Paul Fry isn’t just a famous academic; he’s also “Yale famous.” A scholar of British Romantic poetry and a professor at Yale for over forty years, Fry put aside his original aspirations of becoming a painter to pursue literature. In addition to being one of the few professors whose course is available online, Fry served as beloved master of Ezra Stiles College for almost a decade. In an interview with WKND, Fry recounts memorable Master’s Teas, including a particularly charged one with the founder of the Black Panthers, and describes his work in the upcoming “Critique of Reason” exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery.
Q: I heard that you were originally interested in pursuing a career in painting, but went to graduate school because your father believed art wasn’t a viable career path. How did this impact your life, and what advice would you give to students who are torn between pursuing their dreams and fulfilling expectations?
A: Well, in the first place I should give my father the credit of not really being a person who stood in my way. I made my own choice, and my father was a painter and very much honored painting. I went to graduate school because I felt I had a deeper vocation for the study of literature than for painting. Also, you could be drafted if you went to art school — this was during the Vietnam War. However, if you went to graduate school, you were exempt from the draft. Once I was in graduate school I was comfortable and happy with my choice. Today I could only advise students to follow their deepest vocation.
Q: Do you believe it’s possible for a person to realize their creative aspirations at any point during his or her life?
A: I certainly think so. The time and intensity of effort that would be required for most of us to do does perhaps mean a career change, and the ease with which one changes careers depends on one’s phase of life. It’s probably unwise to do so and hope to succeed without being fully committed to it. I have to say that literary studies is a discipline that requires a lot of preparation and is not something I would recommend someone do midlife or later.
Q: In your online lecture “Introduction to Theory of Literature,” you examine various conceptions of the meaning of literature. If you could describe the purpose of literature and why it continues to engage us in a few words, what would you say?
A: I think literature calls our attention to the measure of the fictive. I think that literature as a form of discourse has a privileged position amongst others because of its openly and exuberantly fictive nature. In some ways I would defend it and its study on formal grounds. However, one could say in a more humanistic vein that literature expresses more eloquently and subtly emotions and feelings that we all try to express one way or another.
Q: How did you get involved with Romanticism? Was there any particular reason you chose this artistic movement?
A: When I was a graduate student at Harvard, I thought of myself as a Modernist. I spent a lot of time studying the canonical works of the earlier twentieth century and was fascinated with them. I also had a temporary flirtation with early American colonial literature that was developed under one of my more interesting mentors. However, it was when I came to Yale that my interest in Romanticism took off, under the influence of the great figures in the department in those days, like Harold Bloom and Geoffrey Hartman.
Q: On the subject of Romanticism, could you describe your work in “The Critique of Reason” exhibit?
A: It’s quite limited. My role is only to read a half-hour paper in a symposium that I understand is going to take place on April 18th and 19th. My own experience has been mostly with the British Art Center and their collection over the years. It is a great occasion for collaboration, and I hope it works out because it’s an excellent idea.
Q: Do you have any favorite Romantic poems?
A: Yes, certainly. I think Keats’ “To Autumn” is the most perfect poem in the language. I very much admire “Tintern Abbey” and a poem called “Michael” by Wordsworth. While these are lyric poems, I also esteem Wordsworth’s long autobiographical poem “The Prelude,” and Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight.”
Q: To switch gears, college students are so often swamped with course reading that they don’t have time to read for leisure. What would you say to a student looking to read for leisure?
A: Well, I think it is important simply to deepen one’s sense of a rich field. To read works in isolation is to feel that somehow they are little islands in the vast ocean, whereas, in reality, the entire ocean is islands.
Q: What is your philosophy of reading, and how does it square with a college student’s practice of skimming?
A: I am unable to skim. If I skim I have acquired no information, let alone understanding of the text as a text. Sometimes I have to skim just like anyone else and I make the best of it. Now, there is a movement abroad in literary studies called distant reading, which involves digital humanities databases, that really absolves you from reading at all. All you have to do is gather together vast quantities of whatever you are interested in and then develop a search engine that asks the intelligent questions so you can come up with generalizations about a whole genre. It is not an insignificant or uninteresting field, but it is really amazing to me because it absolves you from reading and composes other tasks in its place.
Q: In your opinion, does distant reading detract from the intended purpose of literature? Does the manner in which we acquire information alter our understanding of it?
A: I don’t want to be dogmatic or doctrinaire. I think one can learn interesting things by this means. We have always used what are called concordances [an alphabetized list of the important words in a book or text]. As a student of Wordsworth, I have worked all my life with the concordance of words that allows me to see when and how often he uses a certain word, phrase or theme. Concordances are already like databases and search engines, and even traditionally they could search for things other than words — they are just not as vast.
Q: You have taught at Yale for more than forty years. Is there any particular moment in your teaching career that has been the most gratifying or interesting?
A: Well, I’ll have to say that the response to the online literary theory lecture course has been incredibly gratifying. For years, I got emails from people in every corner of the world telling me that it had changed their lives. Furthermore, I was able to turn it into a book! My most recent book is based on a transcript of the lectures: I turned the transcript into decent prose, fixing the grammar and eliminating all the “umms” and “ahhs.”
Q: What was something you most enjoyed as Master of Stiles? I think a lot of students are curious about this because from our point of view, college masters seem to have a lot of fun!
A: It was certainly an interesting position — we were laughing all the time. I enjoyed all kinds of things about it! I participated in some sports; I got to know lots of students and enjoyed knowing them. What I particularly liked doing was developing ideas for Master’s Teas. We had Martha Stewart, film directors, actors such as Edward Norton, conceptual artists and other intellectuals and celebrities. It was a lot of fun putting those events together over the years.
Q: Is there one particular Master’s Tea that you recall which received the best reception?
A: I think the most exciting Master’s Tea was with Bobby Seale, one of the leaders of the Black Panthers who had opened a barbeque restaurant in Philadelphia and had published a book titled “Barbequing with Bobby.” He came to the Master’s Tea accompanied by the New Haven head of the Black Panthers chapter, a guy named James Edwards who was on the hustings at a time when the city was full of tanks, and when Brewster [the Yale president at the time] made his stand on behalf of the Black Panthers, saying they couldn’t get a fair trial in New Haven. It was a tremendously controversial period. James Edwards was one of the most fierce and dedicated people I have ever encountered. He was so much more serious in his politics and his understanding of racial relations than Bobby Seale was, or at least is now. I think the Martha Stewart event was also special. It all went great until toward the end of the Q&A someone asked her if she had any advice about decorating his dorm room and she thought he was being condescending and got mad at him. She had come from a local Kmart where she was introducing a new line of towels. I can’t even begin to remember all the people we had from an enormous variety of fields. Sometimes we would have people who weren’t very well known and we would have to scour the courtyards to find an audience. But we had them hanging from the chandeliers for a lot of them.
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