Two English professors brought their studies of influential late literary authors back to Wheaton students.
Trips to England often involve tours of palaces, window-shopping in London, or stops at Beatles’ recording studios. But English professors Tom and Dyanne Martin spent their month-long British vacation immersed in obscure books by writers they hope to put on the radar of Wheaton students.
The Martins, who are married, have taught in the English department since 2019. Their literary interests differ greatly. Tom, who has chaired the department since their arrival, usually teaches courses on fairy tales, modern literary theory and Milton. Dyanne, who has a joint appointment with English and Christ at the Core, Wheaton’s general education program, teaches classes on Holocaust literature and mixed-race literature as well as a first-year seminar on reality.
In England, Tom researched the 16th-century poet Edmund Spenser to further develop his work on a virtual humanities project titled “The Visual Edmund Spenser,” while Dyanne studied three transatlantic female authors of color: Phillis Wheatley, Mary Prince and Mary Seacole.
“ is probably the greatest poet we don’t read anymore,” said Tom, who has taught Spenser at the college level for over two decades.
In 1596, Spenser wrote a 36,000-line poem titled “The Faerie Queene,” drawing on Christian themes of chaste love and holiness, which, along with Spenser’s other works, later influenced writers like C.S. Lewis and John Milton.
Tom Martin, who began the project as an extension of his teaching at Florida Atlantic University and at Wheaton, said he wants to rediscover Spenser for the 21st century.
Tom spent two months poring over 400 years’ worth of drawings, paintings, stained glass and other pieces that illustrate Spenser’s work. Using a Canon 35mm camera and an iPhone, as well as a computer and paper for notes, Tom documented his research. He plans to display his work on the website, which he hopes will be “a treasure trove for teachers and readers of all types.”
Some Wheaton students are helping him with the technical side of the website, and he hopes to launch the online project within the next few months.
Spenser is generally known for being one of the first major English poets to write epic poetry that modeled those of the Greeks and Romans, except with distinctive English language, politics, settings and customs. He considered his own work to be on par with the major European epic poets like Dante and Petrarch, with the same interest in political allegory and criticism hidden beneath an exterior of poetry which was often about shepherds. Spenser’s work lost some momentum in the 19th century, as literary critics became more interested in the simple, everyday lives of men and women rather than the personified cardinal sins and virtues of Spenser’s epics.
While Tom was studying Spenser, Dyanne spent her time observing the legacy of three women of color who she says revolutionized transatlantic literature: Phillis Wheatley, Mary Prince and Mary Seacole. Dyanne, who is originally from Jamaica, said her own ethnic heritage, which she describes as “transatlantic,” her childhood of international travel and a lifelong love of literature inspired her research of these women and their work.
Phillis Wheatley is often considered the mother of African American literature. Born in 1753 in West Africa, she was enslaved and educated in a Boston household, and later wrote poems that helped lay the groundwork for the civil rights movement and continue to be studied by readers today.
“I want to recover her and reclaim her, especially for a Christian audience, because Phyllis Wheatley has so much to say and so much to teach us,” Dyanne said.
Mary Prince, born in 1788, was enslaved in Bermuda and then taken to England in 1828. She gained her freedom in London, later writing the first slave chronicle by a woman of color in the United Kingdom, “The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave Narrative, Related by Herself.” Her memoir aided the abolition movement in the British colonies. Today, her works continue to influence students throughout the Caribbean, North America and Britain.
Mary Seacole, a British-Jamaican nurse in the 1800s, remains a key figure in history with her aiding of soldiers during the Crimean War. After her service, Seacole wrote a travel memoir titled “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Mary Seacole in Many Lands” in 1857. Dyanne notes that Seacole’s memoir was one of the first to be written by a woman of color and maps unique intersections between Britain, Russia and the Caribbean. Visiting Seacole’s statue outside of St. Andrew’s hospital in London stands out for Dyanne as she appreciates the fact that Seacole, a century later, is gaining recognition.
This trip for the Martins had special meaning considering their careers as English professors and literary scholars. They were able to set foot in the very places they read and write so much about for the first time as researchers.
Tom paid a visit to Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner, where many famous writers have been buried. Standing where the people of Spenser’s day threw in pens and eulogies to their beloved writer, Tom felt that he was standing on sacred ground.
A moving moment for Dyanne occurred during a visit to the British Museum.
In recent years, the museum has been the subject of controversy about its numerous artifacts which are a product of colonialism. Even so, Dyanne said she is able to appreciate the colonial artwork.
“I can hold in tension the problematic issues of ownership alongside the beauty of the artifacts, especially because they signal the personhood and culture of the Other,” she said. “In other words, I distinguish between the art itself, which I appreciate fully, and the organizers who obtained some of the art by disreputable means.”
Dyanne said that visiting the African section on the bottom floor of the museum reminded her of pieces from Jamaica, where she has heritage and family.
“When I saw that, I felt, ‘I’m in Jamaica, I’m at home,’” she said.