Austin Briggs recalls a day in junior high school when a beloved but exasperated teacher told him, "Briggs, you have a sloppy mind." Students, colleagues and admirers have since found some adjectives better suited to the cogitations of the Hamilton B. Tompkins Professor of English Literature Emeritus. And many of them were swapped and shared during Fallcoming Weekend at a James Joyce Symposium and dinner in honor of Briggs and his 50 years on the Hill.
John Bishop of the University of California, Berkeley, for instance, prefers to regard him as "warm, intellectually fertile and constantly surprising." Calling Briggs Upstate New York's "successor to Edmund Wilson," Bishop described him as "not just a teacher or lecturer, but a kind of cultural spokesman."
Catherine Kodat, associate professor of English and director of the American studies program who organized the symposium, called Briggs "an inspiration as a teacher and a scholar" as well as lauding his "wit, warmth and sheer love of life."
"He is always insightful," observed Thrassos Calligas '72, a Boston psychiatrist and former student who traveled back to campus for the symposium. "When you had a discussion with him, you'd leave with a number of thoughts that you hadn't had before."
And Ellen Carol Jones, formerly of St. Louis University, assured Briggs that the title of her presentation, "Relics of Memory," had "nothing to do with him."
Befitting Joyce himself — author of Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake and one of the towering figures of English literature — the gathering wove together scholarly sleuthing, emotional reminiscence and comic exuberance. The roster of speakers at the day's four panels and commemorative dinner included some of the world's leading Joyce scholars as well as illustrious alumni. Among them: Derek Attridge of the University of York; Margot Norris of the University of California, Irvine, and president of the International James Joyce Foundation; Anne Fogarty, first holder of a newly created chair of Joyce studies at Joyce's alma mater, University College Dublin; John Gordon '67 of Connecticut College, author of three books on Joyce; and Margaret Klenck K'75, a Jungian psychoanalyst.
Briggs was touched, he said, "not only by the people who came here, but the spirit we generated. It's a wonderful community." And Klenck, who spoke at the dinner that concluded the symposium, observed that much of the sense of community was generated by Briggs himself. "The whole weekend captured that sense of keen thinking, thoughtful listening and great fun that seems to surround him," she said.
Briggs, who has taught at Hamilton since 1957 with scholarly interests in modernism and film, has devoted himself to Joyce for a number of reasons: "his absolute mastery of language," his penchant for puzzles, his ability to jump genres and marry highbrow and lowbrow art, and the capacity of his fiction to mirror "the particular preoccupations of each generation." And in Leopold Bloom of Ulysses, he notes, Joyce fashioned "one of the great literary creations of all time."
An esteemed teacher who was also identified by the James Joyce Literary Supplement a few years ago as one of the three funniest Joyceans, Briggs says that Joyce has helped his teaching as well: Exploring the complexities of Ulysses or Finnegans Wake with a class, he says, "can teach you a lot about learning and a lot about literature."
Since his retirement from full-time teaching in 2000, Briggs continues to teach a yearly Joyce seminar, and while the symposium was an opportunity to reflect, it was surely no wake, for Finnegan or otherwise. At one point Briggs, surveying Kirner-Johnson's Red Pit from a perch in the back row, warned a morning session, "You all seem to be under the misapprehension that I'm retiring. I'm not."
John Bishop, at the podium, deadpanned, "So why are we all here? Everybody should get a day like this."
"Just hang on long enough," Briggs shot back.