Teacher, Author, Soldier, Oh My!

By Dr. Charles Chappell '64

Dr. Alex Vernon has taken an unusual educational and professional route to reach his present appointment as the James and Emily Bost Odyssey Associate Professor of English at Hendrix.

In 1989 he earned the degree of Bachelor of Science in Engineering at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., eventually becoming a tank commander and participating in combat operations in the first Persian Gulf War.

After deciding not to pursue further a career in the military, Dr. Vernon entered graduate school in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, earning his Ph.D. in 2001.

Between his master's-level and doctoral studies, he worked as a software project manager and senior analyst in private companies based in North Carolina and Virginia.

Vernon joined the Hendrix faculty in 2001 and has taught a wide variety of courses in literature, writing, and interdisciplinary studies; has served as Chair of the Department of English Studies; and currently is Chair of the Humanities Area.

Along this diverse and adventurous journey to his present occupational status, Dr. Vernon has produced a substantial number of scholarly publications. When he joined the Hendrix faculty, he had already seen into print his combat memoir The Eyes of Orion: Five Tank Lieutenants in the Persian Gulf War, and he had also begun the revision of his doctoral dissertation, transforming the manuscript in 2004 into his second book, Soliders Once and Still: Ernest Hemingway, James Salter, and Tim O'Brien.

During the past seven years, he has published five more books and a lengthy list of articles, reviews, and notes in scholarly journals. Another book, Critical Insights: War, awaits publication in 2012, and his ninth book, a critical edition of The Spanish Earth by Hemingway and two other authors, is set to appear in 2013.

In recent years Dr. Vernon has appeared as a guest expert on three shows broadcast by National Public Radio. He answered questions about the literature of war on "Fresh Air" and on "Talk of the Nation," and he was a member of a panel that discussed Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms on the "Diane Rehm Show."

Early in 2012 Dr. Vernon graciously agreed to respond to a series of questions concerning his professional achievements and his ability to produce so many highly regarded publications while also teaching a full load of courses each semester and simultaneously participating actively in campus life as an academic advisor, a member of numerous faculty-student committees, and a part-time administrator.

CC: At West Point how did you manage to major in both engineering and English?

AV: In that era all of the candidates who successfully completed the standard degree requirements earned B.S.'s in general engineering. Cadets could declare either a "Field of Study" or a "Major," with the difference being two electives. I tested out of two semesters of mathematics, so I could use those two freed-up slots plus all of my other electives for English courses and work into my schedule all of the requirements for my major in English.

During my senior year, two of my engineering classmates told me that they had come to respect my major after all because they saw how hard I worked to prepare for my literature courses and because these manly cadets noticed that I always had way more books to carry than everyone else at the beginning of each semester when we all had to hike back to our barracks from the book distribution center. Lifting and hauling my barracks bag gave me quite a workout. At West Point, English turned out to be a muscular major after all.

CC: Would you mind commenting on your decision to leave the Army and to pursue a career in academia?

AV: I suppose the main reason is that I recognized my talents as being better suited for books than for bullets and therefore concluded that I might best contribute to the world during the time I am given by choosing the profession in which I would feel the most comfortable. When I was leaving the Army, my mother was worried about the "job security" I would be giving up. I reminded her of the life security I would be gaining.

Not to be too melodramatic, but when you've had rounds bounce off your tank's armor a foot from your exposed head, when you've felt your tank rock from nearby explosions caused by friendly artillery, when you've seen wild dogs grazing on corpses, when you've heard all sorts of speculations about mysterious syndromes that could be invisibly wrecking your body, well, spending the rest of your professional life surrounded by bright students and colleagues on a lovely college campus sounds just about right.

CC: Aside from your experiences in the military, what other characteristics of the literature of war have drawn you to the study of this challenging topic?

AV: As I articulated it to myself back then, my decision was largely a utilitarian one. In the late 1990s there were not many scholars then doing war lit. Those who were—chiefly members of the Vietnam generation—would start to retire soon. I saw a niche and went for it. Then, with the invasion of Afghanistan, general interest in the subject found itself renewed.

I do think my years in the service have predisposed me to attend to aspects of the literature that other people might overlook. I think I've successfully managed to balance the veteran perspective with a more critical "civilian" lens. Just as non-veterans who study war literature can sometimes fail to be sensitive in what I consider significant ways, veterans who study war lit can sometimes fail to step outside their own particular experiential allegiances.

CC: On Tarzan, the book that you published in 2008, has received accolades from both academic critics and general-interest reviewers. Following are some examples: "A work of seminal and impressive scholarship"; "A highbrow romp through a lowbrow craze that influenced both Amos Oz and Gore Vidal"; "The writing is so thoughtful and daring that Vernon seems to be breaking new ground in cultural studies. Highly recommended." How did you decide to choose Tarzan as a topic for research and eventually for this book?

AV: I started teaching Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs in my American Literature and the Environment class in order to explore one way the post-Darwin popular imagination struggled with the new understanding of the relationship between humans and animals. Because I then knew so little about Tarzan, I started researching, and I discovered that while literary scholars have written some very good pieces about Tarzan, no one had yet to produce an entire book. After a couple of years of teaching the novel, I knew that I could write one.

At the time I also didn't have any other book ideas, and I needed a break from writing about war. So I threw myself into the subject, let my imagination go a bit crazy, and voila! Reviews have both celebrated the book and deemed it sacrilege worthy of burning, with me as author being guilty of libel (that is not an exaggeration).

It is also true that because Tarzan first appeared in 1912, working on what amounts to be a cultural study kept me solidly in the modern American period that is my main chronological focus. So I was never too far afield. Heck, there's even a section in the book about the Vietnam War! I remember catching the occasional Tarzan movie on television when I was growing up in the Kansas City area, back when we had all of three channels, but I was never a fan. The subject of Tarzan was basically entirely new to me, making it that much more exciting.

CC: Your most recently published book, Hemingway's Second War: Bearing Witness to the Spanish Civil War, has been praised by the president of the Ernest Hemingway Society and Foundation in this way: "It will easily be the definitive work on Hemingway and the Spanish Civil War." What process did you follow that led to the research for this book?

AV: I came to this one in a way similar to my approach to the Tarzan project. Several scholars have written about Hemingway and the Spanish Civil War, but there was no single book covering the subject. I had been curious about the little book and film Hemingway worked on called The Spanish Earth. After a smattering of initial research, I realized that I could, again, be the person to write the first book on a topic that in my opinion deserved a book-length study. And as with Tarzan, I knew next to nothing on the specific subject when I started.

Opportunism is one way to spin the choices of subjects about which to write. Others, as I've just implied, are curiosity, discovery, and learning. If I wrote about things I knew, I would have about two pages of material. Instead I throw myself into absolutely new territory. The advantage for the reader, I think, is that the positive energy of my discovery becomes the spirit of the book, the informing spirit of the reading experience. Readers might not recognize this reaction consciously, but I like to think that it's there. Friends and family are often frustrated because I don't talk with them about my works in progress even as these projects occupy so much of me. I reserve the energy of the new for the page.

CC: As an undergraduate college of the liberal arts and sciences, Hendrix has always placed great emphasis on teaching in the classroom and in all aspects of campus life. Have your experiences in instruction enriched your investigations in research?

AV: I should declare, and not just because my bosses will be reading this interview, that professionally speaking I thrive on the synergy between teaching and research. Teaching inspires subjects and provides ideas for my writing. My writing and research always find their way into my teaching. I don't mean to imply that I teach my research. Far from it! I want students to approach texts the same way I approach research, with intense, imaginative, and critical engagement. I try my best not to shovel my ideas into my students. Being an active scholar keeps me fresh; it uncovers material and ideas that can be brought into the classroom in all sorts of ways. I also like to think that writing the way I do—writing as learning, as facing the blank page—keeps me forever a student too.

Each of my books is its own adventure. I love the challenge of assembling a book. This is something my West Point engineering chums might appreciate. Writing a book is about solving problems and puzzles. For me, even so-called "personal" writing, in the act of authorship itself, is less about self-expression than it is about architecture, about shaping a reading experience. The great moment for me occurs inevitably when the vision for the structure clicks into place.

I am satisfied that I write worthwhile books, even if great crowds of people do not read them. It is enough to know that a few readers may find in one or more of my publications something that they are glad to have encountered. I write for these readers, and for myself, and for my daughter, too. Someday, when she is in her thirties or forties, I hope that she will be proud of her father's writings.

CC: Twice you have taught senior seminar courses in which you and a dozen students have read and discussed the works of an important contemporary American author. Then later in the semester you have hosted a visit to your class by the author himself as sponsored by the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation Programs in Literature and Language. Tim O'Brien has appeared under these auspices, as has John Edgar Wideman. What value did your students gain from these experiences?

AV: From an interpretive standpoint we should not be entirely beholden to what a writer says about his or her own works. We can't always trust that what authors may say matches what they really think. On the other hand, their comments can provide a valuable window into an understanding of their writings. Wideman visited right before we started studying his novels, and it was astonishing how much his comments informed our readings in the rest of the course.

Much of the benefit of having a writer visit campus is less concrete. Interacting with the author really energizes and bonds the class, as happened when O'Brien was here. And our collegiate community is quite adept at turning a visiting writer into a point of intersection from all corners of the campus. My departmental colleagues Dr. Alice Hines and Dr. Tyrone Jaeger organized the visit of Wideman and arranged to have his work read in five or six different classes as well as in two extracurricular groups.

CC: Alex, you and I worked together in the Department of English for nine years, and I can testify firsthand that you were in class and in your office or elsewhere on campus every day of the semester, cheerfully carrying out your many duties with efficiency and great success. I know that you continue to follow the Hendrix faculty tradition of being as accessible as possible to your students and colleagues. How are you able to carve out blocks of time for your research and for the creation of your many manuscripts?

AV: I make extensive use of the time that is available during summer and winter breaks, plus the sabbatical leave period that the College has granted to me. I can do a little during the academic year—for example, obtaining material through interlibrary loan and perusing it to see if it will be useful. I can sometimes find time to tinker with a passage or quickly draft a couple of paragraphs. And sometimes student workers can be fruitfully employed. But mainly I take advantage of my time away from campus life and responsibilities.

Hendrix's policies and practices have been instrumental in several ways, providing a stimulating and nurturing intellectual environment that is populated by bright students and supportive fellow teachers. The College also provides support in the form of travel and research grants. Leading engaged learning projects with the Odyssey Program results in experiential learning for me as well as for my students.

The holistic evaluation standards here at Hendrix are very valuable to me and indeed to all faculty members, since we all engage in various forms of research. Everybody on the faculty is expected to be professionally engaged, but there is no formula for a quantity of articles or books or for any particular types of articles or books. This lack of rigid requirements for professional development has made me more productive, because instead of my fretting about conjuring up two articles in a particular period of American literary history, I can let my mind flit about and land wherever it may. Internal drive, not external pressure, is the best stimulant for the research that I have undertaken and the writings that I have produced.