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The (Eccentric) Genius of Professor Randy Nelson

Randy Nelson
Prof. Randy Nelson

The bulletin board that spans an entire wall behind Professor Randy Nelson's office desk in Chambers Building is coated with photographs and postcards from former students. He can identify the image or source of every one. "It's now four or five layers thick," he says, glancing over his shoulder. "I still insist on photographs, rather than JPEGs."

Nelson is known for setting standards, and that's why graduates so often cite him as the most important teacher in their lives. Although exposure to Nelson's notoriously demanding expectations frequently make a Writing 101 student's knees buckle, legions of alums to whom he has taught "The Art of Prose," "Twentieth-Century American Fiction," and "Advanced Fiction Writing" remember him gratefully for not accepting less than their best. "It's really important to me to have a good opinion among Davidson graduates," he says. At commencement in 2002, many of those graduates joined their voices to honor him with the Hunter-Hamilton Love of Teaching Award.

New Internship Honors Professor's Outsized Impact

Davidson alumnae have created a lasting way to recognize their favorite professor's contributions to the college and the countless ways he continues to influence their lives today. Liz Smith Brigham '04 and Liz Redpath '04 think of English Professor Randy Nelson as a second father and, together, have committed $50,000 to fund the Dr. Randy Nelson Summer Internship Grant.

Nelson retires this summer after 41 years as an English professor at Davidson. An Americanist with a special interest in fiction, he currently holds the Virginia Lasater Irvin Professorship.

"I graduated 14 years ago, and Dr. Nelson and I have emailed or talked on the phone every month since that time," said Brigham. "His communication is like receiving a metaphorical hug that just envelops you with his wit and understanding. He sustains such an important place in my life."

Soon after Brigham decided this was a meaningful way to honor Nelson's legacy, Redpath joined in the effort.

"He has been my tether to Davidson," she said of Nelson. "He was one of the first people who made me feel safe in my own skin. I truly feel that every person deserves to receive at least one email from Dr. Nelson in his or her life. He probably has many pen pals, but when you get an email, you feel like the only person in the world."

Both Brigham and Redpath were initially intimidated by his reputation as a tough teacher, but after taking a course, their perspectives forever changed.

"He is peerless in the classroom, I would say," said Redpath. "He has a contagious love for the written word, and he makes the material he teaches come alive."

Brigham took just about every class he taught.

"I remember writing a paper for one of his classes, and it was about the death of the epistle, the death of the letter," she said. "Ironically, that is exactly how we've kept in touch. He knows all the trials and tribulations of my life."

The classmates hope their collective support encourages others who have been influenced by Professor Nelson to grow this internship fund.

"I don't see this as just a monetary contribution," said Brigham. "I see this as a long-term investment and a way my husband and I and Liz and her wife can represent what Dr. Nelson means to our lives."

Brigham was a Terry Scholar at Davidson and works as a marketing and product executive in Chicago. Redpath received the Samuel H. Bell Scholarship and is now an attorney in Richmond, Virginia.

The internship fund supports Davidson students pursuing summer internships in the visual, literary and performing arts and currently provides up to $5,000 in grant money. Those interested in supporting the internship program and honoring Professor Nelson in this special way should visit www.davidson.edu/makeagift. Please make note of the internship name.

Like the best teachers, Nelson is a perpetual student. He has concocted popular courses in science fiction, like "The Fantastic Voyage," as well as many classes in American literary history, including "Poe and Hawthorne," "Faulkner and Welty," and "Mark Twain and His Circle." These days he is best known for his senior seminar in "Legal Fictions," the idea for which, he explains, "started as jury duty for me and understanding my role as a reader of what was going on in front of me." "The claim of the course," he elaborates, is that, in court, "you have two narrators telling two versions of the same story to a captive audience. But there are certain rules you've got to obey in telling the story. There's a rhetoric and grammar to what goes on in a courtroom." All members of the class attend actual trials to observe their affinity with fiction. And many of those students enter into legal careers. "I'm very, very proud of the fact that, of the students who have applied to law school and that I've prepped," he says, "the placement record has been 100 percent in 25 years." He's also proud of the many of who have become judges and founders of law firms.

Before Nelson reached the point of inventing "Legal Fictions," his career took a couple of sharp turns. The first was at Princeton, where he entered graduate school with a master's degree in Eighteenth-Century British literature. He tells the story of glimpsing Professor Carlos Baker across campus one day. Baker, who eventually directed Nelson's dissertation on Twain, was the celebrated biographer of Ernest Hemingway. According to Nelson, Baker "looked like a farmer, like a guy who might get into a bar fight." Baker called out to Nelson, "Hey, do you want a master's degree?" "Yes, sir," Nelson replied. Baker told him to go over to the registrar's office, where they charged him 35 dollars and, at Baker's word, gave him his second master's, in American literature. That's the field–or at least one of them–where Nelson stayed.

Years later, he took another hard right, this one into creative writing. He traces this shift to the years 1994-96, when he was directing Davidson College's self-study and noticed that the English Department offered no course in the short story. Soon after he developed such a class, he thought to himself, "You ought to see if you could do it"–that is, write a short story. He gave it a try, and soon "my interest grew and grew until it became an obsession." He has published dozens of short stories, a collection of stories entitled The Imaginary Lives of Mechanical Men, and, in 2017, his first novel, A Duplicate Daughter.

Because Nelson is as humble about his writing as his prose is sterling, most of his colleagues and students don't realize how many recognitions he's received for his fiction -- for example, the "Distinguished Short Story Award" in The Best American Short Stories for both 2003 and 2007 and a Pushcart Prize for a story, "Breaker," in 2007. The Imaginary Lives of Mechanical Men won The Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2005. If initial reviews of A Duplicate Daughter are any indication, his second novel will be in demand, though he plans on finishing another short story collection first.

How does he characterize his fiction for those who have yet to read it for themselves? Nelson reveals that his wife, Susan, "who is always my first reader for every story," said to him one evening, "You're getting weirder and weirder." He admits to being drawn to "that little strip of land just barely on the other side of reality," where "outsiders, strivers, the misunderstood, and the grotesques" dwell apart from the mainstream. "I love the original Twilight Zone stories," he says, adding, "I always wanted to be Rod Serling"–the host of the original television series that aired from 1959 to 1964–"so I could smoke cigarettes and wear gray suits and talk in a deep voice." He pauses. "I do have a gray suit, but that's about it."

Nelson's term for the kind of English Department colleague he always hopes to see hired–an "eccentric genius"–also applies to himself. His interests encompass not just the borders between the real and the imagined, but also subjects like the martial arts. His book The Overlook Martial Arts Reader was his second, published after The Almanac of American Letters, a compendium of biographical profiles, trivia, anecdotes, and quotations drawn from American literary history. Having grown up in Mooresville, where his family owned a nursery that his brother now runs, he came by his love of horticulture honestly. In this terrain, too, he follows the less traveled path: the yard of almost everyone he knows features at least one of the bonsai trees he cultivates and then gives away.

Davidson College Presbyterian Church, where Nelson has served as an elder, has offered him precious "sanctuary" over the years. He thinks of church as a source of comfort. "I don't need to be told how bad I am," he says, "I already think I'm bad." Few people who know him would agree. He's spent his years in the Davidson community as a devoted husband and father of three boys, one of whom, Ian, has just been married and other of whom, Miles, is soon to follow suit. Son Matthew lives with his wife in Brooklyn.

How about after the weddings? "I've gotta spend a lot of time figuring out what I'm supposed to do next," Randy says. "What I do is who I am, and what I do is serve Davidson College and its students. Now what?" The next moment, his face lights up. "There's a new book out, Craeft,"–about traditional British crafts–"that I want to read. The idea is that there's a kind of spiritual connection between a worker's hands and the mind and the soul. I'm really interested in that."

Cynthia Lewis
cylewis@davidson.edu

Cynthia Lewis is Dana Professor of English at Davidson College. Her areas of specialization include early modern British literature and creative nonfiction