people know you as:
Alison, Al (to my family), or ‘Son (to my close friends at Dartmouth).
people know you as: Steve. Although my wife, children, and closest friends call me Beaver.
where you lived first year: Lord Hall, known then as part of the "Gold Coast” (Lord, Streeter, and Gile Halls).
your major: English.
Dartmouth person(s) who had a major influence on you, and how: Ramon Guthrie, a charismatic French professor who had been in the Mexican Campaign of 1915, a flier in World War I, and in the Office of Strategic Services in World War II, and taught a famous course on Proust. I had a French course with Guthrie in my first term and was hooked. It's thanks to him that I ultimately became a professor of French and comparative literature—not what anyone would have predicted when I arrived in Hanover. Guthrie had a knack for seeing what you could be, not what you were, and inspiring you to get from the one to the other (in my freshman and sophomore years, that was a huge leap of faith on his part). Guthrie was hired in 1930 by Ernest Martin Hopkins on the recommendation of Sinclair Lewis. Hopkins's decision had a positive impact on generations of Dartmouth undergraduates.
While Guthrie was my most influential mentor, others loomed large. Tom Vance and Alex Laing in English taught me to see below the surface of language—and thus to appreciate poetry. John Hurd, an English professor, offered me the first inkling that I might have a talent for literature when he wrote on a paper, “You write well because you think well.”
I don't believe that any place other than Dartmouth could have absorbed and transformed such a tense, chaotic, and unpromising lump as I was on arrival. These men and others reached us by taking us seriously, listening to us, and ultimately helping us to believe in ourselves.They seemed to come by their empathy naturally, a talent all too rare and difficult . . . I know because I've tried.
one of your most memorable Dartmouth moments:
Hearing John Sloan Dickey talk to us as freshmen in the Ravine Lodge at Mooslilauke, urging us to be aware of our privileged status in an area of then poverty, joblessness, and failing farms. With this consciousness, he implied, we could not fail to reach out to help wherever and whenever we could. Somehow we knew that he was thoughtfully suggesting a lesson for life wherever we might be, not just for the next four years in the hills of New Hampshire.
The Upper Valley, and particularly South Strafford, Vermont.
where you live now:
what you do for work: I teach medieval literature and chair the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures at Johns Hopkins University.
you could talk for hours about:
How hard it is to run a good university and how little understanding so many people have of the difficulty.
something you learned yesterday:
My body is not indestructible.
favorite spot in your home: In Baltimore, my study. In Vermont, our pastures, pond,and woods.
web site you love to go to:www.amazon.com.
biggest one-eighty of your life:
Meeting Edie, my wife of 36 years, on TWA Flight 810 to Paris, June 4, 1970.
trait you love about someone dear to you: My wife's frank and witty assessment of my foibles, which keeps me from taking myself too seriously.
you've been meaning to get to it for years: Figure out what to do with my 10,000 books when I no longer have a university office to house them.
historical figure who fascinates you, and why: Erich Auerbach (1892–1957), German thinker and refugee whose book on the impact of history on literature changed the way people thought about the origin of the novel. From the time I first read Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature as an undergrad at Dartmouth, I admired the way Auerbach showed the impact of real-life events on religion, philosophy, art, and literature. Although I saw him only once, at Yale, where he taught, he was a role model for me then and remains so to this day.
you blow off steam by:
reading on the bedside table: Jane Gardam, Old Filth; Arturo Perez-Reverte, The Fencing Master; Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map; Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur.
tops on tomorrow's to-do list: Loading the car to head for Vermont.
message you'd like to see on a billboard:
Repression is the most effective form of psychotherapy. (Bear in mind that I'm from Boston.)