The Humanists: Dehn Gilmore

Gilmore specializes in 19th-century British and European literature and has a special interest in the relationship between Victorian literature and visual culture. This focus is evidenced in her first book, The Victorian Novel and the Space of Art: Fictional Form on Display (Cambridge, 2013), and her book-in-progress, Large as Life: The Victorians’ Disproportionate Reality, which considers the Victorians’ avid interest in the “ life-sized.” In 2013, Gilmore won the Nineteenth Century Studies Association Article Prize for the best article from any scholarly discipline focusing on any aspect of the 19th century. She came to Caltech in 2009.

When I began teaching, I was a graduate student at Columbia University, where undergraduate students are required to undertake a rigorous “great books” curriculum. This meant that by the time they entered my literature sections, they were primed to murmur knowingly at references to Shakespeare or Herodotus, Euripides or Austen, and to make such references themselves.

Arriving at Caltech, I rapidly discovered that my new students’ knowledge base was entirely—and, in retrospect, unsurprisingly—different. Their most rigorous preparation had usually been scientific and mathematical, so it no longer helped to compare a particular poem to an Elizabethan sonnet, or to say that a novel had been inflected by the author’s reading of Greek tragedies. Though from the outset I appreciated Caltech students’ intense concentration and focus, I initially had difficulty figuring out how to build a web of context and recognition for them. In time, however, I came to appreciate a wholly new set of avenues along which to make connections, and from which I have learned a great deal myself.

It may have been the memorable day when a discussion of Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” turned from consideration of themes of aging and poetic immortality to heated talk of automata, and whether one could in fact make a nightingale “of hammered gold and gold enamelling / To keep a drowsy Emperor awake.” Or it may have been the time a student knocked on my door to shyly admit that he had been trying to work out how Dickens’s complicated multiplot novels would work as computer programs. But regardless of exactly when it happened, at some point the works studied in all my classes—often works I had taught many times before, or even written about—started to seem newly alive to me, full of new dimensions, dynamics, and correspondences.

The results of these teaching experiences have become embedded in my syllabi. My class on major British authors has migrated, over time, into a survey of “the scientific imagination” from Marlowe to McEwan, with stops along the way for writers like Darwin and books like Frankenstein. And my 19th-century classes now always include Sherlock Holmes, whom my students all invariably know better than I do myself.

I have come to appreciate and to value highly my students’ affinities with the great detective of Baker Street—their insatiable curiosity and mastery of what to the outsider can seem like arcane knowledge, and their restless determination to crack the case and to nose out all the clues they can along the way. With the classroom as mystery space and the game afoot we plunge on together.

-D. Gilmore