In the fall of 2021, a student at the University of Dallas asked me to give a tribute to Dr. Louise Cowan, one of the most famous faculty members at the university, as part of an event centered on remembering the dead for All Saints and All Souls. I had had no occasion to commemorate her when she died six years earlier, and she was one of those people whose life continues to seem promissory, as though something in it were still to be realized, perhaps not in posthumous fame, like a Dickinson or a Melville, but in the commitment of her students to continue what she began.
She was famous at UD when I first met her in the spring of 1977 at my interview for the interdisciplinary graduate program she headed, but I had never read her work nor heard about her teaching. No Elijah pulled me aside or leveled a warning forefinger as I approached her office.
Dr. Cowan greeted me cordially enough. She sat behind her desk, enigmatic behind the dark glasses she always wore because of a decades-old injury to her eyes. She glanced at my personal statement but mercifully did not mention it. She eyed my GRE scores: “These aren’t very good.” She thought that I might be admitted, but she did not believe there was any money left, so when I headed back home to Georgia, I did not know whether I was in or not.
Nor did I know that that spring was one of the darkest times of her professional life. Her husband, Donald Cowan, had just been forced from the university’s presidency. Both Cowans were headed into a leave of absence, feeling as if their work of the past twenty years had been dishonored by the incomprehension of the board. When I started classes in the fall of 1977, the Cowans were gone from UD.
When the Cowans had arrived in the late 1950s, the University of Dallas had offered the conventional curriculum of a diocesan Catholic college destined for mediocrity. Within a few years, the whole curriculum had been transformed—years before the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, say, or Thomas Aquinas College. By the mid-1960s, Louise Cowan had founded a graduate program in politics and literature with the political philosopher Willmoore Kendall. In Irving, Texas, on a muddy campus still under construction, UD garnered increasing attention. By the 1970s, its graduates were beginning to make their mark on American education and politics, and by 1991, Louise Cowan’s work had attracted enough attention to win her the Charles Frankel Prize from the National Endowment for the Humanities—the same year as Ken Burns and a year before Eudora Welty, Shelby Foote, and Allan Bloom.
In her reform of the literary tradition sequence at UD, Cowan brought the whole force of her knowledge of the Southern Critics and her conversion to Catholicism into play. Her book on the Fugitives had explained the influence of a small group of poets at Vanderbilt University in the early 1920s, including John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Donald Davidson. Their influence, first as participants in the Agrarian movement of the early 1930s and then as literary critics and poets, led to the mid-century New Critical revolution in poetic understanding in American universities. As Cowan wrote in The Fugitive Group, “their poetry made available to themselves and to the writers following them a body of techniques, a language, and the core of belief drawn from a traditional society which, at its very moment of change, could by these means be transmuted into permanence.”
In reforming the curriculum of the University of Dallas, Cowan eliminated composition courses and textbooks—even Brooks and Warren’s Understanding Poetry—and began with the Iliad. Students wrote about Achilleus and the nature of the hero instead of performing exercises of personal self-expression. But the curricular change in the English department was not merely a matter of the New Criticism; it was about the breadth and depth of literature as a mode of knowledge, a way of learning through thoughtful participation in the whole imaginative experience of the Western tradition.
After the core was revolutionized, the next task was the university as a whole. In 1962, Donald Cowan became president of the university, and he brought his keen understanding of disciplines—these perspectives on the whole of truth—into a reform of the departments around distinct emphases, such as phenomenological psychology or Voegelinian (and later Straussian) political philosophy. With his speeches on many occasions (some of them collected in Unbinding Prometheus), he developed UD’s self-understanding as a center of thought despite its relative youth. Over the next fifteen years, the Cowans built up a superb faculty, sometimes including stars in the same department with very different views—for example, Frederick Wilhelmsen and Josef Seifert in philosophy, or Louise Cowan and Melvin Bradford in English.
But tensions were building. In 1977, board members from Texas Instruments, impatient with Don’s resistance to technologically enabled distance learning as a substitute for the classroom, found a means to force him out of the presidency and replace him with a Texas Instruments executive. Both Cowans retained their faculty positions, but they took a leave of absence for the next year. When they returned from exile, Donald was teaching in the physics department and Louise in English. In the next few semesters, I took her Russian novel course, her Southern literature course, and her course on comedy, which constituted my first introduction to genre theory.
Louise’s approach was never to take one work and force out its essence like the ooze of oil crushed; she had us read dozens of comedies—many plays of Aristophanes, Roman new comedies, Machiavelli, lots of Shakespeare, a little Chekhov. She amassed comedies until the things they had in common became distinct. Louise expected reading on an almost unimaginable scale. In the Russian novel course, we read Dead Souls, “The Overcoat,” Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, and stories by Chekhov. She gave ten-question quizzes—asking things like, “What color was Prince Myshkin’s bedspread?” after reading assignments of four hundred pages or so. I remember reading Anna Karenina hour after hour in a brown armchair; more than forty years later, I could describe the seams in the armrests.
Her emphasis was never on theorizing or performing impressive acts of interpretation. She understood that great literature worked through the imagination to educate the emotions and inform the intelligence of feeling. Her exercise of taste was never a checklist of qualities, but a judgment based on a lifetime of discernment. She was certain about what was good and what was not, and her preferences shaped the tastes of her students.
When I arrived in the late 1970s, the university’s enrollment was strong, and the graduate lounge was exploding with energy. Everybody was worried that the other disciplines were about to ruin everything in Western thought. Within the disciplines, differences of interpretation felt momentous. In the English department, Bradford and his students thought that when Isaac McCaslin refused his inheritance in Go Down, Moses, he made a disastrously irresponsible and softheaded choice, obviously hurtful for generations to come. Louise and her students thought of Ike’s renunciation as consonant with the Desert Fathers or St. Francis, a gesture meant to break the dark covenant of the inherited evils of slavery. Louise understood his action mythically, not historically, within the great framework of Exodus.
At a party at the Cowans’ house, I heard the story of her six months of blindness after the wrong dose of thyroid medicine. Her consolation during that time I will never forget: Unable to read, she had recalled each poem she knew, teasing it out from memory, finding the exact word after long efforts of recollection, as though recomposing each poem herself. What else we discussed that night I do not recall, but I remember Don’s hospitality vividly. He poured bourbon the way my Methodist relatives in Georgia poured iced tea, which I did not mind at all. Don and Louise came from an era when people smoked and drank. The duty of a host was not to regulate everyone’s health, but to provide abundance and expect the courtesy of self-control. A Cowan party operated on essentially the same principle as the overflow of ideas and vital conflicts among the faculty in the curriculum. It was a celebration, and you needed to be able to hold your liquor.
The Cowans’ second, longer absence began in the summer of 1980 after another power move by the board, which responded to faculty dissent by removing all the department heads and replacing them with faculty members less objectionable to the board, then naming as president an economist who seemed chosen to turn the university in a utilitarian direction. Several prominent faculty members and administrators resigned in protest at this overreach, the Cowans foremost among them.
Don and Louise wasted little time in mourning. Instead, they helped found the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture to try to preserve the fertile life of the mind and the revival of liberal education that they considered under threat at UD. By 1984, Louise had secured a large grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to start the Teachers Academy at the Dallas Institute, whose purpose was to give teachers the background in classic texts they had not received in their education majors. Her work was an answer to “A Nation at Risk,” a 1983 report from the Commission on Excellence in Education laying out the deficiencies of public education. “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today,” says the report, “we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
Louise hoped to make a difference, first with teachers in Dallas and perhaps on a national scale. During those same years, Louise gathered her former students to begin a series of books on genre, the first one, The Terrain of Comedy, published by the Dallas Institute in 1984, with the others to follow over three decades: The Epic Cosmos (1992), The Tragic Abyss (2004), The Prospect of Lyric (2012). Each was a collaborative effort that drew us all closer in spirit, and some of Louise’s most influential writing came in the introductions she wrote for these volumes.
By the late 1980s, misunderstandings with UD—Louise’s real love—had been reconciled, and she had negotiated graduate credit for the teachers who came through the Institute and continued in the Master of Humanities program. I was invited to participate in the Summer Institute for Teachers in 1990. The Summer Institutes were demanding, both in preparation and in execution, and they gave me an image of the Cowan regime that must have characterized the early years of UD.
Don and Louise insisted that no one stint on hard work, but it was never just a job. They caught us up in a consuming passion nourished through generosity and grace. In those years, Don and Louise lived in an apartment high above Turtle Creek, half a mile or so from the Institute on Routh Street in Uptown Dallas. At their parties, the hospitality flowed, the conversations did not stop. The friendships were now decades old, and the sense of a shared, crucial work pulled us together in a school of thought.
How hard did we work? The Summer Institute was a month long, and every day felt like a week of effort—a full-scale morning lecture, a two-hour seminar, an afternoon reading with supplementary texts and a plenary discussion, a time for the teachers to write, and often a film with questions and answers afterward. Each lecture was expected to be a fresh composition, not something we could trot out again after giving it a year or two before. Summer Institutes alternated between Epic one year and Tragedy/Comedy the next. In my first summer we taught, in their entirety, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and Moby-Dick, as well as other essays in the afternoons. It was immersive and transformative.
But it was never brutal. Louise thought that part of the problem with education was that teachers were not respected in their noble profession, so she insisted that the teachers—our students—be treated with great dignity. Lunches at the Summer Institute were catered from many different restaurants over the course of the summer, served on real plates, with real utensils. She loved the teachers personally and learned from them. I remember Duane, who had gone with her husband to his native Nigeria, thinking that the journey would bring her a better understanding of her identity as a black woman. Distressed by what she discovered about the common practices there—not least polygamy, but also poorer black women who left their own children to tend hers—she returned to teaching in Dallas, where she discovered the Summer Institute. She left Toni Morrison’s Beloved at Louise’s door, and Louise was hooked from the first sentence: “124 was spiteful, full of a baby’s venom.” She soon had the novel in the curriculum.
Louise’s love of her students always informed her teaching. She would never merely hold office hours; she would schedule an appointment with each student in each of her classes. With some, of course, she made no real connection, but with most she did. There was something of a wartime impatience about finding the people she needed to accomplish the work she had been called to do in her apostolate of literature.
The disseminated effect of Louise’s work, in conjunction with Donald’s leadership as president, had turned an ordinary diocesan college into a liberal arts school of national importance. It will take generations more to reveal the full extent of the importance of the University of Dallas, but we feel it already at Wyoming Catholic College, where one-third of our faculty are UD graduates and all of us are recipients, directly or indirectly, of Louise’s gifts.
One of those gifts was her voice. When she read aloud, her voice was distinctive and evocative without any of the tricks of rhetoric. It bore into presence her great soul and with it the literature she loved. She took us into Sonya’s room for Raskolnikov’s confession, or into the calm at the center of the circling whales in the Grand Armada chapter of Moby-Dick, when Ishmael, Queequeg, and Starbuck look down into the mysteries of Leviathan. Having experienced the effect of her reading voice too many times to count, I gradually saw that professing literature did not consist of saying brilliant things about it, but of taking others into the saving power of imagination. The calling is less to analyze literature or extract concepts from it than to enter the poetic space it creates and experience it whole—whether “it” is the scene in which Achilles and Priam gaze at each other in the last book of the Iliad, or the scene in which Ike McCaslin, at twelve, having left behind his compass and his rifle, encounters Old Ben, and reality, as Melville might say, outruns apprehension.
When Don developed Alzheimer’s in the late 1990s and died in 2002, it brought a radical sorrow to Louise’s life. She bore it nobly. She kept founding programs, such as Arete (a summer program for high school students) at UD; she urged us through the last two volumes of the genre series. My wife and I were in Massachusetts when she died at ninety-eight in 2015, but we came down for the funeral, where we met her instructions not to mourn, but to have a party like the old ones, full of joy and friendship. We did, and we told stories, such as the one about how Don and Louise first met when they were both singing in a choir in Fort Worth. Don was taken with her and passed her a note: “Do you like poetry?”
She sent a note back: “Good poetry.” I can almost hear her say it.
Glenn Arbery is president of Wyoming Catholic College.