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English Professor Stephen Cushman Juggles Teaching and Poetry Writing with Civil War Study

Dec 04, 2014 |
Stephen Cushman, Robert C. Taylor Professor of English
Dan Addison / University Communications

University of Virginia English professor Stephen Cushman just had “twins” – two books published at the same time. They’re fraternal: one is nonfiction and scholarly; one looks like a book-length poem.

“The Red List” – the poetic twin – makes the fifth book of poetry Cushman has published, the other four being “Riffraff,” “Heart Island,”  “Cussing Lesson” and “Blue Pajamas.” Louisiana State University Press published it last month.

The more scholarly “Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War,” also came out last month. The University of North Carolina Press volume begins with a foreword by U.Va. history professor Gary W. Gallagher.

“Cushman combines in unusual fashion – perhaps unique, I would say – poetic and literary credentials of the first order and serious engagement with historical literature of the Civil War,” writes Gallagher, John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War. “‘Belligerent Muse’ ties the insights and contributions of military historians to literary sensibilities in ways no one other than Cushman, at least as far as I know, has attempted.”

Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln, as literary contributors and historical figures, chronicled and defined the conflict. Analyzing their narratives and the aesthetics underlying them, Cushman said he aimed to show how Civil War writing offers a richer understanding of events and served to frame the memory of the war afterward.

U.Va.’s Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature and Culture in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library holds the third largest Whitman collection in the country. Among the poet’s papers, Cushman discovered a scrap that became known as “Fragment from the manuscript of ‘Memoranda During the War.’”

The writing is included in the Special Collections’ new exhibit, “‘Who Shall Tell the Story?’ Voices of Civil War Virginia,” that includes some of Whitman’s original notes. The exhibition’s title comes from a manuscript by the American poet Walt Whitman, who wrote a description after witnessing a battle in Virginia.

Cushman also considers the writings of journalist, satirist and fiction author Ambrose Bierce; Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, a lover of Shakespeare whose 1,000-page memoir, published in 1875, was nearly as popular as the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant; and Union Brig. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his involvement in the surrender at Appomattox.

Cushman’s interest in the Civil War goes back to memories of attending ceremonial events celebrating the war’s centennial as a 5-year-old, Cushman said, and since then “the war has had a grip” on him.

Now the Robert C. Taylor Professor of English in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, specializing in American poetry, Cushman delved into historical research combining literature and war. The shift widened the study of literature “from text to context,” he said.

His 1999 nonfiction book, “Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle,” was so well-received he was invited to speak at a history conference in 2006.

Gallagher and UCLA history professor Joan Waugh, who has written about Grant, convened the annual meeting in 2009 and began a scholarly friendship between Gallagher and Cushman that continues to this day. The latter’s presentations over the past few years became the chapters of “Belligerent Muse.”

Since 2003, the two men have team-taught an upper-level undergraduate course, “Voices of the Civil War,” which they will offer again in spring 2015. Both are holders of the Cavaliers' Distinguished Teaching Professorship: Gallagher held it from 2010-12, and Cushman holds it now until 2016.

Other classes he teaches inspired “The Red List,” Cushman’s fifth book of poetry. A couple of years ago, he and Law School professor John Cannon offered a course in “Literature, Law and the Environment.” During the same year, he taught a graduate seminar on the “American Long Poem.” An accomplished poet, Cushman decided to try one of his own.

The resulting book-length poem, “The Red List,” refers to the endangered species register and begins with the bald eagle’s rebound from the brink of extinction.

Endangerment returns as a metaphor in subsequent sections, with the poet musing on dangers of all kinds – social, spiritual, economic and more. Calling the verse a book for young people, Cushman meditates on whether we can come back from some types of endangerment.

Colleague Lisa Russ Spaar, in the Virginia Quarterly Review, wrote: “Diatribe, paean, talisman, irreverent incantation, prayer, ‘The Red List’ is a cosmos ... the poem’s obvious ancestor is ‘Song of Myself.’ Cushman shares Walt Whitman’s acute attentiveness, love of nature and penchant for restless cataloging.”

In his fourth decade of academic life, Cushman said his teaching and writing feed each other in a creative symbiosis.

That might be a goal most U.Va. faculty members strive to attain, but it’s not inevitable. “I had to learn how to become a good lecturer, to extend myself,” he said. Having taught one of the three surveys required of English majors for 16 years, Cushman said he and co-instructor Michael Levenson have taught 4,400 students in that class alone.

“You need to be clear. The clarity feeds into writing, and the writing feeds into teaching,” Cushman said. “They’re like eating and exercise for me. I have to do both or something is wrong.”

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