From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 18.2 (1998): 4-9.
Copyright © 1998, The Cervantes Society of America

Framing Peter N. Dunn


Over the course of several weeks, as I puzzled —elbows propped on desk, chin in hand— over how to make the preface you are about to read do justice to the professional “vida y milagros” of the colleague we honor with this special issue, I realized that Cervantes himself had suggested the solution. I could turn over to a friend of my own the job of summing up, much better than I could, the essence of Peter Dunn's scholarly career! Although the person I had in mind was not close enough at hand to pop conveniently into my office, I had had the foresight to ask him to write to me on the subject. The helpful friend who wrote to me last summer, as the gentle reader has no doubt guessed, is Peter Dunn himself. His wonderful letter appears in the pages following this note, and many a reader will want to turn to it directly. In the end, though, remembering (without irony) the Curate's words in Don Quixote (I, 32) about “la modestia de coronista propio,” I have chosen not to relinquish the privilege of celebrating so distinguished a colleague myself.
     The scholarship of this modern Master Peter is so widely read and so generally admired that, as we academics are wont to say of our eminent visiting lecturers, it scarcely needs an introduction. For me, the name of Peter Dunn has been virtually synonymous with the very best Hispanism of the English-speaking world. Happily, I found my way to his early essays on Quevedo, Lope, Calderón, and Garcilaso, then freshly minted, in the first years of my own study of Golden Age literature. Their lucidity, force and grace made a lasting


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impression: I knew I would want to read virtually anything Peter Dunn might write about Spanish letters. Another side of my youthful reader's response to an already fully-formed intellect was more ambivalent: in Peter's essays, I could see that the scholarly bar had been set very high indeed, and I recognized an implicit challenge that was both exciting and a bit intimidating. When, in the first blush of my own enthusiasm for Golden Age lyric, I read the article modestly titled “Garcilaso's Ode A la Flor de Gnido. A Commentary on Some Renaissance Themes and Ideas,” I saw in a flash that there were many more things in literary scholarship than ever had entered into my philosophy, and that I urgently wanted to know about them.
     Since those days in the 1960's, I have shared with the community of Hispanists in this country and in Europe the great boon of Peter Dunn's scholarly energies and the rich harvest of critical studies they have produced. There are few areas of medieval and early modern Spanish literature that he has not visited. As is usually the case with the work of a master reader, these seminal writings —of the Poema de mio Cid, El conde Lucanor, Cárcel de amor, Celestina; of Garcilaso, the Lazarillo de Tormes, Cervantes, Quevedo, Lope, Calderón— have worked themselves into a permanent place in our own readings. And beyond readings of particular texts, Peter has challenged us to rethink the topoi, conventions, ideologies, and other grounding premises of whole genres and modes of literature (“Honour and the Christian Background” and his intense engagement with the picaresque come readily to mind).
     Dunn's essays and books have earned such a place in the Hispanist Everyreader's thinking, because they take sure aim at the most basic features of texts and generic conventions, and at the cultural and scholarly assumptions that condition our understanding of the literary works of the past. These studies also command, and are sure to retain, our attention on the strength of their unswerving commitment to literary texts and the language in which they are constituted. But close reading for Peter Dunn, is never closed reading. Rather, it is an inclusive practice that brings literature into dialogue with history, aesthetics, philosophy, theology, anthropology, literary theory —whatever promises to make mute texts from the past speak forcefully to the present.
     Cervantes did not immediately find his way into Peter Dunn's scholarly writing. Since the early 1970's, however, the Novelas ejemplares and the Quixote have been a central focus of important meditations on the workings of prose fiction. Out of this thinking, generously grounded in work on the author's literary predecessors


and contemporaries, have come classic studies, like “La Cueva de Montesinos, por fuera y por dentro,” “Cervantes De / Reconstructs the Picaresque,” “Getting Started: Don Quixote and the Reader's Response,” and a steady stream since. Cervantes is sure to have the place of honor in a forthcoming book, with Yvonne Jehenson, on Narrative Strategies.
     The prodigious publication record documented in the list which follows rests not on library work alone, but on nearly fifty years of teaching. On several visits to Middletown, I have been struck by the deep affection and esteem in which Peter Dunn is held by his colleagues and students, by the strength of his intellectual leadership, and by the ease with which he moves from teaching language to teaching introductions to reading literature, and on to imaginatively configured seminars and interdisciplinary courses. His committed presence at Wesleyan belies the common wisdom that only Ph.D.-granting programs can aspire to be home to world-class scholars; and his remarkable scholarly productivity deflates the myth that too much undergraduate teaching (especially of foreign language) is bad for scholarship.
     Over more than four decades, countless readers have reaped the benefits of Peter Dunn's learning; many of these have had the stimulus of intellectual dialogue with him; and a privileged company of these have known the warmth of his personal friendship as well. The contributors to this volume are among those who have enjoyed all of these. In celebrating the literary and scholarly career of Peter Dunn with our own prose offerings, we are conscious of standing in for many others of his colleagues and friends.
     The essays collected here are offered in particular recognition of Peter Dunn's devotion to Cervantes studies. It is quite natural, though the coincidence was not programmed, that they should echo themes and critical practices of Peter's ongoing work. The essays of Inés Azar, Yvonne Jehenson and Charles Presberg perform exemplary readings of loci classici of Cervantes's fiction, finding in them, respectively, fictional models of the quixotic imagination, narrative strategy, and symbolic economies. Elias Rivers, Harry Sieber and I seek to place particular features of Cervantine texts —advice and proverbs, references to patrons, and mock-history— in historical and cultural context. Inevitably, in many of our pieces, textual and contextual perspectives converge and overlap, and it is only fitting that they should do so in a volume honoring Peter Dunn. In one way or another, the essays all suggest frames for reading Cervantes, which

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is why, in deliberate allusion to several of Peter's articles, we have chosen Frames for Reading as the title of this special issue of Cervantes.
     This account of professional debts and credits would be incomplete without an expression of sincere thanks to Cervantes Editor Michael McGaha: for remembering a conversation of many years ago about honoring Peter Dunn in this way, for putting the project into motion, for wise editorial counsel and, finally, for the very patient impatience which had made the idea a reality.
     Concord, Massachusetts.      June 10, 1998

Middletown, CT
29 July, 1997

Dear Mary,
     You asked me to tell you something about myself as a cervantista, and also, if I remember correctly, my ideas or practices, or both, in teaching the works of Cervantes. To begin with, I have never thought of myself as a cervantista, rather I've been a number of different -ists, part-time, at different moments, and my writings have sprung from several different urges or compulsions. Some have originated in questions that have come into my mind while I was teaching, while others have arisen through less easily defined mental pathways. When I began teaching at the University of Aberdeen, my assignment included some introductory literature courses, and two year-long honours courses, one in medieval literature and the other in nineteenth and twentieth centuries (at that time we were only half-way into the twentieth century, and you did not teach the latest thing!). In teaching medieval literature, I reacted both against the narrowly philological orientation that had defined my training in that area, and Ramón Menéndez Pidal's insistence on the documentary veracity of epic. It was then that I began to realize that “history,” whether in the hands of a juglar, or in those of a scholar, is myth-making, and that the virtuous, idealized Cid of RMP was a necessary mythic construct satisfying a need of post-'98 Spain, just as it had been for the turbulent age of Doña Urraca and Alfonso VII. I didn't need Fredric Jameson to tell me “Always historicize.”
     At that time, and for as long as I remained at Aberdeen (teaching up to fourteen hours per week; no sabbaticals), I taught a few of the Novelas ejemplares. The successive heads of the department (A. A. Parker, T. E. May) reserved the Quixote for themselves. I didn't mind; I probably would have felt daunted by the magnitude of the work


and by the critical confusion surrounding it. Anyway, I was having fun being a part-time medievalist, and reading lots of Galdós, Baroja, Machado, Lorca, etc., and indulging an interest in the theatre.
     I did not teach the Quixote until I came to the United States. Still daunted, and fascinated by the work, I have taught it, usually on alternate years, ever since. Every rereading is a joy, and is usually a new reading, in the sense that I find whatever new ideas in criticism or cultural studies I may have picked up since the previous reading are tested by it. And like anyone who reads for the pleasure of it, even the most familiar parts never fail to surprise: one can never pin down Cervantes's art or his narrative technique, or the way technique, rhetoric, and ethos interact. As I've told students (sorry: I hate the “as I tell my students” exordium), “No matter what you come to think as you read Don Quixote, read on and you will find the opposite is also true”.
     I suppose I could say that I have always been interested in the structure of literary works, how that structure shapes and is shaped by and sometimes pulls against the ideology. Empsonian ambiguity (or New-Critical irony) was a useful little key for unlocking some of the major structural / ideological tensions in a text. Going from the verbal ambiguities to another level of analysis, the interplay, imbrication, splicing, contraposition, etc., of genres within a single work, was perhaps a natural move to make. There is no doubt that the wrestling with the problem of the “picaresque” over the years also sharpened my attention to this inter-generic aspect of Cervantes's work.
     Some years ago, I wrote an essay (“Getting Started”) for Richard Bjornson's MLA-sponsored Approaches to Teaching Cervantes's Don Quixote (1984). I was rather pleased with it, and I still think it exemplifies some good critical practices. But I like to reread it from time to time, just to remind myself that however we handle the process in the classroom, no matter how we get started, none of us can control the outcome. Our best effort must be directed towards making students careful readers, and that means culturally, historically, ethically sensitive readers.
     My M.A. dissertation, published as a book, was on Alonso de Castillo Solórzano. Having to read so much of the pulp fiction of the aspiring upper class in the mid-seventeenth century made me aware of the role of reading in a consumer society. It also made me appreciate Cervantes as the deep and complex writer that he is. I say “that he is”, not “that he was.” He writes anew each time I read him, and there is always something disconcerting in the new reading.

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     Well, Mary, I don't know if this is the kind of letter you were expecting. Make what you can of it, bearing in mind that my history is probably mythical also.
     Yvonne and I both look forward to seeing you ere long.

Fred Jehle Publications of the CSA HCervantes