Medievalist and epic fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien said, “Not all who wander are lost.”
When John Bowers left Princeton and wandered west to UNLV in 1987, the professor of English found a home at the up-and-coming university. Now, the medievalist educated at Duke, Virginia, and Oxford where he was a Rhodes Scholar, credits teaching Tolkien at UNLV with helping him make his greatest literary discovery. Tolkien’s never-published Clarendon Chaucer edition, found in an Oxford archive, became the basis of Bowers’ latest book, Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer, published by Oxford University Press in September. Here, Bowers talks Tolkien, taking chances, and practicing yoga to continue doing what he loves – teaching.
What brought you to UNLV?
I’d had my midterm review and a book published at Princeton, but I just wasn’t very happy there. I’d been on the West Coast because I already had a two-year postdoc at Caltech in Pasadena and had done research at the nearby Huntington Library. When this opportunity came along, I thought I’d like to be back in the West. It’s turned out to be a real adventure. Las Vegas, as a city and community, has evolved dramatically, and I’ve been able to watch these changes out the window of my English department office.
What inspired you to become an English professor?
The old saying is: “You find what you’re good at and you keep doing it.” Even in high school, I liked reading; I was already writing. When I went to Duke, I was good at literature and language classes, so I kept doing what I was good at. Along the way, I discovered a great passion for teaching also. I’ve been very fortunate to have my teaching recognized with the UNLV Foundation Distinguished Teaching Award and Nevada Regents’ Teaching Award, among others. Today they talk a lot about online teaching. I don’t think I want to do that; I want to be face-to-face with my students in the classroom.
Is there a class at UNLV where the methods you used to teach were innovative?
I think my Tolkien and Chaucer classes have evolved into something special. I’ve been able to use Tolkien’s previously unknown, unpublished material on Chaucer in my classes. In 2013, I found a lot besides Tolkien’s unpublished Chaucer work. In 1938 and 1939, Tolkien dressed as Chaucer and recited selections from The Canterbury Tales. He edited The Reeve’s Tale and kept the souvenir program. I have used that in my Tolkien class. The Reeve’s Tale became a source for some of the action in The Lord of the Rings. I used a photocopy of that in my class with squiggles of Tolkien’s handwriting in the margin. Also in my Chaucer class, I quote from Tolkien’s commentary on The Canterbury Tales.
What was the last big project you completed and how did you decompress?
Obviously, the book. This project was more than six years in the making. Because I was new to the field of Tolkien studies, I had to read a lot, including the 12 volumes called the History of the Middle-earth, compiled and edited by Tolkien’s son, Christopher. I felt I needed to read everything Tolkien had published. When I finished seeing the book through press, I felt somewhat lost. Now I’m working on the follow-up volume, Tolkien on Chaucer, 1913-1959, which will cover everything from early student essays to Tolkien’s comments on Chaucer in his retirement lecture. Recently I received word that Merton College is giving me a four-week accommodation at a nice flat for visiting scholars in Oxford to do my research. I’m not in the doldrums anymore.
Tell us about a lesson you learned from a student.
I had a student some years ago who was active duty in the U.S. Air Force. In the middle of the semester, he was deployed to Afghanistan. But he came to me and said, “I really want to finish this class.” I said, “You’ll have internet access in Afghanistan; I’ll send you the notes. You can take the quizzes online and you can submit your term paper online.” He agreed. He took his Norton Anthology with him to Afghanistan. He read the assignments, took the quizzes, and wrote the term paper. He got an A. I really admire that dedication and tenacity to keep his studies going even while he was deployed.
Outside of your research, what are you passionate about?
I practice yoga; I do three classes a week. Three other days I go to the gym and do cardio, weightlifting, and stretching. When you’re a scholar and a reader, the temptation is to sit too much. It’s very important to keep the body and mind active. I have no target date for retirement. As long as I’m physically and mentally able to show up, I’m going to. I’m 70 years old, and I do better handstands now than I did at 60. I feel like I’m at the top of my game. I’ve found yoga to be so useful, even in a creative way. The calming of the mind, focusing, and being in touch with curiosity – it’s something that helps me keep mentally sharp.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I wish that, as a student, my motivation would have been better. I was always running scared. I was always worried that I wouldn’t get an A or get into the right graduate school. I wish my motivation would have been enjoyment for what I was doing – passion and enthusiasm for literature, teaching, and writing. Instead of worrying about things that might go wrong in my career, I wish I’d had a better sense of the fun of it all.
Tell us about a moment in life you’d like to have a “do-over” on.
About 20 years ago, I came very close to being offered a professorship at UCLA. At the time I thought I was at a crossroads. I really wanted the job at UCLA; I liked Los Angeles, but it didn’t happen. In hindsight, that was just fine because Los Angeles has become a very unaffordable city. Because I stayed here, I was able to teach what I wanted to teach. I made this amazing discovery on Tolkien and Chaucer that perhaps I wouldn’t have made if I’d been at UCLA.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I have become addicted to the Inspector Maigret mystery novels by the French writer Georges Simenon. Penguin has commissioned complete translations of all 75 of them, and I have read the 56 published so far. As a New Yorker magazine feature said, Simenon's detective novels are "literary comfort food."
Which do you prefer: the start of fall semester or end of spring semester?
I’m always excited about the start of a new school year. I still get giddy about it, excited about the courses, who my students are going to be. But I also like the end of spring semester because I already have planned what I’m going to do for the summer, when I’m leaving for Santa Fe, if I’m going to conferences. It’s an even split.
Do you have a favorite holiday food or unique tradition with your family?
I’m always in Santa Fe (at my vacation home/writer’s retreat) during the holidays. I have a sister and niece who live here in Las Vegas, but they come to visit for a few days at Christmas. I gather a bunch of people together who are single and would not have family for Christmas. I make a reservation at one of the hotels that has a Christmas Day buffet. We get about 10 people together and have Christmas brunch. It feels like family.