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Repaying a Debt to Her Alma Mater


Dr. Alison Rosenblitt ’95 Master Class of E. E. Cummings

One of the few silver linings of the pandemic has been a renewed ability to connect with anyone, anywhere, at any time — unrestricted by traditional boundaries of geography or availability. In late April, Durham Academy alumna and University of Oxford classics professor Dr. Alison Rosenblitt ’95 reached out with a unique proposal: a trans-Atlantic Zoom master class on E. E. Cummings for Upper School English students and teachers.

Rosenblitt, who is also a writer, had just finished her biography of E. E. Cummings, The Beauty of Living: E. E. Cummings in the Great War (W.W. Norton & Company, July 2020) and was eager to share her work, but her deeper motivation was to repay an inspirational debt of sorts to her alma mater.

“For my part, I remember encountering E. E. Cummings for the first time at DA in ninth grade English and you can see that it has become a lifelong passion,” she wrote in an email. “I also remember how fabulous and creative the DA assemblies always were, and I remember extra enrichment activities such a seminar day with the writer Tim O’Brien.”

O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a collection of interconnected short stories about a platoon of American soldiers fighting in Vietnam, based on his own experiences. Upper School English teacher Jordan Adair often incorporates O’Brien’s work in his Literary and Artistic Responses to War course. And more than 25 years later, Rosenblitt remembered the impact of getting to meet and interact with a writer.

“So a small number of us were selected to spend the day, excused from normal classes, in a seminar with him plus he spoke to the whole school at normal assembly,” she wrote. “It was amazing to meet a ‘real’ writer. I mean, as a kid, it takes a bit of effort to understand that writers are ‘real’ people — unless, I suppose, for a small number of kids, you happen to grow up in that world … it would be nice to feel that at the same time as publicizing my own book, I was somewhat repaying a very old favour.”

Twenty-two students and four teachers signed up for two hour-long sessions offered by Rosenblitt on a Friday morning and Saturday afternoon in early May. As homework, she asked them to read “the bigness of cannon” beforehand.

Rosenblitt, who was born in Durham, explained that she went to the University of Oxford to earn her undergraduate degree in ancient and modern history, and she’s been there ever since. She teaches Roman history and E. E. Cummings as a Senior College Lecturer in Ancient History, and she also serves as Director of Studies in Classics at Regent’s Park College (University of Oxford). “I like the way that Cummings responds to Classical verse: ambitious, provocative, and disobedient,” Rosenblitt explains in her writer’s bio.

The Beauty of Living: E. E. Cummings in the Great War examines the early years of Cummings’ life — his childhood, his time at Harvard where he began to write poetry, his time in France during World War I as a volunteer ambulance driver, his first love and his three-month imprisonment in a French military detention camp.

You can learn more about Rosenblitt and her career on her website: alisonrosenblitt.com.