I have been an avid reader as long as I can remember being. Books were solace, books were an escape from anxiety, books were knowledge. Books were friends who did not let me down, nor did books beat me up. But for many years, my reading habits were like a well; deep, but narrow. I read science, and science fiction. Everything else I had convinced myself was trivial. Did Mr. Spock read Vulcan romance novels?
"Dave Ventre? Did you have Dr. Edwards at FDU?"
Actually, he probably did.
All college freshmen take English Comp. It’s usually designated EN-101 or something low-numbered like that. EN-101 at Fairleigh-Dickinson university in the Fall of 1974 was where I met Maria. It’s also where I met Prof. Duane D. Edwards.
Doc Edwards was thirty-six when I started college, although I thought him younger. Not tall, slightly chunky, bearded and erudite. A gentle man with a soft voice, an easygoing manner and a quiet sense of humor. He very much fit my mental image of a humanities professor. He would occasionally be accompanied to class by his young daughter Leah, who was maybe seven or eight years old.
I didn’t want to take this course. A science geek, I considered it a waste of valuable science time. But it is required of all. Dr. Edwards’ section was the one that best fit my schedule.
If I recall, Prof. Edwards started us off with the poems of William Blake. If you have not read Blake, rest assured that he is…exceedingly strange. He looked at humanity with a very wise, skeptical and jaundiced eye, the sort of look I had never bothered to even attempt. I was shaken and enthralled. We also covered the political philosophy of John Locke, of which I remember little except the thesis that if a person tries to rob you, you are fully justified in killing them. This sounded harsh to me, but we discussed it in the context of a time and place where if, for instance, a workman lost all his tools, he and his family might well starve to death. So a robbery was not much different from a violent assault. Again, things I had never even considered.
In Thomas Carlyle’s “Sartor Resartus” I discovered erudite high satire and clever word play as practiced in the early 19th century.
I think that the class assignment that most affected me was Thomas Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge.” The titular Mayor, as a young man, under the influence of drink, does a very bad thing. He regrets it, and is driven to sober up and make something of himself. Which he does, making his fortune in the grain trade and eventually becoming the mayor of Casterbridge. And then, as in a classic film noir, his past surfaces. Like a Fury, implacable, it then pursues him to his ruin. Despite the flowery prose and insanely convoluted plot, I loved it. Hardy also wrote “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” which shares the theme of pursuit by a merciless destiny, although Tess was completely innocent.
We called Prof. Edwards “DH Edwards” because he loved the works of DH Lawrence. I am sure we covered some of Lawrence’s works, but I didn’t much care for DHL, and cannot remember what we studied. Although a marvelous teacher, he was not able to get me to warm to Lawrence.
If all of this sounds a bit more ambitious than a standard freshman English Comp curriculum…it was. Dr. E confided in me later that the class was an experiment by the University to see how well things like high school grades and SAT verbal scores correlated with performance in this basic course. So he took this randomly selected group of students, whose grades and test scores ran the gamut from meh to wow, and gave us his most advanced graduate-level English Lit course in the guise of lowly EN-101. They found no meaningful correlation; we all did from fair to excellent. The power of a great teacher!
At the end of freshman year, Dr. Edwards told me that if I wished, he would be glad to sign off on me taking any of his graduate courses for undergraduate credit. Which I did; every humanities course I took for the rest of my undergrad days was one of his graduate courses, which was a bit of a strain because most met in the evening. I was the only science major in these courses, too. I think he liked the skewed and somewhat science-fictionish perspective that I had. Since I got an extra credit for each, I was able to get to within one course of a minor in English Literature, which I’d have achieved had I not spent the last semester at the St. Croix marine lab.
A few years after I graduated, I met some people at a party somewhere in Jersey. We made introductions. One guy stared at me and said “Dave Ventre? Did you have Dr. Edwards at FDU? He still talks about the one undergrad scientist he had in his courses with the crazy story ideas who could hold his own with all the English PhD students!”
I credit Dr. Edwards with opening my mind to the endless possibilities of prose, to an intellectual world beyond the one I was comfortable inhabiting.
Good old DH Edwards!
Coda: Duane Edwards
A hyper-annuated wannabee scientist with a lovely wife and a mountain biking problem.