Continuing in the Family Business

Tenure: Music to Their Ears

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:23 am | By Mark Baechtel

 

For Erik Simpson, English is more than a discipline; it's the family business.

He grew up in Olean, N.Y., the son of an English professor at St. Bonaventure University. His mother, too, is in academe, running the learning center at the local community college. His parents met -- as did he and his wife, Carolyn -- in an English graduate program. Simpson's father teaches the British Romantics; so does he.

That said, Simpson stresses that he never felt any pressure to walk the same path his parents walked. Quite the opposite, in fact.

"My parents encouraged me to explore other options so that I didn't go into English thoughtlessly," he says. "There's no question, however, that my upbringing made it easy to imagine life as a teacher, and that my parents knew how to give me books that would interest and challenge me."

Simpson says his decision to study British Romantics arose from "a fluke" rather than parental influence.

"When I went to the University of Virginia to do my undergraduate work, Jerome McGann, a titan of Romantic studies, had just redesigned the introductory course in English," he says. "To see how it worked, he taught a section of it my first semester; the rest were taught by graduate students he was supervising. When my father heard that McGann was teaching one of the sections, he told me that was the one to take. It was a magnificent course. At the end of that semester, I declared my English major with McGann."

Simpson says he considered other options along the way -- physics, law, music, consulting, computer programming -- but always circled back to English again. But though it's third on this list of other vocational possibilities, music has always been more than a passing fancy for him. He is, as was his father before him, a serious jazz saxophonist, and while he was an undergraduate at UVA, he was known first as a musician -- playing in Virginia's jazz band and working with musicians such as Joe Henderson, Clark Terry, Bob Moses, and "some of the guys from the Dave Matthews Band, which was then playing in Charlottesville most Tuesday nights for a $5 cover."

When he moved on to do graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, music had to take a back seat to his studies.

"I have never again played music regularly," Simpson says. "I still love playing when I find the time and opportunity, as I occasionally do in Grinnell."

No surprise, then, that Simpson found a way to combine his love of music with his study of English: his dissertation topic -- literary representations of minstrels and improvisers -- when he remarked in a grad school paper that the compositional process of Byron's The Giaour had something in common with a jazz solo.

The professor suggested that I should look into what British writers were saying about improvisation in the 1810s," he says. "When I did, I discovered two things: that the language of improvisation had just entered the English language at that time, so writers were in the process of deciding what it meant; and that they largely defined improvisers as Italian figures who represented an alternative to British and Irish minstrels. Those minstrels, I discovered, were simply everywhere in the writing of the time, and in my dissertation I set out to figure out why."

Simpson is busy with a book on the idea of the mercenary in British and American literature from about 1750 to 1830. It's a project that has developed alongside another compelling project he's launched with his wife, Carolyn -- namely, their son Pete, who turned 2 in January. Simpson is quick to say that the effect on his work has been salutary.

"Academic work tends to make one feel that one should be working nearly every waking minute, and often some of the sleeping ones, too," he says. "Ours can be a guilt-driven life. Having a young child creates boundaries: if I'm at the playground or reading a book with him, I can't be grading another paper or reading another book. I can and must clear my head and pay attention to the demands and wonders of Pete's rapidly expanding world. (I don't know how many experiences can match that of watching a human mind come into language.) Contrarily, knowing that I'll be spending evenings and weekends with Pete has given me a newly intense kind of concentration during the days and nights when I'm working. I've enjoyed the clarity of this separation between my work and family time. Fatherhood has focused my professional life in many unanticipated ways."

One can't help but wonder, too, whether a third-generation English prof isn't getting his start in the family business. -- Mark Baechtel