Humming, crackling, and expanding:
An interview with Frances Dickey
November 7, 2023
The field of English literary scholarship is, by nature, not one in which news about writers tends to make headlines. Mostly, this is because the vast majority of works under study were written so long ago that there simply isn’t much possibility for new or unexamined information to come to light. You can only imagine, then, the excitement and surprise that tore through the field in January of 2020 when a long-embargoed trove of personal letters became available to the public for the first time.
The letters had been sent to Emily Hale from the twentieth-century poet T. S. Eliot. Yet, at the time of their release, there remained something of a catch: the letters would continue to be held at the Princeton University archives, where, due to copyright restrictions, they could not be accessed online for many years. What this meant was that there were very few who could access the letters, much less make sense of their contents in a way that would shed light on their writer and his widely impactful career. One of those who could, however, was Frances Dickey. And she would do so with great success.
Through her Reports from the Emily Hale Archive, she shared her findings from the newly unearthed letters with the world in a way that was novel and unexpected. I still remember the excitement with which her dispatches wound their way through the English department at McGill, and how eagerly those of us in the know would look forward to each new installment. Perhaps most of all, though, I remember thinking about the innovation that her approach to literary scholarship in the Reports represented, and how I wished that other scholars would follow in her footsteps. It was an absolute pleasure to feature her in this interview.
Jana M. Perkins, Founder of Women of Letters
Frances Dickey is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and the author or editor of several books including The Modern Portrait Poem from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Ezra Pound, The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: Volume 3, 1927-29, The Edinburgh Companion to T. S. Eliot and the Arts, and several volumes of the T. S. Eliot Studies Annual. She has served as the president of the International T. S. Eliot Society and taught at the T. S. Eliot International Summer School in London. In 2020, when T. S. Eliot’s letters to his muse Emily Hale were first opened at Princeton University Library, she shared her discoveries in a widely-followed blog and was interviewed about their relationship for the BBC documentary T. S. Eliot: Into the Waste Land.
How did your childhood shape your ideas about what work looked like and what was possible for you?
Frances Dickey: I was raised in a traditional family where the day revolved around my father’s work schedule. My mother, born in 1929, was a journalist and researcher before she became a homemaker. She told me and my sister Eleanor that we would need to work when we grew up, and I never considered any other path.
Books were extremely important in our home. We argued about the meanings of words so incessantly that she had to make a rule that we couldn’t leave the dinner table to check the dictionary. Eleanor went on to study languages and I studied literature.
Fast-forward to today. How did the path to what you’re doing now unfold?
FD: Every year our local library hosted a vast used book sale, and on the last day you could fill an entire box for one dollar. This was how I discovered modern poetry — in a tattered anthology featuring W. B. Yeats, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, and G. M. Hopkins, still my favorite poets. What attracted me was their austerity of vision, expressed in the most luxuriantly beautiful language. For example, Yeats’s sonnet “Meru”:
Civilization is hooped together, brought
Under a rule, under the semblance of peace
By manifold illusion; but man’s life is thought
And he, despite his terror, cannot cease
Ravening through century after century,
Ravening, raging and uprooting that he may come
Into the desolation of reality:
Egypt and Greece, good-bye, and good-bye, Rome.
That’s modern life: our drive for knowledge has tumbled us out on a barren plain without the comforting illusions of the past. Yet Yeats’s wonderful phrases — “ravening, raging and uprooting” — make up for “the desolation of reality.” A fascination that began in adolescent angst became my lifelong passion…
As an English major at Harvard, I was fortunate to be taught by the great poetry critic Helen Vendler, who spellbound her classes by reciting long passages from memory. I took four classes with her, and she introduced me to Elizabeth Bishop, another of my favorite poets. Bishop wrote that what one seeks in art is a “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” When I’m really absorbed in a poem, I forget about myself and the world around me. I’m always seeking that hypnotic state of “flow,” but one can’t be in a trance all the time. I wanted to talk about poetry with other people, which drew me to English graduate school. Back in those days before the decline of the humanities and the professoriate you could hope to get a decent tenure-track job after earning your PhD.
My advisor at Johns Hopkins University was the poet Allen Grossman, who took a very different approach from Helen Vendler. While her critical method was meticulous close reading, Grossman said, rather grandly, that literature was “the maintenance of the human world.” It took me a long time to see what he meant. A human-centered world is difficult to maintain. Kids of my generation feared nuclear annihilation just as today’s kids fear climate change; both are terrifying futures that diminish the significance of ordinary life. More than ever, we need cultural activities that knit us together in positive ways — what Virginia Woolf calls “building it up.” Reading and talking about poetry with students is how I make my little contribution. Preparing dinner for your family is also a way of maintaining the human world, an ancient act of nurturing.
Did you have any mentors along the way?
FD: I’ve mentioned Helen Vendler and Allen Grossman, both important models for me, but I probably received the most important mentoring of my career from a senior English professor at the University of Missouri, Timothy Materer.
When I first started working there in 2003 I had six-month-old twins to care for, and I felt uncertain, at best, about my ability to succeed at my job. Tim treated me as an equal and expressed confidence in my abilities, as well as giving sage advice about navigating academia. I try to “pass it on” by helping others who are starting out. Small acts of kindness and simple gestures of respect can really reverberate in people’s lives.
How would you describe what you do to a general audience?
FD: I study and teach twentieth-century literature. I think of myself as a scholar or historian of literature, rather than a critic. I’m interested in finding out as much as possible about what poems mean, and how they came into being.
In particular, I study the poet T. S. Eliot, who was born in St. Louis and later became a British citizen, so he is both an American poet and an English one. I have written about how Eliot’s poetry draws on philosophy, visual art, and music. I also contributed to producing the first complete edition of his prose writings — over 1,000 works. In recent years I have explored how Eliot’s poetry reflects his childhood in St. Louis and ordinary aspects of his humanity, like grieving for his parents and feeling that he had made a mess of his life. Eliot’s elevation as a cultural icon in the twentieth century has stood in the way of understanding his poetry on a more intimate and personal level — for, as Woolf says in Orlando, “every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life; every quality of his mind is written large in his works.”
Another important part of research is communicating what you know — with students, other scholars, and the general public. The greatest privilege of my job is guiding young people into books and poems that they might not find on their own, helping them acquire ideas and language that will hopefully enrich their lives. I also really enjoy exchanging ideas with other Eliot scholars around the world and sharing what I know with the public, as I did recently in a show at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis.
What advice would you give to someone who was just starting out in your field?
FD: My advice to anyone interested in literature is to read, read, read. Put your phone in another room. After an hour of reading you might feel that you haven’t made very much progress, but after a day, a week of reading? Suddenly your brain is humming, crackling, and expanding. Humans have been reading for thousands of years. It’s one of the things we’re really good at. The low level of sensory stimulation you get from letters on a page liberates your brain to examine and play with ideas, with language. You never know where this adventure will take you.
As for career advice… the path to being an English professor has become so narrow and steep that it’s hardly viable. I hesitate to recommend it to anyone. A hundred years ago, when the modern university was just gathering steam, a busy culture of reading and talking about books flourished outside of academia. We may now be entering a new, post-academic phase of literature. The most passionate readers I meet are not professionals. And maybe that’s a healthy development. The literature lovers coming of age now will give shape to the next era.
When you think of women who have inspired or influenced you, who comes to mind?
FD: One of the women I most admired when I was growing up was the children’s author Judy K. Morris, my aunt. I loved her office, lined with books from floor to ceiling, centered on her typewriter and a pile of scrap paper, on which she would often scrawl a book recommendation for me. She could find wonder and delight in anything, from a random remark in the street to animal skeletons. She willingly, even cheerfully did jury duty for the opportunity to observe human nature.
Virginia Woolf is also one of those “foremothers” who influences women intellectuals and artists even when we are not conscious of her presence. Some of her fictional characters are our mentors, like Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse: they envisioned the possibilities that later generations have been able to experience.
Where do you feel the most scarcity in your life? Where do you feel the most abundance?
FD: As I get older, time seems more and more scarce. There are so many projects I’d like to work on, but I have to pick and choose. This is also a matter of abundance — opportunities to communicate and to learn, to bring people together and to enjoy solitude.
I feel very fortunate to have these opportunities to engage my own and other people’s minds. Yet my enjoyment is shadowed by knowing that the high cost of education in the United States prevents many people from fully developing their intellectual and artistic abilities. Imagine, for a moment, if we made quality education accessible to everyone, from cradle to grave. There’s no reason why we can’t choose this as a social priority — or just keep it in mind as a possible future.
What keeps you going?
FD: From day to day, I’m motivated by wanting to do a job right, whether it’s giving a lecture, commenting on a paper, giving advice to a student, or (for example) answering these questions. More broadly, I suppose it’s curiosity and desire for meaningful connection. I often volunteer to do tasks that are not especially enjoyable just to engage with other people on a shared project.
Is there a project, initiative, or cause you’d like to highlight?
FD: I’d like to highlight the Link Auditorium, designed by St. Louis architect Theodore Link in 1908 for the Wednesday Club, a group of women who sought to educate themselves and make a positive difference in their city.
I became interested in the Link because one of the founders of this club was T. S. Eliot’s mother, Charlotte. As well as raising five children and writing her own poetry, Charlotte led a successful movement to create St. Louis’s juvenile court system, where children would be treated humanely. I donate my time and efforts to develop the Link as a center for arts and education and preserve this beautiful prairie-style building, a piece of St. Louis’s stunning but endangered architectural heritage.
Where can our readers find you?
FD: I’m not on social media — too old fashioned for that — but you can find my email address and some of my work at my website: english.missouri.edu/people/dickey.
We corresponded with Frances over email in October. The text of our exchange has been edited for clarity.
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