Episode 2: John Burt

John Burt

14 December 2018


[Rebecca] Hi, I’m Rebecca.

[Sarah] And I’m Sarah.

[Rebecca] And we are both UDRs for the English and Creative Writing Department respectively.

[Sarah] And today we are interviewing Professor John Burt. Do you want to introduce yourself?

[John Burt] Yes, hi, I’m John Burt from the English Department.

[Sarah] So, our first question is, what are you reading right now?

[John Burt] I’m reading a novel called Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman. He is famous for a novel called Life and Fate which if you know me, you know I have a great passion for. And a mutual friend of mine who’s a Professor of Russian at Wesleyan is a friend with the translator. And she was telling him what a big fan I am of this earlier book and he said, “Well actually, that’s the sequel to another book, which hasn’t been translated into English. And I’ve just translated it, and maybe he can read it and see if there are parts of it that are not idiomatic English.

[Rebecca] What are you ashamed to admit to reading and or watching?

[John Burt] Just in the last week, my wife and I

[Rebecca and Sarah] *laughing*

[John Burt] —were trying to watch as many stupid Christmas movies as we can find. So, we have watched a movie called Mr. Bean’s Holiday Adventure under the impression that possibly that’s a Christmas movie except it’s a British movie so “holiday” means vacation, not Christmas. Nevertheless, it was plenty silly and a lot of fun. And then we watched A Beethoven Christmas, you know the one with the great big Saint Bernard dog?

[Rebecca] Yeah.

[Sarah] Yeah.

[John Burt] And that was really about as silly as it gets.

[Sarah] Right. So I guess moving on from, y’know, fun media, what’s your favorite course or topic to teach?

[John Burt] Y’know I thought about this question and I—I, it, it’s like, it’s like asking a mother which is your favorite child. *laughing* Right? So the answer is always a function of which ones I’ve just taught. But of course, I really love the courses I was originally hired at Brandeis to teach. Which is to say my American Gothic Fiction course and my Southern Literature course. Right now, because I’ve been reading this Grossman novel, I’m very high on my, the, course about fiction of the Second World War that I just finished teaching which is, includes novels from all of the major powers. Y’know from Germany, from the Soviet Union, from Japan, from Britain, from France, from the U.S. I think of that as sort of my flagship course right now. And I’m also very high on my Humanities Fellows course on tragedy. But I—I imagine I’ll be high on the next set of courses I teach too.

[Rebecca] Would you actually like to expand on the humanities fellowship?

[John Burt] It’s a brand-new, well, not totally new now, it’s its third year now. The idea was we were trying to attract more humanities majors to Brandeis by inventing a special honors programs for promising humanities students. What drew them in is we offer them a special seminar on some broad subject of the humanities. Steve Dowden and I for two years taught a course on tragedy which we both immensely enjoyed. There’s a current course taught by Dave Sherman and Eugene Shepherd on Crime and Punishment. We’re having two of them next year, Fiction and Painting and a course by Laura Quinney on Epic. It’s been hugely fun to teach.

There are also sort of cultural events that go along with the program so the first year we went to—since we were seeing the Shostakovich Opera the Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, we went to hear a performance of his Seventh Symphony at Symphony Hall. Last year we saw a performance of Julius Caesar with an all-female cast, which was kind of interesting. This year I think we’re about to go see a play, y’know, in connection with the course on Crime and Punishment about the Nat Turner Revolution which is coming up in January.

Every university is having difficulty recruiting, humanities majors and we’re thinking the existence of this program will make Brandeis rise in the world as a place where people are aware of “Oh, gee! Here’s where the humanities are happening!” It is difficult for some reason to make the humanities totally salient and that’s what we’re trying to do.

[Sarah] Right. Well, I think this is a really good opportunity for humanities students who want that.

[John Burt] Yeah. One way or another it’s really fantastic to teach and everybody who’s taught it has had an enormously wonderful experience. The, the one downside for me is that because everybody wants a piece of the program, I can’t teach it all the time.

[All] *laughing*

[Sarah] What are you working on, like, now or moving into next semester?

[John Burt] I’m working on a book on Melville’s poetry. Everybody knows of Melville as a novelist, not very many people know of him as a poet. Like Thomas Hardy whose career as a novelist went ‘crash’ and then he reinvented himself as a poet for the last 30 years of his life, Melville’s career as a novelist went crash in the late 1850s. And for the last, say, thirty-odd years of his life he really only wrote poetry and I’m chiefly interested in this great big epic poem he wrote called Clarel, which is, y’know if I describe it to you you’d say “oh no.” It’s about a failed pilgrimage to the Middle East. But what it really is, is, because it’s Melville, it’s a sort of encyclopedic summary of everything he thinks on every subject. And it’s full of the same genius you have in Moby Dick but it’s a later, more chascent (sp?) Melville, more disappointed Melville. So, it’s, it’s a book that reflects the fertility and wide-ranging curiosity of Melville’s mind. Plus, all of his interest in very strange characters.

[Rebecca] So, you’ve been teaching at Brandeis for about 35 years now…

[John Burt] Yes, I started in September 1983. Which I think makes this my 36th year, but I’m an English professor not a math teacher so—*laughing*

[Rebecca] In those roughly 35 years, how do you feel you’ve seen the university change or the students change?

[John Burt] Well, the students have always been really good. And they are at least as good as they were in the good ‘ol days. And don’t let the old people tell you otherwise. Everybody thinks students decline because what they’re remembering is, is their own enthusiasm as brand-new assistant professors. I, I think if anything out students are a little better than they were back then because Brandeis is a little bit harder to get into, and, has risen a little in the world since the 80s, and, although it may not strike you this way, is quite a bit more financially stable than it was in those days, and a little less quarrelsome. And, one thing that’s very unique about Brandeis students is that frequently, very smart students are also very competitive with each other; and that hasn’t really been my experience at Brandeis students. When I compare Brandeis students with the students, with smart students my colleagues at other universities are teaching, they always describe their students as a little bit tense with each other. And, I think Brandeis students are extremely nice, they’ve been a real pleasure to teach.

[Sarah] Well, I’m glad to hear that. So, what is the best advice that you received when you were a student? If you could inspire other students.

[John Burt] Well, yes, alright so let me, let me reach my imagination back to the days when we had to fight tyrannosauruses for our dinner and walk uphill, barefoot in the snow to school and, and, never ever wasted any time on any foolish pursuit. I think the best advice I ever had was “be sure you pick something you really like, not something that merely happens to be hot at the moment. Because the thing that’s hot at the moment might get cold in five years, whereas the thing you really like is likely to be something you’re likely to keep liking.

I actually didn’t even start life as a humanities major, I was a biochemistry major in college. And, I took an interest in English at the absolute last minute. My senior year, I took a bunch of English courses. I’m amazed I got into graduate school ‘cuz there were no English courses to speak of on my transcript that I sent out ‘cuz I was taking them all at that time. I had taken all the pre-med courses and I was planning to go be a physician. And, in the fall of my senior year I asked myself, “Well, what do I wanna do?” If I become a doctor, I’ll go into huge debt to be a doctor, and if it’s not for me, I’m gonna have to keep up at it at least to pay off the debt, and by the time I’m free of the debt, it will probably be too late to change to another profession. Whereas, if I go into English, I told myself I wasn’t gonna borrow any money in grad school, and if it weren’t for me, I was gonna leave it immediately ‘cuz I wouldn’t have any debts and I certainly wouldn’t be forced to stay in the profession by false promises of power and authority, and fame. So I decided I would give English a try just to be sure that I didn’t reach the age of midlife crises and wonder whether I had wussed out.

[Rebecca] Now that you’ve followed the path of English, what’s your favorite thing about being a professor?

[John Burt] My favorite thing about it, well it’s hard, it’s hard to separate the pleasure of reading books and the pleasure of talking about books. If you just read books and don’t talk about them you don’t fully live the book. If you talk about the books with other people who are talking about the books you get to go back over the high points in your mind and you get to savor them. It’s the, it’s the difference between slurping down a glass of wine and sipping it. So, I think that, that experience is one that I never really lose. The disappointment about being a professor is that how little ti—surprisingly, how little time you get to read for pleasure because you spent so much time preparing your courses. So, that way around that is to design a bunch of new courses and find a pretext to include in them the books you wanna read anyway.

[Sarah] So you had talked about almost going to medical school. If you weren’t a professor, do you think that you would have become a doctor or is there something else that you’d be doing if you weren’t teaching?

[John Burt] I—I think I would have become a doctor but, y’know, we’re getting into Picture of Dorian Gray territory here. Y’know, there’s a Henry James short story called “The Jolly Corner” where a character who spent the last thirty years since the Civil War in Europe is asked by his—well the woman who was his fiance before he bolted for Europe, what life would have been like had he not gone to Europe and, say, fought in the Civil War. As he ponders this question he realizes that the house, the family house that he has come to sell, is haunted by the person he would have been had he not gone to Europe. And he spends the story trying to track down this other version of himself, whom his fiance suspects would have power and money. And, ultimately he manages to track down and confront this other version of himself who does indeed have power and money but he’s missing a finger and is terrifically miserable and ashamed of himself. So, I like, I like to think that if I had a similar confrontation on the stairs with the John Burt who went to medical school rather than going to graduate school, I’d probably still win out.

[Rebecca] You mentioned watching cheesy, Hallmark-style movies, but what other kinds of media do you engage with in your day-to-day life?

[John Burt] Well, I am, I am a watcher of PBS Masterpiece Series. I love The Crown, I love Victoria, I love, I love the Detective Series, I particularly love Foil’s War which I still think is one of the greatest detective series ever. I have a weak spot for Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis because they’re set at Oxford University and the author of them was an academic and therefore all of the academics are completely unsympathetic pretentious creeps. So I take a certain amount of pleasure in watching those academics get skewered by this detective.

[Sarah] Lastly, for our listeners who can’t see John Burt’s tie, it has a picture of Abraham Lincoln on it. So, do you wanna just talk about the tie, you, y’know, wrote a book about Lincoln. Why Lincoln?

[John Burt] Well, I worked for 36, no, 26 years on a book called Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism, which tries to see Lincoln in the context of political philosophy about liberalism. I don’t exactly turn Lincoln into John Rawles but I do put Lincoln and John Rawles next to each other and I say that you learn something about Lincoln if you read him next to John Rawles. And I look, very carefully, at Lincoln’s speeches, particularly at the Lincoln Douglas Debates but also at the classic speeches like the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address. Anyway, when that book came out they had sent, before it appeared, they had sent me a copy of the dust jacket of the book which, of course you can’t see it, but it’s very bright yellow with a black silhouette of Lincoln on it. I wondered whether this was a little too avant-garde for my relatively traditional book but my, my, my then art student niece thought it was really cool so I thought it was really cool. And I showed it to the department administrators in English, and secretly, they took a photo of it and sent it to this website where they will make ties of it. And when my book appeared, they gave me a tie with the cover of my book on it. So here it is.

[Rebecca] Thank you so much for being here—

[John Burt] Thank you so much!

[Rebecca] —and talking with us.

[Sarah] Hopefully people, y’know, prospective English majors will take something from it.

[John Burt] Yes! Come to Brandeis!

[All] *laughing*