Though Gary Totten built a career teaching, researching, and writing about late 19th- and early 20th-century American literature, cultural theory, and material culture, there was a time he never would have thought he’d major in English.
What about UNLV strikes you as different from other places you have worked or where you went to school?
I would say the diversity is different than other places I’ve worked and very appealing to me. I edit a journal called MELUS, which stands for Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. I started editing it a couple of years ago at North Dakota State University. NDSU is not a terribly diverse place; it’s really working on it. So when I was looking at the job here, that was one of the first things I thought about. UNLV would be a great context for a journal like MELUS.
Location has a lot to do with it. We have family nearby. Once it was a 20-hour trip to get to the West and visit our family. Now it’s really easy.
There are a lot of things going on (in the English department) — a very vibrant Ph.D. program in literature, great creative writing program, great undergraduate programs, great faculty who do exciting things. This seemed like a nice setting for the journal I edit. In fact, we’re going to have the MELUS Society conference next year in Vegas.
Where were you raised?
In the Rockies. I grew up in eastern British Columbia, very rural — about 30 miles above the Montana border, about 50 miles from the Alberta border. It was beautiful. My mom still lives there.
Tell us about a time in your life when you’ve been daring.
Going to grad school (to study for a Ph.D.) was kind of a daring adventure because my wife had a great job, we had a nice house, and we had three little kids. For me to go to grad school, she had to quit her job. We were living in Provo, Utah, and we moved to Muncie, Indiana. I went to Ball State. We went from our own house to student housing; that was a real downsize. We had no experience at all with the Midwest. Tornadoes were new to us. Humidity was new to us. It was a big adjustment.
What inspired you to get into your field?
I remember as a kid in high school I didn’t like my English classes at all. There was always a right way to read a poem, and it just frustrated me. I went to Canadian high school, and we were often reading British literature — Shakespeare. It was difficult and there was always just one right answer. I had ideas about things, and they weren’t usually correct. I didn’t necessarily ever imagine I was going to be an English major. But as I did my undergraduate degree in humanities and started understanding more about the cultural context of literature and all great art, that’s what sparked an interest in me. How was this work of art engaging with its context and vice versa? How does the context affect this piece of art? That’s how I approached the study of literature. Art wasn’t created in a vacuum.
What has been the biggest challenge in your field?
Explaining the importance of the study of literature and humanities in general. We don’t get the big money like science fields do. It’s not as immediately obvious what the results are of the kind of work that we do. It’s nice to be able to show them that a good deal of people who are leaders in business and other areas were humanities majors.
If I couldn’t work in my current field, I would like to…
Do something creative. I loved watching the Price is Right as a kid, not for the Price is Right, but for the set — how the doors opened and how things spun around on tables. I was always interested in the spotlights and how they were working. Maybe something to do with design, like stage design.
Tell us about someone you admire and why.
I admire all of my kids because they’ve all overcome challenges.
I had an undergraduate professor who I greatly admired because he brought Huckleberry Finn to life. He would act out scenes. I admired his enjoyment of literature. He could see the subtle things in that text that were such a joy.
I also greatly admire my dissertation director who is very smart and introduced me to critical theory and philosophy of the 20th century. She caused me to really think creatively about my dissertation project. She thought in metaphors. She had written a book about systems — systems theory but applied to The Great Gatsby — the idea that you could take big, interesting ideas in the world and apply them to works of art.
Any interesting hobbies or pastimes?
I enjoy watching series on Netflix. It’s what empty nesters do. I like the long, narrative arc. I can’t really watch movies. I watch them, but I’d rather have three or four seasons of a series. It feels like reading a long, juicy novel to me.
I love to hike. I guess that’s another good reason to move to Las Vegas — the fact that Zion National Park is about two hours north; it’s perfect.