Living a Life of Imagination

Jan. 24, 2011

What drives a man like Edgar Dryden – a man who has made a career out of looking at the past – into the future? When it comes down to it, you get a sense that three distinct themes weave together to create the plotline of his life: literary scholarship, family and, as an underlying metaphor, the game of pool.

The consummate scholar, Dryden demonstrates a true passion for his field. He got his first real taste of literature during his early days as student at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. Those experiences ignited a fire that has burned brightly ever since.

“It opened my eyes to a new world,” he says. “It made me more and more convinced that if I could find a way to spend the rest of my life working with things by way of my imagination, then that’s what I wanted to do.”

Harnessing that passion, Dryden went on to earn his Ph.D. from one of the most challenging programs in the nation at Johns Hopkins University. There, he studied Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, two central figures in American literature. His dissertation on Melville, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 1981, is still recognized as one of the great critical works written about the author.

In 1978, Dryden joined the UA as head of the department of English, transforming it into one of the centers in the country for the study of American literature. Under his direction, he has cultivated the award-winning Arizona Quarterly into one of the most important journals in the field.

And yet, when it comes to scholarship, Dryden will be the first to tell you he wasn’t always a star student. While his parents pushed him to do well in school, he says, “I disappointed them.”

He has since more than made up for any academic shortcomings he might have had early on, passing on a love of learning and scholarship to his three children, two of whom have earned PhDs in English like their dad.

Along with his passion for literature and family, Edgar Dryden also has a passion for the game of pool. “In college,” he says with a wry glint, “I could make more money in an afternoon playing pool than my parents were able to send me for my monthly allowance.”

We’re glad that in the end he chose the path of a scholar as opposed to a pool hustler. But these two of Dryden’s passions do have some interesting parallels.

“In a game like pool, to play it and enjoy it, you have to master its tools and techniques. You have to understand angles and perspectives. You have to know how to use English. Sorry,” he laughs, amused at the emergence of his own bad pun. “But literature is very much like a really sophisticated game. Both have the power to enchant.”

Dryden continues to feel that enchantment and passion with American literature just as strongly as in his early days at Johns Hopkins. He has begun collecting materials for a book he is working on about American novelist John Updike, who just passed away in January 2009.

“I’ve taught him and been interested in him for a long time,” says Dryden. “Now that his career has closure, it’ll be fun to do a book.”