Gary Stonum Tribute/Interview with Raymond Keen/Faculty Notes/New Faculty Spotlight:Vinter/Project: Revisiting History/Alumni News/Digital Grads/”Breaking Genre” Writers Conference/African American Alumni Association
Every year on the Sunday closest to Shakespeare’s birthday a small group of hikers gathers at a trailhead inside Cuyahoga Valley National Park. They look to the man who organized it all, and — like so many students before them — wait for the poetry to begin.
The hike’s leader carries with him books filled with verse, but he doesn’t need to read. He always begins the same way.
“A little Madness in the spring,” he repeats from memory, “Is wholesome even for the King…”
For Gary Stonum, the poem by Emily Dickinson is the perfect way to start a journey — and in some ways, a perfect way to end one. As one of the longest-serving faculty members in the history of the Department of English at Case Western Reserve University, he played a key role in the department’s evolution over the past four decades. While serving as chair three separate times over eleven years, he wrangled more time for both faculty and graduate students while shielding the department and its faculty from cuts. He helped make Guilford House a home for students while prowling the hallways alongside a corgi named Thug. All the while, he shepherded countless students through countless essays, poems, theses, and dissertations. Even as he cut his commitment to part-time, he remained a wealth of institutional memory: faculty meetings quieted when someone inevitably asked, “Gary, do you remember…?
The Dickinson scholar chooses not to pick a favorite of her poems, but knows that certain verses fit certain occasions. And so each spring in the national park the hikers gather around as the man with the trademark mustache now tinged gray repeats the poem that so many students have heard in Guilford House, one that also fits the next stage of his career.
A little Madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown —
Who ponders this tremendous scene —
This whole Experiment of Green —
As if it were his own!
In 1973, the English Department’s newest hire considered himself lucky. After struggling through a particularly barren job market, Stonum found a last-minute reprieve in a university that rejected him only a few months earlier.
At only 25 years old, he was hired primarily to mentor journalism students at the student newspapers. Stonum had yet to discover the poet who would help define his scholarly career, or the lessons that would guide so many of his students.
At the time, he was just happy if he could avoid the cockroaches.
“Florida-sized cockroaches,” he remembers. “They were kind of everywhere. You’d be talking to a student and the cockroaches would be scurrying around.”
Along with the entomological adventures in pre-renovation Clark Hall, where the department was located at the time, the university had other, even more worrisome structural issues.
“They were closing down schools and departments,” Stonum said. “The education department. The library school. The architecture school. The administration was really panicking. It looked like a death spiral.”
The faculty in the Department of English, however, had other plans. They banded together as tight-knit underdogs, and even created an unofficial motto – one that, four decades later, Stonum says still rings true:
For those who know Stonum for his scholarship on Faulkner, Dickinson, or literary theory, his first teaching position at CWRU raises eyebrows.
The sole experience for that job began in 1968, as Stonum found himself amid one of the biggest news stories in the country, as an intern at the Riverside Press-Enterprise in southern California at the height of the black power movement.
“I had front page stories five or six days in a row because this was breaking news,” Stonum said. “It was a wonderful and exciting time but I realized I didn’t want to be a journalist because I didn’t like there being so little time for reflection.”
Those hectic three months at the newspaper — weighted heavily by his PhD from Johns Hopkins University — gave Stonum a foothold at CWRU, which was looking for a newspaper advisor. Along with magazine and newswriting classes, Stonum soon developed some of the first courses in literary theory, where one of his first students was a young woman named Judy Oster.
“It was a graduate seminar in the theory of the novel,” said the woman who would later earn her way to full professor and become a pillar of the department. “We started doing this new stuff and lo and behold we weren’t talking about novels. It was really an introduction to the discourse we require of the grad students today.”
Stonum’s support continued through her PhD program and later when she joined him as a colleague. His advice to her is familiar to many of his students ever since: at times intimidating and encouraging, at times blunt and gruff, but always rooted in reality.
“When I had to worry about tenure he took me to lunch one day and he said ‘you have proven yourself around here,’ and I thought, ‘oh that’s a nice compliment,’” she said. “Then he said ‘And now you have to prove yourself out there.’ And that was scary, but it was also what I needed to hear.”
Oster, who retired in 2012 as professor emerita, isn’t the only student who returned to the Department of English as one of Stonum’s colleagues.
“It’s really hard for me to talk about Gary without tearing up,” said Marilyn Sanders Mobley, CWRU’s vice president for Inclusion, Diversity and Equal Opportunity who also continues to teach in the department. “I feel I’m partly in the academy because of Gary’s encouragement. And in so many ways that encouragement is the reason I’m doing the work I’m doing right now.”
Mobley remembers her mentor as one of the few professors versed in African-American literature, and his advice to press the boundaries of the field defined her dissertation. She remembers classes meeting at his home where his wife, Marilyn Shea-Stonum, a federal judge, joined in and expanded the conversations that — for many students — still continue.
“Gary can be kind of quiet, but there are people like me who have seen his supportive side,” she said. “Gary and I made a genuine connection as human beings. I feel like he was a mentor more than a professor, and now I call him friend.”
In the mid 1990s, students and visitors to Guilford House were often greeted by a corgi named Thug. Stonum’s dog knew how to ride the elevator, and would often hop on while prowling the building. Thug (the dog was named by Stonum’s son Lee, a fan of rapper Tupac Shakur, who sported a “Thug Life” tattoo) would also roam the halls, extending the living-room feel of the department, as some classes were periodically interrupted by the dog who might pop in, sniff around, and head off for another elevator ride.
At a science and technology-heavy university like CWRU, humanities departments can be overshadowed, but Stonum was among those who ensured the students on Mather Quad felt as welcome as those in the Nord tower.
“Every year the Engineers had Engineers Week in which they’d do these projects where they would drop eggs from a building to see if they could keep them from breaking. The fraternities had Greek Week. So the students and I said ‘OK, it’s time for Tweed Week,’” Stonum said.
Among the events in Tweed Week: “Catching the Rye,” where students would drop loaves of rye bread off the balcony of Guilford to competitors below; “Hoopla Hart,” where students would toss hula hoops over the famous statue of the poet Hart Crane; and the popular “imitate your professor” contest. The week capped off with a dance at The Spot to the Talking Heads concert film, “Stop Making Sense.”
“That was kind of a high point in a certain kind of snarky morale,” he said, “which I believe the current graduate students also have.”
Along with the sense of fun came a sense of collegiality that Stonum says was the envy of colleagues from other universities.
“We were one of the only English department in the country that got along with one another, didn’t spend time plotting against one another, that had a culture that’s warm and inviting, and it’s something we’ve come to consciously pride ourselves on,” he said. “It has to do with the faculty. That was something we strove to preserve.”
As chair of the department, he successfully petitioned the administration to reduce the teaching load from five courses per year to four, allowing more time for research.
In 1999 the university awarded Stonum the Oviatt Professor Endowed Chair, previously held by Roger Salomon, the man who, decades after his retirement, remains the department’s anchor.
“Gary kept us going during very difficult times – he played a crucial role,” said Salomon, who still remembers Stonum’s championing of the graduate students and his credibility among students and administrators. “He is someone who I can’t imagine the department not having.”
One hundred years after Emily Dickinson’s death, in 1986, Stonum revisited some of the poems he had ignored in graduate school, and realized what he had missed.
“Reading through the poems — at that point there were 1776 of them — that stuff was wonderful!” he said. “ I thought, ‘Oh! this is what I didn’t understand and appreciate when I was a snot-nosed graduate student.’”
He eventually published The Dickinson Sublime, (which joined his earlier book, Faulkner’s Career,) helped found the Emily Dickinson International Society, and served as editor of the Emily Dickinson Journal, among other publications.
“A lot of scholars before thought of her as this kind of untutored genius, a brilliant linguist but all over the map. I didn’t think that was the case. I tried to find the literary theory behind her work,” he said. “I thought of her as a poet who deliberately cultivated the sublime, who understood poetry in terms of its effect on the reader.”
In 2012, he helped realize a dream of his, to bring the annual Emily Dickinson International Society conference to Cleveland. The title of the conference?
Most everyone in the Department of English has memories from one of the legendary holiday parties hosted by Roger and Betty Salomon. For Brad Ricca, one of the most indelible is accompanied by his first impression of Gary Stonum, as Ricca sat with the new PhD students at the party.
“Stonum comes in late with his wife and he’s wearing a tuxedo. Like he’s James Bond. Turns out that he had to go to a law event later, but it started this mysterious aura about him that turned out to be kind of true.”
Over the next several years, Stonum and Ricca would spend hours in intellectual discussions, but also found time during conferences to hike lava fields in Hawaii or sip tea in a palace in Kyoto — part of what Ricca says was Stonum’s insistence to experience the education.
“It was something I want to be part of – that it’s not all elbow patches and pipes,” said Ricca, now a SAGES Fellow, author, filmmaker, and poet. “I got the sense that whatever this experience would be it wouldn’t just be sitting in libraries and reading dusty old books.”
After speaking for nearly an hour on the phone about Stonum’s influence, Ricca hung up and quickly composed an email that distilled the conversation.
“Gary taught me that the profession, though important and real, is only part of a well-lived life. The humanities certainly inform the well-lived life, but it is by no means a substitute for it. Vigorous scholarship, traveling, love and awe of good poetry, exploration, rebellion, even marriage — Gary’s been a role model at different points for me in all of those things,” Ricca wrote. “So when you ask about legacy, I think for those of us who got to work with him, a lot of that is ongoing. His ability to treat people well, like colleagues, peers, and friends — whatever the context — is something that I think is part of that yellow house for good.”
Despite the kind words, Ricca added a caveat.
“It wasn’t all wine and roses, though. He used to require that all his PhD students eat his homemade fruitcake at the holiday party,” Ricca wrote. “I don’t know if that counts as hazing, but it probably should have.”
Stonum’s Facebook page isn’t filled with quotes from Faulkner and Dickinson. There are plenty of literary references, but the vast majority of his timeline is devoted to bicycle rides, mountain treks, and globe-trotting expeditions taking him from the Andes to the Rockies, from Norway to New Zealand.
At 66 years old, Stonum recently logged his 2,000th mile on his bicycle this year alone, and continues to ride at every opportunity. In retirement, he figures he’ll have even more time to explore with Marilyn, who is also planning to retire from the bench soon. They recently celebrated their 43rd anniversary. Their plan: “I will buy the world’s smallest and most eco-friendly RV, strap the bikes on top and see the national parks.”
Until then, Stonum still has a class to finish — one similar to the literary theory seminar he started nearly forty years ago.
Another constant over those years: Fortress English — though now the motto has a new meaning.
“We’re stronger than ever,” he said. “Our standing within the university has never been higher and nationally our reputation is as good as any time I’m aware of. We have a larger, broader group of applications from graduate students. I’d say we’re at the top of our game.”
In May — not long after his most recent poetry hike — Stonum stood at a podium in Harkness Chapel, before Phi Beta Kappa students, and placed two bottles of beer on the podium. He did not quote Emily Dickinson.
“Stay thirsty,” he said, echoing the popular Dos Equis ad campaign.
“Beer is good, so say we all, but it cannot help with every thirst. The thirst of which I speak today is curiosity, the thirst for new ideas, new information, and unfamiliar perspectives, even unsettling ones. That is the thirst we all hope that an accomplished liberal arts education has in each of you much whetted, somewhat satisfied, but, please sir, never slaked.”
In his talk, Stonum reiterated his advice that students recognize that a liberal arts education allows them to have a life as well as a job. He addressed recent attacks against the humanities, and offered students ammunition to counter any critic.
“You can help lead others without your privileges to acquire what your education has already encouraged. And please do not forget that you are and have been privileged, part of an elite and something I hope you have richly deserved and will continue to do,” he said.
“So what have you acquired from this fortunate, elite situation and your obvious success within it? Dissatisfaction, I hope. Restlessness. A pained sense of your own ignorance about the very matters you have learned a bit about. But — and here’s your secret stash — also an urge to keep it all open. Even a need to do so.”
With that, he ended on a note of optimism and vision as he sent them off on the next hike.
“Be curious. Seek more,” he said.
“Stay thirsty, my friends.”
Hear Professor Stonum’s address to the Phi Beta Kappa inductees here.