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John Watkins on Walkabout

The Guggenheim Fellow talks Oxford, writing in the Bodleian, and English food
September 1, 2014
Professor John Watkins
Professor John Watkins

Distinguished McKnight University Professor of English John Watkins first studied at England's Oxford University when he was a young man out of Arkansas by way of Indiana University. A Marshall Scholarship recipient, he was tasked to do exactly what he loved: "read like crazy," think, and write. Watkins has been back to Oxford many times since, as an Elizabethan scholar, but is looking forward to three months there in 2014-15, his longest visit in more than 15 years. He's been invited to be a senior research visitor at Oxford's Keble College--one of three honors he won this spring, along with Guggenheim and American Council of Learned Societies fellowships. With his parents passed, he says, he doesn't go back to Arkansas; in many ways, Oxford has become his place of origin: "It does feel a lot like home."

You've been working on a book on interdynastic marriage in European peacemaking. What are your goals for your 2014-15 sabbatical year?

I would like to get this manuscript finished. I think everyone going into a sabbatical says that. Where it is now, I've gotten the chapters drafted, but they're very drafty chapters. One of the things that happens when you're writing a book is that by the time you finish drafting those last chapters the first ones don't necessarily fit the book very well anymore--because your central conception of the project has changed. So this is my chance to sit down, start reading--feeling desperately ill and hating everything--and writing a clean manuscript. [Ed: The book is due out in 2017.]

[In Oxford] I have all the resources of the Bodleian Library, which is like the Library of Congress: It's a copyright library; they have an incredible manuscript collection. It is one of the best places on the planet to work. The other thing of course is you become part of the senior community there. You're having all your meals in college, which allows lots of fruitful conversation and lots of interdisciplinary exchange. I know people throughout the university--both in English and in history. Keble has a pretty strong Elizabethan faculty now, so it's a good place to end up if you're doing 16th, 17th century, including good diplomatic historians, good social historians, a wonderful literary scholar, Diana Purkiss.

Can you give an example of something you discovered while writing this book that you'll need to add to the first chapters?

I realized that there was a Virgilian thread that runs throughout this. At the end of the Aeneid, there is one of the great literary interdynastic marriages of all time. Aeneas the Trojan relocates his people to Italy; he's told by the gods that he will marry the princess of the local tribe; war breaks out, because of course someone else is interested in her; but at the end of the day peace is made, he does marry her. And the fusion of the native Latins with the interloping Trojans creates the basis of the Roman Empire, the Roman people. That myth comes up a lot in tributes to various marriages throughout the European centuries, so I'm going to bring that Virgilian subtext out more. It's fun, because this book circles back and answers questions that I dealt with 20 years ago writing my first book [The Specter of Dido: Spenser and Virgilian Epic].

What do you appreciate most about Oxford?

Music, music, music. I have a real passion for early British music, modern British music: It's a great place to hear everything. It's the kind of place you can go and have an incredible conversation about Nicholas Maw or Michael Tippett; people know what you're talking about.

I love working in the Bodleian. I swear I write better there. It's a gorgeous 17th-century building with massive windows. Yes, it can get cold in the winter, but you wear gloves. I have some amazingly happy memories of reading [John] Donne's sermons, setting sunlight filtering through the glass at the Bodleian--it was the perfect place to be reading Donne since he's so death-obsessed. I think that was the best educational experience I ever had.

Another thing that I really love about Oxford is that it is walkable. Oxford is a city, but the university is the heart of the historical core, and that's manageable by foot. A lot of faculty either live in college or very close, and that allows conversation to happen. If you're going to a concert, it's a five- or ten-minute walk. I cannot wait to be back to that. You can walk to country villages by foot, with wonderful little pubs and things. If you get on the train, you can be in deep, deep, deep English countryside in no time. This essay that I'm writing now, it began with a long walk there with a friend who's a Russian historian, and a conversation we had on why so many diplomats end up becoming creative writers--what is the link there? I'm getting an essay out of it; I'll probably end up getting a book out of it.

More, please, on that essay?

One of the things that can be often fun about a sabbatical year is you have a little bit of time not to deal with your central project but to think about something else that will sort of keep you going for the future. Increasingly, I'm thinking about international law. There's a standard problem in international law. It's the most basic problem you can have: Does it exist? Putin moves troops past the Eastern border, and Obama screams, "You've violated international law." But what is international law exactly? It's not produced by a legislature. It's not like there's international policing authority that can really do anything. There is the international court, but that's brand new, and it's not at all clear what its jurisdictions are.

What that sounds like to me is that the project of international law is finally a project of the imagination. The second you're saying, "Does it really exist?" you are saying, "Or is it a dream?" The argument I think I want to make is that we will be making better and stronger international law if we realize that its imaginative quality is indeed the best thing it's got going--the fact that it isn't tainted by a political process that creates it (in the way that national legal codes are), that it can actually be a place for free legal speculation.

This is why [16th-century poet] Philip Sidney is becoming important. Sidney's whole defense of poetry is: Poets are being attacked by the Puritans because they are indulging in make believe, writing things that are not true; Sidney's point is that, yes, what we write is not true, but: the historian can give you a brazen world, we can give you a golden one. In the process of imagining golden worlds, with better people in them than you will find in day-to-day experience, we can inspire everyone to be better. One of Sidney's associates was an Italian living in England named Alberico Gentili, who wrote one of the first treatises of international law. He dedicated it to Sidney. Sidney had certainly done diplomatic work. And his Arcadia, this enormous prose romance, is talking a lot about how states relate to each other, and how they relate to each other on a legal basis. So I think this is a good place to start teasing out what the role of the imagination is in the ordering of world systems. It's certainly something to keep me out of trouble.

What could get you into trouble in Oxford?

The only drawback is English food. I'm eating in college. Every morning will begin with the three most frightening words in the English language: "full English breakfast." The dangerous thing for me is that I actually like that kind of stuff. But you just cannot do it for three months--the way I did it for two years [while a student at Oxford]. I'm still running 5K a day to make up for what I did to my body when I was 22. Everything has a cream sauce. And the vegetables: If there's a vitamin left, you boil it some more.

It is getting harder, it is getting much harder, to find good country pub food. You know, the classic meat pie with the cold water suet crust. I actually tracked one down last summer by taking a train to Banbury, getting off, and walking five miles into the country. I got the Platonic form of meat pie. But it took work.