“This is my first and last job,” Professor of English Robert DeMaria observed. He has taught at Vassar for 38 years, ever since receiving his Ph.D degree at Rutgers University. A well-known expert in academia on 18th century British literature, DeMaria particularly specializes in the works of famed 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson.
DeMaria’s dissertation director in graduate school, Paul Fussell Jr., inspired his initial interest in the English author. This interest would prompt DeMaria to write a book on Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, an analysis of his works, and a biography of the eminent writer himself.
“It was the greatest dictionary that had been written at that time in English. One of its most important features is its wealth of a lot of quotations. He doesn’t just define a word. He illustrates [it] by quoting famous writers who views the word,” DeMaria said.
To better study these quotations, DeMaria made a personal database by hand. DeMaria devised cards for the quotations in Johnson’s dictionary. Then, he ordered the cards by topic, rather than alphabetical order.
Now, DeMaria devotes most of his time and energy editing the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson. DeMaria began work on the edition about 20 years ago. After the death of the work’s general editor, DeMaria took over leading its creation.
The edition, started in 1955, only has two volumes left, and will be completed in a couple of years. DeMaria also is editor of The Johnsonian Newsletter, a Vassar College-supported journal publishes twice a year that explores Johnson’s contemporary reception and historical context.
Asides Johnson, DeMaria is working on a book for Blackwell Publishers, entitled Keyworks. The book functions as a dictionary for the most important words of the 18th century, such as “judgment” and “sensibility.” He also is the editor for the Penguin Books edition of Gulliver’s Travels.
This semester, DeMaria is teaching a Freshman Writing Seminar, “What is a Classic?” The class examines what it means to label a piece of literature “classic.” The reading materials vary from The Aeneid to Jane Eyre.
DeMaria attributes the durability of such works to their ability to illuminate permanent truths that remain throughout multiple generations of readers. These classics are classic because they stay relevant, and relatable to other works of literature.
“The Aeneid is not only about a Roman soldier, a Greek soldier, but it’s about everyone,” DeMaria said. “And Jane Eyre is not just a tutor in the 19th century, but somehow she has characteristics that we all understand.”
DeMaria enjoys teaching freshmen. “I have taught a lot of freshmen writing seminars but I have never taught this subject. And I thought it would be fun, partly because it’s impossible to define a classic.”
“We can get infinite answers. And it also provides me opportunities to read a lot of books that I like. None of them are by Samuel Johnson,” DeMaria continued. “I also thought I would get an interesting group of students, and I do. I found them fascinating.”
DeMaria thinks all his freshmen students are smart in varying ways. “They are not convinced that studying English is important. And I like the challenge,” DeMaria said. “I want to know how they think. That’s my goal as an English teacher. Not to tell them what I think, but to find out what they think, and have a conversation with them, in which they developed their thoughts.”
“I am a teacher, I am older and I read a lot more. So I think I have something to offer. But they have something to offer me to. Do I inspire them? I don’t know,” DeMaria said. “But they inspire me. I always learned a lot from, particularly, freshmen.”