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The Teacher's Lounge: Dr. George Hahn

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The Teacher’s Lounge eavesdrops on professors from various disciplines at universities across the country to find out what they’re reading when they’re not assigning you 12-page dissertations…due in two weeks.
Dr. George Hahn is a scholar of 18th British Literature and author of several published essays and a book titled The Ocean Bards: British Poetry and the War at Sea, 1793-1815 (2008). Dr. Hahn teaches British Literature at Towson University in Towson, Maryland.
UL: What is the name of the course you teach?

Dr. Hahn: Among other courses, I teach the undergraduate Beowulf to Virginia Woolf 6-credit survey, the course in 18th-century English literature, and a graduate seminar in 18th-century satire
UL: What five books would you absolutely recommend your students or peers read?

Dr. Hahn: How about seven? Severely constricting an answer to my specialization in 18th-century England, I would name these: Addison and Steele’s Spectator papers, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Pope’s Essay on Criticism, Fielding’s Tom Jones, Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, and Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France along with Paine’s Rights of Man. Why these?

Put into a time capsule, together they preserve the century’s interests and style. In them we hear how Englishmen talked and argued about questions still at issue, we sample the quality and value of their wit, we return to the Golden Age of satire and the birth of the novel, we see the change from reason to emotion in the way they thought and talked over the century, we see and hear and smell both the mean streets of London and the sunny countryside of that small but important island nation.

Knowing these books is to know part of our cultural genetics as Americans. Whatever our race, ethnicity, or religion, it is certain that our language and grammar, our political and legal structures, and the basis of our laws and social customs are rooted in 18th-century England.

UL: Do you have a favorite quote from a book or author that you often refer to?

Dr. Hahn: I can’t decide. Take your pick of one of these:

-“Never take part in the nonsense that is talked about by the ignorant and uninstructed.”–Marcus Aurelius

-“True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.”
—Alexander Pope

-“The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”—George Orwell

UL: Are there any authors, either living who dead, you hope everyone would explore or know more about?

Dr. Hahn: Authors that I name—Charles Dibdin, Henry James Pye, Tom Carter, to name a few—are lost in time. I call them the Ocean Bards, and my latest book, published in 2008, The Ocean Bards: British Poetry and the War at Sea, 1793-1815 would be my own general answer to your question. Long before Patrick O’Brian’s novels of the great age of combat sail, a vast popular poetry abounded about that 22-year war with France when England stood alone, and war was an existential fact and not escapist fiction. Yet none of thousands of these poems, printed in newspapers and magazines and hawked as broadsides and sung in streets and on shipboards ever gets into the anthologies.

So whatever the attitudes of literary critics now, to neglect these poems is to miss an appreciation of the literary landscape then. Certainly the tall oaks of Wordsworth et al. dominate the picture, but to erase from it the thick underbrush of popular war poetry below, the war clouds above and the sea beyond is to present a false picture of literary and social history.

So the book encourages the reconstruction of that time in chapters about poems of the navy, the nation and the Ocean Bards; invasion poems; sea battle ballads; victory odes; seascapes, and sailors’ elegies.

UL: What are your incentives for reading books? For inspiration? For catharsis? For relaxation? For knowledge?

Dr. Hahn: I see older literature, history, biography, and philosophy as French doors to walk back through to listen to those professors in absentia, wise men and women long dead, who wrote those books. To me, that’s the magic of great writing. But don’t we now know much more than they did? T. S. Eliot had the answer: “Precisely, and they are that which we know.”

–Nicole Crowder

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Written by whitney teal

October 1, 2009 at 6:06 am

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