Literary Conversations Overheard

The Almost Collected Works of Jessica Hooten Wilson

One of the pleasures of having children in college is hearing them talk about the books they are reading, the conversations they have been in, and the professors and teachers they are studying under.

A few years back, my daughter TaraJane was talking with a college friend about a literature teacher at John Brown University. This teacher was described as very smart and very intimidating. TaraJane, if you will excuse my bragging, had made a point in a discussion one day in class and this professor disagreed. But, the professor contacted her sometime after class and told her that upon further reflection, she thought TaraJane was right. I was doubly impressed by the description of how exacting and shart this teacher was and her willingness to contact a student with such a concession.

Further information about this professor indicted that she was a great fan and student of such authors as Dante, Dostoevsky, and Flannery O’Connor. I began to form a conclusion: This teacher had to be Louise Cowan. Of course, that was impossible because Dr. Cowan died a few years before that time and before that had been a part of the University of Dallas. And I don’t believe in reincarnation or visits from the other world to the classrooms of today.

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But I was right, for the teacher had been a student of Dr. Cowan. I am one of the failed Louise Cowan students. I heard her speak on three different occasions. The first time, she was in her late 80s and the second and third times, she was in her 90s. I rank her alongside Greg Bahnsen, philosopher and theologian, as being among the smartest people that I have personally met and talked to.

Dr. Cowan was, one might say, the last of the Southern Agrarians and New Critics. By that I mean that she learned directly from the group of luminaries who turned Vanderbilt University into the Mecca of Southern literary studies. In time, she carved her own niche in the field of literature and the humanities alongside her husband Donald Cowan in their development of the University of Dallas, a Catholic institute of learning.

If I had known, if I had been aware of what was there, if I had been ready and able, I would have or should have crawled on my knees on broken glass in the 1970s all the way from Texarkana to Dallas, a three hour drive, in order to study under Dr. Cowan and M. E. Bradford. (I read their books as penance.)

Dr. Cowan’s study of literature and literary genres impacted a whole generation of teachers, authors, scholars, and professors in a number of colleges and universities across the land. In that last few seasons of her life, when her great mental faculties remained razor sharp and her insights revealed new groundbreaking thoughts to her younger colleagues, Dr. Cowan reached another aspiring literature teacher, Dr. Jessica Hooten Wilson.

I should add that Dr. Ralph Wood of Baylor is yet another of the formative influences on Dr. Wilson. I have been acquiring some of his books, but I have yet to enter into the kindergarten stage of learning from him.

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The first book I got by Dr. Wilson is Giving the Devil His Due: Demonic Authority in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Doestoevsky. This book is published by Cascade Books.

The thought of devils and the demonic is a bit frightful at first glance. But be assured that the devil and the demonic is never absent from any piece of literary writing. Be it atheist or orthodox believer, the author of a piece of fiction is either going to bring the devil in as a character, influencer, plot creator, plot changer, environment, or presupposition. To borrow an idea from…Chesterton, I think…a novel that does not have the devil and the demonic in it would be truly an evil book.

Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic author from the 20th century American South while Dostoevsky was an Orthodox author from 19th century Russia. Both wrote self-consciously Christian literature. And both wrote about characters and situations that revealed sin, the corruption of the human heart, the devil, and the demonic. Although they were separated by geography and time, it is easy enough to put a few dashes of O’Connor into any Dostoevsky Russian recipe, and the truly Southern dishes of O’Connor are enhanced by a tablespoon or two of Doestoevsky.

The conversation of the above is carried on in Walker Percy, Fyodor Dostoevksy, and the Search for Influence. This book is published by Ohio University Press. In this continuation of the study of Dostoevsky, Walker Percy, another 20th century Southern author and Catholic, steps in.

This book begins with the somewhat illusive but interesting topic of how and if one author influences another. Certainly, most authors are well read and usually deeply immersed in the literary canon(s) of the past. And no author is entirely original in his or her writings.

In this case, Percy’s library, notebooks, and annotations reveal that he did feel the weight and work from the influence of Dostoevsky. Sidenote: Percy’s best literary friend was Shelby Foote, a fellow Mississippian. The two often discussed and argued the merits of Russian authors Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekov.

Percy’s writings were more modern in theme and content. Dostoevsky’s style is less explicit and more to the tastes of us old time Victorians. But, the world ain’t pretty and people ain’t nice, so Percy displays the more realistic side of humanity.

A necessary companion volume to the book above and a necessary volume for anyone seeking to go beyond just the story lines of Percy’s novels is Reading Walker Percy’s Novels. This book is published by Louisiana State University Press.

This book is a discussion of Percy’s fiction, with a few notes and an appendix dealing with his nonfiction essay collections. Much of the material here is repeating the discussions of the Percy novels in the previous book.

I must confess that I was sitting quietly at the back of the classroom for this discussion. I have been gathering Walker Percy books for several years, but I still don’t have several of his major works. And, I have only read one novel–The Last Gentleman. Upon reading it, I was not overly impressed. Now understand that when you read a novel that is highly acclaimed and you are not impressed, the best thing is to shut up.

I had to let the novel soak in, and I had to start hearing what others have said about The Last Gentleman. I am not meaning to imply that a normal reader cannot have a worthwhile negative opinion of a classic, but my teaching experience and personal reading experience has taught me the wisdom of learning from others who like what I don’t initially like.

Reading Dr. Wilson’s work on Percy has moved me from being in neutral with my foot on the brake to putting the car into reverse. I need to read Walker Percy’s books. I need to finish a novel and reread what Dr. Wilson thinks about the novel.

Finally, I must confess that I have been hindered from better understanding her books by not having read Demons by Dostoevsky. I have read several of his novels and some of them more than once. When summer began, I was going to read Demons, but summer took me by surprise in this most insane year. I was battling too many changes and setbacks and surprises. Dostoevsky has had to wait. So has Walker Percy.

But when the day comes when I am back in the reading saddle, I will enjoy not only the novels, but the discussions found in books by Dr. Wilson.

Post Script: There is a new book out now titled Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, edited by Donald P. Deavel and Jessica Hooten Wilson. This book is published by Notre Dame University Press and sells for a mere $60. I sure hope to acquire a copy of this book by some means. Solzhenitsyn has long been a favorite. It simply has to be yet another great read.

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