Dickens and Thackeray book cover

Meet Professor John Reed

Since coming to Wayne State as an assistant professor in 1965, English Professor John R. Reed has taught a number of students, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. After being a familiar sight in the English Department for so long, Dr. Reed- a specialist of Victorian literature- has retired this year. His colleague Dr. Michael Scrivener, also a scholar of nineteenth-century British literature, describes him as a “terrific teacher” and “very generous.”

When he first met Dr. Reed in 1976, Dr. Scrivener took him for a man much older, due to his accomplishments. “He was a kind of wunderkind,” Dr. Scrivener says. “He did a huge amount of work when he was young, and he’s continued to do so.” Born in Minnesota in 1938, Dr. Reed comes from a working-class background and had studied music and English at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Rochester in 1963, and before coming to Wayne State, taught at the University of Cincinnati and University of Connecticut.

Reading his work, one can tell that Dr. Reed’s knowledge of Victorian literature is astonishing. Dr. Scrivener notes that Dr. Reed is well-acquainted with the thick novels of such classic Victorians as Charles Dickens and George Eliot, yet also more obscure figures whose work was published only in magazines or little-read books. Though a literary scholar, Dr. Reed’s writings touch on the culture and history of the Victorians as well. While bearing in mind contemporary concerns, his work is carefully researched and contains intricate details about its subjects.

A contributor to such journals as Nineteenth-Century Fiction and Victorian Poetry, and a member of such organizations as the Midwest Victorian Studies Association and the H.G. Wells Society, Dr. Reed is also the author of over a dozen different books. His first full-length work, Old School Ties: The Public Schools in British Literature, appeared in 1964. The book discusses
the history of the British public education system, and its depictions in the writings of a range of important British intellectuals, from Victorians like Samuel Butler to Edwardian authors and W.H. Auden and George Orwell.

Dr. Reed’s next work, a study of the poet Alfred Tennyson entitled Perception and Design in Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King,” followed in 1970. Victorian Conventions, one of Dr. Reed’s best-known books, was published in 1975. An analysis of literary and social conventions in both famous and obscure pieces of Victorian literature, Victorian Conventions is a lengthy work covering such wide-ranging subjects as dueling, deathbeds, marriage, and orphans. Dr. Scrivener has described the work as a classic, and even at the time of its publication, reviewers noted its depth and welcome inclusion of forgotten authors. In a contemporary piece in The Georgia Review, scholar Jerome Mazzaro even noted that “Victorian Conventions will, no doubt, emerge as one of the classic reference works on mid-nineteenth-century fiction. ”

Another notable piece of work, Decadent Style, appeared in 1985. In this book, Dr. Reed argues that the decadent style of art that emerged near the close of the nineteenth-century was a late stage of Romanticism, and a precedent in some ways to Modernism. True to the encompassing scope he demonstrates in Victorian Conventions, Dr. Reed goes beyond the examination of only British decadent writers to include European authors like Joris-Karl Huysmans and Gabriele D’Annunzio, along with other artists, musicians, and poets from the Continent.

A subsequent book from 1989, Victorian Will, returned Dr. Reed to more Victorian territory. An interesting study of nineteenth-century British attitudes toward determinism and free will, Victorian Will explores how the writers of the time understood these concepts, and how they reflected about them in their own work. Later, Dr. Reed would turn to how the themes of punishment and forgiveness are portrayed in the novels of Charles Dickens and William Thackeray, in the 1995 book Dickens and Thackeray: Punishment and Forgiveness. A more recent work that appeared in 2010, Dickens’s Hyperrealism, also touches on Dickens, a commonly accepted realist, Dr. Reed points out, who was paradoxically able to “convey a sense of the everyday world while at the same time almost magically transforming it.”

In addition to scholarly works, Dr. Reed is a writer of poetry, having appeared in Michigan Quarterly ReviewPoetry, and other literary journals. His own collected books of poetry include the volumes Hercules (1973), A Gallery of Spiders (1980), Great Lake (1995), Life Sentences (1996), and Dear Ruth (2002). Dr. Reed’s poetry is personal and contemporary, and like his academic work, ranges in subject matter. His Life Sentences, for example, contains poems about Christmas, traveling, loneliness, detective novels, music, and fin-de-siecle writers. Dear Ruth, a collection of short poems and prose pieces, is an especially personal work; Dr. Reed wrote it in memory of his late wife, Ruth Yzenbaard Reed, who passed away at the age of 55 in August 1999.

Across his career, Dr. Reed has been an accomplished and hard-working scholar, very much dedicated to his profession. Just as importantly, he has been a passionate and insightful teacher, an extraordinary help to Wayne State and its students. Although he might no longer teach classes, Dr. Reed’s knowledge and influence will always remain in the lives of the students he taught, and in the exemplary studies of literature he wrote, many of which are available to borrow from the university’s Purdy-Kresge Library.

By Tristan Shaw