The Critical Reader

The Critical Reader

Photo by Richard Howard

Photo by Richard Howard

In his 38 years of teaching, Tim Peltason, professor of English and Class of 1949 Professor in Ethics, has helped generations of Wellesley students become astute readers of British and American literature. They, in turn, have helped teach Peltason to become more trusting of his instincts as a critic.

“I write best and most happily,” he says, “when I am reporting directly on the reading experiences that have mattered most to me in my decades as a teacher and reader, without worrying about whether I know all the adjacent and secondary material, or whether what I want to write is precisely what’s being called for by the scholarly conversation of the moment.”

That approach has informed four recent essays, including “Love and Judgment in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which reframes the question of the novel’s relationship to slavery and racism. The essay was published last spring in Raritan, an influential journal of culture and politics. Peltason presented a Wellesley colloquium on the subject in December, organized and moderated by his colleague William Cain. The essay grew, he says, from his “deep conviction of the novel’s lasting power both to delight and disturb. As the years have gone on, I’ve become increasingly, uncomfortably aware of the extent to which the book is itself in thrall to—and we all still participate in—the racial divisions and inequities that it was meant to expose and examine.”

Peltason believes that reading critically doesn’t have to impede one’s enjoyment of a text. “My love for Huck Finn has not been diminished by time, even as my judgment of it has matured and has altered somewhat the character of that love,” he says. “I still value the book highly as a great achievement of the moral and creative imagination. But without imagining that it has spoken the last word, or has spoken only right words, about its central American subject.”

Other recent essays have focused on Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, and the crime fiction of Donald Westlake.

Peltason feels deeply indebted to all those in whose company he’s come to know and love the books of his life. “I can’t begin to disentangle from one another the influences on my writing of teaching and talking with students, of reading primary and secondary texts, of talking with the friends and colleagues at Wellesley who have done so much to shape my thinking about literature and criticism. I’m grateful to have spent my adult life at Wellesley and in a vocation that invites me—that obliges me as both a teacher and a writer—to mitigate the scary circumstances of human life by finding good sentences in which to bring those circumstances to shareable life.”

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