Professor Vincent Sherry teaches and writes about literary modernism in America, Britain, and Ireland, focusing on poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and novelists including James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. He joined Washington University in 2007. He served as the chair of the Department of English from 2008 to 2013, when he was named the inaugural Howard Nemerov Professor of the Humanities in Arts & Sciences.
“I had been reading Nemerov since the time I was an undergraduate,” Sherry says. “We were a generation that he chronicled in a poetic mood of tolerant, perhaps even fond, comedy.”
Nemerov served on the university’s faculty from 1969 until his death in 1991. A former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner, he also was a novelist, essayist and critic. “He was a legend,” Sherry says. “I am deeply touched and honored to hold the Nemerov Chair and to be a part of this permanent legacy.”
What do you enjoy most about teaching at Washington University?
There is a great collegial, interdisciplinary feeling here, without rigorous institutional structure. There is a quality of enthusiastic curiosity among students because of the way the curriculum is structured. Students choose courses out of their own interests—we don’t have a core—and this is crucial to respecting and furthering those interests. Some of my best students are double-majors in English and pre-med. Our students like to exercise choice.
Why have you established the Nemerov Prize for Poetry?
Howard Nemerov, and the art of poetry that he represents at its very best, encapsulates a value that is fundamental to our work as educators: to get at something really new by breaking through the rules that have defined the lines of inquiry so far. I’d like his name to be connected especially to the art he practiced, so I have provided for two annual awards, in his name, for poetry. I want to make this personal gesture as part of the permanent legacy in our department, which includes an extraordinarily strong tradition of poets and poetry.
What would Howard Nemerov say about this prize?
It would be the subject of some humorously understated appreciation. He had a splendid resistance to the contentment, the satisfaction, of ceremony. He was part of a concentration of great writers who came together at this university by mutual attraction. They came, they stayed, and they established a legacy. I was compelled to endow the prizes—one for an undergraduate, the other for a graduate—by the logic of the circumstances.
What have you been working on lately?
I just completed a book, “Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence,” which was published in October. Decadence refers to a sensibility, one that is bound up with a profound sense of decay and despair, that begins in the middle of the 19th century and crests into the aftermath of the First World War; I'm examining this sensibility in its major literary representations in modernism. I also am editing the “Cambridge History of Modernism,” a large and ambitious volume the publishers waited 75 years to do. I designed and commissioned 45 different essays on music, architecture, visual art, philosophy, and literature. And, I’m under contract with Princeton University Press to write “A Literary History of the European War, 1914-1918.”
What helps you balance teaching and research?
Teaching and research work ideally in a counter rhythm, where you move from the private world of individual interest to the public sphere of the classroom. This double measure of private and public scholarship and teaching is ideally realized at Washington University. Our students give a lot back.