Pickering, Sam 1941-

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Pickering, Sam 1941-

(Samuel F. Pickering, Jr., Samuel Francis Pickering, Jr.)

PERSONAL: Born September 30, 1941, in Nashville, TN; married; wife's name Vicki; children: three. Education: Sewanee, The University of the South, B.A., 1963; Cambridge University, B.A., 1965, M.A., 1970; Princeton University, Ph.D., 1970.

ADDRESSES: Home—Storrs, CT. Office—Department of English, University of Connecticut, Box U-4025, 215 Glenbrook Rd., Storrs, CT 06269-4025. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: Montgomery Bell Academy, Nashville, TN, instructor, 1965–66; Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, assistant professor, 1970–78; University of Connecticut, Storrs, professor, 1978–; University of Western Australia, Crawley, research associate, 1993–94; author and book reviewer.

AWARDS, HONORS: National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, 1974; American Council of Learned Societies grant, 1976.

WRITINGS:

ESSAY COLLECTIONS

A Continuing Education, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1985.

The Right Distance, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1987.

May Days, University of Iowa Press (Iowa City, IA), 1988.

Still Life, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1990.

Let It Ride, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1991.

Trespassing, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1994.

Walkabout Year: Twelve Months in Australia, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1995.

Living to Prowl, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1997.

The Blue Caterpillar and Other Essays, University Press of Florida (Gainesville, FL), 1997.

Deprived of Unhappiness, Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 1998.

A Little Fling and Other Essays, University of Tennessee Press (Knoxville, TN), 1999.

The Last Book, University of Tennessee Press (Knoxville, TN), 2001.

Waltzing the Magpies: A Year in Australia, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 2004.

The Best of Pickering, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 2004.

Letters to a Teacher, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 2004.

Indian Summer: Musings on the Gift of Life, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 2005.

OTHER

The Moral Tradition in English Fiction, 1785–1850, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1976.

John Locke and Children's Books in Eighteenth-Century England, University of Tennessee Press (Knoxville, TN), 1981.

Moral Instruction and Fiction for Children, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1993.

Also coeditor of Children's Literature, 8 volumes, Yale University Press, 1979–81. Contributor to numerous magazines and journals.

WORK IN PROGRESS: A collection of essays titled A Brown Bird Sang in the Apple Tree.

SIDELIGHTS: Sam Pickering is a professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of numerous essay collections. He has also authored many scholarly works, book reviews, and over two hundred journal and magazine articles. He is "a much sought after speaker," noted Janie Franz on the Critique Web site, popular on the lecture circuit "mostly for his wit and his writing expertise, but sometimes for his inadvertent connection with Hollywood." Franz is referring to the fact that while teaching at Montgomery Bell Academy, a boys' prep school in Tennessee, Pickering so influenced one of his students, Tom Schulman, that when Schulman grew up, he wrote a screenplay based on Pickering. The movie Dead Poets' Society, and the character that actor Robin Williams plays in this movie, although fictionalized, are based on Schulman's memories of Pickering.

Pickering is known best, outside of his classroom, as the creator of such imaginary characters as Slubey Carts, Proverbs Goforth, Googoo, and Loppie, all of whom live in the fictionalized city of Carthage, Tennessee. These characters tend to pop up in the middle of Pickering's essays about common things in life, like grading papers, raising children, or listening to conversations at a local cafe. In a review of The Last Book, a Publishers Weekly writer explained: "Pickering has the natural essayist's intimate yet distanced take on the world."

Many of the essays in Pickering's first collection, A Continuing Education, are about Pickering's experience as a teacher. The collection marks Pickering as a man who can laugh at himself and at other people who take themselves too seriously. He is also noted as a writer who focuses on the small details in life. As quoted in a review for Booklist, Pickering stated that the little things "are about all most people have." George Core in Sewanee Review quoted Pickering as saying: "I told curious friends in the university that I wrote the essay as an exercise in gilding the mundane."

In The Right Distance, Pickering reminisces about his Tennessee boyhood. "His Tennessee background provides a steady supply of amusing stories," wrote a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews. One of the more amusing tales involves Pickering, as a young boy, rushing through a meal, only later to discover that he had eaten his pet rooster. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly, like many other critics, praised Pickering's writing in this collection for its "informal but flawlessly crafted prose."

Many of the essays contained in May Days were inspired by a trip Pickering took with his wife, Vicki, and their children to Nova Scotia, Canada, where Vicki's grandparents once ran a farm. While visiting the now deserted farm, Pickering went up to the attic and browsed through old trunks filled with scrapbooks, letters, and diaries. He then reconstructed the life of Margaret Fuller Jones, his wife's grandmother, creating images that he hoped his young daughter would appreciate one day. A reviewer for Kirkus Reviews referred to the essays in this collection as "refreshing little gems."

Pickering wrote Still Life at about the same time that reporters began to hound him, wanting to know how it felt to have part of his life retold in Dead Poets' Society. When people asked about his life, he supposedly told them they should read his current book for answers. Barbara Scotto, in the Wilson Library Bulletin, wrote that in the essays found in Still Life, Pickering's "sense of voice is so compelling that it seems he has allowed the reader to enter his thoughts, to wander there with him." In this collection, Pickering reflects on his sudden notoriety, as well as his role in the community as he becomes a member of the school board, and his emotions as he responds to the death of his mother. Library Journal reviewer Martin J. Hudacs noted that Pickering's essays are "revealing and entertaining pieces of literature."

In 1995 Pickering took a sabbatical from teaching and traveled with his wife and children to Australia. He published his account of that experience in Walkabout Year: Twelve Months in Australia. Some of the essays in this collection reflect on his children's adjustment—or lack of it—to Australian schools. Most of the essays, however, refer to Pickering's own fascination with the flora and fauna of the Outback. George M. Jenks wrote in the Library Journal that the essays contain "nuggets of wisdom … and glimpses of the thoughts of a middle-aged man in a foreign … world." Alice Joyce, writing for Booklist, said the collection is "distinguished by its warmly rendered, entertaining observations that leave a satisfying afterglow."

Pickering is well known for mixing fact with fiction in order to emphasize some of the familiar Southern culture in which he grew up. It is in Living to Prowl that his slight leaning toward fiction comes most alive, as he walks down the streets of his imaginary version of the city of Carthage. In a review for AB Bookman's Weekly, a contributor wrote: "Pickering's imaginary Tennesseans are unusual in American literature: they are fictional characters existing outside the novel or short story form." There is a real city of Carthage, to which Pickering also refers, recounting stories about his family. Pickering also often jumps from the fictional town of Carthage in the midst of a conversation between his made-up characters to the conversations of real people, forcing readers to let go of a rational string of thought. The reviewer from AB Bookman's Weekly commented that Pickering's "essays have an elliptical structure that allows him to mix detailed observations of daily life … together with evocations of fictional lives and readings." The reviewer went on to note: "He knows just how far to follow a meandering line, just when to come back."

In the The Last Book, Pickering writes about family matters, including his son's prom date and concerns over his daughter's weight loss. Other essays stem from the author's own walks through the New England woods and his observations of the plants and animals he encounters. The essays also bring the reader up-to-date on the latest doings and observations of his fictional characters from Carthage, such as the Reverend Slubey Garts. A Publishers Weekly contributor called The Last Book a "blend of journal, flight of fancy and nature writing." Nancy R. Ives, writing in the Library Journal, commented that the author "writes with the sensitivity and craft of a poet, finding meaning in the commonplace and ordinary."

Waltzing the Magpies: A Year in Australia features previously unpublished essays from Pickering's time teaching in Australia, which he recounted first in Walkabout Year. Pickering also presents more than two dozen previously published essays in his collection titled The Best of Pickering, which includes the author's essays about teaching, parenting, and nature. Writing a review of both collections in Booklist, Carol Haggas noted that Pickering's "essays are elevated from pedantic ponderings so common to the form." Also reviewing both books, Library Journal contributor Rebecca Bollen wrote that readers will be "charmed by Pickering's gentle, sometimes gleeful, humor and then frequently moved by his wisdom and thoughtfulness." Bollen went on to comment that the writing "is never pretentious and is entirely suited to the subject matter."

Pickering focuses on teaching and the student-teacher relationship in Letters to a Teacher. The collection offers advice to teachers and also includes parts of letters that his former students have written him over the years, some flattering and some not. The author ponders the current state of the student-teacher relationship and also decries the fact that modern students have little interest in relating to classic writers, such as the poet Wordsworth. Many of the essays discuss the author's own learning and teaching experiences, from his own education to his children's time in school, as well as discussions of the various places where he has taught and the students he has encoun-tered along the way. Writing in Booklist, Vanessa Bush advised readers to "read slowly and mull." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote: "Pickering's odd timelessness … and his warm wisdom … will please educators and interested lay readers alike." In a review in the Library Journal, Ari Sigal wrote: "Practicing teachers at all levels are likely to benefit from his well-crafted and generous prose." A Kirkus Reviews contributor concluded: "A talented teacher tells all—though not every impression we leave class with may have been in the lesson plan."

Indian Summer: Musings on the Gift of Life presents the author's thoughts on aging. In many of the essays, such as "Early April" and "Time for Black & Decker," the author focuses on himself and how age has affected him both physically and mentally. C.D. Albin, writing in the Harvard Review, noted that this collection of essays "complements the rest of Pickering's substantial oeuvre, with its vision of life as raggedly random, a carnival of disorder, yet strewn with certain pleasures for the having if only one can maintain a balance between wonder and doubt, appreciation and skepticism." Albin went on to call Indian Summer "a humane book, genuine in feeling, its author's view of life honestly rendered." Booklist contributor Carol Haggas wrote that the author "imbues each entry with an anticipatory nostalgia for the way things, and he, used to be."

Several elements tie all of Pickering's essay collections together: his sense of humor, his focus on the ordinary, and his meandering from one topic to another more serious one, with a few completely made-up characters thrown in at odd moments. "Pickering's essays," wrote a Publishers Weekly writer in a review of The Blue Caterpillar and Other Essays, "are like balls in a pinball machine, rolling from target to target with no apparent logic." As Jeff Gundy observed in the Georgia Review, Pickering's writing "is charming, funny, incessantly inventive, and always entertaining." Although his musings center on similar, ordinary themes, Gundy said, "when Pickering gets done with the ordinary, there's nothing ordinary about it." As a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews wrote in a review of A Little Fling and Other Essays, Pickering "knows just how to coax from the ordinary the kind of sustained nourishment that imbues life with significance."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

AB Bookman's Weekly, May 18, 1998, review of Living to Prowl, pp. 1359-1360.

Best Sellers, February, 1986, Riaz Hussain, review of A Continuing Education, pp. 427-428.

Bloomsbury Review, May, 1997, review of The Blue Caterpillar and Other Essays, p. 22.

Booklist, October 15, 1985, review of A Continuing Education, p. 294; January 1, 1988, review of The Right Distance, p. 731; May 15, 1994, Roland Wulbert, review of Trespassing, p. 1646; November 15, 1995, Alice Joyce, review of Walkabout Year: Twelve Months in Australia, p. 531; May 15, 2004, Carol Haggas, reviews of The Best of Pickering and Waltzing the Magpies: A Year in Australia, p. 1591; November 1, 2004, Vanessa Bush, review of Letters to a Teacher, p. 448; June 1, 2005, Carol Haggas, review of Indian Summer: Musings on the Gift of Life, p. 1714.

Choice, April, 1977, review of The Moral Tradition in English Fiction, 1785–1850, p. 202; February, 1982, review of John Locke and Children's Books in Eighteenth-Century England, p. 767.

Georgia Review, fall, 2000, Jeff Gundy, review of A Little Fling and Other Essays, pp. 567-569.

Harvard Review, December, 2005, C.D. Albin, review of Indian Summer, p. 241.

Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 1987, review of The Right Distance, p. 979; May 1, 1988, review of May Days, p. 680; March 15, 1994, review of Trespassing, p. 62; July 15, 1998, review of Deprived of Unhappiness, p. 1022; August 1, 1999, review of A Little Fling and Other Essays, p. 1206; October 1, 2004, review of Letters to a Teacher, p. 951.

Library Jo urnal, June 15, 1990, Martin J. Hudacs, review of Still Life, p. 117; May 1, 1994, Judy Minken, review of Trespassing, p. 104; November 1, 1995, George M. Jenks, review of Walkabout Year, p. 97; March 15, 1997, Janice Braun, review of The Blue Caterpillar and Other Essays, p. 64; September 15, 2001, Nancy R. Ives, review of The Last Book, p. 80; March 15, 2004, Rebecca Bollen, review of The Best of Pickering and Waltzing the Magpies, p. 76; January 1, 2005, Ari Sigal, review of Letters to a Teacher, p. 126.

Modern Language Review, April, 1979, K.J. Fielding, review of The Moral Tradition in English Fiction, 1785–1850, pp. 421-422.

New York Times Book Review, August 3, 1997, N. Graham Newsmith, review of The Blue Caterpillar and Other Essays, p. 17.

Publishers Weekly, July 31, 1987, review of The Right Distance, p. 64; April 18, 1994, review of Trespassing, p. 54; October 16, 1995, review of Walkabout Year, p. 55; February 10, 1997, review of The Blue Caterpillar and Other Essays, p. 79; August 3, 1998, review of Deprived of Unhappiness, p. 69; July 23, 2001, review of The Last Book, p. 66; May 24, 2004, Lisa Kingstone, "Loving Life and Teaching It: Sam Pickering," p. 39; November 29, 2004, review of Letters to a Teacher, p. 30.

Sewanee Review, October, 1985, George Core, review of A Continuing Education, p. R92; October, 1988, Pat C. Hoy II, reviews of May Days, p. 688, and The Right Distance, pp. 692-693; July, 1992, Martin Lebowitz, review of Let It Ride, p. R60.

Southern Humanities Review, winter, 1984, review of John Locke and Children's Books in Eighteenth-Century England, pp. 77-78.

Times Literary Supplement, June 24, 1977, A.O.J. Cockshut, review of The Moral Tradition in English Fiction, 1785–1850, p. 756; May 7, 1982, Pat Rogers, review of John Locke and Children's Books in Eighteenth-Century England, p. 500.

Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1982, review of John Locke and Children's Books in Eighteenth-Century England, p. 56; summer, 1988, review of A Continuing Education, p. 106; autumn, 1988, review of May Days, p. 140; autumn, 1993, review of Moral Instruction and Fiction for Children, 1749–1820, p. 118.

Washington Post Book World, July 29, 1990, review of Still Life, p. 13.

William and Mary Quarterly, July, 1994, Melvin Yazawa, review of Moral Instruction and Fiction for Children 1749–1820, p. 577.

Wilson Library Bulletin, September, 1990, Barbara Scotto, review of Still Life, p. 119; November, 1994, Michael Tubridy, review of Trespassing, p. 134.

ONLINE

Critique Magazine, http://www.etext.org/Zines/Critique/ (February 27, 2006), Janie Franz, "Sam Pickering."