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Bonnie Brown: Q&A with Professor Emeritus of English, Benjamin Fisher

*Editor’s Note: The latest installment in the Ole Miss Retirees features is Professor Emeritus of English, Benjamin Fisher. The organization’s mission is to enable all of the university’s faculty and staff retirees to maintain and promote a close association with the university. It is the goal of the Ole Miss Faculty/Staff Retirees Association to maintain communication by providing opportunities to attend and participate in events and presentations.

Dr. Fisher’s interest in History and English foretold his career path even though he didn’t realize it until his sophomore year in college when he took a required English class. His interest in Faulkner led him to Ole Miss.

Brown: Where did you grow up? What is special about the place you grew up? Please talk about your childhood and family.

Fisher: I grew up in Orwigsburg, in southeastern Pennsylvania and lived there until I moved to Oxford in 1979. The population of that Pennsylvania area was chiefly of German descent, “Pennsylvania Dutch,” and I learned to “talk Dutch” when I was a child. Consequently, all these years later, I surprised an Amish lady at Randolph when, after greeting her in English, I repeated my greeting in “Dutch.” My young daughter, who accompanied me, was equally surprised, never having heard me speak anything but English before, so we had a very pleasant afternoon.
When dad married, he and mother lived with my grandparents, so I grew up in a home that included siblings, parents, grandparents, and even a lady who was step-great aunt and step-great-grandmother. Aunt Till was a child of her mother’s first marriage. When the mother was widowed, then remarried, Grannie Fisher was the child of that marriage.

Brown: Where did you go to school?

Fisher: I went to the Orwigsburg schools, then to Ursinus College, about 60 miles distant, then went to Duke for my master’s and Ph.D. work.

Brown: What were you really into when you were a kid?

Fisher: Our community was a farming community; my own home was farm property, bordered on three sides by other farms. These farms were small, not at all like the 1,000-acre farms in many parts of Mississippi, were usually very self-sufficient. So in those days I wanted to be a farmer, chiefly dairying. Because I was born before the TV age came into being, and because my family were readers, I came to view reading as recreation (and still do), though my reading for pleasure tends to literature, history, and biography. Early on, I began to read mysteries (Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew), which doubtless contributed to my eventual interest in earlier Gothic works. I was not a couch potato, however; I was very much an outdoor person. The field next to our property was kept mowed, so it became the place to play baseball and other outdoor games. I was always a great walker because so many of the older members in my family, plus many other persons, were great walkers. Motor vehicles were not so plentiful back in the 1940s-50s, so we walked—to the post office, to the store, to the movie theater, and, for most inhabitants, to daily work.

Brown: Tell us how/when your Ole Miss “story” began? Who hired you? How long did you work at Ole Miss?

Fisher: My Ole Miss “story” began in 1979, when Professor Evans Harrington was Chairman of the Department of English. I worked full-time till 2011, then part-time for two more years.

Brown: What did you know about Ole Miss before you accepted a position here?

Fisher: Because of having read some publications by faculty and former faculty members, I knew something about the Department of English. I knew that the department offered instruction from Freshman English through Ph. D. work, and that the journal, “Studies in English,” was published by the department. I also knew that the University was associated with William Faulkner, one of my own favorite authors, so when I saw a job advertisement for which I felt qualified I applied.

Brown: Who influenced you in your early life? Did you have a mentor who influenced your career choice?

Fisher: My Grandfather Fisher was an influential mentor in my early years. By that time in his life he no longer went daily to one or the other of the coal washeries my family-owned. My dad went in Granddad’s place. As I said above, I thought for some years about farming (though I shoveled plenty of coal when I was young). From an early age I became a rather voracious reader. So some of my school teachers (several who taught two and three generations of my family members) encouraged me to go into teaching. My first interest in teaching was history. Some of the older generations of Fisher’s were history buffs, who never tired of telling a boy that his Great Grandfather, B. F. Fisher, was one of the founders of the U. S. Signal Corps. I applied to Ursinus College, in southeastern Pennsylvania to earn a degree in history because (A) I knew several older persons who were alumni of Ursinus, and who encouraged my interest, and (B) because when I was seventeen-eighteen I worked at a summer camp, where my co-counselor was a Professor of History at Ursinus. During my sophomore year I took as a required English class, the then-sole survey of American Literature, and the reading and the professor caused me to re-think my career priority, so I switched to English as my Major, a decision I have never regretted.

Brown: What has been the highlight of your career?

Fisher: Being able to teach and otherwise work with literary texts that I enjoyed, and, as a result, often being successful in communicating my own liking to students.

Brown: What is the best advice you ever received?

Fisher: To work to the best of my ability.

Brown: What was the worst book you had to read for school? How about the best book you had to read for school?

Fisher: The most boring book of my public school years was Edmund Burke’s “Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies.” Burke’s expression was so formal that I never have come around to enjoying that book. My favorite book was Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King.” In the “Idylls,” there’s action which, combined with more easily grasped thought, has always made this book a favorite. I once published an article on laughter in the “Idylls,” where laughter is often not pleasantly funny, but which often enriches/enhances the thought or action that’s significant.

Brown: Do you think people read more or less books now than 50 years ago?

Fisher: This is a question that, so far as I have thought about the subject, has no definitive answer, so far as I’m concerned. On the one hand, more books than ever before are being published and reprinted, so I’d say that some people, at least, are reading more than they were fifty years ago. Conversely, given the appeal of the visual media that have come along during those same fifty years (or a little longer), those additions may have reduced the reading of books, though many books are available via computer screens.

Brown: What were some of the turning points in your life?

Fisher: Shifting during my junior year from a high school that served Orwigsburg to one that served a much larger area, I got to meet some new teachers but continued to be taught by some who had worked in the Orwigsburg High School. I also got to ride a school bus for the first time in my school years.

An even greater turning point was my going to Ursinus College. Although Ursinus was only fifty-five miles from my home, freshmen could not have cars on campus, so the distance to home seemed to be much farther than it actually was. Also, mingling with students from other areas than my home town provided new perspectives on what we were doing at college as well as in other areas of my life.

A major turning point was my attending Duke University to work on an M. A. and Ph. D. in English. Classes there had far heavier class assignments than most, but not all, of my previous college courses. There was much more written work assigned. After all, we were being trained for eventual employment in our chosen fields, so far greater specialization than college demanded became a major part of our graduate school lives.

Ursinus College during my years there had faculty members who, for the most part, were from southeastern Pennsylvania. One professor who differed greatly in that respect was the Chairman of the History Department. He was a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and also a Harvard Ph. D. while many others on the faculty had done their graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania.

I had heard much about Ursinus College and its faculty from several persons not much older than I, who either were graduates or who had worked with me at summer camps in the area. So I became eager to do my college work there.

At the same time I was accepted as a History major at Ursinus, I was also accepted as a Forestry major at Penn State. My stepmother and I discussed these circumstances, and her advice was that getting a solid education (which, in her mind, was a Liberal Arts education) would be something that could never be taken away from me. Because of my interests in History and English, which had roots in my public school years, I opted to attend Ursinus. As I said previously, I subsequently changed my major to English, which was another turning point in my life, added to which I soon decided to go on to graduate school, preparatory to a career in teaching college English. So I didn’t become my home town high school history teacher after all.

Being at Duke certainly expanded my perspectives–and not just academic perspectives—but, for example, those concerning food. I had, of course, heard about grits, but, not knowing how they were used at meals, and seeing them near other hot cereals in the cafeteria at the Men’s Graduate Center, I simply took my bowl of grits, added sugar and milk—and shocked those who saw me eating!

I also had a beard, and those were not as common among Americans in 1962 as they have since become. So I was often asked if I were a Mennonite or Amish, did I eat meat, plus some other questions that indicated to me that I was indeed in new surroundings. As I recall, only two other men at Duke had beards in those days. One was a graduate student in History, the other was an Asian man who worked in the Duke Hospital.

Brown: What three words best describe you?

Fisher: Curious, people-oriented, bored seldom.

Brown: What makes you roll your eyes every time you see/hear it?

Fisher: I can’t offer a genuine answer to this question, though I suppose that, because I have so often marked it as incorrect, the misspelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s middle name as “Allen.” Similarly, I have often used/cited works on Victorian and Medieval British literature by one of my Duke mentors, Professor Paull F. Baum. No, I’ve not misspelled, his first name was “Paull” rather than the usual “Paul.” I have often had editors of journals and at publishing houses query the spelling of that name, and I have always returned a “Yes, Paull is correct.”

Brown: Do you have a favorite quote?

Fisher: “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” (After all, I grew up on the King James Version of the Bible.)

Brown: What stereotype do you completely live up to?

Fisher: I have often been mistaken for being much older than I am. Conversely, in more recent years (and by my younger daughter, no less) I’ve been told that I certainly don’t seem like a near-eighty-year-old. And yes, that remark has been made in complimentary, not derogatory, context!

Brown: What is the best and worst thing about getting older?

Fisher: The best has been the realization of some of my desires when I was young, e. g., having a delightful family, having had an overall pleasant, rewarding career. I really can’t think of any “worst,” unless it would be my shifting eyesight, which sometimes makes reading difficult.

Brown: What has been your routine since retirement? Do you have any hobbies?

Fisher: Since retirement, because I am the member of our household who’s chiefly at home longer than others, I prepare most of the food we eat. I am also a lifelong gardener. And from childhood, I have always been fond of animals, and have worked with dogs, at one point in my early 20’s training my uncle’s dozen-plus coon hounds. So I continue to be a caretaker for our current family dog (and three cats). After I moved to our present home I brought from Pennsylvania a “Home Comfort” wood-coal-burning cooking stove (dates from the 1930s). Although I certainly don’t cook on that stove during warm weather, I gratefully remember how often it has kept our house warm when power has gone out in cold weather. Reading continues to be a hobby. I am a lifelong fan of mystery-detective fiction, though I usually alternate such reading with something like biography. I also continue my interests in family history. I have always found travel to be very interesting, and recently I’ve been reading books about Florence, Italy, where I visited years ago, and some of the persons (e. g. the Medici’s), who were prominent in its early history. More recently, because our older daughter is interested in China and the Chinese language, I have enjoyed brief travel in that nation.

Brown: What is your legacy?

Fisher: That I have, hopefully, been supportive to my family, and that I have seen many of my students, from a fifty-year career, do great work.

Bonnie Brown is a retired staff member of the University of Mississippi. She most recently served as Mentoring Coordinator for the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy.

She can be contacted at bbrown@olemiss.edu.

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