The compleat better half

I first met my future wife in the fall of 1985, when we were both wet-behind-the-ears graduate students at Oxford University. Marjorie Swann was a Canadian, from a fly-speck of a town on an island in Lake Huron with more moose than people. She was at Oxford on a Commonwealth Scholarship (a charming remnant of British imperial noblesse oblige) and was reading for a degree in English Renaissance literature. Our courtship was not exactly the stuff of romance novels or made-for-Lifetime movies. To say it was nerdy is putting it mildly: think The Big Bang Theory but with humanities geeks instead of scientists. We would take tea breaks together, she emerging from the ancient, overheated library she preferred, me staggering into the sunlight from the medieval dungeon of a library I frequented. We knew things were getting serious when we started editing each other’s seminar papers. Then, as now, Marjorie was an absolute whiz with a red pen and a stickler for clarity and logic. It was love at first comma splice.

We were married in 1989, in Marjorie’s family’s little church on St. Joseph Island. We then began the peripatetic lives of contemporary academics. Our first stop was Princeton, New Jersey, where Marjorie finished her dissertation and earned an Oxford D.Phil. while I was still stuck in classwork and sitting comprehensive exams. She subsequently earned a prestigious postdoc (thank you, cradle-to-grave Canadian government) and stayed in Princeton when I went off to Japan for a year to conduct research. We reunited in, of all places, Denton, Texas, where Marjorie had won a coveted tenure-track job at the University of North Texas. After a year in the Lone Star State, when I was happily a kept man, working on my own dissertation while Marjorie labored as a grunt of a junior faculty member, we packed up again and hit the road. 

The next port of call for us (and a long layover, it turned out) was in Lawrence, Kansas, where we both landed jobs at the University of Kansas. In our 17 years at KU and in one of America’s great college towns, we accomplished a lot, both personally and professionally. We both earned tenure, Marjorie published her first book (on the culture of collecting in early modern England), brought home a slew of teaching awards, and directed the Museum Studies master’s program.  We became rabid basketball fans, even more rabid regional art collectors (of which more will follow in another blog post), and we rescued a historic home from demolition, completely renovated it, and got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Marjorie returned to her roots in rural Canada (where she had a summer market garden to earn the money for college) and kept us supplied with a backyard bounty of scrupulously organic raspberries, herbs, and heirloom tomatoes.

Since 2010, of course, we have been down in Dallas, where brutal summers make gardening all but impossible and a historic house is anything built before 1995. Marjorie has continued to rack up the teaching honors and is already well known as one of SMU’s most demanding and best English professors.  (Warning to future students at Hendrix: Dr. Swann will work you hard and have no patience for sloppiness or laziness. Advice to future students at Hendrix: Take Dr. Swann’s classes, because you will learn more in one semester about reading, writing, and thinking than you ever thought possible.)   

As always, Marjorie continues to burn the candle at both ends, being an active scholar while still heaping red ink by the bucket-load on student essays. For several years she has been working on Izaak Walton, a seventeenth-century author who is regarded as something of a literary patron saint by all sport fishermen. His 1653 volume The Compleat Angler (if only Marjorie had been around to correct his spelling!) is the second most frequently reprinted book in the English language after the Bible. The more the merrier, it seems, since Marjorie has just completed (compleated?) a new edition of the venerable volume, released in the United States this month by Oxford University Press. It is a lovely book, with a ribbon bookmark and a striking cover designed to attract all those fishermen who are voracious readers in the months when they cannot be standing amidst a stream in their waders. In her introduction, Marjorie urges us to reconsider how we regard this time-honored text: The Compleat Angler, she argues, is not just a fishing manual, not just a celebration of the countryside, and not just an Anglican meditation in an age of civil war, but it is also very much an ecological study, an unusually early reflection of an environmental consciousness in English literature. Even if Walton’s writing is difficult to plow through at times (The Canterbury Tales meets Moby Dick is a rough approximation), Marjorie’s introduction alone is worth the cover price.

The edition has already been attracting lots of attention, even in places where ivory-tower scholars usually fear to tread. It was one of two featured reviews in an issue of the TLS (which is, in British literary circles, like running in the Kentucky Derby if you happen to be a racehorse). It was written up admiringly (and compared to, believe it or not, Lady Chatterley’s Lover) in the sports section of London’s newspaper The Independent. Marjorie has been asked to deliver the keynote speech at this summer’s annual convention of the Izaak Walton League of America, a national conservation organization for sportsmen. And she is scheduled to do a book signing at the Bass Pro Shops superstore in Altoona, Iowa. Wow! Just look where an Oxford doctorate can take you!

Marjorie has written a blog on The Compleat Angler for the publisher (you can read it here – link to http://blog.oup.com/2014/02/fishing-with-izaak-walton-compleat-angler/). It is illustrated with photographs by yours truly, taken during our “vacation” to England last year (which, incidentally, fell during the coldest spring in the British Isles since the last Ice Age). While Marjorie was walking in the steps of Izaak Walton, visiting all the historic sites associated with him, and poring over sources in museums and libraries, I was either obligingly taking photographs (often while wearing mittens) or else relaxing in a pub across the street, trying to stay warm. It was all in a good cause, though, as the edition sets a new standard for reprints of Izaak Walton and as Marjorie is hard at work on a book about The Compleat Angler and its post-Renaissance afterlives.

Marjorie is looking forward to the move to Conway, to joining the Hendrix community, and to teaching poetry come the fall. And she’s also eager about learning how to fly fish after we arrive in Arkansas. I understand our next “vacation” to England is going to involve not just walking in Walton’s centuries-old footsteps, but actually angling where the great man once did.  

And, just so you know, we still edit each other’s writing, even after almost 25 years of marriage.  The couple that proofreads together stays together. 


About Bill

William Tsutsui

Dr. William M. Tsutsui became the 11th President of Hendrix College on June 1, 2014. He came to Hendrix from Southern Methodist University where he was Dean and Professor of History at Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.