Russian Lit — Live

by Elizabeth Canning Blackwell

Professor Gary Saul Morson strides back and forth in the front of Leverone Auditorium in the Donald P. Jacobs–Kellogg Center, a well-stocked key chain dangling from his belt. The few hundred students who have signed up for Morson’s spring quarter Tolstoy class listen politely as he talks, seemingly off the cuff, about topics ranging from Napoleon Bonaparte to Tolstoy’s critics to the British cult TV show Doctor Who.

Then he asks them to turn to the opening of War and Peace. As he begins to read, Morson’s straightforward, college-professor voice shifts; one minute he’s speaking with the high-pitched giggles of a young wife, the next he’s become a naïve young man who’s eagerly anticipating a party. He becomes the characters, throwing out asides in their voices. Burbles of laughter erupt throughout the room.

Morson knows he has the students’ attention. Smiling wryly, he says, “I don’t want you to be bored!”

In many ways Morson, the Frances Hooper Professor of the Arts and Humanities and professor of Slavic languages and literature, is a throwback, a professor who believes his most important job is to teach undergraduates. His lectures — part intellectual discourse and part over-the-top performance piece — are designed to keep students engaged, and it works. His Introduction to Russian Literature course regularly attracts up to 500 students, making it one of the most popular elective courses at Northwestern.

America’s youth are widely assumed to be more interested in Twitter than Tolstoy, but Morson has shown, year after year, that literary masterpieces still resonate with students today. “These books can teach us something about how to live our lives and why moral questions we face can be answered in different ways than we thought,” he says. Northwestern students, he adds, want to believe in the transformative power of great literature: “They have a real interest in making what they learn in the humanities relevant to their lives.”

Morson likes to point out that in works such as Anna Karenina and War and Peace — as in real life — most people’s lives are not determined by dramatic events but by chance and small, seemingly unimportant shifts. That holds true for his own professional trajectory into Russian literature. A New York City native who attended the Bronx High School of Science, he was headed toward a career in physics. But on the day he was supposed to take a French placement exam, there was a blizzard. “I was 45 minutes late for an hourlong exam, and I flunked,” he remembers. “My choice was to take beginning French again or try another language. My high school had started offering Russian because it was shortly after Sputnik. Had it not snowed that day, I would have done French.”

While he started out at Yale University contemplating a major in physics, he ended up graduating with a degree in Russian. “What I liked about physics is that it asked the ultimate questions,” he says. “I loved how when you look at the world, all this amazing complexity had these very simple rules behind it. Now I believe the opposite — the argument of my favorite writer, Tolstoy, is that the world doesn’t fit any system, because human psychology is so infinitely complex.”

He spent a year at Oxford on a Henry Fellowship — where he became friends with fellow student Bill Clinton — before returning to Yale for his doctorate in Russian literature. “A great deal of my pitiful income from those years went to Clinton’s campaign for attorney general of Arkansas,” he laughs. After graduating, Morson taught at the University of Pennsylvania from 1974 until his arrival at Northwestern in 1986.

At a time when students worry about how their degrees will translate into jobs, Morson makes an impassioned case for the “impractical” study of literature. “It teaches us the importance of getting outside our own heads,” he says. “When you identify with a character of the opposite sex, from a different social class, you can feel what it’s like to be someone else.” The ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes is a skill that pays off in everything from business negotiations to disciplining a child. “The point of reading is to learn the value of other perspectives,” he says. “If all you know about the other side is what your side says about them, then you’re not thinking.”

“I think Saul’s greatest contribution, not just to the Slavic department, but to the University as a whole, is to remind us that a great scholar can also be an inspiring undergraduate teacher,” says Andrew Wachtel, Bertha and Max Dressler Professor in the Humanities at Northwestern and current president of the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (see "Man on a Mission"). “He finds ways to make his thinking about the greatest Russian novels relevant, through his spectacular performing abilities, but also thanks to his meticulous preparation and a lot of hard work.”

Matthew Morrison (J06), currently a student at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, remembers the “bubble wrap” of students that would envelop Morson after class. “I just can’t overstate the influence he’s had on my life,” Morrison says. “I learned far more about people from Morson’s readings of Dostoyevsky than I did in my psychology classes. So many of his quotes are perpetually floating in my mind: ‘Your certainty about a situation is in direct proportion to your ignorance about it,’ or ‘Nothing that is worth anything is comprehensible.’ ” The ultimate proof of the professor’s influence? “Friends and I still do his Fyodor Pavlovich voice [a character from The Brothers Karamazov] to each other.”

Morson lives in Evanston with his wife, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst; he has a daughter, Emily, a senior cognitive science major at Northwestern, and a 15-year-old son, Alexander.

Rather than just meeting with students during office hours, he prefers to sit with them over coffee: “They often talk about how the book we’re reading has impacted the rest of their lives,” he says. He is also master at Willard Residential College, where he runs informal discussion groups.

Irwin Weil, professor emeritus in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature (see “Moscow Knight,” winter 2001), says Morson’s enthusiasm makes him a draw at professional meetings as well. “The young colleagues crowd to get close to him,” he says. “Saul knows how to stand up for what he believes. This is a tremendous example for students and, equally, for colleagues.”

While Russian literature is his specialty, Morson is a seeker, always ready to look at the world from new perspectives. “I think of myself as a philosopher without a license,” he says. Earlier this year he co-taught a humanities course with Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro that mixed economics, history and philosophy. “I learned a lot from Morty,” says Morson, “so much that I can now explain some of those economic concepts myself.”

He’s also not afraid to lampoon the very subject he teaches. Under a pseudonym, he wrote And Quiet Flows the Vodka, or When Pushkin Comes to Shove: The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Russian Literature and Culture (Northwestern University Press, 2000). The satire includes excerpts from “The Universe and All That Surrounds It” (a parody of War and Peace, written in perfectly Tolstoy-esque prose) and a “Devil’s Dictionary,” which takes on both Slavic culture and the academic life. (The definition of a Russian happy ending? The hero learns the reason for his agony. Graduate School? An institution whose purpose is to train people to staff it.)

While Morson finds his work with undergraduates rewarding, he believes that the classics only become more relevant with age — an encouraging thought for all those Northwestern grads who never got around to tackling War and Peace or Crime and Punishment. “The older you get, the more you understand because a book like Anna Karenina deals with adult questions,” he says. “What makes a good parent? What is love? What makes a marriage work? How do you make yourself a better person? The answers are quite profound.”

As part of his mission to make seemingly intimidating works more accessible, he published two key explanatory works, Hidden in Plain View: Narrative and Creative Potentials in War and Peace (Stanford University Press, 1988) and Anna Karenina in Our Time (Yale University Press, 2007). “I try to write as clearly as possible, with no jargon,” says Morson. “Nothing pleases me more than when someone who is not an academic says, ‘I read your book!’ ”

His study of Anna Karenina ends with a list of “163 Tolstoyan Conclusions,” which Morson distilled from his decades of studying the Russian writer. Consider, for example, this insight: “Each person is a natural egoist who sees the world as if it were a novel in which he or she were the hero or heroine, but morality begins when a person can see the world as if he or she were a minor character in someone else’s novel.” Thanks to Morson, thousands of Northwestern students have learned to do just that.

Elizabeth Canning Blackwell (C90) is a freelance writer in Skokie, Ill., who recently added War and Peace to her must-read list.

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