19th Century Novel Seminar: The Novel of Manners

Apr 2013

Man, oh man. Where to start? How about here: Nick Dames will be the best professor you have at Columbia. I suppose it's possible there's someone a little better out there, lurking in a barely occupied seminar about fin-de-siècle sculpture in the Maldives, but I doubt it. Who else could get away with scheduling a class at 9 a.m. on Fridays—and have his students be happy with it? I spent a semester's worth of Thursday nights hunched over books and in bed by midnight, and I remember it more fondly than anything else I've done here. Dames has, as you may have guessed, every skill one needs to be an excellent scholar. He speaks a million languages: German, Latin, French, and Greek all popped up during our sessions. He has read seemingly every book ever, prose or poetry, fiction or nonfiction, English or otherwise. He reads with awe-inspiring care, dwelling on asides and word choices in addition to themes and metaphors and symbols. But there are plenty of excellent scholars around this place. It's Columbia, for crissakes. Dames distinguishes himself from everyone else here through his immense classroom gifts. No one can lead a discussion like he can. It's not that he's great at coaxing participation out of his students—he isn't; he's actually a fairly reserved guy. What he can do is take the most threadbare comment from the dimmest or least attentive person in the room and make it sound like it came from the mind of Jacques Barzun himself. "Yeah," Dames'll nod and say, after someone rambles on for 45 seconds of nothing, "That raises this question: [Something totally brilliant and very loosely related that Dames has thought up]." The original speaker goes along with it, because now Dames has convinced her that she's brilliant. It's a positive and fascinating way to lead a seminar. Dames also starts every class with a relevant quotation from some other text, and later in the session he'll introduce a handout with some related-but-not-too-related primary source material. I have all of them in my notes, and I still refer to them months down the road. I liked most all of the books in this class--Mansfield Park, The Egoist, The Age of Innocence, The Portrait of a Lady, The Line of Beauty, A Handful of Dust--despite no prior interest in the material. I know that some of my classmates didn't feel the same way, but hell, we'd take a Dames seminar even if the syllabus called for exegesis of the phone book. He's that good.