A note was passed during a choir practice in Fort Worth in the late 1930’s. The note said, “Do you like poetry?” The young lady, Louise Shillingburg, responded, “Yes, I do—good poetry.” Some time later, Louise married Donald Cowan, the man who had sent her the note. He became a physicist and later a university president. Louise has spent her life teaching others to like good poetry and great literature.
Although she had an undergraduate degree in music, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in English. She said, “Literature seemed the least of my talents, but I finally chose it because it was what I loved.” That love prompted her to seek a doctorate at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
She could not have chosen a better place for literary studies at the time. It was the post-World War II period, the late 1940’s, and Vanderbilt was still a major center for the study of literature, especially Southern literature. Vanderbilt was still the center for what has been called the Southern Literary Renaissance.
It began in 1916 when John Crowe Ransom, a teacher at Vanderbilt, showed Donald Davidson, his student, a poem he had written. From this friendship sprang a literary community where young faculty members and students bonded together in search of poetic forms and interpretations that built upon the literary past and spoke to the modern age. They called themselves the Fugitive Poets.
Southern history, culture, and folkways were blended into their poems. Out of some sixteen poets who were involved in this group, four stood out. They were John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren. Along with poetry, they wrote literary criticism, novels, histories, and biographies. Feeling that the Southern way of life was under attack, and that the traditional ways of living and thinking were worth preserving, they ventured beyond literature and put together a series of essays called I’ll Take My Stand.
Vanderbilt University became a magnet to aspiring authors, literature teachers, and poets. Southerners who wanted exposure to the best thinking and writing in the South were flocking to Vanderbilt. It was at this time that the Cowans moved from Fort Worth to Nashville. Donald went there to complete his doctorate in physics, while Louise went there for literature.
Louise Cowan was the first female admitted to study with these men. Not everyone welcomed this woman into this academic community. One of Louise’s teachers made clear his views of her being there. “Dear old Walter Clyde Curry,” she said, “He gave me good grades, but he told me, ‘You know you shouldn’t be here at all. You’re taking a seat a man could occupy. Teaching is a man’s profession.’”
She persevered, and was asked by Professor Donald Davidson, one of the premier poets and Agrarians, to write a history of the Fugitive Poets. This became the basis of her dissertation and a book, The Fugitive Group: A Literary History.
This work was more than a history. For Louise Cowan, it was an opening into the world of Southern literature and Southern culture. She found a rootedness, a foundation, a worldview in the South that reached across the time and space to the greatest of literary traditions.
In a talk she gave at Sewanee in 2014, she said, “The South is noted for its cherishing of valuable traditions. It is a region that preserves the Greek and Roman documents out of which Western education arose.”
Not many people have made the connections between the South and Western Civilization. Louise Cowan saw patterns in literature that few have discerned. This pursuit of literature, this seeking out what constitutes good poetry, has defined her life.
Dr. Cowan’s vision for the role of literature became the curriculum of the University of Dallas. She and her husband became department heads there in the English and physics departments in 1959. In 1962 Dr. Donald Cowan became president of the university.
This gave Dr. Louise Cowan the opportunity to implement the curriculum she believes is life changing. Central to her method is the teaching of the great literary classics of Western Civilization. Starting with The Iliad and The Odyssey, her students engage in reading and discussing the great books. The curriculum includes many of the great books in the Western Canon, along with selections from Dr. Cowan’s beloved Fugitive Poets and such Southern authors as William Faulkner and Caroline Gordon.
Her desire to teach people how to genuinely read and enjoy literature has taken her beyond the undergraduate classroom. In 1984 the Teachers Academy in Dallas began. The goal is to enable teachers to recover a sense of “literature as a mode of knowledge.” Along with the epics, novels, poems, and plays the teachers read, they hear lectures by Dr. Cowan and some of her former students who are now literature professors.
Dr. Cowan, along with other literature professors whom she mentored, recently contributed to a volume of essays on literature called What is a Teacher? Answering that question has been one of the life missions of Louise Cowan. The book quotes Dr. Cowan on the calling of teachers: “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.”
As one who teaches by example, Dr. Cowan, who was ninety-six at the time of the book’s release, continues to learn and teach. On one occasion a few years ago, I heard Dr. Cowan give a lecture on poetry. Afterwards, one of her colleagues said that every time she speaks, they all hear and learn something new. That is not surprising given her vision for the calling of the teacher and the knowledge found in poetry. In her teaching, Louise Cowan reminds us continually that the answer to the question, “Do you like poetry” should be, “Yes, I do—good poetry.”