Lifelong Learner, or Driving Dilettante Terrors Away: Reflections from Alumna Eleanor Elson Heginbotham

Alumna Eleanor Elson Heginbotham offers, in her own words,

reflections on her path from graduate studies at UMD.

At around twelve I learned the word “dilettante” in some judgmental context that terrified me of the condition for the rest of my life.  Putting it at bay has not been the sole motivation for spending most of my 73 years in academia, but it’s up there with the simple joys of discovering new ways of talking about beloved old texts; making the best of friends in classrooms, libraries, and adjacent courtyards; and, simply, staying alive in the best sense of the word.  When I married right out of a great college experience, having written, if I do say so now, a brilliant senior paper  (well over 100 pages for an “independent study” on “the Dance of Life in the Major Early Novels of Henry James” – how pretentious!), I moved directly into the role of a Foreign Service wife, trying to concoct parties for other diplomats by night and trying to teach their children by day, the fear set in. At the first possible opportunity between posts, I sought out the University of Maryland’s great resources for the Masters’ Degree, writing again on James under Dr. Raymond Thorburg and taking survey classes in American Literature that would serve me well for the next 15 years in classrooms around the world.  After adventures that included bearing a child in the middle of a counter-coup in Vietnam, spending Christmases on little islands off of Java, and hosting Indonesia’s most famous poet in my tropical classroom, we returned – more or less for “good” – to Washington, where luck had me teaching in one of the best private schools in the area – and still bothered by the terrors of dilettantism. Thinking myself the smartest one in the room was not only not true, but even if it were, it didn’t mean much when everyone else in the room is no more than 17 years old.  Summers spent in NEH-sponsored seminars, where creating serious papers culminated each six-week intensive reading and discussion paradise, reminded me of how much I didn’t know and whetted my appetite to test myself the way I tested my students.


Of course, the testing was far more serious than that, but the process of working through each seminar, the comprehensive exams, the dissertation and defense – all of it while teaching five classes a day – was actually as life-giving as it was exhausting.  For one thing, between my previous serious academic adventures a whole world of women theorists, most of whose names I did not even know how to pronounce (Cixous and company), had become guiding lights for a new group of professors and colleagues. For another, I had entered the world of Emily Dickinson. My arrival for the new life at Maryland in 1986 coincided with the Folger conference at which every major scholar appeared to mark the centenary of her death. A small local group, among whom was Martha Nell Smith, new to Maryland herself, joined forces to read the poet through the new Franklin edition of re-constituted “fascicles.”  Soon there was an Emily Dickinson International Society, at which I was a dazzled participant in meetings that would range from Colorado and California to Innsbruck, Trondheim, and Kyoto. Professors at Maryland, among them, Smith, Levine, Bryer, and – from Brit Lit – Coletti and others, along with a little quartet of four of us (“Uncommon Women,” as we called ourselves), women of a certain age gathered for support and suppers, made the six years it took to finish the degree among the most complexly rich in my life.  


 When my own dissertation, which, thanks I am sure to Professor Smith, won the Carl Bode Award in American subject dissertations, was on the way to becoming a book and when through miracles beyond my understanding (I was then over 50), I landed a tenure track job (and ultimately the tenure and full professorship it promised), I found not only a new career but a new life. Among other things, I had the fun of organizing one of those annual gatherings; lacking any other connection to the poet in Minnesota, we called it “To Make a Prairie.” Thanks, too, to all that Maryland had given me, I was able to take Dickinson (and Thoreau and others) to Hong Kong with a Fulbright Senior Scholar award, where I taught at the state-of-the-art University of Hong Kong (it’s a blend of colonial vine-covered tiny offices, each with separate doors and a high rise classroom building topped with a “faculty dining room” that serves culinary delights and looks out on the Hong Kong bay) and where I also lectured in some ten other Chinese cities and in Thailand.  Yes, they know Dickinson well in classrooms around the world.


That old fear – this time exacerbated by “retirement’ at 65 – that the brain would turn to mush, sent me back to classrooms as a part-time teacher and as a perpetual student.  Washington provides ways to hear the newest authors read their own work and brings the great established poets and novelists as well.  I try to hear as many of them as possible.  The little group of Maryland’s erstwhile English majors who gather with Karen Nelson help keep the terror at bay, as do three other reading groups whose choices keep me aware (even if I don’t always finish the books) of what’s good among the new.  And Dickinson continues to draw me to write about her and to read – mostly in awe but sometimes in appalled amazement – of what others are writing about her. There’s a second book on the way, and a paper presented at the Oxford EDIS conference has just appeared in the EDIS Journal; it’s about Dickinson’s reading of Middlemarch.  The intersection of the minds of Dickinson and Eliot was enough to keep me aware of how much is left to learn and how little time (comparatively) there is to learn it and write about it. 


If all that was confusing, here it is in outline form – some of a professional life anyway:

College of Wooster B.A. 1960

University of Maryland M.A. 1971

University of Maryland Ph.D. 1992

In between degrees: Between degrees, I spent time teaching in Liberia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Washington suburbs (18 years at Stone Ridge).  I was also awarded three NEH Summer Seminars for Secondary Teachers: one on “Fictions of Romanticism” (with Robert Kellogg) at the University of Virginia, on Thoreau (with Walter Harding) at Concord, one on Faulkner (with Noel Polk) at the University of Mississippi, and one on Chopin (with Barbara Ewell) in New Orleans.

After earning the Ph.D.: I spent 10 years at Concordia University St. Paul (1994-2004), where I  reached full professor (2000), had a Fulbright as “Senior Scholar” at U of Hong Kong (’98-’99), and organized three major conferences on Laura Ingalls Wilder (’94), Emily Dickinson (2000), and F. Scott Fitzgerald (2002).  During this time, I published a book on Dickinson’s fascicles (Ohio State U P, 2002) and contributed some two dozen articles to various journals and collections.

On Retirement: Upon my retirement, Concordia friends established the “Heginbotham ‘Possibilities’ Literary Lecture” – speakers include Patricia Hampl, Garrison Keillor, and, this year, Louise Erdrich on January 30.

After “Retirement” in 2004:  Since retiring, I've taught three semesters at UMD and many semesters and many varieties of classes for “OLLI” (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) at AU and at JHU; I've continued writing, including co-editing a collection of scholarly essays on “the Fascicles.”