Prof. David Wellbery believes that the best moments in class occur when the lecture or discussion brings everyone to the brink of a transformative insight.
“In my seminar on Faust II, we were discussing the final act when I suddenly realized – and the class came to see it with me – that the final act is not one act, but rather three units: a final act of five scenes, then a satyr play (in the tradition of ancient Greek drama), then a choral piece that is no longer drama, but spiritual vision. Seeing that arrangement makes a huge difference in interpreting the work overall.”
Wellbery is teaching a graduate course (with some undergraduate attendance) on Thomas Mann's 1948 novel, “Dr. Faustus.”
When he wrote the novel, Mann was living in California and he had become an American citizen, so Wellbery says there's an argument to be made that it is the greatest “American” novel of the 20th century. The novel is exemplary both for the depth of its moral issues and for its aesthetic intricacy, he said.
It is perhaps the greatest 20th-century rendering of the Faust myth, which reaches back to the 16th century and has in Goethe's two-part ‘Faust’ play (1832) its most important predecessor, he said. Teaching Mann's novel, he argues, affords students access to a major work of modern literature, but also opens a view onto the rich literary, musical and artistic tradition that has grown up around the Faust myth.
Wellbery arrived at his central research interest in Goethe from a lecture on a famous poem by Goethe that he attended while in graduate school. “As it turned out, I vigorously disagreed with the lecturer's interpretation and that disagreement demonstrated to me that, despite the wealth of research on Goethe, I myself had something to say. I later wrote a book about the poem.”
In the nomination letters in support of Prof. Wellbery’s award, many wrote about his wisdom, kindness and support. “I would like to emphasize how much Professor Wellbery genuinely cares about his graduate students,” one noted. “Meetings about my dissertation always included check-ins on my well-being and the general state of graduate student culture in the Department. He encouraged us to rely on each other and lift each other up, while always offering his own support as well.”
Compiled by Andy Brown, Tori Lee, Louise Lerner, Sara Patterson, Emily Rosenbaum and Matt Wood.
—A version of this story is published on the University of Chicago College website