Benjamin VanWagoner, PhD Candidate in English and Comparative Literature
July 14, 2016
Where did you grow up?
What drew you to your field?
Theater, originally – seeing early modern plays performed and being part of those performances.
How would you explain your current research subject to a high school student?
I am trying to understand how the hazards of 17th-century maritime trade were brought to the stage in the same period. I have a hunch that the answer will tell us a lot about commerce and economics as well as about the mechanics of early modern drama.
What is your favorite thing about being a student at Columbia GSAS?
It is an incredible scholarly community. The Department of English has a large group of people doing research in my field (early modernists), and being able to collaborate and work closely with them – in colloquia and less formally – over the course of several years is a real boon.
Is there a common misconception about a topic in your field that you wish you could correct?
Yes, there is one, but I don’t even want to acknowledge it and thereby give it power. Barring that, maybe the basic rejection of poetry on the grounds that it has “hidden meanings” that are hogwash. To this, I would say I agree: Hidden meanings are indeed hogwash, but there is really no such thing. The whole shtick of poetry is to express really precisely the weirdness and complexity of human experience, and if it sometimes sounds strange, well, the world is a strange place.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Drumming up perpetual amazement, maybe? You could call it naiveté, which is also fine. It’s hard not to be cynical in New York sometimes, and even harder in the midst of a long research project. When I manage it, I am very happy.
Who are your favorite writers?
Because of my research, I am on a huge Philip Massinger kick right now. But in contemporary literature I have been recently obsessed with Halldór Laxness, the Icelandic author.
Who in your field do you consider to be a role model?
I am very lucky to have an advisor who is also a role model: Jean Howard.