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A scholar and a gentleman

Fulbright Professor David Vanderweken takes Hungarian students on a rich literary journey.

By Brian Abrams, senior general studies major

Thirteen undergraduates drag their desks into a circle in Reed Hall. Critical and biographical essays pass through their hands, and the board is marked up with publication dates. A minute later, Professor David Vanderwerken puts his infamously monotonous and languid vocals to work. As he describes the roman noir qualities of William Faulkner's once-controversial pulp Sanctuary, the students listen intently.

Vanderwerken talks up the 1931 work as the perfect literary storm, where the pre-Code Hollywood gangster movie formula meshes into a Roaring Twenties backdrop-gone-backwoods. One of his handouts says the novel was "contemptuously written for an indiscriminate, thrill-seeking public," that Faulkner intentionally publicized his work as dismissive trash. No one for certain knows why.

What is known, however, is that in the universe of Faulkner-academe, Vanderwerken's sermons are considered among the most intriguing dialogue dished out by today's Southern Goth lit scholars. Bob Hamblin, who directs the Center for Faulkner Studies at Southeast Missouri State University, regards the TCU teacher of 25 years a foremost Faulkner scholar responsible for "excellent and ground-breaking criticism."

And yet, the would-be bookworms planted in the circle look wiped out. Seemingly overwhelmed by the material, they gaze at their feet. Vanderwerken fills the silent room with questions that quickly dissolve into dead air, returned with silence as if they were never asked.

If the hour and 20 minutes seemed long, the students should have been on hand for the graduate course Vanderwerken conducted last spring at the University of Debrecen in Hungary, courtesy of the Fulbright Scholar Program.


AN APARTMENT was provided for Vanderwerken and his wife Karen, even though the majority of his stay was spent in the Orsagh Laszlo Seminarium on campus. Sure, he slacked off his fair share in Debrecen: sampling Eastern European wines, sightseeing, embracing the homey culture of Hungary's second-largest city.

"It's a lot like Fort Worth, kind of a big-small town," he said. "We ate out quite often. They bread everything, you know. If you'd get them over here, they'd love chicken fried steak."

But restaurant hopping took up only a fraction of Vanderwerken's time. The rest of the 16-week semester -- from February through May 2005, followed by a six-week exam period -- was full of administrative and professorial duties.  In addition, he lectured at nearby Hungarian and Slovakian institutions.

In addition to getting extraordinary scholars through the Fulbright Award, host institution bare-bones libraries get new material, which stays after the professors leave. In Hungary, whatever the library has on its shelves usually determines what texts are used for a particular class. There is no store where professors stock books at new and used prices.

So the 59-year-old New York native spent the $1,500 allocated by the Fulbright for purchases toward the reading lists for his three classes: the undergraduate Jewish and Roaring Twenties literature seminars and, of course, the graduate course on Faulkner.

Throw out any stereotypes you might have about the professor gone abroad who slacks off on sabbatical. The University of Debrecen, with approximately 20,000 students (one-tenth the city's population), "worked this Fulbright scholar," he said.

In Debrecen, seven undergraduate and three doctoral students enrolled in Faulkner. Vanderwerken assigned the same material he does on his home turf -- five of the Nobel Prize-winning author's novels and an essay compilation by Faulkner maven Eric Sundquist -- but the students were required to read more criticism than their American counterparts.

The class only met five times. Each lecture lasted four hours. It was unlike anything Vanderwerken ever had to teach. "Heads were exploding," he said.

The material was strenuous, but the students were an earnest bunch -- twentysomethings already teaching high school students, side by side with middle-class youths aspiring for more than the countrified life of their parents. Fortunately for Vanderwerken, the students had a "very mature, serious and incredible work ethic" and couldn't afford to let their foreign language skills slump.  

"To major in English, their skills both verbal and written have to be quite good. They all take seven, eight, nine, 10 classes per semester. The students are basically poor. No Hummers in the parking lots there. Many work. I don't know how they do it, but they manage to get it all done. That's what they're used to."

Three bomb threats prompted by disgruntled former school employees added some color to the Jewish literature class -- not that it needed it. Night, Elie Wiesel's memoirs as an adolescent held in a concentration camp, arrested the class from the first page. Vanderwerken called the book "a new document" for Debrecen, since none of the students knew of the author, despite the fact that Wiesel was born in nearby Sighet (also the residence of one student's grandmother).

"The story gives a perfect account of what the Holocaust did to humanity through the horrors of the concentration camp," said Anita Illes Toth, one of Vanderwerken's undergraduates and also a high school instructor in the town of Karcag. "It was so sad to realize, while showing 'Schindler's List' [to her high school class], that most of my students didn't know about the torture of the Jews or even about the concentration camps."

The Roaring Twenties, on the other hand, perplexed a good number of the 19 undergraduates. An Eastern European monarchy, Hungary has only taken to capitalism in the last two decades; before, the Soviets puppet-mastered their former Communist government.

But all 10 graduate students "got" Faulkner. The 1930s yarns set in Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, Miss., parallel the dynamics of present-day Hungary. Both backdrops share social and physical post-war decay, anti-Semitism and a rich history. Besides, high schools require The Sound and the Fury for university admission exam preparation.

"Like the American South, Hungary, you might say, has had a losing record in history: zero for the millennium," Vanderwerken said. "All of their national holidays commemorate defeats. Unlike the American urban population, their grandfathers probably still have mules and wagons."

Maybe that's in part why the baker's dozen in Reed 104 could barely open their city-slicker eyelids during his speech this fall on Sanctuary's rural landscape.


SINCE 1992, the first year any Fulbright scholar taught in Hungary, 14 TCU faculty members have received the scholarship and traveled to various parts of the world. Vanderwerken, who earned his master's and doctorate from Rice University (where author Larry McMurtry was an instructor), makes one of three from TCU last year alone.

His many published works validate last year's trip. Just ask UTA's resident Faulknerian, Philip Cohen, who claims that Faulkner's Literary Children: Patterns of Development is Vanderwerken's most influential critical study.

"The contribution that David has made is on the bildungsroman tradition and Faulkner's relationship to it," Cohen said. "The gist of his book is that Faulkner is often considered the poet of the crippled childhood. He writes about children who are emotionally traumatized by their parents, but instead of that experience leading them into insight and maturation, it results in alienation and confusion."

All the academic trophies in the world, though, can't add up to knowing somebody on the inside. From 1998 to 2000, Dr. Zoltan Abadi-Nagy, a Hungarian Fulbright board member, taught English by invitation at TCU, where he met Vanderwerken. Once back home, he drafted a letter of invitation to his American colleague. 

"I had the privilege of having him as a friend while I worked at TCU," Abadi-Nagy said. "I knew what to expect -- a professor of standards and a man who cares. It's no wonder that my Hungarian colleagues and students found the Vanderwerken experience enriching. Some of them used their freshly gained knowledge even in their high school classes as teachers themselves."

There's no doubt Vanderwerken has proven himself a scholar and a gentleman, but none of this makes the man a master of the indigenous tongue. He said Hungarian was an impossible language for him to learn, English speakers were obsolete, and "survival Hungarian" was useless off  campus.

His prime example: "We're driving in a rental car in downtown Veszprem, and we're at a stoplight. The guy in front of us opens his door and comes back to us to ask for directions.

"Poor for him, he selects the only non-Hungarian speaking people in the whole city."

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