Interview by Mary Warnement
Philip Edward Phillips is Associate Dean of the University Honors College and Professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University, where he teaches medieval, early modern, and nineteenth-century American literature and directs the Honors Lecture Series. In 2008–2009, he held one of the Athenæum’s Mary Catherine Mooney Fellowships. His first and primary scholarly focus is on Boethius, but in recent years he has added much to the promotion of Edgar Allan Poe, in particular Poe’s connection to Boston. Phillips even contributed an article to a book edited by Kevin J. Hayes, who completed his own fellowship at the Athenæum at the same time Phillips did. The Poe Studies Association recently awarded its 2018 J. Lasley Dameron Award for an Outstanding Essay Collection on Poe to Phillips’s Poe and Place. Though he lives and works in Tennessee, Phillips has maintained a strong connection with the Athenæum.
Q: When and where were you born and raised?
PHILIP EDWARD PHILLIPS: I was born in 1969, in Arkansas, where I spent my early childhood until going away to Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, Tennessee. So, I essentially grew up as a boarding student at a military school known for its strong academics. My maternal uncle had attended Heights in the early 60s, and I enjoyed my time there following in his footsteps. I took well to the military environment and held several leadership positions as a cadet. I also received encouragement from my teachers to pursue my interest in literature. My earliest engagement with the works of Edgar Poe date to my eleventh grade year at Heights, when I would often read his poetry, tales, and essays during afternoon study hall.
Q: Where did you attend college and graduate school?
PEP: I wanted to remain in Tennessee after my time at Heights, and I attended Belmont College (formerly Ward-Belmont Seminary, made famous by John Crowe Ransom’s “Blue Girls,” and now Belmont University), in Nashville, Tennessee. I had the good fortune to study Latin language and literature there with Virginia Cheney, who was in her eighties then, and long since retired from full-time teaching. She had such a passion for literature and such a dedication to teaching that she kept Latin alive and well at Belmont, and she offered me the opportunity to do advanced work in Roman history and literature under her direction. She inspired me then, and she continues to inspire me to this day. It was at this time, too, that I studied French at the Université Catholique de l’Ouest in Angers, France. Not only did my French improve, but I met students from all over the world while I was there. It really opened up the world for me. At Belmont, I also had the good fortune to study with many outstanding faculty members and was able to realize my desire to pursue an MA and PhD at Vanderbilt University. At Vanderbilt, I studied a wide range of literature but moved in the direction of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century British poetry under the direction of Laurence Lerner and Leonard Nathanson. Immediately following my graduation in 1996, I spent an additional year at Vanderbilt as a full-time Lecturer in the English Department.
Q: What was your first teaching job?
PEP: Facing a very difficult academic job market, I accepted a faculty position at Battle Ground Academy in Franklin, Tennessee, teaching senior AP English and introductory French. I remained there for two years, and I really enjoyed my students and daily interactions with other faculty members from various departments. Just when I thought this might become my career, Middle Tennessee State University advertised a tenure-track position for a Miltonist, I applied, and joined the faculty in 1999. At the time, my first book, John Milton’s Epic Invocations, was in production and was published in 2000. I have taught Milton on the undergraduate and graduate level for 20 years now, along with other courses, and I still enjoy returning to the poetry again and again, seeing it through the eyes of my students and seeing it again for myself at various stages of life. I was promoted to associate professor (with tenure) within five years, and then to professor five years after that. I’ve been involved heavily in graduate and honors education while at MTSU, and I am grateful to my chairs, deans, and provosts throughout the years as I have taken on a variety of research projects.
Q: Are you primarily an administrator now?
PEP: I am currently the Associate Dean of the University Honors College, in which capacity I have served for nearly eight years. I am a full-time administrator, but, like my dean, I remain very active in research, and I teach seminars in Milton, Poe, and Bibliography and Research Methods for the English Department occasionally and direct the honors lecture series (a one-hour class and an event open to the public), which focuses on a different topic every semester. In addition, I lead two honors study-abroad programs, one to Italy and one to Thailand.
Q: How did you find the Athenæum?
PEP: I discovered the Boston Athenæum in 2007 as I was looking ahead to a possible non-instructional assignment in 2008 when I could focus my attention on a project I had been considering for some time: Poe’s relationship to Boston, the city of his birth. At the time, the topic had not been explored sufficiently. In researching the history of literary Boston, I came across the Athenæum’s theatre database and was impressed with the library’s holdings in early nineteenth-century literature, including some works by or related to Poe. Despite budget cuts that eliminated non-instructional assignments at MTSU for a few years, I applied for and received a Catherine Mooney Fellowship from the Athenæum to work on Poe and Boston. What began as a book project ultimately became two articles, one on Poe’s tumultuous relationship with Boston for Lehigh University Press’s Deciphering Poe and a new discovery about the Odeon Theatre and another on Poe’s mother, Eliza Poe and the American Stage, for the Cambridge Poe in Context volume. In the process of doing that research, I fell in love with the Boston Athenæum and now consider it a second home. I enjoy researching and writing at the Athenæum and using it as a home base when exploring the city and visiting other libraries and archives in the Boston/Cambridge area.
Q: What appeals to you about the Athenæum?
PEP: The people, the atmosphere, and the collections, including the Rare Books Room and Prints Room. By people, of course, I mean the librarians and staff. This includes you [Mary], as well as Carolle Morini, Catharina Slautterback, Stanley Cushing, and Stephen Nonack. All of you have helped me in one way or another to locate items, make appointments to view rare materials, navigate the library itself (and its Cutter catalogue), offer advice on places to see and things to do in Boston, and even lend me a tie (Jimmy Feeney) for an event at St. Botolph Club. Also, while working at the Athenæum, I have met and become engaged in several conversations with fellow scholars and writers. It was because of my affiliation with the Athenæum that I first became involved with the Poe Foundation of Boston and served with Paul Lewis, Richard Kopley, and others on the committee that selected Stefanie Rocknak’s statue, Poe Returning to Boston, which was later installed in Poe Square on the corner of South Charles and Boylston in Boston. I never imagined I would ever be involved in a major public art project, especially one involving Poe and Boston, when I was younger and first encountering his works. Then there’s the elegant fifth floor of the library, where I enjoy working, and both the special and general collections, which are very strong in the nineteenth century. I even enjoy just browsing the shelves to see what I will discover. It is truly a scholar’s library.
Q: What were the great struggles of working on Poe and Place? The great joys?
PEP: Working on Poe and Place, on the whole, was a great pleasure in all respects. Of course, it grew out of my earlier work on Poe and Boston to become a work more broadly on Poe and the several places he lived and worked, the literary spaces he imagined and created, some places he claimed to have visited or places that claimed him for their own, as well as Poe’s philosophical and scientific understanding of the universe itself, one of expansion and contraction, that predated the Big Bang theory. It was a project that gave me the opportunity to introduce readers to Poe in a way that is both familiar and unique, and it gave the opportunity to work with Poe scholars I have come to know very well over the years through the Poe Studies Association. The contributors to the volume are the volume’s strength. Of the several collections of essays that I have edited or co-edited, this one was the most enjoyable.
Q: Any projects on the horizon you're able to talk about here?
PEP: I have recently written an essay on anthologizing Poe’s poetry for a forthcoming collection edited by Emron Esplin and Margarida Vale de Gato for Lehigh University Press, and I am finishing an essay on Poe’s Ourang-Outang in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” for a forthcoming collection edited by John Gruesser for Texas A&M Press. (I completed portions of both projects at the Athenæum.) When these projects are done, I plan to begin working on a book on Poe’s women that will build upon some of my previous research and give me the opportunity to expand that research into a new and interesting direction. One of my goals will be to examine the importance of key women—such as his mother, the mother of a childhood friend, a childhood sweetheart, his wife, his mother-in-law, Frances Osgood, Annie Richmond, and Sarah Helen Whitman, among others—in Poe’s life and art and to reach a wider reading audience perhaps unfamiliar with this side of Poe. Before undertaking that project, though, I will be busy organizing the program for the Poe Studies Association’s upcoming Fifth International Edgar Allan Poe Conference that will be held in Boston in April 2021.
Q: Your other major research project involves Boethius. Do you find points of comparison between him and Poe?
PEP: Admittedly, I have eclectic interests, and I have enjoyed the opportunity to expand my horizons beyond what I studied in graduate school many years ago. I often tell my own graduate students that the most important thing one can learn as a Master’s or doctoral student is how to learn, and how to educate oneself on a topic of one’s interest. It requires real honesty with oneself, and humility, to approach and attempt to cultivate an expertise on a particular subject. I have been interested in Poe, as I said, since I was in high school. But it was not until I had become pretty well established in my profession that I returned to Poe seriously, that is, as a scholar approaches a topic that requires a serious commitment both to the primary and secondary sources.
Q: Is it helpful to have shifted between very different periods and writers?
PEP: I have enjoyed teaching Milton over the years, and I have been pleased to direct the work of several graduate students in that area. My interest in Boethius emerged from my engagement with The Consolation of Philosophy in a Middle English Literature seminar at Vanderbilt, and my scholarship on Boethius was fueled by my love of Latin and my interest in classical influences on English poetry. So, yes, I think that shifting between different periods and writers keeps things interesting for me.
Q: You have helped establish Poe’s connection to Boston. Is there a similar importance in geographic place in the life of Boethius?
PEP: That’s a good question, one that could lead to yet another project on Boethius, for which I do not have time at the moment! But, yes, I do think that place is as significant for Boethius. My honors study-abroad course includes readings from Vergil, Boethius, and Dante, and the primary Boethius-related places are Rome (where the patrician Boethius served as consul and where he made his greatest contributions to the artes liberales) and Ravenna (where he served the Ostrogothic King Theodoric as his master of offices, was later accused of treason, and exiled to Pavia, where he wrote his Consolation while awaiting death). There is much more to say, of course. Studying works like the Consolation on location, visiting sites such as the Pantheon or the Mausoleum of Theodoric, putting oneself in the same physical spaces as the authors allows students to make connections, realizations, or associations they might not make when reading the works of literature or works about the authors. Being in a place associated with an author, like Poe in Boston, has helped me enormously in my work, especially in imagining what that place would have looked like or felt like in Poe’s time by retracing his steps along modern-day Federal Street or what used to be Carver Street while keeping in my mind the period maps I had consulted at the Athenæum.
Q: You have been involved in prison education. Is that at all connected to your Boethius studies?
PEP: I have taught the Consolation to high school seniors, to undergraduate and graduate students, and to inmates in three different correctional facilities in Nashville, Tennessee. My experiences sharing Boethius with inmates has been the most rewarding of all, I must say, because the Consolation resonates with them in a way it cannot with most other people. My incarcerated students understand what it means to be deprived of everything, even one’s humanity, justly or unjustly, by the correctional system. Boethius’s cries of despair and his efforts with the help of philosophy to transcend his condition and return to, or remember, the Good, resonate with many of them, and our conversations about that book, and the value of liberty, are among the most powerful and meaningful conversations I have ever had in any classroom. Even if the transcendence, or acceptance, affirmed in the Consolation does not result in Boethius’s physical release from prison, it does achieve the aim of the seven liberal arts to which its author dedicated his life: that is, to free the mind.
Selected writings, in reverse chronological order, all authored by PEP unless otherwise noted:
Remaking Boethius: The English Language Translation Tradition of The Consolation of Philosophy. Co-edited with Brian Donaghey, Noel Harold Kaylor, Jr., and Paul E. Szarmach. Tempe, Arizona: ACMRS/Brepols, 2019.
Poe and Place. Ed. Philip Edward Phillips. Geocritical and Spatial Literary Studies Series. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
Vernacular Traditions of Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae. Co-edited with Noel Harold Kaylor, Jr. Research in Medieval Culture. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2016.
Prison Narratives from Boethius to Zana. Ed. Philip Edward Phillips. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
“Poe’s 1845 Boston Lyceum Incident Reconsidered,” in Deciphering Poe: Subtexts, Contexts, Subversive Meanings. Ed. Alexandra Urakova. Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press/Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.
“The American stage” in Edgar Allan Poe in Context. Ed. Kevin J. Hayes. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
A Companion to Boethius in the Middle Ages. Co-edited with Noel Harold Kaylor, Jr. Brill's Companions to the Christian Tradition 30. Leiden and Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2012.
The Consolation of Queen Elizabeth I. Co-edited with Noel Harold Kaylor, Jr. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 366. Tempe, Arizona: ACMRS, 2009.
New Directions in Boethian Studies. Co-edited with Noel Harold Kaylor, Jr. Studies in Medieval Culture XLV. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007.
John Milton's Epic Invocations: Converting the Muse. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.