Roland Duerksen: A Shelleyan Life

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In the early summer of 2017, I received a letter from the daughter of the noted Shelley scholar Roland Duerksen. Susan had read my article “My Father’s Shelley” and it had struck a chord. She wanted to connect me with her father, now 91 years old and living in Oxford, Ohio. Roland is the author of two noteworthy and important books on Shelley: Shelleyan Ideas in Victorian Literature and Shelley's Poetry of Involvement. His analysis is penetrating and nuanced, and his style is conversational and accessible. But it is his overall approach that makes him different: Roland's work is imbued with a humanity that reflects well on both himself and his subject. This much I knew, but I knew less about the man himself. I was thrilled that Susan had reached out to me. She offered me a chance to meet one of the great Shelleyans, but I had no idea whatsoever of the magic that lay in wait for me.

         Below, I give you a little about the life and thought of Roland Duerksen, which I gathered from him in interviews that took place over a couple of days. In this essay, I want to share Roland's early life story, from his Mennonite rearing in Dust Bowl Kansas to his development into one of the truly great Shelley scholars. In a second essay, which will appear shortly on our website, I will dive into Duerksen's ideas about Shelley and his later life, including his important work as an activist. Stay tuned!

          Roland possesses an extraordinary memory and can quote Shelley at length. Though he has been retired for years, his grasp of the nuances of Shelley’s poetry was nothing short of astonishing. He was also an amusing and friendly interlocutor. He has the ability to put one at ease; you feel like you are out on a country porch, chatting with an old friend you have known for years.

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          Roland Duerksen was born 23 October 1926, just 7 miles from Goessel, Kansas. Goessel is a small farming community that is located almost dead center on the US map. In Goessel you will find, among other things, the Mennonite Heritage and Agricultural Museum, a hint of the community’s religious and farming roots. To get there, one takes Interstate 135 north from Wichita to Newton, before making a quick right on Highway 15. In seven miles you will find yourself in Goessel. The 240-acre family farm can be found two side roads north and four to the east, another seven miles from town.

  Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church, Molotschna, Ukraine.

Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church, Molotschna, Ukraine.

          Roland’s ancestors came to this place in 1874, part of a mass migration of Mennonites fleeing persecution in Russia. The history is fascinating. Originally Dutch, the community emigrated in the early 17th century to what was then South Prussia, and then later in the 1820s to Molotschna, Russia (in what is now Ukraine). The Mennonites had been on the move for centuries, persecuted for what were considered to be heretical beliefs. In Russia they were promised exemption from military service, the right to run their own schools, and the ability to self-govern their villages. In the late 19th century, however, Russia decided to revoke all special privileges that had been given to the community. The leaders of the community made a momentous decision: they would take their entire community to the United States of America. Church elders organized an exploratory mission in 1873 to ascertain the available options. After visiting Texas and Kansas, the leaders returned with the recommendation that the community emigrate to Kansas. At the time, the United States was desperate for skilled farming immigrants, and the Mennonites fit the bill. The community quickly set out, eventually settling in Buhler and Goessel, two towns in rural Kansas. In 1874, after a long, arduous trip, Roland's grandfather Johann (then aged 16) reached his new life in the Goessel community. (Read more about this extraordinary migration here.)

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 Roland Duerksen in 1934 or 35.

Roland Duerksen in 1934 or 35.

          During their first 50 or so years in America, the Goessel farmers prospered essentially as they had expected. Life was persecution-free and work was productive. Free to worship as they pleased, the Duerksens attended Alexanderwohl Church (pictured to the right). Originally built in 1886, it was refurbished substantially over the years, but is still there to this day.

          Then came the hard times. By the time Roland was 3, the stock market had crashed; before he was 8, the American West was in the grips of the great drought of the 1930s; and as he turned 16, America entered a World War. How does this compare with your youth?

          We all know the drought of the 1930s as the “Dust Bowl” because it resulted in immense dust storms, known as “black blizzards,” which wreaked havoc on America's farms. They came in waves, hitting America hard in 1934, 1936, 1939, and 1940.

          On 14 April 1935, a mammoth series of these storms struck the American West. They have since come to be known as “Black Sunday.” They were every bit as bad as their name suggests. Associated Press reporter Robert Geiger (famed for having given the Dust Bowl its name) was caught on a highway north of Boise City, Idaho as he raced at 60 miles an hour in a failed attempt to outrun it. He writes of what he saw as follows:

 Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas, 1935

Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas, 1935

“The Black Sunday event was one of the less frequent but more dramatic storms borne south on polar air originating in Canada. Rising some 8,000 feet into the air, these churning walls of dirt generated massive amounts of static electricity, complete with their own thunder and lightning ... Temperatures plunged 40 degrees along the storm front before the dust hit.”

 “A farmer and his two sons during a storm in Cimaron County, Oklahoma April 1936." Arthur Rothstein.

“A farmer and his two sons during a storm in Cimaron County, Oklahoma April 1936." Arthur Rothstein.

          Goessel is located on the edge of where these storms hit hardest, and the bad weather severely impacted the Duerksens. The family, which consisted of Roland, his parents, and three siblings, was very poor; Roland's father often struggled to make his payments on the farm. Unlike so many, however, the family weathered the Great Depression and emerged from the years of hardship in one piece.

          The family were devoted Mennonites. Ironically, Roland's childhood faith may have partly inspired his attraction to England's most famous atheist poet (I will return to this idea). Mennonites believe that baptism should result from an informed decision of which only adults are capable; thus the religion tends to stress individual choice and the freedom of conscience in religious and ethical matters. For much of history, this spirit of non-conformity made them a target of persecution within European societies. 

        Mennonites place the teachings of Jesus, including pacifism, non-violence, and charity, at the heart of their religion. According to Bethel College, a Christian school Duerksen attended, Mennonites base their faith and lifestyle around the following traits: "service to others; concern for those less fortunate; involvement in issues of social justice; and emphasis on peaceful, nonviolent resolution of community, national and international conflicts.” It is this last feature of their belief system that has resulted in Mennonites’ opposition to war and their refusal to serve in the military. The corollary of this passivism is of critical importance, because Mennonites are dedicated to creating a “more just and peaceful society.” Of course, these same values can be found in Shelley's writing, even if Shelley and the Mennonites took very different paths towards them.

          In other ways, however, Roland's upbringing hardly seemed calculated to produce a great literary scholar. His mother, who drew on evangelicalism as well as the Mennonite faith, “was opposed to the reading of novels because they do not contain the truth,” Roland says. This meant that as he grew, books were a rarity and the church was central to his existence. Roland attended a one-room school house which had only a few short shelves of books. When I asked him about this, Roland replied,

"I must say my whole introduction to books came much later. I did read some books. I remember Robinson Crusoe and [books like that]. But, it was very sparse and I was figuring, I guess, that I [was destined to] be a farmer. So why should I read a lot?"

          The future, however, had something very different in store for Roland Duerksen: Shelley lay in wait…

 Roland Duerksen, circa 1948.

Roland Duerksen, circa 1948.

          Roland attended high school in Goessel, graduated in 1944, and immediately registered as a conscientious objector. The war was reaching a climax; millions of young Americans were enlisted and fighting overseas. Nationwide there was little sympathy for those who refused to serve in the military. Roland was not unlike thousands of other young Americans (many of them Mennonites) whose religious beliefs required them to make such a momentous, deeply unpopular decision. The movie Hacksaw Ridge offers a surprisingly candid and sympathetic portrait of one such young man. Taking a stand as a pacifist in World War II brought social ostracism and disdain, and often much worse. But because of the 19th-century mass migration of Mennonites to Marion County where Goessel is located, the Mennonite population there was still so large that the atmosphere was not as hostile. When the county draft board saw that a registrant was a member of the Mennonite church, conscientious objector status was virtually automatic.

          During the Second World War, over 15 million men and women had been called up for service. This amounted to almost 20% of the work force and agriculture was hit particularly hard. Congress reacted by passing legislation allowing for draft deferments for those who were “necessary and regularly engaged in an agricultural occupation.” Roland received just such a deferment and for the next 7 years worked in tandem with his father on the family farm. Then, in 1951 at age 25, Roland went to college.

          When I asked Roland what motivated this life-changing decision, he told me,

"I believe that all those years I was always thinking, well, maybe [farming] isn't really what I want to do. And I had this notion that it would be a great thing to go to college and become a teacher, but I didn't know what I wanted to teach. But the idea of teaching was interesting to me. And so finally, after those seven years, I decided, well, if I'm ever gonna make the break, now is the time."

 Bethel College today.

Bethel College today.

          Bethel College is located in North Newton, just across the railroad tracks from Newton itself. It is about 20 miles distant from the Duerksen farm. Bethel College, a four-year, private, liberal arts college, is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Its charter was filed in 1887 by the early central Kansas immigrants because of their commitment, shared with their non-Mennonite neighbours, to educating their children. According to its values statement, “the vision and mission of Bethel College are grounded in the values inherited from its historical relationship with the Christian faith tradition of the Mennonite Church…”

          In our lives, there are sometimes special teachers, people who change the course of our lives. For me, one of those teachers was Professor Kenneth Graham of the University of Guelph. Much like Roland, when I went to University I was unsure of my direction. Ken Graham kindled a passion for literature in me that has burned brightly all my life; it was Ken’s unbridled enthusiasm that sealed the deal.

          For Roland, the person who filled this mentoring role was Professor Honora Becker. Teaching at a small college meant specialization was out of the question for teachers like Becker. But according to Roland,

“The reason I chose English, I think, was because there was one very enthusiastic teacher. She had to teach so many different courses that she couldn't be a scholar, but it was the fact of her enthusiasm about English literature that influenced me to take it as a major.”

          One thing I learned about Roland through our conversations is that once fired up, there is not much that can hold him back. A late starter at college, he wasted little time and completed a four-year honours degree in three years, graduating in 1954.

          Not long after Roland's graduation, the military came calling again. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the US government passed the Selective Service Act of 1948 which applied to all men between 21 and 29. A million and a half men were drafted to meet the demands of the Korean War, but even after its conclusion in 1953, the armed forces continued to call up young men. Roland was one of them. Still a conscientious objector, Roland was granted alternative service and performed it through the auspices of the renowned Mennonite Central Committee, headquartered in Akron, Pennsylvania. For two years he worked as a personnel recruiter and publicity writer for three small psychiatric hospitals operated by the Central Committee.

 Mary and Roland, 2016

Mary and Roland, 2016

          Just before leaving for Pennsylvania, Roland met Mary Ellen Moyer, a Bethel graduate who was teaching school in Hutchinson, Kansas, and courted her through occasional visits. They married in 1955. They are still happily together more than 62 years later.

          Once his alternative service was completed in the spring of 1956, Roland immediately enrolled in the English literature programme at Indiana University in Bloomington. He completed his Masters degree over the course of three successive summers, during which time he taught English at a junior high school in Topeka, Kansas. While at Indiana University, Roland studied under another inspirational teacher named Russel Noyes. Through Professor Noyes, Roland first meaningfully encountered the writings of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

          Born in 1901, Russell Noyes was a fixture at the Indiana University for most of his career. A committee under his chairmanship had been responsible for the foundation of the Indiana University Press. Roland arrived shortly after Noyes had given up the position of Department Chair, a role he had occupied for 10 years. Though best known for his work on Wordsworth, Noyes had eclectic interests. The two devotions of his life, his love for landscape and his love for the poetry of William Wordsworth, were "fostered in my youth spent among the White Mountains of New Hampshire," Noyes once wrote. He lived a full and satisfying life, dying in 1980. His colleagues remembered him for his belief “in plain living and high thinking and in the value of good letters and their power to ennoble and sustain.” Frankly, he sounds a lot like Roland to me! Read the University's Memorial Resolution, which discusses the life and thought of Russell Noyes, here.

 A screen capture of the cover of Noyes' 1956 masterwork.

A screen capture of the cover of Noyes' 1956 masterwork.

          In the summer of 1956, the year Roland arrived, Noyes was basking in the afterglow of a considerable publishing achievement: Oxford’s then-definitive compendium, “English Romantic Poetry and Prose.” It is a volume that inspired generations of students and was not easily superseded. What set the volume apart was its carefully curated selection of minor poetry, which functioned as a background for the major works normally featured in such anthologies. It also contained a wide selection of Shelley's radical poetry, a body of writing that had long been excluded from anthologies on political grounds. I think this is important for our story.

          Both Noyes and his anthology would play a significant role in the development of Roland’s passion for Shelley. One of the first classes Roland took at Indiana was taught by Noyes, with the professor’s new compendium of English Romantics as the textbook. Then in the fall of 1958, Roland entered the PhD programme at Indiana with Noyes serving as his advisor. When I asked Duerksen how he first came into contact with Shelley he told me:

"My very first contact was at Bethel College ... and it was in a survey course that I read some of his poetry. I think I was of course aware even before that of a poem like "Ode to the West Wind" which I probably read in high school. But ... I didn't at that point know enough about him to get excited about him. I did think though that, yes, he was an interesting poet. However, in graduate school, the very first course that I took was a course from Russel Noyes and that's where I became excited about him - and I'll add that Noyes had selected very well for his anthology. It contained some prose and all the good, really great poems of Shelley's."

          In the late 1950’s, Shelley’s reputation had reached perhaps its lowest ebb. Sustained attacks by the New Critics (such as TS Eliot and FR Leavis) had followed decades of misinterpretation by Victorians such as Matthew Arnold and Francis Thompson. The Victorians had tried to suppress the political and intellectual sides of Shelley's writing. As Professor Tom Mole has pointed out in his book, What the Victorians Made of Romanticism, anthologies from this period featured only snippets of his poetry, and editors generally avoided including Shelley's most political writings. Duerksen himself later wrote a pioneering book on Victorian attitudes to Shelley.

          Roland himself felt some censure from colleagues as his interest in Shelley grew. As he told me, “The old Matthew Arnold judgment on him had simply not gone away: 'A beautiful, ineffectual angel beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.'” Indeed it had not. Seizing on the Shelley they encountered in the Victorian anthologies and either too lazy or indifferent to dig deeper, critics such as Eliot and Leavis savaged Shelley as a superficial lyric poet.

          Roland quickly became interested in Shelley, and his political writings in particular. When we regard the essence of Shelley’s political philosophy – for example, his astonishing avowal of the idea of non-violent protest – I think we can also see how Shelley's writings would have dovetailed with the teachings of Roland’s Mennonite ancestors. The core tenets of Mennonite faith are worth requoting: "Mennonites believe in service to others; concern for those less fortunate; involvement in issues of social justice; and emphasis on peaceful, nonviolent resolution of community, national and international conflicts." If we insert “Shelley” for "Mennonite" in the foregoing passage, I think we can see how Roland's upbringing in a community valuing non-conformity, freedom of conscience, and non-violence might have led Roland to feel at home with Shelley. 

          However, as we know, a striking feature of Shelley’s philosophy was his atheism. Now, there have been those who have disputed this. Certainly, the Victorians fell over backwards to see him as a kind of closet Christian. More modern critics (perhaps missing Shelley’s penchant ironic inversions) have pointed to what they see as overtly religious elements in poems such as Prometheus Unbound. I have written about this at length in my article "I am a lover of humanity, a democrat and an atheist: What did Shelley Mean?". If we were to say Shelley was opposed to organized religion, however, I do not think we would get too much argument today.

          One might think this would pose a problem for Duerksen. However, remember that the central focus of the Mennonite Church is on the teaching of Jesus – and in particular the Sermon on the Mount. As for Shelley, the author of “The Necessity of Atheism” and whose famous declaration “I am a lover of humanity, a democrat and an atheist” (written in a hotel register in Chamonix) made him infamous? Well, Shelley always had a place in his philosophy for the teachings of Jesus. He just did not see him as in any way divine. And he believed that the church had perverted his teachings. I think we can see potential resonances here.

          Still, I was intrigued by the unlikeliness of the connection. How does a deeply religious young man from a devoutly evangelical family, who grew up without books on a farm, who attended a religious college in a small town in Kansas, find common ground with one of the most radical, revolutionary, anti-religious thinkers of the 19th Century? How does a Mennonite find common ground with the man about whom Karl Marx himself remarked:

"The real difference between Byron and Shelley is this: those who understand and love them rejoice that Byron died at 36. Because if he had lived he would have become a reactionary bourgeois; they grieve that Shelley died at 29 because he was essentially a revolutionist and he would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism."

          So, I asked him!! And here is what he said:

 Roland Duerksen after graduation in 1961, at age 35.

Roland Duerksen after graduation in 1961, at age 35.

“I began to ask questions about [my beliefs]. I must admit I was quite devout in my religion. I [said to myself], okay, if [I’m] gonna believe this, I ought to really be consistent in every way. The questions I asked were very consistent questions. I would credit the asking of questions as the big turning point in my life. During the 10 years of my education, I [ended up] pretty far removed from where I had started. Up until [the time I went to university], I had had asked some questions already on the farm, but nothing that would really challenge my basic beliefs.”

          Moving slowly toward secular humanism through his education, Roland had found an affinity with the views of Shelley that superseded earlier religious convictions. Roland graduated in 1961 with a PhD in English Literature. His thesis was focused on Victorian attitudes to Shelley and would eventually form the basis of his landmark book, Shelleyan Ideas in Victorian Literature. This study should be required reading for all students of Shelley.


In Part Two of this feature on Duerksen's life and thought I will focus on his approach to Shelley, his teaching career, activism and retirement, Duerksen remains one of the most important voices in the Shelleyan critical tradition. Stay tuned.