by William Jordan Williamson
Dr. John Maynard retires from his teaching duties at the end of the Fall 2017 semester, following 52 years of teaching, 44 of them at NYU. Before that, he taught for eight years at Harvard, three as a graduate assistant and five as an assistant professor. Dr. Maynard moved to NYU as an assistant professor in 1974, became an associate professor in 1976, and finally a full professor from 1984 onwards. Over the years he has directed 45 doctoral dissertations, written 80 articles and reviews, served on ten Search, Promotion, and Tenure Committees for the Department, served as Director of Undergraduate Studies for three years and chaired the English Department for six, was Chair of the Faculty Senators Council, read four to five thousand submitted articles for the journal he co-edits, edited twelve books, published four books and a collection of review essays, and taught thousands of students.
I talked to Dr. Maynard about his long, impressive career, on the final day of his final semester at NYU. His interest in literature began, he says, as early as middle school on Long Island, when an assignment stoked his interest in writing. “I wrote about a family that ate lots of oatmeal,” he said, inspired, perhaps, by his Nova Scotian grandmother, who always made oatmeal and was a prolific storyteller.
From there, a particularly inspiring high school teacher encouraged his enthusiasm for literature, and finally, at Harvard, as a major in the History and Literature program, he formulated his interests into a lifelong focus—“how culture works,” and in particular how literary figures interact with culture. That kind of question was, he says, “just coming into academic discourse,” and his undergraduate work under Professors Reuben Brower and David Kalstone gave him a training in formalism that allowed him to approach the question rigorously. Dr. Maynard, though, considers that combination a question in itself—how to combine the study of culture with formal analysis is, he says, “an interesting, hard problem that has never gone away,” and that is ever-present in his diverse body of work.
After finishing his undergraduate thesis on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Dr. Maynard travelled to Europe and North Africa on a Sheldon Fellowship, learning languages for future graduate work on the Renaissance, but also taking advantage of his time there to enjoy café life. He returned to Harvard to work on Renaissance literature and culture under Douglas Bush and passed his oral examinations, before switching to a new field—19th century British Literature—and completing his dissertation, directed by the eminent Victorianist historian Jerry Buckley, on the cultural environment in which Robert Browning developed. The dissertation eventually became his first book, Browning’s Youth—he might have used a different title, but Harvard University Press refused anything with the word “culture” in it, because they believed it meant agriculture, he says.
After five years as an assistant professor at Harvard, including three years as the Head Tutor of History and Literature, his own undergraduate major, Dr. Maynard returned to New York to teach at NYU. Recounting the move at the English Department Holiday Party—where he was toasted by Department chair Tom Augst and several colleagues—he remembered how diverse and encouraging his new department was, and continued to be throughout his forty-four years there.
Dr. Maynard fostered this culture of diversity and encouragement during his tenure, from 1983 to 1989, as chair of the English Department, too. It was, he says, “a pleasant, peaceful time because my colleagues were—and continue to be—nice and genial.” The faculty was also eager to work with him, he said, rather than deferring to him always, as had been the Department’s tradition. It was, he notes fondly, a uniquely innovative period for the Department—“There are things I’m proud of,” he says, “because we were there first.” Before postcolonial studies had become a mainstay of English departments, for instance, NYU English offered courses outside of the traditional American and English canon, and sought out professors with diverse backgrounds and interests. The Department began offering courses on literary theory, too, as it was just beginning to enter the academic mainstream. He even bought a computer for the Department, though he does not quite remember what, if anything, you could even do with such a low megabyte computer in the eighties.
The English Department was able, though, to make such purchases in part thanks to Dr. Maynard’s commitment to fundraising. There was not much extra money when he was chair, he remembers, and he came to understand that “it would be good if I could raise it myself.” And he really raised it—over his time at NYU, not just as chair, Dr. Maynard estimates that he raised more than $2 million for the Department, money that has gone to, among other things, funding for graduate students, as well as prizes and the funding for the Department’s Biography Seminar.
At the same time as all this administrative work, Dr. Maynard was, of course, teaching, and co-editing, with Dr. Adrienne Munich, Victorian Literature and Culture. This will also be the last of his 26 years as co-editor—he and Dr. Munich turned down an offer from Cambridge to continue as editors, though there will be a prize for best essay appearing in the journal offered in their name. It was challenging work, he says, that required four issues to be published a year and meant reading, he estimates,” four or five thousand articles” over his time as co-editor and extensively editing the roughly 800-900 pages that made it into the journal. It was certainly worthwhile, though—Victorian Literature and Culture has become one of the top journals in the field, and done indispensable work to broaden the study of Victorian literature from close readings of Tennyson to, just looking at the most recent issue for example, a field at the forefront of eco-criticism and disability studies.
Dr. Maynard found time, too, for his scholarly work to broaden into new and developing fields. After his book on Browning, he realized that he did not want “to do a five-volume Browning biography,” but to “move onto something else.” His expanding interests were focused by his long-term enthusiasm for what he calls the “culture of the poet,” as well as the traditional scholarly work of interpretation. He won a Guggenheim to write a book on Charlotte Bronte and sexuality. He wrote his next book on discourses of sexuality and religion in the Victorian period, resisting Foucault’s notion of a single hegemonic discourse. His final monograph takes on the theoretical project of literary intention. Dr. Maynard considers his career a “dialectic between cultural and interpretive approaches,” an animating problem that he admits “can’t be solved easily.”
It is problem that makes Dr. Maynard’s classes uniquely expansive. In Victorian Poetry, for example, his students read wide-ranging theoretical material, in addition to public health studies and poetic theory written by Victorian themselves, and a diverse mix of Victorian poetry itself—Alfred Tennyson, Elizabeth Barret Browning, and Robert Browning, of course, but also poets just entering the canon like Michael Field, the pseudonym of Katharine Harris Bradley and her niece Emma Edith Cooper, who wrote their poetry together.
The classroom experience, Dr. Maynard says, is the most significant reason he has stuck around for fifty-two years as a professor, particularly the seminars he has taught and the dissertations he has supervised. Besides a branding idea he proposed while serving on a committee on university identification, for the now-ubiquitous purple flags on NYU buildings, the scholars his seminars and dissertation supervisions helped develop are, perhaps, Dr. Maynard’s ultimate legacy—a group trained in the commitments to close literary analysis as well as the kind of historical work that can open up an era and even the canon to make room for diverse, unique voices and discourses. His work continues with the scholars he trained, but also with another Dr. Maynard, his son, a professor of economics in Canada. Anyone regretting his retirement should be reassured by the fact that there is one literal Dr. Maynard still out there, as well as many spiritual successors in generations of students inspired by his enthusiasm for scholarly work and university life.