Fresh Faculty: Geoffrey Sanborn
Issue   |   Wed, 10/31/2012 - 20:22

English Prof. Georfrey Sanborn grew up in Unity, Maine. He atttended Stanford Univ. for his undergraduate degree and completed his Ph.D. at UCLA. He taught at Fairfield Univ. for five years, Williams College for four years and Bard College for 11 years.

Q: How did you begin studying English, and what made you decide to pursue it?

A: Well, I was a creative writer as an undergraduate. I wanted to write fiction. I didn’t have a huge interest in literature as an independent subject; I wasn’t interested in literary criticism. It was only after I graduated and I was working in a bookstore in Iowa City [called Prairie Lights], owned Jim Harris. He hired me in 1987 to install a computer system there. That is how he was an early adopter of all that kind of stuff. That was when it was just one floor; it’s a lot larger now. But it was really cool because he didn’t pay us much, but he had a lot of really interesting people working there. It was a lot of fun to talk to the people there. I would just have these conversations about literature or anthropology or whatever it was with my co-workers. All of a sudden I started to get interested in reading books and thinking about them and talking about them. I hadn’t understood that to be something that you did in your life, as opposed to something you did in a class. I think there is something about the purely classroom experience that I did when I was an undergraduate that felt like a board game where there are certain kinds of moves you can make and steps you can take and get to the same conclusion. But this felt like an open-ended, ongoing conversation that made me want to be able to participate in it more fully and for as long as I could. So, Jim let us take books home. That was one of the perks; we could use it as a library. I started taking home these works by American writers that one of my coworkers kept recommending. The two that were most powerful [for me] were Emerson and Whitman, who I had never read as an undergraduate. So I came to that stuff because someone just said ‘Hey, you should read Emerson, it’s really great, and maybe we can talk about it.’ So, I would go read it and say ‘It is really great! Lets go talk about it!’ I can still remember reading at Bruegger’s bagel shop in Iowa City. That was the place where everything clicked, where I was like, ‘this is thrilling. I really just want to keep doing this.’ At that point, I applied to grad school. When I got to grad school, I hadn’t been much of a student before that point, but then all of a sudden I cared about it. Once I understood the way it could actually be part of a life, it was off to the races.

Q: What is your research on and how did you become interested in it?

A: A lot of my research is on the pacific islands and on New Zealand in particular. My most recent book is on two Maori chiefs [Te Ara and Te Pehi Kupe] and their relationship to The Last of the Mohicans and Moby Dick. I am arguing that The Last of the Mohicans and Moby Dick are partially based on the lives of these two chiefs. That involved a lot of archival work in New Zealand and talking to the descendants of the two chiefs. I’m arguing Te Pehi Kupe is the basis of Queequeg in Moby Dick and Te Ara is the basis of Magua in The Last of the Mohicans. The research involved, in part, going to New Zealand and learning enough about these guys’ lives and about Maori culture to write creditable mini biographies of them. The book alternates between biographies of these two chiefs and readings of the novels. So part of my research is historical research like that. I am also doing a book right now on 19th century African American writer William Wells Brown where I am doing a lot of online research using digitized newspapers and periodicals in order to think about the way he uses other peoples texts in his work.

Q: What have you published in the past? What other subjects have you researched?

A: I’ve written two books and edited two books and written several essays. They tend to be on 19th century American writers, Melville in particular. My first book is on cannibalism in Melville. I’ve also written on Dickinson, Hawthorne, Poe, Twain, Frances Harper and Sandra Cisneros, so some more modern writers too. But basically American literature in its full sweep is what I tend to write on.

Q: What classes are you teaching this semester? What classes are you teaching next semester? What are they each about?

A: This semester I’m teaching a seminar called Hawthorne, Melville and Literary Friendship where we read everything that Hawthorne and Melville wrote between 1849 and 1852, which is the period of their friendship. We read letters and journals as well as the published works. It’s about the kinds of relationships that are created and sustained by literature and by writing letters, you know, correspondence. The other class is called Narratives of Suffering and it’s about the experience of suffering as a special kind of pain, one that extends indefinitely in time and is a sort of experience that has to be borne and borne up under. You have to bear suffering. It’s also about narrative structure. Narratives that have beginnings, middles and ends are very hard to employ when you’re describing experiences of suffering because, in a way, suffering doesn’t fit into a beginning, middle and end structures. We start with some contemporary films and then do, among other things, The Book of Job, King Lear, Moby Dick, Beloved and Maus.

Next semester I’m doing a course called American Extravaganzas that is about wild narrative fictions in the American tradition, that are sort of a little bit out of control. And again it’s about thinking past beginning, middle and end narrative structures. We are going to be doing Poe, Twain, Nabokov and Infinite Jest. Then I’m doing a course called Poe, Faulkner and the Gothic, which is sort of split between those two writers, and focusing on the gothic elements that work in relation to race and southern history.

Q: What aspects of Amherst do you like so far?

A: I love the students, I love my colleagues and I’m just really excited to be here. There is just a level of intellectual excitement and engagement here that is special.

Q: What do you hope to contribute to Amherst during your time here?

A: One of the things that I like about this job is the College made it clear I wasn’t hired with any particular agenda in mind, but they liked my work and they wanted me to feel as though I had a kind of green light to pursue whatever sort of research and teaching interests that I had. Part of what I want to contribute is what every other faculty member here is invited to contribute which is their own kind of imaginative, intellectual energies, experienced in a context that enables them to take that as far as possible in whatever direction presents itself. I think there is something about a kind of free-range intellectual activity that has vitality to it. That’s going back to what I was saying about your work being connected to your life. It feels like it’s possible here in a way that’s not really possible at research institutions. I chose not to teach at a research university and to teach at a liberal arts college instead, and the reason why is I feel like that sense of open-ended, free range intellectual work was way more possible at those places.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?

A: I like to play with my kids. I like to play music. I play guitar and keyboard and write songs. I also like to watch basketball.

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