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.

Twelfth and final Paradise Lost All-Night Readathon

Final at UMW under my supervision, that is. It may happen again at my next post, and for all I know the Miltonist who succeeds me at the University of Mary Washington may be just ambitious, idealistic, and nutty enough to want to keep the tradition going. Time will tell. (Yes, I will blog about my new job very soon.)

The readathon will be at Alvey House from Friday, July 11 to Saturday, July 12. We’ll begin between 7 and 7:30 p.m. and read until we’re done. If the past is a guide, the event will conclude about 6:30 or 7:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. If you’d like to attend, just come when you can and leave when you want. Bring a copy of Paradise Lost with you if you have one. If you don’t, we’ll have some extras on hand. Readers of all ages and abilities are welcome. I extend a particularly warm welcome to alumni of the University or the reading or both.

No reservations are necessary for the reading. If you’d like to join us for the traditional Parthenon Restaurant supper before hand, please do let me know by Thursday, July 10 at the latest.

I’ve given an account of the event and its history earlier on this blog. It’s a simple and very moving event. This year, it’s also a loving farewell to my fourteen years at Mary Washington.

I hope you can join us.

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1104 College Avenue, Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Readathon soundscape

Dr. C. eats the apple

Yes, this time I had to eat the apple. (Photo credit: Serena Epstein.)

I feel like my circadian rhythms are nearly back to normal, but before I altogether lose that all-night altered consciousness, I thought it might be good silly fun to podcast some poignant readathon moments from this year’s event. In order, you’ll hear the impromptu kitchen Beatles singalong just before we launched into Book 9, an improvised Satan Blues with Tyler Babbie on harp and vocals, the unison reading that always closes our readathons, and the responses that followed the end of the reading. The last exclamation is one of my favorite moments from any of the readathons.

A souvenir, a silly symphony with a serious ending. And a gift for my fellow Miltonauts.


Readathon recovery

Satan Overlooking Paradise

Actually, it hasn’t quite happened yet. Staying up all night makes the next three days feel like jet lag to me. Maybe that’s appropriate, given the vast distances we traversed in our all-night reading of Paradise Lost.

This year was particularly satisfying. We were in the lovely and cozy Alvey House, and the readers, almost all of them students, seemed unusually committed and sparkling. There was a goodly variety of folks coming and going throughout the reading, until the wee hours. Then the six of us who stayed all night dug in deep for the last four books. Even at the end, we were reluctant to break the spell, until after several deep sighs a three-time reader cried aloud, “I can’t believe he did all that in his head!”

Nor can I.

I hope to post a more complete account at some point. For now, suffice it to say that, tired as I am, I’m ready to do it again. Here’s to next year’s journey.

Note: the image above is of my blacklight poster of Gustav Dore’s “Satan Overlooking Paradise,” one of his illustrations of Book 4 of Paradise Lost. I bought the poster many, many years ago at a head shop in Bristol, Tennessee. I was twelve years old and had a dollar in my pocket. The poster was in a dollar bin in the back room. I didn’t know the winged creature was Satan, nor did I know the source of the illustration. What’s more, I had no idea that I was purchasing a token of my destiny as a Miltonist. Even if I had known, I don’t think I would have believed it.

Paradise Lost readathon 2007

Tonight at 7:30 or so I’ll begin the 11th annual University of Mary Washington all-night Paradise Lost readathon. I’m not well-rested and my mind is not at all centered, not even a little bit, really, no, but even so underneath all the epidermis (thick as it’s ever been) I do feel a little tingle of anticipation. I know at least two former students will be there, which is an especially dear prospect this time. I hope there’s a decent turnout from the Milton seminar I’m teaching this spring. I think at least a couple of curious students will be on hand from the other courses I’m teaching this term (Film/Text/Culture, and two sections of Introduction to Literary Studies). At some point my wife and our two children will be there for a while. These things alone make the night more than worthwhile.

But this year there’s a little more, I suppose. I feel more than a bit of wonder that this year marks the thirteenth time I’ve read this work all the way through in one sitting overnight. Twenty-seven years ago, in the fall of 1980, I was enrolled in Wally Kerrigan’s graduate class in Milton at the University of Virginia. Wally had just come off a year’s leave in which he’d written his masterpiece, The Sacred Complex, and he was fully wired with the ideas that had emerged during that year’s study. Sometimes the class meetings were so charged with vision that I couldn’t bear to leave the room afterwards, and would stay and huddle with my fellow grad students in the class who were feeling the inspiration just as fully as I was. Once I even surreptitiously put a Captain Beefheart line on the board before Wally came into the room, hoping it would please him (he had a beautiful Captain Beefheart poster in his office). I thought it more creative than an apple or a bunch of flowers.

At one point about midway through the semester, just as we were starting Paradise Lost, Wally casually mentioned that the best way to read the epic the first time was to read it all in one sitting, preferably overnight. Young, childless, and eager for enlightenment, I took him up on the invitation. I found the experience overwhelming. The next day, I came to class and told Wally that the beginning of Book 9, the book in which Adam and Eve fall, had left me shaken and grieving, so splendid and loving and strange and uncanny had been the Paradise Milton had imagined. Wally replied, “you had the experience!”

That I had. (Thank you, Wally.) True to my nature, I reasoned that it didn’t have to be the only time I’d have that experience. So tonight I embark on the twelfth subsequent voyage through Hell, Heaven, and our wildly abundant universe. (I did the all-night reading with a class for the first time in San Diego in 1994.)

I blogged about the last readathon, in 2005, here. It’s the same story. But it’s worth retelling.

Paradise Lost Readathon, March 23

The eleventh all-night Paradise Lost readathon is coming your way March 23, 2007, in Alvey House just across the road from Combs Hall on the Fredericksburg campus of the University of Mary Washington.

We’ll start with an informal gathering at the Parthenon restaurant at 5:30. The reading itself starts about 7:30 in Alvey House. Bring snacks, caffeine, a copy of Paradise Lost if you have it. I’ll have some extras to share.

You don’t have to stay all night. Come when you can and leave when you want. The only rule is that if you’re in the house, you must take a turn reading.

Be there or suffer Miltonic deprivation.

Paradise Lost All-Night Readathon

At about 7:45 p.m. on Friday, February 18, the tenth annual Paradise Lost All-Night Readathon began in Cornell House on the campus of Mary Washington College of the University of Mary Washington. Over the next twelve hours, a total of twenty or so hardy souls traveled through Hell, Heaven, Chaos, and Paradise with John Milton, and with each other. Once again, we read with increasing confidence, and wrote our impressions in the journal that now has ten years worth of reading notes. We dozed off, ate pizza, admired my Gustav Dore blacklight poster of Satan on Mt. Niphates, stretched and yawned, and as myth gave way to history at the end of the epic, heard the birds singing in the gray dawn outside our window.

Each year brings something special to the experience. This year I had several former students come to read, some of them for the eighth or ninth time, and I was also joined by my college roommate Michael Thomas, who stayed for the entire reading.

Another innovation this year was electronic: I recorded the entire reading on my tablet computer. I thought it better not to podcast all twelve hours of the reading. Instead, I’ve created a little medley of the readers who were there at the outset for the first two books. Although the excerpts you’ll hear are in order, they won’t make much sense in isolation. Instead, try listening for the various voices and their diverse approaches to the verse, and enjoy the images and sounds as Milton draws them past your ear. Among the voices here are those of my son Ian, my daughter Jenny, and my wife Alice.

At the beginning of the reading, you’ll hear me lay out the ground rules. At the end, you’ll hear the last forty lines or so read in unison by the five Miltonauts who made it to the end of the reading. The crude recording doesn’t do justice to the readers, and truth to tell it’s probably a little hard to make out what’s being said unless you know the poem, but nevertheless I hope this podcast captures a little of what the evening and morning were like. Here, then, is the 2005 Paradise Lost Readathon Medley.

EDIT: On the off chance someone’s already downloaded the podcast, I should mention that I redid it early this morning with an intro in which I read the blog entry above. Now the podcast stands on its own.