This is a transcription of an interview between Barry Scherr and Ainsley Morse, the first installment in a new of AATSEEL/SEEB project to create an archive of the history of our field. If you are interested in interviewing an emeritus faculty member, please contact us at email@example.com!
Ainsley Morse (AM): So the first question is about your own education—what was it like—it says “pros and cons,” so, what worked and what was not so great.
Barry Scherr (BS): OK, so my education in Russian-related matters—Slavic-related matters—started at Harvard, then at University of Chicago for graduate school. For me one of the weird things is, when I went to college, I actually managed to enter as a sophomore—you could do that by taking advanced-placement courses—and that was geared toward those people who knew exactly what they wanted to do and had great preparation. I had neither, so it was really..
AM: You just had the credits.
BS: The credits. So it was probably a mistake on my part—during my first year I think I declared maybe 4 or 5 different majors, I hadn’t the foggiest idea what I wanted to do.
AM: Was Russian one of them?
BS: No, it wasn’t at the time, that was part of it too. I took Russian because I had thought I’d probably end up majoring in one of the hard sciences, and in those days the hard sciences required languages for PhDs. You actually needed two languages. I was told that particularly if you do chemistry or physics or math, Russian and German were probably the two. I opted for Russian, took a year of Russian, finished the year and—I really don’t even remember what I was majoring in then (maybe philosophy and math together, I went through lots)—anyway, I wasn’t really happy with anything at that point. Then somehow over the summer a couple of things happened to me. One of them is I was told that they had an intensive second year at Harvard, which people loved—they said the regular second year course was a bit blah—I figured it’d be great to take that.
AM: Oh yes, I taught it!
BS: So anyway, I was strongly thinking of doing that, but I was still going to major in something else, figured the intensive course wouldn’t get in the way. In the spring I had taken a comp lit course, which I didn’t like particularly except for Anna Karenina, and I was thinking I’d liked some Russian literature I’d read before, I’d had a year of Russian, I’m probably not going into the hard sciences, so why don’t I do Russian. See, I was already a junior, and that was one of the problems, my junior and senior years were both largely Russian, though not totally—I really rushed into stuff.
AM: Who was teaching Russian at the time? Was it taught by the full professors, or did they have the preceptor system?
BS: Oh, the language? Yeah, I don’t think they were called preceptors then. Mostly instructors, graduate student instructors. Bob Rothstein, who went on to a long career at UMass-Amherst, was one of my—he was my teacher for the intensive second year, actually. He was a grad student at the time. In fact, the ones I came in contact with were pretty much all grad students, until you got to third-year Russian.
AM: And were there any Russians around? I guess Jakobson was around?
BS: Oh, Jakobson, yes. The Russians were at the regular tenure-track professor level, tenured level actually. It was primarily an émigré department, though Horace Lunt was chairing it, a great linguist, probably the only person in those years who could actually go up through the ranks and become a professor— they’d hire people for several years and push them out, that was the norm at the time. But if you look back at it, there were some great names there—Setchkarev, whom I had for Slavic 150, the introduction to Russian literature, and also the Pushkin course. Years later, I went on to do all this work with Russian metrics and versification, and Taranovsky was there teaching back then… But in those days almost no undergraduate dared take a course with him, and given the fact that I had started Russian so late I would never have been ready for his classes at the time. But he was there.. And Albert Lord, doing the South Slavic stuff… they were really famous people. And I audited a course from Roman Jakobson; he was certainly there, very much a presence.
AM: How many Russian majors were there at the time?
BS: A handful, I mean, several, you know, 4-5-6 at most in a given class, it wasn’t huge. But you had all the graduate students around, there was a lot of interest in Russian—it was still the post-Sputnik years, I got there in ’63 as an undergraduate, so interest in Russian was still fairly strong. And you had a lot of, you know, at Harvard they still have that History & Literature major, don’t they? [AM: Yes] So a lot of students were doing that, you really had a lot of people around doing Russian, you didn’t feel like it was that tiny an area necessarily, except for the small handful of majors. I remember, I was impressed when I took a junior seminar with Andrew Field; he had already published his translation of Sologub’s Melkii bes, and here he was still a grad student, hadn’t taken his qualifying exams yet… So, it was really quite a place in a lot of ways, a little intimidating, but good.
AM: But you kind of felt like you were always running to catch up?
BS: That was a bit of a problem, yeah.
AM: You were only there for three years.
BS: Yeah, and again, really only two years as a Russian major. In fact, I think it was about a year and three quarters as a Russian major. But I audited one or two courses each semester and took other classes… One, well, two good things came out of it. First of all, I did get to see these great people, though I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time. And at Harvard, particularly in those days, professors and students were truly in different worlds, you know, any kind of getting together or even casual contact was pretty unusual, I would say. With the grad students a little bit but not with the professors. So we had that sort of distance there. On the other hand, because I felt so far behind, I read everything I could get my hands on in Russian lit. In those days you did a thesis, if you wanted to go honors, and you also had a comprehensive exam. And I read just about everything that could possibly be read for the comprehensive, so I kind of breezed through it, and that was a good preparation for grad school. So I guess the good part was, obviously, some brilliant people I got in contact with, and by the time I got out of there I had a fairly decent literary preparation, of all things—
AM: Outside of Russian or specifically Russian?
BS: Specifically Russian, but outside of Russian too—I just tended to read a lot of lit, and that would send me in other directions as well—and even a decent background in Russian area studies, Russian history, I took a government course on Russia, things like that—so you know, that part was pretty good. Grad school, Chicago:
AM: Did you go right away?
BS: Yes, I went right away, and I really liked the experience overall, it was a very good place. Hugh McLean had been the real spirit behind the department, and he was about to leave for Berkeley as it turned out. He was on sabbatical. We were on a quarter system in Chicago already then, and I think he was gone my first two quarters, came in the spring and was there the next year, but already had decided to go to Berkeley. So, he was in a way out the door, but he actually, for the rest of my career, until he passed away recently, was a great support, was truly wonderful. Again, some strong teaching, and the graduate student community was really good. For me a couple things about it: I decided to take Serbo-Croatian for my second Slavic language. We had the very classic Jakobsonian philology program, you know, you had to do linguistics, you had to do a second Slavic language and so forth. And what was good about that, I didn’t do much with Serbo-Croatian per se, but they had this fellow Svetozar Petrović who came in and was a visitor I guess much of the time I was there. He went back and forth between Chicago and Yugoslavia quite a bit. He was just fantastic. He would do a course on, I don’t know, Modern Serbo-Croatian literature, and he’d have us reading, well, he’d maybe assign one poem in Serbo-Croatian for the next class, knowing that one was all most of us could read, but he’d use that as an introduction to surrealism. And he’d give us a fantastic lecture on surrealism. I kept all my notes from his classes, and when I was starting to teach I was referring back to what he’d taught again and again and again.
AM: [digression on her own fantastically erudite undergraduate mentor Ivana Vuletić, who provided an incredible foundation in literary studies generally: “honestly I don’t know if I ever had anyone in Russian who ever provided the like”]
BS: I think I’d say the same about Petrović, he was that strong, really, just an absolutely brilliant person. He made me appreciate that people living in these countries that you are barely acquainted with often had better educations than any of us Americans did […] They were all very well read. One thing that professor said to me that I always recalled afterwards is that in the States if you asked us to read something, we’d read it; while back home, [the students] wouldn’t read it, but they’d read about twenty other books instead. He himself was always just picking up various things.. He grew up speaking three or four languages and he always mentioned that he was surprised he never learned Hungarian because they were speaking some Hungarian in his town, but that one just did not click with him. But generally foreign languages did.
AM: Was there a sizable Yugoslav population in Chicago at that time? I’m thinking not, I know now there is but mostly as a consequence of the 90s wars.
BS: You know, believe it or not, there was a sizable Slavic population there. I remember, at the university at one point… It was something to do with Macedonia, and there was a bomb threat on campus because they were bringing in a person who was speaking on the wrong side of some issue. So, I wouldn’t say it was huge, but there was a bit of a population. Of course, at a place like the University of Chicago, the local population doesn’t mingle that much with the campus, but still, there were people there, and there’d be speakers, and you’d see people drifting in from the community.
AM: But your PhD thesis was just on Russian, right?
BS: Just on Russian, on the writer Alexander Grin, of all things… I walked into a class on Soviet literature—this was, I think, my second year there— and had decided I wanted to do something in the twentieth century, so I was going to pick out a topic from that class and write a dissertation. Grin wasn’t even on the reading list, but we did do various additional readings for papers. Actually, the person I was most attracted to at first was Platonov, about whom at that time nobody knew anything. And yet—I had read just a couple things by him, but I was really attracted to him. At Harvard—I remember, Setchkarev, when he was doing his survey of twentieth century literature, most of what he was talking about was émigré lit. It wasn’t that he didn’t talk about Soviet literature at all, but very briefly and not with a lot of great enthusiasm, let’s put it that way.
AM: So at Chicago there was a bit more openness?
BS: It was bit more open, you know, Chicago… it wasn’t an émigré department at all. Hugh McLean, Edward Wasiolek, who did a lot of the Tolstoy/Dostoyevsky courses, 19c courses, and literary theory, and Ralph Matlaw, who also did 19c prose, plus poetry—they were all fairly broad. They brought in a couple of younger people while I was there—Milton Ehre, then Barbara Heldt. I took a class with her, on Russian poetry—she was great to have. So, I had a lot of interesting teachers, great teachers, and the graduate students there had a wonderful community, leaned on each other for a lot of support. We’d have these two-hour classes with a ten-minute break in between, and during the break we’d all go off to have coffee somewhere, to one of the little coffee shops around campus, and show up for class a half hour later… There were two large cohorts they admitted, the year ahead of me was pretty small, just several, and then in my year 9 or 10, and the year after probably one or two more than that. So two really big classes. And producing almost no PhDs out of all that group, maybe two my year and one the year after. Well, as always, a lot of things happen in grad school, and also we had Vietnam then too, which took a lot of people out. So not a lot of PhDs.. But again, a very strong program, a good sense of community, more connection between the professors and students there than I had experienced at Harvard… I felt like it set me on my path pretty well. And, again, I felt like I had that preparation after having read so much at Harvard, preparation for my PhD orals…
AM: What kind of an exam did you have? [question about thesis-tailored list vs. giant all-purpose list]
BS: We had a giant list—in some ways it wasn’t even a list, it was just—Russian literature. But I memorized lots of little pieces, had a few names I could throw out if need be, and again, the orals for me went very, very well somehow, I think there was one question I got stumped on, I can’t remember which one right now, but everything else… It wasn’t that I breezed through all the answers or anything, but at least I knew the basic facts and could talk about most works.
AM: Who was your advisor?
BS: When I got to the thesis stage it was Ralph Matlaw, and I worked very closely with Wasiolek. Hugh McLean had left by the time of my orals. That was the orals on Russian lit; they had a written part on comparative literature, or theory I should call it; a written part on linguistics; you had another written part on your second Slavic language. So, it was a couple months of exam-taking.
AM: How much linguistics was expected of you at that time?
BS: Not that much. If you were in literature it wasn’t all that much…perhaps 3 courses.
AM: Did you teach Russian?
BS: No, at that time at Chicago the grad students did almost no teaching in the dept. Some people taught undergraduates. more in the comp lit department or others. Chicago had, still has, a great books approach for the first couple of years. And the graduate students I knew who taught in that were comp lit people who were doing some Russian; I don’t think any of the Russian grads I knew were teaching at all at that time. It’s quite striking. So, when you went on the job market, you were really—whoa, that was it.
AM: So, the other programs were giving people that training, or was the division [between teaching and research] in place, which is still lurking?
BS: I think at that time there was a lot less [teaching] in the graduate programs.
AM: Less emphasis on language teaching?
BS: Well, yes, very little emphasis on language teaching, very little emphasis on teaching period, you know, you learned a lot of facts, learned a lot, read a lot, worried about your writing and stuff, but.. At some of the graduate programs they didn’t really offer big opportunities for teaching, which again, in retrospect, was a drawback. But at the time, I think you didn’t realize it,; then you went on the job market and realized you had zero experience.
AM: But also, you were on the job market going for one of these tenure-track positions that would expect research of you, not language teaching?
BS: Sure, but you didn’t know what job you were going to get when you went on the market. The market back then was different than now. What, is the next question about difficulties? Well, getting a job is always a difficulty. I guess my two biggest difficulties were a) starting late, because I always felt a little bit behind, with one thing or another—by the time I caught up with the readings I thought my Russian was behind… In fact, particularly when I got into grad school, because we had all these students floating around…
AM: I actually wanted to ask you about how you felt about your Russian, after your two years—I guess you had two, or?
BS: Two and a half—it felt like I should have had more. Reading a lot of Russian was a struggle. I still have—I don’t do that now, but—I looked at the notebooks I had many years ago, I was reading Russian plays, and I was writing down all the words I didn’t know.
AM: I still have those too!
BS: My Russian vocabulary became huge at the time, it’s just, it was kind of slow and painful.
[AM digression about dictionaries, about trying to teach morphology that later becomes intuitive]
BS: I still try to use paper dictionaries more than anything else, otherwise you just—you’re not learning as much. Anyway, that was the first difficulty, then, of course, getting the first job—well, I lucked into one, but..
AM: Where was your first job?
BS: University of Washington in Seattle. And I got there because, well, I was in Russia doing research for my dissertation, on IREX, actually it was the first IREX year, as it turned out. Before that they had something called the Inter-University Committee on Travel Grants. That was replaced by IREX my year. So, I was there. I had sent a few letters back to the States, but remember, this was all by slow mail—really slow mail, out of Russia. We could use the embassy mailing pouch, but it didn’t go that much faster. I missed out on a couple possibilities, and—again, it turned out that Hugh McLean played a big role in this for me. The University of Washington at the last minute was looking for a replacement because somebody was taking leave. And Hugh had sent out a couple of letters on my behalf, they had a letter from him, they wrote me, said would you be interested, I said yeah, sure. And I headed off to Seattle, really not knowing where it was even. I mean, I knew it was in the state of Washington, that was about it.
AM: Where were you born?
BS: Born in CT. Everything was on the East Coast—Chicago was the furthest west I’d ever been at that point. So I headed out there, in the beginning it was a one-year position that got renewed, and eventually I was made tenure-track, and around that time is when the job opened up at Dartmouth and I moved there.
AM: And what year was that, that you came here [to Dartmouth]?
BS: Came here in ’74.
AM: That was right after they let women in, right?
BS: Yeah, it was a couple years after co-ed had started—that was ’72. When I first came I didn’t appreciate as much that it had just started because I was doing a lot of language teaching, freshman seminars, and guess what, those classes had a lot of women in them—if you were teaching all seniors, you would have noticed a difference.
AM: So how long were you in Seattle?
BS: Four years.
AM: Those were pretty different schools—were you interested in ending up back on the East Coast?
BS: It was mostly family, that was the biggest thing—from the moment I got out there I was keeping my eye open for possibilities back in the East.
AM: And it was a big school, even then, right?
BS: At the time it was the biggest school on the west coast, 33,000 students [….] it was quite huge. Very strong Slavic program, actually, good programs up and down, kind of a research behemoth in the sciences. I fell in love with Seattle. When I got the offer here I waited until the last minute to accept it. I was really debating, I really loved it out there. There were two things: one was being at a private university seemed a bit more secure. There were a bunch of budgetary issues in the state of WA at that time that shook my confidence a bit—I think in the long run it more or less worked out there, but it wasn’t clear [then]. And the biggest thing, again, had to be family. My wife’s parents were back here, my parents were back here.
AM: And when you found yourself at Dartmouth did it seem like yet another kind of institution, or did it remind you of Harvard? What were your impressions?
BS: It was still different. Harvard, because of all the grad students, had a real diverse, international feel to it. Dartmouth, when you started teaching classes, particularly in those days—it’s hard to appreciate now—I think the East Asian population of the campus had to be 2%, at most. There were some African-American students but relatively few, Hispanic—very, very few. I remember we had some people come visit us, we were walking around the campus and one woman said, gosh, everybody here looks exactly alike. In those days too I used to go down to Harvard’s library quite a bit, check out materials, look at stuff, and every time I walked onto that campus I felt that difference, really huge.
AM: So you’ve mentioned Hugh McLean a couple times as an important mentor, and did anyone else come up along the way? Was there anyone teaching here when you arrived? How big was the department then?
BS: Same size as now, in fact maybe slightly bigger. The department had been formed not that long earlier, it used to be Russian Civ, and then it split off and became the Russian Department. The big person here for me was probably Dick Sheldon. He was chairing the dept. at the time, great support for everything, just a great person to chat with at any old time about anything Russian, or anything else for that matter. Again, extremely helpful at guiding me through the ins and outs of things. He also was someone who knew the campus, knew people on the campus very well. He came here in ’66—he’d been here a while. He’d gotten a law degree before he’d gotten his PhD, so he was a bit older when he came in, and he was the sort of person who gets to know people very well. So, important a), for introducing me to the campus, but b) for just supporting me in my work and giving me very specific advice along the way.
AM: At what point did you get so into versification? Was that after you came to Dartmouth?
BS: No, Washington; I guess like with most people everything was kind of an accident of some sort. When I was in Russia on the exchange program, most of the people from Western countries were sort of clustered together, and, mostly in Moscow or Leningrad in those days, very few people went elsewhere.
AM: Was that by the way your first trip to Russia? The IREX trip?
BS: My first trip almost anywhere…pretty daunting. Surviving was my main interest for a lot of the time, it was quite a place in those days. And it had actually gotten better, I knew people who had been on the first two exchange programs back in the late 50s, and then it was really grim. By the late 60s it was—
AM: Easier to navigate, friendlier to foreigners?
BS: Easier than the late 50s and earlier 60s. Individuals were friendlier to foreigners, the government certainly wasn’t, particularly. The embassy was very supportive, when you were over there. But anyway, all the people from English-speaking countries lived fairly close together—everyone from the Western countries, French and German students as well. People would come down from Leningrad and stay in that part of the dorm. And one of the people in Leningrad was from New Zealand, a guy named Ian Lilly, and he was working on Russian poetry, not on versification per se, but on poetry. I met him [in the dorm] and got to know him a little bit and then Iwe just kind of parted ways. I went on to Washington, and then he showed up in Washington a year later, as a grad student. He’d done his undergraduate work in New Zealand and gotten a master’s in Australia, and he thought an American PhD would make sense. So, he was there, and by his second year—it must have been my third year already—he wanted to do a reading course on Russian versification, he said he was studying poetry and he thought he ought to really get into that topic. His idea was to read a couple of the classic works, going back to the 1920s, on Russian versification. We were talking one day about it, and he says well, maybe I should take a look and see if there’s anything recent. We really didn’t know anything at the time. He started looking around and he ended up finding scads of stuff that was recent. Because in the 60s, early 70s was when there was this whole explosion, Gasparov and other people were writing like crazy. We threw out the original plan and just decided to read as much of this new stuff as we could. We eventually wrote up this survey of recent work on [versification.] And Ian and I collaborated for many years after that. So that got me started on versification; when I came to Dartmouth I was looking for a project, a book-length project, and I really didn’t want to turn my thesis on Grin into a book. I ended up doing articles on Grin, but it just wasn’t inspiring me at the moment. So I decided, why not do an introduction to Russian versification, [and] I did.
AM: Who else besides Gasparov got you really excited at that time?
BS: Actually, a lot of people out there were doing some really good work. In Russia there were several scholars of Gasparov’s generation, in fact some who were even a little older than he was. A guy named Baevsky, there was Vishnevsky, and then Rudnev—whom I never got to meet, I spoke to him once on the phone—who did some really fascinating work on Alexander Blok and non-traditional meters.
AM: Were they working mostly on older, more classical poetry or were they working on Soviet poetry as well?
BS: They were working on both nineteenth- and twentieth-century. A lot of the real work to be done then was in defining those twentieth-century meters: the dol’nik, accentual verse, even [the beginnings of] free verse. From Blok on, I would say, and Gippius also.
AM: And were Jakobson and Taranovsky still active at that point?
BS: Jakobson was doing less with poetry, he was more into other fields at that point. The funny thing about Ian and myself was, Ian had worked with a fellow in Leningrad named Kholshevnikov, who did some really good work, but at the time Ian was working on the poetry, not knowing that Kholshevnikov’s main area was versification. The spring of that year I was in Russia Jim Bailey from the University of Wisconsin was over there doing research, and I met with Jim a few times—we’d sit in his room and chat, he was a great storyteller. And I didn’t know he did versification either. It was really kind of wild, both Ian and I that year had met all these important people and had no concept that they were really the people we should know for versification. So, it was years later—I didn’t really have an important conversation with Taranovsky til, gosh, it must have been the late 70s-early 80s.
AM: Were you ever teaching any of that stuff with the Dartmouth undergrads or was it mainly your research?
BS: It was mostly my research. I did teach a course on Russian poetry, but you couldn’t do too much with versification. In retrospect I should have done a little bit more. I did give a couple of talks early on. In fact, one of my talks for entering freshmen was about meters—I’d use Jabberwocky as an example of how rhythm exists in language and can be translated from one language to another. So I had fun doing that kind of stuff, but not any real serious work, no.
That was one of my other—well, I don’t have that many huge regrets, but one of them was that my research and my teaching very rarely were tangential. I mean, some of the articles I eventually wrote were on writers whom I’d taught, of course, but most of my serious research was just in totally different areas, all the versification, and much of my work on Maxim Gorky—of course, I taught a couple of his works, but not along the lines of what I was writing on.. But that’s not too unusual for people in Russian anyway.
AM: I guess we’ve indirectly hit upon this question about what you consider your major contributions to the field. Other than this work on versification, do you feel like your main–?
BS: Well, a couple of articles—there’s all the work I did on Gorky of course, the survey book I did on him many years ago, it’s still halfway decent, and I put out a lot of articles on him. So if there’s a specific area outside of versification, it might be Gorky. Then two or three articles that I like. Actually, one that made the biggest impression and that has by far the most citations, other than the book, was this one on literary houses in what was then Petrograd, right after the revolution—Dom iskusstv and so on. That came directly out of my work on Grin, because he was tangentially involved with a couple of them—he actually lived in Dom iskusstv for a while. And the relationship among those houses wasn’t clear to me, and I was having a hard time finding really specific info, so I wrote an article about that, and it came out in Slavic Review. It seems that people in all kinds of fields, in history, literature, whatever, found it useful in subsequent years—I kept getting inquiries about that particular one-off piece. It was really quite fascinating, all the things that went on in the House, in terms of the lectures, the scholarship, it was quite something. And, of course, the relationships among the people living there—they were quite complicated at the time.
AM: So, future questions: how has the field changed and where do you think it needs to go?
BS: Well, it changed in that it got so much bigger. I’ll give you one quick example: when I was at the University of Washington, I had been there about a year I guess, some fellow out in eastern Washington was asked to write a short book on Nabokov as part of a series. This guy was in English literature, he knew Nabokov’s English novels pretty well, and he wanted someone to write on the Russian ones, and I was invited to do it. But I was still finishing up my dissertation and I said I really can’t do it yet. But at that time there were NO books on Nabokov, zilch, there was just nothing. And then over the years, of course, book after book, article after article, and then on top of that, once he could be published in Russia, all the Russian stuff comes out, and now there’s shelf after shelf after shelf. But in 1970 there was almost nothing, not on Mandelstam, not on many of these major figures. It was really an open field. When you were choosing a dissertation topic in my day, you almost felt like you had to have a writer to yourself. Maybe not Dostoyevsky, but with any of the “secondary” writers—if somebody else was writing on them, that was something you had to stay away from. So the field has gotten that much larger, and of course it’s gotten more interconnected too. Soviet and émigré literature were regarded as two separate entities. Scholars living in the Soviet Union had relatively little contact with people here or possibilities for coming over, and us going over there was always kind of a fraught experience. And now of course a lot of people have one foot in both worlds, or even two feet in both worlds, you just kind of zip back and forth. So that whole aspect of things has really changed. And you start thinking differently about the field than you did back then. So that’s clearly a huge difference.
AM: At any point in your career did you have a lot of contact with scholars of other national literatures, and did it seem really different? For instance, someone working on the French novel in the 1970s?
BS: Yes, in that sense it was probably more different than it is now. Part of it is that other fields were more into current theory, while Slavic was slower to get into that. Although actually, in a sense the origins of the theory go back to the 1920s in Russia; and Slavic scholars were looking at the Formalists in the 1970s too, but they weren’t really following the twists and turns of this, that and everything else. Except for Petrović, my Yugoslav scholar—he really was, he knew it all. But Slavicists raised in and who worked in the States less so, it wasn’t universal but… I think a lot depended on what areas and what topics you were working on. Because again, there have always been strong overlaps between French and Russian, German and Russian; if you’re working with the right person in the right part of the field, then you could find plenty to talk about.
Something I remember from way back when I was at Washington, someone in comp lit—she was reading theory and she said she liked theory when it could be applied to the literature, really usable theory. And this was an interesting point because I felt that some theory was not all that usable. And that’s why I love Formalism, because a lot of the theory is based on the literature itself, and even when they weren’t doing actual theory they were setting out guideposts for the ways to do research, what you could do with it.
AM: I really want to figure out how to teach more Formalist theory to undergraduates.. I’m partial to Tynianov, obviously, but I recognize that most of the articles which I so love are going to shut down discussion for most students who don’t have a certain kind of preparation.
BS: Actually what I did once which worked pretty well, it was when I was teaching Tolstoy: I assigned one relatively short reading a week, article-type material, such as an article by Shklovsky, things like that, and tried to tie it as closely as I could to whatever was going on with Tolstoy at the moment. And that worked pretty well, because we weren’t dealing with just the purely theoretical aspects.
AM: What were your favorite courses over the years that you taught?
BS: I always liked twentieth-century courses in general. At one point we actually divided—I guess this was only for a few years—but we actually had three survey courses: 19c Russia through Tolstoy, then an intermediate course, then Soviet. And the intermediate course was very nice, we would start with Chekhov, pretty much, and it took us right up to WWII. I loved teaching that course, and it also gave you the freedom to teach one or two of the lesser-read books. So that was a favorite. And I really loved teaching Tolstoy, interestingly. As an undergraduate and in my career, I favored Dostoyevsky a lot, but when it came to teaching Tolstoy, I could really get into him, particularly War and Peace. It’s so big, so massive, and people just get into it, into that world, you sink into it. And if you had the right students, and usually most of them would fall into that category, they would sink into it as well, into his world.
AM: So, what do you think needs to happen still, where should we go? Что нам делать?
BS: To my mind, one of the bigger things is to rediscover some of the names—it’s being done already—to get back to some of the figures who’ve either been omitted or are maybe on the third level as far as awareness is concerned. You tend to find some interesting things there. So people shouldn’t just cluster around the big names, even the big movements. Some of these figures are maybe only worth 2 or 3 articles, but they’re worth that much, anyway. Think of the Serapion brothers, you know—how many of the Serapion Brothers have been written about a lot? Not that many, really. I did an article once on Slonimsky, and I was looking for critical material in Russian or in English, and there was almost nothing, even in Russian, it was just really sparse. One of my big pushing points for the last few years has been the poets born after 1900 to around 1930. They’re a little too young to have been part of the movements at the beginning of the century, but a little too old by the time the 60s got here. Some of them, like Slutsky, have been discovered [in the West], but not fully, and often there aren’t even decent editions of their works available. So I think there are a lot of discoveries to be made yet.
AM [digression on breakdown of canon and difficulty of finding a job, its influence on what people choose to specialize in].
BS: Well, if you’re working on the 19c, then theoretically you should be able to teach Tolstoy… Russian has never been such a huge field in the US that you’re necessarily going to hire a Tolstoy or a Dostoyevsky scholar, you’re going to hire a 19c person, maybe. In fact, here, back in the day, most of us were teaching both 19 and 20c. Maybe an 18c course needs special preparation. But 19th and 20th, most can teach it at least, even if they do not do research in that area.
AM: Do you worry that the eighteenth century is just going to go dormant in terms of scholarship?
BS: You look at Derzhavin, gosh, he’s a pretty important guy and he hasn’t been written about adequately; that is, he’s been written about quite a bit, but still not enough. And there’s a lot of good stuff in the 18c. I do agree that the problem with that is that if you’re going to get a job, except somewhere with a graduate program, your expertise better be 19-20, 21st century. And preferably prose. I think what’s going to happen is that people who do poetry are just going to have to have enough of a second specialization somewhere else. Or a second competence, let’s call it. So, you can go on the job market and say, well, I can teach anything in the 19c, or the 20, 21st, whatever, and go with that.
AM: And of course there are different ways of working with poetry.
BS: Sure, but the trouble is, you know that, but do the people hiring you know that!
AM: I guess this continues the same line of questioning, but the last one on our list here is “advice for younger scholars?”
BS: Oh my… Be prepared for a hard time! Brace yourself! But even leaving out the immediate situation, the job market’s been tough for a very long time. When I was going on the market it was already rough, and what was rough in those days, there were more jobs than now, but the graduate programs were also huge. You probably had 80-90 people in a given year coming into the field, for 20 jobs. And now there are what, eight jobs and maybe thirty people coming into the field. It’s not that dissimilar in some ways. I think since the 1950s—then all these programs were being established, and Russian was brand-new in a lot of schools, and there was probably a surplus of jobs—but since then it’s always been rough. And it’s rough getting tenure. Again, it was then too; maybe a little harder in 2020 than it was in 1970, but it’s never been all that easy. So you have to be prepared for that and know that and maybe have a plan B for yourself too.
The other thing is, if I was going to advise somebody what to do, what to think about, don’t forget about getting a reasonably good grounding in what I’ll call—classics, not just classics in the sense of literature, but also the Russian Formalists and other critical writings. I think that people often feel that they have to be up to date with the current work, and they should be to an extent, but don’t forget that there’s some great stuff back there. And some of the past scholarship, gosh… If you had to teach Dostoyevsky, for example, and hadn’t taught him before, and the only book available to you for background was Mochulsky’s book on Dostoyevsky, well that’d probably be enough to teach a pretty good class, a very good class. It wouldn’t be the most up to date, but it’d be quite decent. There are studies going back that people tend to forget about. I do think it’s important to keep those things in mind. I guess my final bit of advice would be not to be too intimidated by all that’s out there now. It might be that there’s so much out there it’s hard not to be intimidated, but in terms of the scholarship and everything else, just pick and choose, work your way through it and you can get there.
14 April 2020, Norwich, VT
Barry Scherr is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Russian at Darthmouth University.
Ainsley E. Morse is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Russian at Darthmouth University.