Letter from the Chair


In English, we are students of the imagination. This is the great strength of reading the traditions of literature. Works of poetry and fiction ask us to imagine the world, and I believe nothing is more powerful than imagining our world.

Unfortunately, imagination is often associated with a kind of childish, escapist pleasure. Think of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka inviting his guests into the chocolate factory, a “world of pure imagination” that is entirely devoted to infantile, gustatory excesses and traps. Here, imagination is walled off from the world, a secret garden that only the child who holds the golden ticket can enter, something that must be protected from the adult demands of the real world.

The literary imagination could not be more different. Fiction and poetry do not turn away from the real world—they plunge us into it. They offer us ways to literally create images of the world, to see how we can fit its pieces together so that we might understand our experience. The world is so vast, so old, and so complex, our own limited lived experiences never allow us to really imagine it—that is to make images that create coherence out of its seeming chaos. It is only through the vast, collective imaginations of whole cultures that we understand our relative place in the world, how we might make sense of experience, and how our world might well be imagined in new and different ways our personal experience would never suggest to us. It is this collective imagination that literature embodies and transmits to us.

Arguably, the form of the novel reaches its fullest expression in nineteenth-century realism, as grounded and gritty as “realism” sounds, it is paradoxically one of the highest expressions of imagination. In English, we can think of masterpieces like George Eliot’s Middlemarch or Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. In Russian, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or in French, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, capture an image of a whole world. Through the freedoms of fiction, these works, and many others like them, let us live whole lifetimes in a few hours, let us move from the perspectives and passions of an individual to the inhuman forces of time and history, allowing us to grasp the seeming chaos of the world as a coherence.

The more chaotic and unsettled the world, the more the literary imagination can provide insight, enlightenment, solace, and alternatives. As I do every four years, this summer I will reread Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a remarkable novel that asks us to think of our individual experience through the masses that make up nations and the forces of history that express themselves in our individual experiences. Though published 1869, I cannot think of a more timely novel for 2019.

As we enter into the summer, I encourage everyone to turn to the literary imagination, to find there not only a different image of the world but also the possibility that we could imagine our world differently—the first step to actually making a different world.