Carpenter Retires after Thirty Years with Oxford

Lucas Carpenter, Charles Howard Candler Professor of English

"I can't imagine doing anything else." Lucas Carpenter, Charles Howard Candler Professor of English, answers the question of why he chose to teach. "I knew from an early age that was what I wanted to do."

Since beginning his forty-year teaching career, which includes thirty years at Oxford, his passion for the life of the mind and ability in teaching others how to read with insight and write with clarity have inspired countless students. Carpenter retired from Oxford at the end of the 2014–2015 academic year. 

Accolades during his Oxford career include the Fleming Award for Excellence in Teaching, the Emory Williams Award for Distinguished Teaching, and the Phi Theta Kappa Teaching Award. He was named a Fulbright Distinguished Senior Scholar in 1999, and in 2003 he was awarded Emory University’s Scholar/Teacher of the Year award. He was also Oxford’s first faculty member to be named Charles Howard Candler Professor. 

You joined the Oxford faculty in 1985. What road brought you here? 

I graduated from the College of Charleston, which was where I began my writing career as editor of the literary magazine. From there I headed to Vanderbilt University for a master’s degree in English, but this was the late 1960s. I was drafted a few months into the program and sent to Vietnam as an army enlisted man. After finishing my military service [for which he received the Bronze Star], I earned a master’s degree in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a PhD in English from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. I taught at the State University of New York’s Suffolk College and was tenured, but I was ready to do something else. I saw an opening at Oxford and applied.

How did your experience in the military inform your career?

Despite whatever else I might feel about the draft, it brought together an extraordinary mix of people from all backgrounds, ethnicities, and parts of the country. Vietnam pops up in my thoughts and occasionally finds its way into my writing. Matt Morris [Oxford professor of French emeritus, who died in 2014] was also a Vietnam veteran, and he and I taught a course called The Vietnam Experience. We incorporated all aspects of the war into our teaching—political, cultural, literary, historical.

Poetry is a focus of your scholarship, and you were elected to the Poetry Society of America in 1985. What have been your other intellectual pursuits?

Southern literature has always been my main interest. I became interested in the Imagists School—particularly expatriate writers such as Ezra Pound—and Southern Modernism, especially the poet John Gould Fletcher. I am the general editor and principal contributor to a seven-volume series devoted to the life and work of Fletcher, published by the University of Arkansas Press. During the course of this work I became friends with the poet Miller Williams, professor of poetry at Louisiana State University and father of singer Lucinda Williams. We brought him to Oxford for a reading in 1995.

Carpenter has published three poetry collections; the latest, The Way Things Go, was published in 2013, and at Carpenter’s request, book sale proceeds were donated to Oxford. Dozens of his poems, essays, and short stories have also been published in literary journals across the country. He and his wife Judy are serious collectors of art, and he has turned this interest into an alternate writing career in art criticism. In 2010 he was invited to cover the prestigious Bienalle at its exhibition in Sydney for the publication Art Papers. His art reviews have also been widely published.

So in retirement, what does he plan to do? Write, of course. “I have loved teaching, but rarely in the past have I had sustained time to write. Now I will have that. Writing will always have a meaningful role in my life.” For one who has taught and inspired so many others in the art and craft of writing, it is a fitting reward.

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