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Dean Gretchen Gerzina

Gretchen Gerzina, Dean of the Commonwealth Honors College and Paul Murray Kendall Chair in Biography, believes it is "dangerous to not see the value in the humanities." She discusses her research and wriitng process, discovering historical African American literature, and teaching eighteenth-century literature.


You have been with the Honors program for a year. Do you have any thoughts or comments regarding the current program and your vision for the Commonwealth College going forward?

When I first got here, I really wanted to get a sense of what the program was and how it fit into the other Honors Colleges because there are so many of them around the country, in both private and public institutions. And so I wanted to see how we fit into this system. For a year I was asking the questions “what is an Honors College?” How do we see ourselves? How do we define ourselves? Who are we? What are we trying to achieve? So I spent quite a long time trying to get the vision down and to implement things. I wanted to make it more of a community, firstly. Within the Honors College, everyone majors in different fields. They can live in our housing during the first year, but after that everyone often disperses, so I was interested in how we could make this into a living and learning community that fostered and kept interest.

I definitely see that. I have been here for a year and a half and, having transferred from a small college, having the opportunity to attend lectures, meet with advisors, and be a part of small, compact classes meeting around a roundtable has been such an important part of my transition.

That’s great! I don’t know if you have heard of our new Junior year course that we have designed for next semester. I wanted a course where students who have either transferred, or who have been here for a couple of years, can come together, much like “Ideas that Change the World.” After “Ideas” is over, I think: well what happens during the Junior year, especially for those who transfer? How do you build community, how do you have a common sense of work done together? So we designed this course called the “Junior Year Experience” and the theme is the Sixties. Each week, a different faculty member will give a lecture on some aspect of the decade. Then, once a week, there will be a discussion section with graduate students from various departments. Some of the topics include the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s movement, the Counter-Culture. Topics that we hope will allow everyone to feel as if they can connect to some piece of it.

Thinking a little about your research, you have written on a variety of topics. How do your books begin?

You know it’s so interesting because I’ve been lucky. Many people in academia feel that they have to stay on a straight-and-narrow path to be successful, but I have always been allowed to write about the things that I wanted to write about, and it worked out for me. But I like people, and I like to write about people who cross some kind of line,whose lives had to negotiate that crossing. In the case of Dora Carrington, she was born as a Victorian but then the first World War started and everything and her life shifted entirely. She fell in love with a gay man and spent the rest of her life with him before killing herself when he died. But she was also an artist trying to work through all of that. Plus, she illustrated all of her letters so there was just all of this rich detail. People have to speak to me. When you spend six or seven years of your life with someone they have speak to you, and you want to have a sort of love affair, in one way or another. So then my last book was about a black couple who lived during the eighteenth-century. They were enslaved and after they were freed, they did all of these incredible things as two of the original settlers of Vermont. And I just thought ‘this is the kind of story that no one imagines,’ and so I just totally fell in love with them. I just wanted them to be in my life for a long time. I felt very sad when I finished the book as if they had exited. I think what intrigues me is anyone who has a story that I think I know and then it upends my expectations, but it’s also often about place or time. Someone whose story changes what you thought about that time, and who comes to you in a way that you can never shake until you explore them.

I read the recent notice regarding some new research that has introduced you to an African American writer named Sarah E. Farro?

Who no one has ever heard anything about!

Which is strange considering her story! I was reading the write-up on your research and it’s just so extraordinary.

Exactly, and unfortunately there is not much to say about her. I could never write her biography because there is just not enough information about her. But I found her while sitting in London looking through old newspapers available through the British Library. I was looking for black women who had lived in England in earlier years, particularly women who had been married to English men. I was really curious about when that started and I found some interesting stories, but I ran across this notice in a newspaper that said “The First Negro Woman Novelist has just published her first book.” I had never heard of her. It took me a long time to track the novel down and there were only two copies of the book that I could find in any libraries in the world. She was from Chicago so I did a lot of sleuthing during a six-hour layover when I ran to a local library where I was able to read it. It is not very good, but it was published and it is very unusual, and when I took it to another local history foundation, two librarians just dug into it. They found old maps of the area, they found her house. And what is also important to note is that Chicago was not very black at the time. It was pre-Great Migration before large numbers of black people moved from the South to Chicago, Detroit, that whole area. And she actually lived in an area that was mostly German and Lithuanian immigrants. She was clearly educated, though we could not find any record of her education. So I learned a lot about what kind of a person sits down to write a novel like this. And who was she reading? She was reading Dickens, and Trollope, maybe a couple of American novels. It was not like there was an Afro-American studies department. She probably did not even really know many slave narrators, maybe Frederick Douglass, but she would have read what everyone else at the time was reading. And she got England all wrong. At one point early in the novel, a character is asked when he plans on getting married and he answers ‘shortly before Thanksgiving.’ But she was honored late in life as a pioneer of Chicago culture. And her book was featured in the Chicago World’s Fair but there was not a single mention of her being an African American writer. I found articles that talk about her book with no mention of her race. One of them did interview her, which was how we know that her favorite writer was Dickens.

So much of our conversation has answered this indirectly, but I want to ask you: in these social and political times, why the Humanities?

I think one of the things that I find most troubling in our current political and social situation is that people have no sense of historical or cultural context. And they find meaning in things that are important, which is fine because you need it, you need a place to live, you need an income. But I do worry about this kind of starvation of the cultural past. Rather than embracing what makes us who we are and how we got here and what it means, which I don’t want to put into romantic terms. But at the same time, we have just lost touch with what, in the end of the day, is going to sustain us. We have lost touch with what will sustain us during difficult times. And the idea that one of the first things that happens under a repressive government is that they begin to jail the writers and artists and journalists...because they challenge your ideology. And I think if we’re living in a world where that is happening, all the more reason to find out why these things are happening and where they come from. It’s very idealistic but also heartfelt, because I think it’s dangerous to not see the value in the humanities. People who see it as fluff don’t realize that what we are really talking about are things that are relevant, important, and form a connective tissue among people. It’s not competitive. You see [this inability to see context] in the Black Lives Matter Movement that people just see as a moment, a snapshot, a video in time and don’t see the context around it: what got us to this point? Why are people upset? What is the history around this? Why is it so problematic for people?

What is your favorite book to teach?

They are all so different! I used to teach a course on the eighteenth-century novel, and there are some of those I used to love. I have taught a number of courses on the Brontës as a group together.

Even Anne?

Absolutely. Anne ends up being everyone’s favorite actually. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall leaves them asking ‘who was this woman?’ So I would say the Brontës but also Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. It’s just one of those books about piecing things together and figuring them out and I don’t know how many times I have taught that book yet every time at the end I gasp and think “she pulled it off! She made it work. Like it’s new!” I taught Native Son in London and the students had no idea what the Civil Rights Movement was about. They went home and told their mothers to read it. Anything that makes the light bulb go off is what I love.

On the topic of books, what was “the book” or who was “the author” that made you want to be a writer?

That happened a lot actually. The Secret Garden sparked me when I was very young. I didn’t know when I started writing about her that she had written fifty-three novels, most of which were for adults. But there were a couple of other books that inspired me. Reading Carrington’s letters before I went to graduate school I just thought “I need to keep a diary.” But then I thought that it would be so much more interesting to inhabit the life of someone so totally different from myself, and I think that was a book that gave me permission to think about spaces way outside myself. Not that I lived in the secret garden, but books that make me fall into a different world are my favorite.