Reflections on the twelfth UMW Paradise Lost Readathon

Not quite the day-after report I’d hoped to make, but as we’ve discussed recently in the Milton seminar, time is a difficult dimension that consistently weighs on Milton’s mind and ours. So later and briefer than I’d like, here are my thoughts.

The evening was magical as ever. This surprised me a bit, truth to tell, as I had lowered my expectations given the compressed summer schedule, the size of the class (there are six students enrolled–what a luxury for real school!), and the scarcity of folks around campus during the summer term. I figured that nevertheless the occasion would involve “fit audience, though few,”and would have its own special character.

It did have its own special character–how could it not?–but in scope and intensity it was right up there with all the other readathons. I blogged about the upcoming reading, and I sent out an event invitation on Facebook, and that plus word of mouth and the seminarians’ devotion were enough to bring over thirty people to the readathon. Fit audience indeed, and more numerous than I had dared imagine. The best of it, of course, was not how many but who. My wife Alice attended and read, as she has each year, and worked behind the scenes to help everything run smoothly. (Our children were both at camp, as it happened, so this year was the first time they didn’t attend and read.) I couldn’t do any of this without her. Many Miltonauts Emeriti attended, students who’d been in the seminar ten years ago, five years ago. One, a student, friend, and colleague named Happy Herbert, was there for the tenth time, and for the tenth time she stayed for the entire reading, driving all the way from Richmond to attend. Happy’s presence always means the world to me. She is a wonderful example of how deep and true the bonds forged by education can be. I count myself her biggest fan and cannot imagine the readathon without her. Two more former students and Miltonaut alums, Devin Wais and Erin Donegan Frere, surprised and moved me mightily by driving from Maryland and Tidewater to meet in Fredericksburg and come to the reading. They too stayed all night. I hadn’t seem either of them for several years, probably not since their graduation five years ago, but hearing them read in that cozy (and, given July and the tiny wall unit AC, sweltering) room brought back many happy memories of many classes together, and filled me with pride to see them as young adults making their way into the world. Erin, like Happy, is now herself an English teacher, while Devin is working as a project manager. To see their friendship and reunion was sheer delight.

Two other families were represented. One was a current seminarian and her father. The other was a current seminarian and her teenaged son. All read (the only readathon rule is that everyone there must read), and all read well, entering fully into the spirit of the event and bringing yet another dimension of time, heritage, and love into the experience.

My colleague and friend Jim Groom, the Reverend, Mr. UMW Blogs himself, was there for the first two books despite the many responsibilities that come with two small children (not to mention his tireless participation in the greater distributed conversation we call the “blogosphere”). Having him there and hearing him read was a real treat, and brought together the two academic worlds I’ve inhabited over the last five years: literary studies and information technologies in education. Did I say it was a treat to have him there? It was a blast. I am profoundly grateful for his work.

My dear friend and longtime Milton colleague Louis Schwartz of the University of Richmond was there as well. Louis and I go back many years, to the advent of my professorial career in 1990, and we have shared many tears, much laughter, and much deep delight during that time. (Louis has a book on Milton coming out very soon. I promise you it will be a corker, a book that will change the conversation in Milton studies permanently and very much for the better.) Louis has done his own readathons at UR many times, so he’s no stranger to the experience, but with one thing and another it had never worked out that we had attended a readathon together, either in Richmond or in Fredericksburg. Thus I was particularly grateful and moved that Louis made a special effort to be at this, my final readathon at UMW. As it happened, he got several wonderful parts to read (the epic is pretty much all wonderful, so that’s not unusual) that figure crucially in his forthcoming book. To hear Louis bring those words to life with all the years of his thought and love and expert devotion within them was exhilarating and very humbling. To think that he’s my friend! I am a lucky man.

More, and yet more. Students came who’d been in other courses I’ve taught recently, even though they’d never taken Milton with me. Some brought friends from outside the department. We had wonderful baked treats from Rachel and richly flavorful vegetables from Madeline’s garden (apt, given Madeline’s scholarly work on vegetation and gardens in the epic). We had all the props: the blacklight poster of Satan overlooking Paradise, the little snake-with-apple plushy, the magnificent Dragon that Happy and her daughter Sara made for me shortly after they’d taken the Milton seminar together. We had Alice’s strange and compelling little antique story-of-creation wheel. We had a big volume of Dore illustrations from Madeline and her dad. This year we also had the cast-iron statue of Milton my colleague James Harding had given me to celebrate my return to the department in the spring of 2007. And of course we had a real apple to pass around during the reading of book 9, to be eaten by the person who was reading at the moment Eve took her fateful bite. (Last year I was the lucky one; this year Brittany did the honors.)

And we had the readathon journal, now almost filling a second volume, with reflections, exclamations, silly stuff, and heartfelt responses from readathons going all the way back to my first at UMW, in the spring of 1995. One day I will scan those pages and post them. These days I get teary just touching their covers. (Maudlin, but true.)

As I say, magical. The studentsown reflections demonstrate I wasn’t just dreaming (though I did nod off several times, I confess it). As Madeline keenly observed, the occasion felt like a journey we took together. Indeed. And for me, as always, the visible and interior journeys we take together during the readathon make me more mindful of the other journeys that we share. The journeys of learning, of living, of community and communal experience. It’s a cliche to say “it’s all a journey”–sounds rather like daytime TV speak–but when the journey is as intense and uplifting as the readathon is, the cliche blooms into new and vital life.

So: from a professor who feels much of the time like Chance the Gardener in Being There, simple and often bewildered but devoted to his work, to all the many exotic, varied, and beautiful blossoms I have been privileged to tend and watch grow over my fourteen years at the University of Mary Washington, my thanks, my love, and my deep respect. I will not forget you.

Keep in touch.

5 thoughts on “Reflections on the twelfth UMW Paradise Lost Readathon

  1. This post makes me wanna cry. That evening, as short as my part in it was, illustrated for me just how magical a teacher you are. I know it, I’ve been part of it, I’ve followed it, I’ve seen it. Students came from far and wee to be part of an event you have imagined with them, and they were all the better for being there, it was important!

    Although only a short timer, reading the parts with the Greek monsters from Book 2 as Satan makes his way towards the Gates of Hell was quite rewarding (particularly the moments with the Gorgon and Hydra–the Hydra bit seemed pre-destined or was it my imposed free will?). But more than anything, hearing Louis read the conversation amongst Satan, Sin, and Death at the Gates of Hell was spellbinding. What an insanely incestuously and surreal part of the Epic, I had forgotten just how twisted Milton’s writings are (in the best sense of that very imprecise word, mind you).

    All in all Gardner, it was wonderful to see how you have been able to cultivate an event and a community around a magnificent text. It is all about the journey, where ever it leads us, and I saw that so clearly that night. Thank you Gardo!

  2. Ah, I’m sad to have missed this event, but the vicodin from my wisdom teeth was not very good to me. Excuses, excuses, next time.

    I have links from dinner that I might as well post here for other people to see:
    Saragossa Manuscript- much easier (and cheaper) to get on netflix. Amazon, even used, is really pricey.

    my cdr from last summer, oh there will be another at the end of this summer (or a cassette released in Italy?), which will be recorded much better. I have grown:

    and an xkcd that would make you smile. especially the alt text from the mouse-over:

    The dinner was a much better goodbye. I am more satisfied. And don’t worry, I will keep in touch.

  3. I wish, I wish, I wish I could have been there. I thought of you all at Jack’s 4 am feeding and realized that maybe I should have come–it’s never too early to start ’em off right, right?

  4. Aw–it does make a person weepy to read your account, and not a little sad that we won’t be doing this again, at least not in Fredericksburg. I fear it’s too far to drive to TX and back for an all-nighter. Perhaps I can commandeer a chariot and driver. Honestly, I had to look at the calendar to see how long it’s been–two weeks: forever ago, yet only yesterday. To be at a readathon is to enter another world, one where we don’t belong but where we are privileged, for a little while, to see through eyes that saw more than ours and less. Blindness comes in many forms, and while Milton may not have had our sight, he had his own vision, which we shared that night. As always, it made for a long, long night, but still it ended all too soon as, with wand’ring steps and slow, we took our solitary ways. Thanks for another great memory. I won’t forget it.

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