Minnesota

"O God, Who knowest that there are some of us who live in fetid swamps which God knows do not need more rain, disregard the [Prayer for Rain], parch the mushy earth with blistering drought, dry up the mosquito-infested dank smelly lakes of which this damned state is so proud..."

"Prayer for Fair Weather" (p. 119), Saint Fidgeta and Other Parodies (1966)

Teaching


In the summer of 1963 - with the Second Vatican Council soon to enter its second full year - John Bellairs departed all things familiar in and around Chicago and began a new chapter in Minnesota. His first full-time experience in the classroom was at the College of Saint Teresa in Winona.

The Sisters of Saint Francis who owned the college formed about one-third of the faculty, with the rest being lay faculty, usually of a Catholic background, hired as at any other college.

As a full-time instructor of English, Bellairs probably had a course load of four or five sections of courses, amounting to approximately 12 to 14 hours per week of classroom instruction. He taught the "History and Structure of the English Language" course, an upper-division course, and at least one section of the Freshmen English yearlong course, "English Composition and Readings". The readings in this later course began with a selection from the Greek and Roman classics, moved through pieces from the Renaissance (Dante and Shakespeare) and significant genres, such as the novel, and ended with a selection from American literature. The aim was to teach students how to write acceptable prose and acquaint them with the Western cultural tradition. Other assignments are unknown, though he may have led one or two English literature survey course sections. Geier does not recall Bellairs's attitude toward teaching during this time, suggesting that because it was his first full-time position, he probably engaged in it with some enthusiasm [1].

Murphy echoes these sentiments, saying on the whole Bellairs was interested and dedicated to teaching [2].

Bellairs did assign Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles to one of his classes. "I told him that I didn't think that this particular work would be too well received by a class of young women, and he had to admit that I was right [3]."

Writing


Bellairs found time for some writing, too, though some of his earliest examples were academic-driven examinations of poetry and prose. The English department, though small, was well-known outside the Winona. The chair of the English department, Sister Bernetta Quinn (1915-2003), was known for her scholarly articles, poetry, and book reviews.

Bellairs also joined "the baroque process of academic publishing [2]" with "Variations on a Vase", an extended essay analyzing John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" as viewed by three Keats scholars. Surprisingly, Bellairs's essay was published in the Southern Review of Adalaide, South Australia, in late 1965. A second piece, "An Anatomy of Abuses: Why Bad Poetry is Bad" was published in the winter 1965 edition of the college's literary journal, the Censer.

His creative writing honed in on his experiences in the church and from the Catholic girl's school where he taught. Here Bellairs would commit to paper - typed, of course - the adventures of a saint he had first regaled friends with back in Chicago. The saint was known as Fidgeta, and she would go on to become the launching pad to his care.

Theater

The college had a strong speech and drama department, producing theatrical performances from Greek classics to contemporary musicals. As the college was women-only, the college enlisted men from outside the student body for several male roles. When it wasn't possible to find participants from the other nearby colleges, male faculty members were either recruited or volunteered. Bellairs contributed to the following four plays:

  • Ring Round the Moon (Fall 1963)
  • Twelfth Night (Spring 1964)
  • Electra (Fall 1964)
  • Heartbreak House (Spring 1965)

Moving On

By 1965, Bellairs was ready to return to Chicago to resume his doctoral studies. 

"Coming from the Beatnik ambiance of Hyde Park, where people played folk music in smoky basement clubs, to Winona must have made Bellairs feel like a visiting anthropologist. The clash of atmospheres probably prompted Bellairs to commit the memories and attitudes to paper satirically. The sight of those blondes in bobby sox taking classes in child development or nursing or planning to be nuns must have been positively surreal [4]."

Bernard Markwell, a friend from the University of Chicago, feels Bellairs also "chafed under the old-style pre-Vatican II rule of authoritarian nuns" and, as a result, assumed a more critical stance on the Church his article and the subsequent book would later acknowledge [5].

"John had contempt for man-made dogma -- Canon Law and the like, the stuff that had little to do with the core values of Catholicism and much to do with politics and the exercise of power. He relished tales of hypocrisy, such as stories about the classic popes who not only had illegitimate sons but who promoted them to bishops. Things like Boccacio's Decameron amused him, in which lustful nuns and priests are the rule, not the exception [4]."

It was perhaps Markwell who played a role in luring Bellairs out of Minnesota. By 1965, he taught at Shimer College and was very enthusiastic about being at such a liberal college. Bellairs, long tired of the establishment and unhappy and lonely because of the location, perhaps moved to be closer to old friends. Whether salary played an issue for leaving Saint Teresa's is unknown since he wasn't offered the Shimer College position until the summer of 1966 - almost two years later.

Letters from Bellairs were often filled with complaints about "the nuns and empty-headed girls," but he enjoyed his time in Minnesota. "It gave him material for the final chapters of Fidgeta, it allowed him to perform in plays, and sent him to some interesting conferences. [6]"

"More than anything, he left because he was tired of the dullness and the intellectualness of the students. Had Saint Teresa's been in Saint Paul, it might have done better in getting people to stay, but it was too tiny and too far away from anywhere. The school was too good for Winona.  It, and its faculty, should have flourished elsewhere [2]."

While his years here were short, in 1978, he set The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn, the first book in the Anthony Monday series, in Hoosac, a fictional city but based very much on Winona.

References


[1] Correspondence with Norbert Geier (2001).
[2] Correspondence with John Murphy (2003).
[3] Correspondence with Alfred Myers.
[4] Correspondence with Patricia Thomas.
[5] Correspondence with Bernard Markwell.
[6] Correspondence with Marilyn Fitschen.

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