Teacher, Writer, Scholar: Matthew Redmond
During this transitional year, with the third floor of Sweet Hall still less peopled than in the pre-pandemic era, it has remained a challenge to get to know our new colleagues and to learn about their scholarly projects. Fortunately, a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of joining Dr. Matthew Redmond beside Meyer Green to chat about his writing, in particular his compelling work on the “extant figure” in American literature. An extant figure is a character or voice who survives beyond their time into another era, sometimes becoming an object of anxiety or even of fear. As we spoke, I couldn’t help thinking of how useful this framework may be for understanding our own time, where the extreme disruptions of the past few years continue to make the practices of pre-pandemic life feel worrisome or even a little dangerous. A hint of the extant attended our conversation itself, which felt a little like a ritual surviving from a previous time, although from my perspective the experience was entirely welcome.
A native of Montreal—and a self-described “die-hard” Canadiens fan—Matthew earned his BA and MA degrees in English at McGill University. He then came to Stanford, where he studied English with a focus on American Literature, earning a further MA in 2017 and a PhD in 2021. His dissertation, titled “Living Too Long: The Extant Figure in American Literature,” outlines Matthew’s general theory of the extant figure as “someone who disrupts their environment by refusing to die when expected, their lifespan stretching past the limits of one historical moment and into another where they cannot fully belong.” Literary examples include characters like Rip Van Winkle, Natty Bumppo, and Uncle Julius, and also more abstract figures as well, such as the speaker of Emily Dickinson’s poem “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun” (F764). All of these figures possess “the unsettling power of too much longevity.” These types have a great deal to teach us about how people relate to and sometimes fear what lingers from bygone eras. As Matthew explained it to me, the project developed from this larger, original question: how do events pass from living memory into historical memory? Studying examples of the extant, in a sense, may become a manageable way to attend to and answer this difficult question.
Influences on this research include work by his mentor Alex Woloch on character types that reveal structural and cultural assumptions (such as “minor characters” in literature). A book he received as a gift when he was accepted into Stanford’s English Department, Gavin Jones’ Failure and the American Writer, also left a big impact. Matthew also cites Denise Gigante’s work on Keats as a major influence.
Since filing his dissertation, Matthew has begun carving articles out of the study for publication, and he has already had remarkable success placing his research in scholarly journals. His essay “Without the Power to Die: Dickinson’s Longevity” in the Summer 2022 issue of ELH, explores how Dickinson’s processed questions such as longevity and mortality in her poetry against the background of her education at Amherst Academy under Edward Hitchcock (who was both a Congregationalist minister and a geologist fascinated by the fossil record), as well as the long period of “nearly constant mourning” Dickinson endured at the end of her life. Matthew also addresses the seeming paradox of Dickinson’s famous reluctance to publish her poetry even though she “badly wanted her poems to live.” What does it really mean, this essay asks, when a writer or artist may seem to speak to or for that matter beyond their historical moment? What critical assumptions and trappings shape the way we approach a writer’s longevity, biological (or even geological) as well as in terms of literary significance? Another essay, on the extant in the work of James Fenimore Cooper titled “Living Too Long: Republican Time in Cooper’s Leatherstocking Novels” will appear in the Summer 2022 issue of Nineteenth-Century Literature (NCL).
Matthew is prolific, and this includes writings that aspire to reach broader audiences as well. These works reveal other dimensions of the author’s research interests, not to mention his adaptability as a writer. Matthew possesses an extraordinary ability to bring figures from literary history to life for twenty-first-century audiences, making him a bit like an agent of extant survival (think of his work as a kind of “elixir of life”). Although many of the writers he discusses are famous, and widely studied, they also seem too frequently touched by mythologies that range from dusty to deathly. Take, for instance, an essay he wrote for Lapham’s Quarterly, titled “Edgar Allen Poe Needs a Friend,” which immediately dispels the myth of this supposedly ghoulish literary figure. The opening gambit is worth quoting at length to show you Matthew in action:
Type “Edgar Allan Poe” into your preferred image search engine, brace for impact, and press Enter. Instantly you hit a wall of chalk-white faces, each conveying a mixture of despair, dyspepsia, grief, wonderment, and wounded pride. Some are actual daguerreotypes, while the rest are fan art or movie stills inspired by those antique likenesses. In every case, one has the distinct feeling that misery could not ask for better company. This is Poe.
Now try searching “Poe Osgood portrait” instead. What comes up this time is a face totally different from those in the previous set. It can’t be the same person. There is color in his cheeks and light in his eyes, and his brow looks quite unburdened. The expression registers as neither menacing nor miserable, but magnanimous. This too is Poe.
Asking his reader to conduct a little web research alongside him, Matthew shows us right away that the mythos of Poe is exactly that: a mythos, and one that may reveal more about us, and our approach to history, than it does about the writer. Spending time with Matthew’s work is like touring the hall of mirrors of how we write literary history with an expert guide, who helps us sort perception from misperception, along the way prompting us to reflect on what it means when we choose to remember or characterize a given writer through a certain lens (because those lenses are shaped by historical and cultural shifts).
Other works by Matthew include a piece developed from his experience teaching a course for Stanford’s English Department on unfinished novels, including works by Poe, Austen, Dickens, and others (“Why Should We Read Unfinished Novels?”, Literary Hub). A more general reflection on “The Birth of Immortality” has been accepted by the Los Angeles Review of Books, which will engage the question, “what if endless life is torture.” (Ahem—did I mention that Matthew is prolific? We have a veritable industry in our midst). Matthew also has published an essay in the French journal Textes et Contextes, titled, “Rip Van Winkle’s Coat: Inheriting the American Republic.” This piece focuses on the first few decades after the American Revolution, and tries using the concept of anachronism to complicate how we regard nineteenth-century conceptions of historical change and generational influence.
For Stanford PWR, Matthew currently teaches a PWR 1 course titled “Good Old Days: The Rhetoric of Nostalgia,” a topic with considerable intersections with his research. In fact, in many ways, he sees his teaching and writing as continuous. As he puts it, “I do my best teaching when I’m also writing, and vice versa. These things amplify and cross-pollinate one another.” The nostalgia course has offered a chance to explore “different perspectives and frames of reference” beyond the realm of the literary. In his course, Matthew receives papers on an exceptionally diverse range of topics, from which he has learned a lot about the domain of nostalgia as a field of discussion: from papers on Marvel Universe movies, and how they call back to earlier films and signify on and against them, to student work on Xi Jinping’s nostalgia for an earlier China. These and other adaptations of Matthew’s course theme have been “eye-opening” for his own work.
Matthew enjoys “opening up possibilities” with student writers. “So much of what students do in essay writing in PWR is automatic, uninterrogated,” but the process of conferencing allows us to work with our students “to move writing and its process from the pale of the unconscious to the pale of the conscious.” Approaching pedagogy through the lens of PWR has been especially valuable to Matthew, in particular our emphasis on centering the experience of students. It differs from the teaching of literature, where courses can feel like a “showcases of materials,” and where course content itself can sometimes become “a barrier to the experience of the students.” Matthew describes this year as a true “watershed moment in [his] experience as an educator.”
As a writer, how does Matthew stay so productive? “I’m less precious about my work habits than I once was,” he explains. Whereas in the past “the wind had to be blowing in a certain direction,” he now realizes that it’s impossible to wait around for “ideal conditions.” Sage wisdom, which we might all keep at hand as writers: “Fifteen minutes working on something is better than nothing at all. The accumulation of those small moments have a bigger impact than one might have thought.” Matthew also finds himself going to well-executed literary criticism when he’s looking for inspiration. Sometimes he goes to Netflix, too, where the documentary They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, about Orson Welles’s “painful failure” to finish his experimental drama The Other Side of the Wind has a “weirdly galvanic effect,” as Matthew describes it. “After I watch ten minutes of it, I want to create.”
Finding inspiration, and even creativity itself in failure: what I admire most about Matthew as a writer and scholar is his impulse to dwell in what other writers might view as perilous potential contaminants—unfinished novels, the haunted realm of the extant, the very pale of death (in the case of the Poe mythos)—and to emerge unscathed, in fact renewed. Not surprisingly, one of his favorite inspirations, a Dickinson poem, which came to him in the depths of Covid, strongly reflects this atmosphere. The poem was cited in a pedagogy seminar, and Matthew knew immediately that he had to write about it (note that the final line is the title of his ELH piece):
Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without - the power to die –
Although Matthew claims he knew “next to nothing of Dickinson at the time,” these lines, which might at first glance seem austere, led him to one of the most “generative moments” of his entire dissertation writing experience, during which he devoted himself to the poet’s work for a whole “Covid summer.” Around that time, Matthew also published a moving reflection in The Conversation on Dickinson the prolific mourner as an “unlikely hero of our time." When I think of our colleague Matthew Redmond the teacher, writer, and scholar, this is how I picture him: as Emily Dickinson’s most attentive reader, steadfast amid the isolation and weirdness of the pandemic moment, listening across historical rupture (and the problem of persisting beyond it) for her original lessons in order to make them live for us.