Splendor of Heart – Review

Robert D. Richardson. Splendor of Heart: Walter Jackson Bate and the Teaching of Literature. Boston: Godine, 2013. Print.

Splendor of Heart is a sentimental portrait of a famous teacher. Walter Jackson Bate won several prizes for books he wrote, but he was a teacher at heart. This book is a combination of character sketch by a former graduate student who worked closely with Bate for a number of years and an interview conducted in 1986.

An upperclassman said to me, “You’ve got to take Bate.” His course on 18th Century English Prose did not sound that exciting to this English major, but I could tell that the upperclassman meant it. I was glad I took it. When word got around campus that Bate was giving certain lectures such as The Death of Samuel Johnson, the lecture hall would be standing room only.

One lecture that stood out for me was Bate’s account of Joshua Reynolds’ farewell to the Royal Academy. Reynolds knew times were changing. Even though he would not be a part of it, and, indeed would probably not fit into the Romantic movement, he looked ahead with excitement and encouraged the younger artists to do what they had to do. That is the way to go out.

I am even more thankful that I took Bate’s other course open to undergraduates on the history of literary criticism. He put the postmodern fad into perspective, and kept this writer from being sucked into nonsensical discussions of literary criticism. The po-mos had already more or less taken over Duke and Yale, but it would still be a few years before they got a foothold on Harvard.

Ironically, Bate predicted it. His The Burden of the Past and the English Poet predicted a kind of romantic reaction to modernism. I am not sure anyone anticipated the extreme subjectivity of postmodernism, but he was pretty much correct in his prediction. I am not sure that it has done much for poetry, though some po-mo prose has great merit (think David Foster Wallace, Tim O’Brien, or even Jorge Luis Borges).

Anyway, Splendor of Heart shows Bate’s enthusiasm for great art from whatever period. He took annual boat trips to the Dry Salvages, the three small islands off the New Hampshire coast that gave their name to one of Eliot’s Four Quartets. He also enjoyed tooling around the woodland paths near his country home in New Hampshire in an old truck. From the sounds of it, it was probably fortunate that he did not do this on ATVs or motorcycles or I might not have had him as a teacher.

The interview gives a number of specific thoughts about teaching. I think I may have subconsciously imitated some of Bate’s habits when I teach, but I learned one thing that I wish I picked up back in college. Bate said that his lectures were stories (good so far), and that like an epic, he usually begins in medias res. I had not thought of that before, but I have already tried to alter some of my lectures that way.

In 1849 Nathaniel Hawthorne had a Serious Problem. He had been married in 1842 and now had a growing family. He had a comfortable job working for the Bureau of Customs in his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. He had published a number of short stories; these had earned him some recognition, though not much money. A new president from a different party had been elected, so he was fired from his job. He actually sued to get his job back, but the lawsuit failed. What was he going to do?

Good lectures do tell a story. The root meaning of lecture, after all, is “reading.” What better reading than to tell a story?

This is a short book, just a little over a hundred pages with few words on a page. Anyone who had or who appreciates Bate would get a touch of nostalgia. Even those unfamiliar with him might get some inspiration on how to teach.

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