Harland S. Nelson


I am pleased to still be considered a member of the departmental “family,” although I retired from full-time teaching at the end of the 1992 January term. At that point I was in my thirtieth year in the English department; I taught part-time during the fall semester for three more years, 1992-94. I was granted leave twice to serve as a Fulbright Professor, in 1967-68 at Bergen, Norway, and in 1972-73 at Innsbruck, Austria. From 1981 to 1986 I also directed a four-college consortium (Coe, Cornell, Grinnell, and Luther) program on agriculture and the liberal arts, funded by a grant from the Kellogg Foundation.

Before coming to Luther in 1962 I taught two years at the University of Missouri-Columbia (1951-53, after earning my M.A. from Washington State University) and three years (1959-62) at the University of Connecticut. (I did public relations at Evangelical Lutheran Church headquarters in Minneapolis 1953-55; 1955-59 I was back in graduate school.)

Special Interests

Besides teaching in the freshman program (like everyone else in the department), I took my turn at courses in modern fiction and expository writing, and was responsible for the courses in film and British Victorian literature (my academic “field”) when the departmental schedule of course offerings called for them. When my turn to run a seminar came around, I would offer one on Charles Dickens (whose novels have been my particular interest).

My major work on Dickens (Charles Dickens in the Twayne English Authors Series) stayed in print from 1981 to 2000. As of this writing, my last works on Dickens ("last" in both senses, most likely) were surveys of academic work on Dickens: Dickens Studies Annual, vol. 30, for Dickens Quarterly in 2003; and of the DSA annual survey of Dickens studies (the 1998 output, about 125 articles and books) in 2000. Since then I wrote an article for Vesterheim (vol. 4, no. 1 [2006] ) on the museum's open air division. From now on I plan to be writing (for our offspring, not for publication) reminiscences of life on the family farm in the 1930s.

Samples of My Writing on Dickens

From Charles Dickens, chapter 2: “`That Particular Relation': Dickens and His Audience”

[Dickens's interest in giving public readings from his novels] was that they promised to put him in the closest possible relation with his public. . . . If the money he could earn came to weigh more and more with him, the attractions of the audience did not grow less. He persisted in the readings against the advice of friends, business associates, and physicians, and gave them up only when his symptoms were too grave even for him to discount. [Edgar] Johnson suggests that this reckless persistence may have been unconsciously suicidal—“he had ceased to care what happened” (J 1104)—and goes on to specify the disappointments Dickens experienced in his latter years that robbed life of meaning for him. One meaning, it seems to me, life had for Dickens to the end: something to which he opposed his will daily, and opposing, subdued, and so affirmed his own being. So it is misleading to suggest that he sought death. Rather, he would risk death to keep on being himself.

From chapter 4, “Rhetoric, Structure, and Mode”

One more general observation will lead me to my final point on Dickens's humor, and that is, how pervasive it is. The last quarter-century of Dickens criticism has not had much to say of humor, in part for the very good reason that it did not seem to need talking about—everybody saw it. (In fact, Dickens's humor surely had something to do with the condescension toward him from late Victorians like Leslie Stephen, and their unwillingness to rate him very high: greatness was high seriousness, inseparable from solemnity.) But the gathering avalanche of Dickens criticism tended to obscure the humor; and whatever part it had in keeping people reading Dickens, it gained little support from academic criticism until lately. The return to critical respectability of Dickens's humor is welcome, for we see Dickens entirely wrong if we leave that out. One way or another, from imagery to syntax to the larger rhythms of narration, and from the wildest absurdity and the most savage sarcasm to the nearly imperceptible irony of Esther Summerson, humor figures in nearly every chapter of Dickens.

From chapter 6, “The Meaning of Dickens” (final paragraph)

Dickens's world is in many ways still ours; Victorian perplexities are still with us after more than a century of utilitarian technological revolution and societal change. That of course does not fully explain how Dickens “with his extraordinary intuition,” as Angus Wilson says, “leaps the century and speaks to our fears, our violence, our trust in the absurd….” If it did, Dickens would only swell a chorus of Victorian novelists speaking to our fears. What makes him singular is what we keep trying to take the measure of, that “extraordinary intuition.” By that power his work lives; and the world's body made by Dickens's imagination, energy, and will still breathes.