In The Thread That Runs So True, Jesse Stuart wrote, “Good teaching is forever and the teacher is immortal.” Those words are especially good to remember when a great teacher dies. Dr. Louise Cowan, a revered and much loved literature teacher, “died softly,” in the words of her family, early on the morning of November 16. She was 98 years old.
Although Dr. Cowan retired from the University of Dallas in 1980, she continued teaching, lecturing, and writing in the years that followed. Her most recent and last lecture was given at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture on September 26.
Dr. Cowan was one of the few remaining scholars who studied directly under the Southern Agrarians. In 1947, she and her husband, Donald, moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to pursue advanced degrees at Vanderbilt. Donald studied physics while Louise became the first female doctoral teaching assistant. Her teachers included such men as John Crowe Ransom and Donald Davidson.
In the early 1950’s, Dr. Cowan began teaching literature first at Texas Christian University and then at the University of Dallas. She created a program and vision for literature based on her ideas of genre studies. Her approach entailed deep readings of the great classics. For Dr. Cowan, the classics included those who were her teachers—those poets, novelists, literary critics, and teachers that were known as Agrarians, Fugitive Poets, or New Critics, all depending on what type of writing was being studied.
She wrote The Fugitive Group, which is a literary history and discussion of the Fugitive Poets, and The Southern Critics, which focuses on the contributions of some of the same men in the field of literary criticism. She also contributed to and helped edit a series of four volumes called Studies in Genre. Along with her own essays, these works included contributions by other literary scholars who were students of Dr. Cowan. Perhaps the most popular of her books is Invitation to the Classics: A Guide to Books You Always Wanted to Read, which she co-edited with Os Guinness. Many of those who contributed essays to that book had studied under Dr. Cowan at the University of Dallas.
Those whom she mentored include her son Bainard Cowan, a professor of literature at Louisiana State University, Dr. Larry Allums and Dr. Claudia Allums, who are both scholars and teachers at the Dallas Institute for Humanities and Culture, Dr. Glenn Arbery, author of The Southern Critics: An Anthology, plus hundreds more teachers at the college and high school levels. I never had the privilege of taking a class under Dr. Cowan, but on three occasions, I heard her give lectures. On two of those occasions, I got to talk with her. With her pleasant Southern accent, she held her audiences entranced during her lectures. The insights and ideas that she casually spread out and explained in her talks were life-changing for those of us who heard her. She made the hearer want to read the great books and read them again.
Dr. Cowan was an expert on the writings of William Faulkner and other Southerners. She was also equally skilled at discussing Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, Dostoevsky, and other great poets and authors. Equally at home and at ease in talking with scholars or analyzing great literature, her passion for helping teachers get a vision for their profession was perhaps her greatest love. In her own words, “Teachers are consecrated persons who have made the choice to lead others into learning. If they are to lead others into learning, they must continue themselves to be learners.”
Like all great teachers, she taught by words and by example. To the very end, she read and loved the great stories that people have written in the literature of our culture, and to the very end, she continued to learn.