Department of English

Episode 9: Jerome Tharaud, Part 1

Jerome Tharaud

16 October 2020


[Caroline] Hello! This is the OpenBook English Department Faculty Podcast. I’m Caroline, one of the English UDRs at Brandeis.

[Joy] Hi, I’m Joy. I’m also one of the English UDRs at Brandeis.

[Caroline] And today we’re here with Professor Tharaud. We’re very excited to have you. How are you doing today?

[Jerome Tharaud] I’m great, thanks! It’s great to be here. 

[Joy] Cool! So, Professor Tharaud, can you explain a little bit about what classes you teach at Brandeis?

[Jerome Tharaud] Sure. I teach a variety of them, and they tend to be focused on American literature and culture. My specialty is in the nineteenth-century, as well as the earlier period, and I teach a class on the American West that I really love to teach. I teach a class called “Spirit Worlds” that’s about early American literature and culture and religion. There’s an intro course I enjoy teaching that I’m teaching right now. The theme is modern literature and the problem of evil, so we start out reading the Book of Job and thinking about the problem of unmerited suffering, then we read a list of books that are wrestling with that issue, so that’s a lot of fun. I really love teaching environmental literature, also. I have a class called “Environmental Literature in an Age of Extinction,” which thinks about environmental literature as it comes to grips with the problem of environmental damage over the last century and a half. This coming spring, I’m also teaching a new class about literary apocalypse and the ways that people in the Atlantic world have imagined the apocalypse. 

[Caroline] Very cool. It sounds like you teach a really interesting variety of courses at Brandeis! And outside of your teaching, we know that you have some pretty exciting news because you just had a book come out on October 13th called Apocalyptic Geographies. We would love it if you could tell us some more about your book, what it’s about, how it relates to your areas of specialization in English, and also what you hope people will learn from reading your book. 

[Jerome Tharaud] The short version is that it’s a book about how Evangelical Christians in nineteenth-century America thought about geography, and how they used mass media to spread those ideas and in the process shaped American culture in important ways—everything from abolitionism to popular literature to landscape tourism to the environmental movement. The slightly longer answer is that it’s about the ways Americans have used the landscape to think about spiritual life, and what happens when those spiritual geographies collide with this new modern world that’s emerging in the nineteenth century. This includes new territories being conquered, new technologies like railroads and steam presses, and new cultural forms like novels and landscape paintings. To understand that collision, I turn to Evangelicals because they have this rich tradition of spiritual geography that they borrowed from the Puritans. But they also were really good at adapting modern methods to spread their message, by distributing millions of tracts and bibles, using new forms of landscape illustration in those publications, and so on. I argue that what Evangelicals end up producing is a modern form of sacred space that I call “Evangelical Space.” I can say more about that, but one of my broader claims is that the modern world doesn’t just replace spiritual geographies with secular ones, but creates these hybrid spaces that are both modern and sacred. Another claim is that though we tend to think of globalization as a secular, material process—it’s about economies—many Americans historically understood it through a religious lens as a fulfillment of the apocalyptic prophecies that they read about in the Bible. 

[Caroline] That’s really interesting. I like that you’re gesturing both toward specific American communities—Evangelicals—and also the broader processes of land expansion and globalization. It sounds like it’s a really great book! 

[Joy] Yeah, I know that you specifically mentioned reading and getting inspiration and information from a variety of different sources. Just to go into more specifics on that, can you also explain the process of writing and editing this book that you just released? 

[Jerome Tharaud] It started as a dissertation, and at the time, I was reading a list for my orals about American landscape painting and then a list of religious texts—sermons and that sort of thing. In the scholarship about landscape and art history that I was reading, there seemed to be particular narrative about what the landscape was used for. I guess I’ll call it the “real estate” school of thinking, which is that these landscapes are inviting people to come take physical land. In these religious tracts that I was reading, I just felt like there was something different going on—that landscapes were helping people to imagine both the arc of sacred history, from creation to the end of the world, and also helping them think about their own spiritual development. I thought that there was a different kind of story that could be told there. 

That was the dissertation that I wrote, and then once I got the PhD, I was kind of sick of Evangelicals, so I got a postdoc and I decided that I wanted to write a few chapters about other kinds of literary cultures in the US and how they were responding to this religious culture—this spatial imagination that I’ve describing. I wrote a few new chapters on American transcendentalists, focusing on Henry David Thoreau; I wrote about sensational fiction, which are dime novels that were published. They were these violent, kind of quasi-pornographic texts—as far as you can get from religious literature. I guess that was phase two of the book process, and then once I came to Brandeis, it was a matter of tying it together—writing an introduction, a conclusion. There were about two or three summers that I spent weaving all that material together and submitting various drafts of it to publishers, then doing the revisions once the reader reports come in. All in all, I guess it ended up being more than a ten-year process. At times during that process, I felt kind of trapped the book, like “I’m never gonna get away from this and move onto other things!” Now that it’s out, I’m reading it a few pages at a time and just really enjoying it, so I feel happy with it. I think all that labor paid off in the end. 

[Caroline] It must be nice to finally be able to enjoy the book after such a long and arduous process of writing and editing it! We know that your scholarship on the American West and American literature in general is based on your own personal experience growing up in the West, and that you’ve lived in a few different western states. We’re wondering, how did your experience growing up in the American West shape your literary interests and affect what you wanted to write about?

[Jerome Tharaud] I think that growing up in the West made me very aware of the landscape and the ways that landscapes impact individuals and communities, but I don’t think that I ever thought about the West as a separate literary domain until somewhat later. It was when I was going to college in Chicago and taking the train twenty-seven hours back and forth between Chicago and Montana. It sort of emphasized that sense of regional difference and emphasized the physical sense of the space, for one thing—just how far that is. But then, after college, I went back and wrote for a daily newspaper in North Central Montana in a town called Havre. I think that’s probably when I started thinking more carefully about what kind of writer I wanted to be and what it meant to write about a place. 

[Caroline] Since you mentioned it, could you tell us a bit more about your early career as a reporter, what kind of news you typically covered, and also what the most challenging aspect of being a reporter was?

[Jerome Tharaud] Sure. I had three beats: city governments, K-12 schools, and the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, which was a little bit south of town. It’s the Chippewa Cree Tribe. In addition to that, every 2-3 weeks, I would do a feature story on Fridays—longer stories which I really got into and enjoyed. College, of course, was an education, but in terms of learning how the world works, like sitting in on City Council meetings and school board meetings and things like that, I just think that was an education on its own. And a different relationship to language—the kind of rigor where if you misspell somebody’s name or somebody’s referring to their brother but it’s really their stepbrother…if you’re a reporter, you shouldn’t have more than two or three errors like that in a year. That level of factual accuracy was a challenge. 

I would say also, being on deadline day after day. On Monday morning, you have to go in and feed the beast; you have to write about something, even if there’s not much interesting that’s happening in town. 

Also, talking to public officials who don’t necessarily want to talk to you is difficult. I’m not a very confrontational person. For example, this was the period when George W. Bush’s education law, “No Child Left Behind,” was passed, so I did a series of stories about the changes that was bringing to the public schools and how they were introducing standardized tests to kids as young as kindergarten. The superintendent…they got some complaints about this because people didn’t want their kindergarteners being tested. He basically told the teachers not to talk to me. That’s a hard situation.

I think the stories I enjoyed more were those feature stories—whether I was going out to one-room schoolhouses and talking about that….I don’t know, there was just a lot of interesting feature stories that I did, and I think that part of the reason I decided to go to graduate school was that I wanted to tell those kinds of stories, but I wanted to learn how to research. I wanted to ground those stories in history and in the research archive. I’m not sure that that’s what English PhD programs are there for; they’re not really that interested in teaching people how to write stories. I think it’s more about analysis. I feel like it’s been kind of a roundabout process of coming to be able to do the kind of writing that I wanted to do that would combine people’s voices—I really love to do interviews—with textual sources and the historical archive. For my next book, maybe I’m going to be able to get closer to that.

[Caroline] Just to go back a little bit in time—backpedaling—we’ve heard that you spent a year in Turkey in high school, which is fascinating, and not only did you grow up in the American West, but you spent part of your formative years in another country. We’d love to hear more about that—why you went and what it was like there.

[Jerome Tharaud] This was my sophomore year in high school, and my dad, who’s also a teacher, got a Fulbright grant to go to Turkey and teach at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. I went with him and I attended the international community school there. It was an amazing experience. Of course, there was culture shock at first, and there was a lot of getting lost—it’s kind of like Boston, but times ten in terms of not being “on the grid,” you know, on a grid plan. But by the end of the year, I really enjoyed it, and I just think it’s a beautiful city. The Bosphorus is just so gorgeous. 

I also think that it changed my perceptions in a couple ways. I was pretty shocked by the poverty that I saw there. You walk out of a glittering, glass, European-style mall, and there’s a little kid out on the curb, a homeless child, asking you to step on the scale and pay him to weigh you. I’d never experienced anything like that before, so I think that when I came back, I just felt like I was aware of how much we throw away in our culture—in terms of people, but also food and all kinds of goods that we throw away. I remember, in my high school history class after I got back, arguing that there should be a limit on individual wealth and people looking at me like there were antlers sticking out of my head or something. 

That was a very formative experience, but also the experience of living in a Muslim country. Of course, September 11th happened not that long after that. I felt that in most ways, it was safer for me to go around by myself as a teenager in Istanbul that it would’ve been in many other European cities in the Mediterranean, and certainly more than in a lot of American cities. This Islamophobia that took hold after September 11th about the risks of Mulsims—it didn’t make sense to me; it didn’t resonate with my experience. I think it was valuable in that way. 

[Caroline] I’ve heard that Istanbul has a lot of cultural influences from both Asia and Europe, which makes it very unique as a city. Was that your experience when you were there? Did you kind of pick up on that?

[Jerome Tharaud] Yeah, I’m sure I did. There’s just so many layers of history there—going from the Ottoman Empire and those amazing old mosques and Topkapi Palace, you can go to these archeological sites in Anatolia, on the Asian side, and see amazing sites from the Trojan War and King Midas’s tomb. This is not actually in Istanbul itself, but that area as a “crossroads” was definitely interesting. 

[Joy] Talking about your stay in Turkey and how you were able to see the different cultures there and how it relates to different issues that are happening in the United States—making these connections—where would you like to travel in the future, post-coronavirus? 

[Jerome Tharaud] Most immediately, I’d like to travel back home—go back to Montana in the summers and see my parents and some friends. We weren’t able to do that this summer, so that’s the first thing on my list. I’ve also recently been reading up on the Southwest and Willa Cather’s experience in the Southwest for the Brandeis Novel Symposium in a few weeks, so I’d kind of like to get down there and see Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly and some of those cliff-dweller sites that inspired her so much. Further afield, I’d like to explore Latin America more. I have a background in Spanish, although I’ve probably lost most of it because I haven’t had to use it. I lived in Ecuador for a little while and did a homestay between high school and college. I’d like to visit Peru, see Machu Picchu and some other lesser-known ruins. I’d like to see Chile and Argentina and more of the Andes. I think the Andean culture is really interesting. That’s probably what I’ll do, but of course, I have little kids, so I feel like I haven’t traveled out of the country for—well, it’s probably been seven years. My oldest daughter is seven, so I’ve been in baby-land for quite a while, and it’s been so long, I’m sort of nervous about traveling internationally again. I’m sure I’ll get back into it once we have the chance. 

[Caroline] I hope that you can get to Latin America—with or without your kids—at some point when the pandemic is over!