For more than 20 years, Alexander Blackburn taught English at UCCS, mentoring both a fledgling department and a generation of student readers and writers. During that time, Blackburn published numerous essays and anthologies and several novels. Retired, he is now emeritus professor of English at the university.
Inspired by his father, Professor William Blackburn -- whose literary composition students at Duke University for 30 years midcentury included authors William Styron, Reynolds Price, Max Hyman, Anne Tyler and Fred Chappell -- the younger Blackburn didn't set out to write about his father's influence in his life until the past few years. Now we have Meeting the Professor, Blackburn's account of growing up in the William Blackburn family.
"It started very casually," said Blackburn. "I had a lot of resistance to writing about myself and my family."
Blackburn's wife Ines, emeritus professor of Spanish language and literature at UCCS, encouraged her husband to pursue a memoir, but he claimed not to remember any of the details of his upbringing.
Ines sat down at the computer and typed out a long list, almost two pages, of images from stories her husband had shared with her about his early years and his family.
"It was like a creative writing class," said Blackburn, once he sat down to write, "creating a little narrative around each image."
Borrowing from materials he'd "been lugging around for years," including 1,000 letters of his mother's and notes from his father's students, Blackburn crafted a delicate memoir of growing up in an educated family that valued learning above all things, of personal failures and professional triumphs, of his first 21 years under the profound influence of a father considered by many scholars to be one of the great writing teachers of the 20th century.
At a recent signing in his native North Carolina, many of the elder Blackburn's students came, including one couple that flew all the way from Redding, Penn., to pay homage to their professor.
Raised the son of missionaries, William Blackburn's success as a teacher, his son believes, was rooted in his upbringing.
"He kept the spirit, though not the letter, of evangelism throughout his life," said Blackburn the son. "His whole life was devoted to teaching; he had that evangelical missionary impulse, but about literature, even though he was very shy."
Of his teacher, novelist Reynolds Price once said, "I've known many great teachers at Duke, Harvard and Oxford, but I have never known another teacher like him in my life."
Fred Chappell, who provided the foreword to the book, honoring William Blackburn and his son Alexander's memoir, said of the professor, "He taught writing as literature, as part of a civilized discourse that always had been and always would be going on. When you wrote a story, no matter how naive or clumsy, he made you feel that you had contributed to the great conversation."
In Alexander Blackburn's words, his father possessed "the art of leading students to learn their own power."
This tribute to the power of the written word, passed down from father to son, is a fine explanation of William Blackburn's teaching art and the gift it became to his son, Alexander.
-- Kathryn Eastburn capsule Alexander Blackburn signing Meeting the Professor
Saturday, Nov. 20, 2-4 p.m.
Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 1565 Briargate Blvd.
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