Edmundson, Mark 1952–
Edmundson, Mark 1952–
Office—Department of English, University of Virginia, 219 Bryan Hall, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4121.
Educator and writer. University of Virginia, Charlottesville, professor of romantic poetry and literary theory, 1984—.
Keats-Shelley Association Award, 1987, for the essay "Keats's Mortal Stance"; Virginia Arts Council grant for fiction writing, 1992; Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural Change fellow, 1992-93; Virginia Foundation for the Humanities fellow, 2001; National Endowment for the Humanities/ Harry Jack Gray Distinguished Teaching Professor grant, University of Hartford, 2001; Guggenheim fellow, 2005-06.
(Editor) Wild Orchids and Trotsky: Messages from American Universities, Penguin (New York, NY), 1993.
Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of the Gothic, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1997.
Teacher: The One Who Made a Difference (memoir), Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
Why Read?, Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2004.
The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days, Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2007.
Contributing editor to Harper's, Raritan, and Civilization.
Mark Edmundson, professor of literary theory and romantic poetry at the University of Virginia, has made a distinguished career in the academic world. He has garnered a reputation as a cultural critic and a memoirist, attracting an audience outside strictly academic circles.
In Towards Reading Freud: Self-Creation in Milton, Wordsworth, Emerson, and Sigmund Freud, Edmundson examines the basic paradox at the center of the noted psychoanalyst's work: that while Freud discovered the rules of human behavior, he could only make this discovery by breaking them. To illuminate this paradox, Edmundson makes a sharp distinction between the scientific side and the literary side of Freud. The author cites numerous passages from literary works by Wordsworth, Emerson, and Milton that suggest parallels with Freud's own writings. Though critics admired Edmundson's research and attention to craft, they expressed disappointment that he did not consider more literature from the German Romantic tradition, which is a part of Freud's cultural heritage. Nevertheless, critics found much to praise in the book. Thomas R. Frosch in Studies in Romanticism raised some questions about the book's analyses but concluded that "I can recommend this book for its readings and for its working out of ideas that are engaging and worthy of some consideration even if I can't always share them." Hailing Towards Reading Freud as an ambitious work, Comparative Literature Studies contributor John Neubauer found its thesis challenging and "fascinating."
Contributing to an ongoing conversation about the value of the humanities in U.S. culture, Edmundson collects thirteen relevant essays and interviews from a group of academics as Wild Orchids and Trotsky: Messages from American Universities. Some scholars, such as Richard Rorty and Frank Letricchia, take a populist perspective and decry any attempts to reserve the humanities for the elite. Susan Fraiman and Nancy K. Miller voice the feminist view by questioning the legitimacy of a culture that does not acknowledge gender. Scholar Judith Frank champions the university as a place where dissent can and should take place. Critics praised the book as an open discussion of timely issues.
Edmundson exercises his role as cultural critic in the book Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of the Gothic. He defines the Gothic as "the art of haunting, the art of possession" and to this end examines dark images commonly found in the media, popular literature, and news reporting. Edmundson argues that mass attraction to the Gothic in the 1990s and beyond demonstrates the preoccupation with fear and suffering that has been a recurrent theme throughout American history. He is equally interested in the prevalence of the counterbalancing interest in what he refers to as "pop transcendence": the ability to instantly and painlessly transform oneself at will. He points to the popularity of angels and to an assortment of trends within the New Age community as evidence of this opposition to the Gothic. Edmundson's solution to these preoccupations is to be found in the transformative ability of art. In the New York Times Book Review Geoffrey O'Brien questioned this conclusion, pointing out that the equation between artworks and historical events is not fully persuasive. O'Brien went on to note that "Edmundson's definition of Gothic lumps together all shades of melodrama, political paranoia, conspiracy theory, neurotic obsession, narcissistic irony, apocalyptic religion and sheer tabloid crassness," making the book's focus overly vague. Washington Post Book World contributor Paul Di Filippo, on the other hand, admired Edmundson's lively prose and "intellectual charm," and particularly appreciated the author's "heterogenous range of supporting examples, from Oprah to Hitchcock, from Wordsworth to Robert Bly, from Wes Craven to Keats."
Teacher: The One Who Made a Difference is Edmundson's memoir of the year during high school when he encountered a teacher who had a lifelong effect on him. The author was a student in a public high school in a working-class suburb of Boston and, by his own admission, was just getting by until he took a philosophy class from Frank Lear that literally changed his life. Lear was unintimidated by students who constantly challenged and threatened him; he pushed them to think hard. Edmundson's account of that year, according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, "deftly captures the spirit of the times" and "can't help taking readers back to their own ordinary origins and cause them to reflect upon those teachable moments that made a difference in their own lives." A Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote that the book presents an "exquisite pictures of the stark social dynamics" of Edmundson's working-class community and concluded that Teacher is "a small treasure."
Edmundson again plays the role of cultural critic in his 2004 book, Why Read? The book takes a critical look at the value of reading, which the author feels is of central importance to a better, more enlightened society. In Why Read?, Edmundson espouses his concerns regarding such things as the commercialization of education and university students not being taught the value of reading. "Much of the book is addressed to teachers, who stand uniquely placed to open those windows to wider experience. But it's also directed toward students, who are sincerely invited to ‘supplant’ their teachers and professors if they're not offered the stiff elixir Edmundson favors," observed Tracy Lee Simmons in her critique of the book for the National Review. Booklist's Donna Seaman felt that Edmundson's "many-faceted argument is forthright, rigorous, and inspiring as he convincingly links literature with hope and humanism with democracy." Simmons, however, felt that the book had its weak points and noted that "we applaud his best points, but sometimes his face is a little too long, his belief in literature as a replacement for religion a bit too thin and naive." Kliatt's Anthony Pucci praised the book, claiming that "this is a book that every teacher of the humanities should read."
Edmundson's 2007 The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days expands on his 2006 New YorkTimes Magazine article, "Freud and the Fundamentalist Urge," which deals with the lure of authoritarian leaders. Edmundson explains in an interview with Book Slut's Jason B. Jones that what originally was going to be a book about Sigmund Freud, who staged his own suicide to end his suffering from mouth cancer, "dying a good secular death," evolved into much more: "When I began learning about the Nazi invasion of Austria, I wanted not just to write about them, but I thought that analytical explanations might be available for them. Lo and behold, I found that the best explanation, for my money, was available in none other than the work of Sigmund Freud." Freud's theory on our yearning for authority, which helped propel such insidious political movements as Nazism, was also embodied in Freud himself, as he had many followers who believed in his ability to further humanity. In The Death of Sigmund Freud, Edmundson touches on this and how Freud dealt with this notion in the last year of his life. "Writing with great skill, Mark Edmundson shows Freud in all his contradictory humanity," observed John Gray in his critique of the book for Literary Review. Gray added that the book "is a wonderfully engaging account of Freud's last year. It is also a meditation on the human need for authority that makes a compelling claim for the importance of Freud as a political thinker." Jones felt that The Death of Sigmund Freud "is a remarkable book, written with wit and verve. Anyone interested in fundamentalism, in authority, or in the possibilities of the spirit will find much to contemplate here." The book is "an insightful gloss on a generally neglected episode of Freud's life," commended Bryce Christensen in his review of the book for Booklist.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Literary History, spring-summer, 2000, Susan Hegeman, review of Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of the Gothic, pp. 298-317.
American Scholar, September 22, 2004, "Living It," p. 167.
Booklist, September 1, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of Why Read?, p. 39; August 1, 2007, Bryce Christensen, review of The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days, p. 11.
Comparative Literature Studies, 1995, John Neubauer, review of Towards Reading Freud: Self-Creation in Milton, Wordsworth, Emerson, and Sigmund Freud, pp. 103-107.
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, April 1, 2008, review of The Death of Sigmund Freud, p. 63.
Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 1992, review of Wild Orchids and Trotsky: Messages from American Universities, p. 1478; May 1, 2002, review of Teacher: The One Who Made a Difference, p. 634; July 1, 2007, review of The Death of Sigmund Freud.
Kliatt, January 1, 2006, Anthony Pucci, review of Why Read?, p. 30.
Library Journal, October 1, 2004, review of Why Read?, p. 80; August 1, 2007, E. James Lieberman, review of The Death of Sigmund Freud, p. 104.
MultiCultural Review, September, 1993, Dennis Showalter, review of Wild Orchids and Trotsky, pp. 84-85.
National Review, February 28, 2005, Tracy Lee Simmons, "Knowledge & Delight," p. 49.
New York Times Book Review, October 26, 1997, Geoffrey O'Brien, review of Nightmare on Main Street, p. 37.
Publishers Weekly, May 20, 2002, review of Teacher, p. 54; June 11, 2007, review of The Death of Sigmund Freud, p. 48.
Sewanee Review, April, 1994, Steven Helming, review of Towards Reading Freud, pp. 291-309.
Studies in Romanticism, summer, 1994, Thomas Frosch, review of Towards Reading Freud, pp. 317-327.
Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 1991, review of Towards Reading Freud, p. 82.
Washington Book World, October 26, 1997, Paul Di Filippo, review of Nightmare on Main Street, p. 27.
Book Slut,http://www.bookslut.com/ (October, 2007), Jason B. Jones, review of The Death of Sigmund Freud.
Literary Review,http://www.literaryreview.co.uk/ (October, 2007), John Gray, review of The Death of Sigmund Freud.
University of Virginia English Department Web site,http://www.engl.virginia.edu/ (June, 2008).