commanding, and I came to realize that once he trimmed the thicket of ’80s Chuck Norris shrubbery he would be revealed as a banty little guy with an outsize presence. He became my primary model of how to make a way in the school business—my rabbi, as they say in Chicago politics and the NYPD—and I have continued to seek him out for guidance over the years. Part of what makes him such an excellent correspondent is that he’s perpetually and satisfyingly in-character. Once, when I was getting ready to fly across the country for a job interview, I received an email from him that concluded with “Now go and smite Amalek and spare not his camel or his ass.”

On the face of it, what I do doesn’t look that much like what he does. I mean, yes, I became a professor of American studies, following directly in his footsteps in that sense, but I’m interested in cities and blues and boxing and the Rust Belt and all the many resonances of “There goes the neighborhood,” and he’s interested in the frontier and violence and myth and Westerns and wars and presidents and all the many resonances of “Why are we in Vietnam?” And yet, what I do comes directly out of what he does in at least three ways that matter.

First, he has always been my original model of how to turn what you love into what you do. He’s a child of red-diaper Brooklyn, and I’m a child of the fortified bungalows of South Shore on the South Side of Chicago, where they were all out of radical critique but had a blue-plate special every day on minding your own damn business. He’s a pre-boomer and I’m a post-boomer, which means that his Ricky Nelson is my Curtis Mayfield. We don’t share a content or a world view or politics or much of anything else, but we do share—largely because I learned it mostly from his example—the thing that turned out to matter most: You figure out what’s meaningful to you, and you turn that into what you do, whether or not anybody else in the business happens to already think that it’s worth doing.

Second, I also got from him the recipe for how to get at the stuff you want to get at, and what to do with it when you do get at it. Picture a blackboard behind me, and picture me writing on it. Over here is History with a capital H: wars, policy, and presidents in Rich’s case; defunct factories, riots, and high-rise housing projects in mine. Over there is Culture, in all its many forms, from Arnoldian as in Matthew to Arnoldian as in “I’ll be back.” The challenge is to put the two ends of the spectrum—History and Culture—into conversation without reducing either to the only thing that matters and the other to a dependent clause. The hard part is to draw the causal arrows in both directions, and to see both the flows of power and people and money that get called “History” and the flows of meaning and style and genre in what gets called “Culture” as part of the same hydraulic system. That’s what Rich offered any student who met him halfway: How to do that, why it matters, and—here’s the important part—how to do it with the stuff you care about, not just the stuff he cares about. I kept the model and replaced each piece of it with my own interests and moves, but it’s all built on the template of what I reverse-engineered from his example and his explanation of what he was up to. I understood him to be saying not just “Here’s how to understand the mythology of the American frontier” but “Here’s how to come to analytical grips with what matters to you.”

A third important lesson I got from him: Being a scholar is a fine thing but it’s not the only thing. Professoring allows you to do other things that matter. When I was an undergrad I wasn’t thinking of becoming an academic, but the idea planted itself somewhere deep enough that in a few years it occurred to me as a conscious thought. One of the most important steps in this implanting happened when I attended a reading Rich gave on campus during my junior or senior year. He was reading from a draft of his novel The Return of Henry Starr—I remember that the final line in the reading was when Henry takes a slow look around and says “Hold”—and somewhere deep inside, below the level of conscious awareness, I noted that being a professor was a good day job for a writer and that the arrangement seemed to agree with him.

You never know who’s going to learn what from whom, and you never know what devious-cruising paths a lesson will take in traveling from teacher to student. Not too long ago, I was writing about that very subject, and I asked Rich if he had anything to tell me about that from his own experience. He told me a story from his days as a student at Brooklyn College in the 1950s.

“I took the Big Shakespeare Lecture with Professor Grebanier, who was famous enough to figure in a Woody Allen joke,” he wrote in an email. “He was pompous and self-important—and, worse than that, he had named names in the 1950s when the Brooklyn faculty was being purged of ‘subversives,’ so my parents, who were alums, despised him. Nevertheless, he was a fabulous lecturer, a showman who even made his obnoxious manner an effective tool for getting the point across and making it memorable. I learned more about lecturing from him than from smarter, better, more scholarly profs I had later on.”

More than 60 years later, Rich could still hear Grebanier’s “plummy and self-satisfied voice,” and could list the lessons he took away from Grebanier’s approach to lecturing as stage performance: “Enjoy yourself, and pleasure communicates itself. You aren’t doing a data dump, you’re performing the way you deal with your subject, the way you analyze, appreciate, respond. And you change the act with each class, depending on what play or novel or film you’re dealing with, and what mode of analysis you want to demonstrate. So if you did ironic distance last time, try passionate engagement this time, and by the end of the term you will have conveyed a repertoire of responses.”

I’ve been blessed with great mentors and colleagues at every stage of my journey as student and teacher. Of these, Rich had the deepest and most sustained influence, not least because he showed rather than told me what to do. He taught in the way that goes deepest and works best, at least on me: He modeled how to engage with what matters to you.

This is the lesson of lessons, the one that enables all the others, the one that’s essential to keep in mind when you teach as well as when you learn. An education is something you go and get, something you take from your teachers and your peers and the books you read, rather than something that is handed to you or that you can earn simply by being a good student. I had a vague intuitive notion that this was so when I showed up at college, but I became consciously aware of this truth in my encounter with Rich Slotkin. I learned from him—whether or not he intended for me to—that at bottom, teaching consists of saying “Here’s what I’ve got; come and get it,” and at least some of your students do indeed come at you and rip it out of your hands and kind of hold it at arm’s length, and you can see them thinking Yeah, I can probably find a use for this, and then they go off into the world and do something with it.

Carlo Rotella ’86
Professor of American Studies, English, and Journalism
Boston College