Professor Edward E. Ericson, Jr. was an intellectual father to me. He shared the belief of the Russians that great literature can change lives, and that true literature which does not forget God or man or the particularities of life is ultimately more powerful than politics or even political philosophy.

It might be mom or dad. It might be a treasured friend or a colleague. I believe most writers, even if only subconsciously, write with a particular friend, teacher, or mentor in mind. Ed was almost always the one for me. Even three years after his death, I still look up at a picture of him hanging on a tag board in my office and wonder in holy fear what he would think of my work. In the beginning he wasn’t Ed, of course. He was Professor Ericson—Edward E. Ericson, Jr.—the rather stern but kindly figure who taught Milton, 17th-century British literature, Dostoevsky, and Solzhenitsyn at what was then Calvin College (now University) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I first took him for Milton, a class in which we read all 10,000-plus lines of Paradise Lost and were tested on our knowledge of important passages. Which book was the passage from? What was its importance? What did particular terms mean in the seventeenth century? Professor Ericson suffered fools, or at least most of the sophomores, gladly. The lazy, however, were given no quarter, and the blood of the academic red pen sometimes flowed freely. For papers, he would insert the last page into a typewriter and write a paragraph on the back of it summarizing what made the paper work or not and what the final grade was. I still remember with shame labeling the Milton scholar A. J. Waldock as “Woodcock” on the paper, though he didn’t count much off since I had gotten Waldock’s argument right. Both papers and tests were returned in what seemed a short amount of time then. As a professor now, I look back on his turnaround as nothing short of superhuman.

He lectured in a quiet voice that had just enough smokiness in it to hint at the cigarettes he enjoyed outside the Fine Arts Center where the English department was located. He was not afraid of being boring himself because to him the excitement of the literature was the real thing and what he wanted us to remember. What Newman’s younger friend Richard Church said of his sermons, that “they made men think of the things which the preacher spoke of, and not of the sermon or the preacher,” reminds me of Ed’s lectures. When I took him during the January term (“Interim” it was called) for a course on Dostoevsky, I found him even more profound. Though he had begun his career writing on Herbert and Milton, he ended up focusing on the great Russian writers. With his Scandinavian looks, his white beard and wire-rim glasses, his pensive look and serious manners, it was easy to imagine him as one of the great Russians himself. He shared that belief of the Russians that great literature can change lives. It doesn’t always do so, he reminded us, but look at Dostoevsky, who was converted in Siberian prison after reading the only book he was allowed: a New Testament. Professor Ericson was a friend of the political and literary figure Russell Kirk. Not only that, but my professor, who had written volumes about Solzhenitsyn, had also worked side by side with the great Russian to produce a one-volume abridgment to The Gulag Archipelago!

I was slightly scared of him, but during that first class on Milton I decided that I wanted him to be my academic adviser. I sensed very early on that he was going to be an intellectual father to me. Not merely an academic connection or a teacher of facts, but a guide. Though now it seems all too little, I treasured all the time I was able to spend in his office or anywhere else learning from him and about him. Born in 1939, he was raised on the south side of Chicago by parents in the Baptist tradition. His father, Ed, Sr., about whom he wrote in an essay titled “A Father to the End,” was a star athlete and somewhat wild young man who converted to Christianity at the age of 32 when he heard a radio preacher quote I Corinthians 3:11, “For other foundation can no man lay than that that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” Ed, Sr., communicated to Ed, Jr., and his younger siblings both the joy of living on that foundation and the importance of memorizing Scripture. He started the Scripture Kids, a Sunday school of the Chicago Gospel Mission, that began with 18 kids (six of whom were Ericsons) but grew to over 400 (adding one more Ericson). As the neighborhood changed, turning from mostly white to mostly black, Ed, Jr., had grown up learning to treat people not according to the color of their skin or even simply the content of their character; he had grown up learning to treat them as image-bearers of God and called to the joy of knowing Christ.

He had also learned as a child to put up with infirmity and to persevere. Professor Ericson walked with a halting gait, but I assumed it was an old man thing. 19-year-olds think 53 impossibly old. It must have been an injury since I had been told that he had played softball up until recently. It turned out that Roosk—his childhood nickname—had been the victim of polio. A review essay of books on polio written for Books & Culture interspersed treatments of the volumes with his own italicized memories: a spinal tap (“It hurt, hurt, hurt”); the paralysis from the neck down that gradually “drained down into the left leg and the foot”; three weeks at St. Luke’s hospital playing pranks and staying in bed delighting in books; the tendon transplant at age 13 to allow some control of the toes and the chunk of bone taken from his foot to prevent it growing “hooflike.” Above and beyond all of the experiences there was the determination of “the kid who limps” to play football simply “to prove to the coach that his foot could hold up for basketball.”

It is no wonder that he used to tell me, brag really, that he was comfortable talking to almost anybody, high or low. Despite his high academic status, he remembered the low.

After I finished college it took me some time to figure out what to do. I was contemplating entering the Catholic Church and I was not sure what was next. I decided to go to graduate school, but Professor Ericson told me I had to be careful about English departments. By the 1990s the triumph of Theory (“The theories are worse than the furies,” Flannery O’Connor wrote) in English departments was pretty much complete. He himself had had enough of many of the academic guilds that had become politicized beyond recognition already. His first book, written during a year-long fellowship at the Hoover Institution, was published in 1975 as Radicals in the University. He once wrote to me, “I was and am a conservative—or, in words I can now afford to prefer, I never bowed the knee to the Baal of the academy. In retrospect I have had a surprisingly smooth ride for the forty years of my career, but there have been a few nasty bumps along the way.” Unlike some academics, he understood where academic life was, where it was going, and he sympathized with my own career difficulties. He often described himself as “a man who aimed to be a high school teacher and missed.” He was quite honest about the providential path his own academic career took. When someone suggested he go to “graduate school,” he didn’t even know what it was. He told me once that he only applied for one academic position. He was recruited for the final two.

I decided to go to graduate school, but given the theological topics I was dealing with intellectually and spiritually, I decided to study theology. Though Professor Ericson did not necessarily agree with my own decision to become a Catholic, he was never argumentative about it. I think that his own following of the path of the more intellectual confessional Calvinist tradition, after being raised in what he called “a devout but anti-intellectual home,” gave him a sympathy for someone who had made a (too-often misunderstood by family and friends) decision to change Christian traditions.

At the commencement of my college teaching career, he unfortunately and unintentionally hindered my success. Just as he was the invisible audience and judge of my writing, so too was he one of the main models for me as a teacher. Unfortunately, I could not pull off the gravitas or the seriousness with which he conducted a class. I had to find my own style of teaching, which I have come to think of as “academic vaudeville” and which is much more like that of Ed’s friend and colleague, William VandeKopple.

In this last paragraph, it appears I have begun calling him “Ed” again. I do not remember when it happened, but at some point he told me I should call him by his first name. Though I learned to do so eventually, it was a difficult transition at first, so great was my respect for him. He had written letters of recommendation for me for graduate school and for fellowships throughout my early adulthood, and I was proud to have him on my curriculum vitae as a reference. Whenever I returned to Michigan, I would attempt to meet him for a meal, and while I never lost my reverence for him, I gained confidence to use that first name and think of him not just as mentor and father, but friend too.

When my wife was with me on trips to Michigan, we would sometimes have lunch or dinner with Ed and his wife, Jan. They talked about their adult sons, Ed III and Bill, and we shared with them our growing family. Around 2004, I had taught my then two-year-old son to pronounce the name of the 1970 Nobel Prize winner. Ed was so tickled by this that when he wrote a speech for the book launch of The Solzhenitsyn Reader, co-edited with Daniel Mahoney (someone to whom Ed introduced me at one lunch in Grand Rapids and who has become a great friend), he wrote to ask me how old my son was when he pronounced those eight syllables. “Two,” I replied.

He wrote back: “They won’t believe it. I thought he must have been four. I’ll make him three. Poetic license, let us call it, though in the name of realism as understood by normal people, which Gus is not, thank goodness.”

Nevertheless, when we watched the book launch he decided to go with extreme realism—or so I remember. The copy of the speech he sent me has the exciting lines. “But then there’s Gus, age two, son of a former student of mine. Ask him his favorite author, and he will intone each syllable: ‘Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.’ Arise, ye Guses of the world. And may you find the Reader.”

Ed was extremely proud of that volume, as he should have been. His work to bring people to understand and know Solzhenitsyn was yeoman’s work indeed. He wrote to me a few months before its release: “The new ISI Books catalog has appeared. Our Solzhenitsyn Reader is the item featured on the cover and is the first new release described. Included is this statement by Solzhenitsyn: ‘I welcome the appearance in print of the Reader, and especially of those selections previously inaccessible to English-language readers. It serves the demand of the modern age for capsule form, yet preserves the integrity of the texts.’”

When the Reader was published, Ed wrote me again. “Yep, it’s great to hold the book and just stare at it.”

Solzhenitsyn wrote about Ed in Between Two Millstones, Book 2, the second volume of his memoirs of his time in the west, which is about to be released by Notre Dame Press.[1] In the selection, Solzhenitsyn recounted accepting Ed’s proposal to produce that one-volume Gulag Archipelago. He described the man I knew physically: “well built, big, sturdy, his face framed by a close-cut beard—with something of the ship’s skipper about him.” He also described the character well: “Measured, very good-hearted—and concerned above all with spiritual matters. He worked absolutely selflessly and, to ease the procedure of negotiating with publishers, he renounced any fee.”

Because he was not a famous name, Ed sometimes found that no selflessness ever truly goes unpunished. When HarperCollins reissued the one-volume Gulag, a new introduction by Anne Applebaum replaced Ed’s. I don’t recall him complaining about it, but I suspect this was difficult. Later, it was reissued with a new foreword by Jordan Peterson. Though Dr. Peterson’s introduction is very good, my own thoughts were somewhat resentful, though I suspect that just as he renounced any fee on the volume, so too Ed would have renounced any claim on the introduction. Making Solzhenitsyn read and understood animated much of his career. That an intellectual celebrity might further this at the expense of his own introduction would have been difficult for him but accepted. Happily, after Ed’s death in 2018, when Vintage reprinted the volume, Jordan Peterson’s foreword was combined with Ed’s introduction (which had been expanded in the early 2000s edition). Ed was proud of his high friends and his own contributions, but I don’t think he ever suffered from what a friend calls DYKWIA—“Don’t You Know Who I Am?”—though he was proud of his friendships with those whom he found important, a category often confused with “famous.”

At some point in the mid-2000s, I read Malcolm Muggeridge’s short memoir, A Life in Pictures, and realized that in one of the pictures Muggeridge was reading to his wife, Kitty, from Ed’s one-volume Gulag. I recalled seeing a picture of Muggeridge in his office one time, so I wrote and asked about their relationship. Ed replied:

Muggeridge wrote the Foreword to my first book on Solzhenitsyn. Kirk midwifed that arrangement. When I asked Russell about the benefit of trying to get a Foreword (this was back in the days when Solzhenitsyn remained a discussed and read figure), he suggested Malcolm and invited me to the seminar at Mecosta that Malcolm would lead or speak at. Russell also promised to place me next to Malcolm over lunch, the former, as I learned at lunch, having prepared the latter for me to pop the question. Malcolm said he was too old to do such things anymore, but he might make an exception in the case of Solzhenitsyn if he considered my book good enough. I guess I passed the test. I visited Malcolm and Kitty twice in their cottage in southern England, once with my wife and once with a friend as the two of us made our way across Western Europe after traveling in the Soviet Union. I used to have a couple of photos from Jan’s and my visit on the wall alongside my desk, but then our hair turned a different color, which sufficed to bring the photos down.

I also asked about the rumor that he was the American academic Solzhenitsyn referred to in the Harvard Address.

As for the second question, it’s almost impossible, given the dates of his Harvard address (1978) and my first book (1980) and the fact that my prior publications were in such out-of-the-way places as “The Reformed Journal and Modern Age,” that Solzhenitsyn had me in mind when he referred to “a teacher at a faraway small college” (not mentioning the Midwest)—all this is according to my ever-dulling memory. When in 1982 I wrote him a long letter proposing the abridgment of “The Gulag Archipelago,” having previously sent him a copy of my book at the urging of a Russian defector who had become my friend and who wrote his own book on Solzhenitsyn (and Dostoevsky), he never in all the ensuing correspondence between us or during my visit to Cavendish, showed a flicker of remembering me as that teacher he had in mind. True, in a symposium published by “The American Enterprise” on the twentieth anniversary of the Harvard address, the editor(s) said that line referred to me. Although your question does not occasion embarrassment, that attribution certainly did. It is not even clear to me that he had any actual teacher in mind; the statement could have had a generic reference, and it certainly was an anti-elitist putdown.

He told me that he had thought of asking one of Solzhenitsyn’s sons if the referent was “generic or specific,” but to him it was not important enough to prioritize.

Ed was an admirer of the great and a supporter of his friends but always maintained his own judgment. When I was an undergraduate, I was talking to the dean of students about the Calvinist character of the eponymous college we were at. We came up with the idea of developing a questionnaire that would look at how much of the “Reformed Worldview” students came into college with and how much of it they took out upon graduating. We applied for a grant through the college to do the project and were summoned to a meeting of the faculty where the decisions would be made. I thought that as a convert to the Reformed tradition Ed would be all in favor. I was somewhat surprised that he spoke against it. I do not recall his reasons now, and I didn’t ever ask him about it, perhaps because I was somewhat hurt by his rejection of my idea. But he never treated me any differently.

Years later, I asked him for a recommendation letter for an application at a Protestant college. He declined because one of the professors there had left the department at Calvin in part because of him. He described how he had opposed one of her ideas for the English curriculum, leading her to cry. Given that he had helped recruit her in the first place, he was shocked that she would consider him to be any kind of enemy to her. Though a happy reunion had taken place several years later in which the past was forgotten, the memories still pained him. He recommended that I not bring him into the application process. His judgments about ideas did not mean an instant application, either positive or negative, to those who held them.

This was a good part of why I often engaged him in political conversation. He was, like me, a political conservative whose political and cultural views were shaped by what Solzhenitsyn had called that concern above all with “spiritual values.” This was expressed well in Ed’s classic essay “Christian, Therefore, Conservative.” Perhaps this insight about the primacy of the spiritual helped him diagnose the conservative movement and its players.

In 2005, I was very upset with the George W. Bush administration and poured out my complaints on him after the (ultimately abortive) Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers. He understood the frustration, but urged caution, in part because though Bush had many failures, he recalled feeling the same problems with Saint Ronald and benefited from perspective.

I remember how often Reagan disappointed me on details. Usually it was that he seemed to think it not worth the effort to carry through on certain fights in Washington. I, like many others, now look back with great appreciation for how much he did achieve. As long as Afghanistan and Iraq go up instead of down, I anticipate that I’ll look back at the Bush presidency in the same way. Among Bush’s faults, in my book—and you’ve named some—one of them is not that he is not a movement conservative, though some movement types have long held a grudge against him precisely on those grounds.

That grudge he thought was not purely principled. Yes, Bush’s faults were manifest, but “from my days of hobnobbing with conservative movement types, I know how often I have disliked their clubbiness, knee-jerk responses, inconsiderateness…. And now I think a good number of them are behaving badly.”

Some might note that Ed was wrong on Afghanistan and Iraq, but as he himself once wrote of Solzhenitsyn, the wonder is not that he was sometimes wrong, but how often he was so right. He added, with a prescience that is astonishing to me, that concerning comparisons between Ms. Miers’s jurisprudence and that of Justice John Roberts, “I’m less sure of his vote than of hers.” His comments about the then-regnant intellectual figures on the right were no less clear-eyed: “Frum impressed me at first, but he has come to seem to me a cancer, staying in the Bush administration long enough to gather information for a book planned from before he began. For that matter, analysts I admire, such as Kristol and Will, are not always right, far from it. When The Weekly Standard began, I started keeping a mental list of how many times Kristol turned out to be wrong. Many. I dropped the thought exercise. Well, what reaction would you expect from a contrarian like me?”

The answer was obviously, “None other. None other reaction.” That’s why I loved him and that’s why I trusted him. There was nothing of the pure intellectual about him. His reactions came from long years of prayer, thought, imagination, and the practice of what Burke called “the god of this lower world,” prudence.

I think Ed loved Solzhenitsyn best because of Solzhenitsyn’s belief that true literature that does not forget God or man or the particularities of life is ultimately more powerful than politics or even political philosophy. In a message replying to my request for critique of an essay on “a literature of life,” he wrote, “My whole career has been devoted to relating literature to life. Literature is not a self-contained field of play; it matters for how we live. That view has been mocked by cutting-edge folks. As their sterile views fade, we holdouts have the road reopened before us.”

In an age in which ideology is rearing its ugly head in a way that Solzhenitsyn would not have been surprised at, I think back to my last contacts with this man whose views had been shaped by letting the Word and the great words shape how he lived. Many of his later messages and conversations were about how much he and Jan loved being around his grandchildren, especially the eldest, “Excellent Ethan.” While he still loved reading, his preoccupations turned from writing to helping several battered women with whom he had come into contact. I remember him smiling and observing that young women considered him safe because he was “declawed.” He did not consider his ceasing to be a sexual object or threat to be an insult, but a kind of gift. Similarly, the last few times we met he would always reply to questions about his health with the joyful remark that he was no longer sure what was post-polio syndrome and what was simply the frailties of old age.

When I found out he died on April 29, 2017, I cried in my office for a long time. My own father had died four years earlier. My intellectual father’s passing had a kind of finality to it. While I could pray for his soul, I also wanted to honor him somehow. As it so happened, I was not the only one.

Jessica Hooten Wilson got to know Ed when she was a graduate student interested in Russian literature. Together they travelled to Moscow twice before Ed drew her to John Brown University where his son Ed III was (and still is) the provost.  She became even closer to Ed when he and Jan moved down to Arkansas to be close to their son.  Jessica called me one afternoon, and we began to think about what we could do to honor his memory. We lamented the fact that Ed, who had taught at undergraduate institutions all of his career, never had a festschrift, one of those collections of scholarly essays that academics make to honor their doctoral advisers. We decided on a volume dedicated to what Solzhenitsyn and the Russian tradition can and should teach us here in America about how to approach religion, culture, and politics. We wrote essays ourselves and gathered some of the biggest names in Solzhenitsyn studies, many of whom knew and admired Ed. The University of Notre Dame Press accepted it as part of their Center for Ethics and Culture Solzhenitsyn Series, where it is being published alongside the works of the great man himself.

Three years later, the book is out.[2] I received my copy in the mail today. Like Ed with his copy of The Solzhenitsyn Reader, I find it great just to hold the book and stare at it. But when I open it, I almost always end up looking at the dedication “to the Memory of Edward E. Ericson, Jr., Christian, scholar, mentor.” Below that dedication is a picture of Ed standing next to Solzhenitsyn at the author’s Vermont home. I know one of these great men by his writings. The other I know as a father, a man whose judgment was honest, whose heart was good, and whose mind and spirit were dedicated to the God in whose providence I give thanks for putting him in my own life.

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Notes:

[1] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Between Two Millstones, Book 2: Exile in America, 1978-1994 (University of Notre Dame Press, November 2020).

[2] Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, edited by David P. Deavel and Jessica Hooten Wilson (University of Notre Dame Press, October 2020).

The featured image is “A Scholar in His Study” by Thomas Wyck (c. 1616-1677) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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