Bringing Literature to Life

Baylor alumnus John Dennis Anderson makes famous authors live again through his captivating portrayals.

Bringing Literature to Life

William Faulkner moves slowly across the stage in a tan gabardine suit, punctuating his sentences with his pipe as he speaks in a soft southern drawl about writing for Hollywood.

“I have found that selling my books to the movies is a good way to make a little money now and then, and I always have it in the contract that I don’t have to see the script or the movie and so I never get confused,” he says, the audience chuckling at his sly dig at filmmakers.

Actually, it’s not Faulkner at all but John Dennis Anderson, a familiar presence under Chautauqua tents who has brought a host of literary figures to life over the past 25 years. For Anderson, these moments of “embodied scholarship” are a natural extension of his passion for teaching and performance techniques learned in Waco and at Baylor.

Anderson, whose father attended Baylor on the GI Bill after WWII and raised his family in Waco, studied oral communication at Baylor and earned his bachelor’s degree in 1977 and master’s in 1978. He earned a Ph.D. in speech communication/performance of literature from the University of Texas in 1989, began his teaching career at St. Lawrence University, and taught communication studies and performance studies at Emerson College in Boston for 27 years.

In 1993, one of Anderson’s UT professors performed as Gertrude Stein at the Oklahoma Chautauqua and encouraged Anderson to audition. After a rigorous process including an essay, bibliography and 10-minute performance, Anderson was invited to portray Henry James in 1994. He followed the next year with William Faulkner and Washington Irving in 1998. He has returned many times since.

“It’s a very engaging, audience-friendly way of teaching,” Anderson said. “Other people specialize in military figures or politicians or famous women. I have specialized in literary figures and that comes out of wanting to convey a love of language and of storytelling.”

Anderson said the Chautauqua tradition of summer tent lectures began in the Methodist denomination in Chautauqua, New York in the 1870s before becoming secularized and spreading to other locations. It dwindled with the rise of radio and automobile transportation in the 1930s but was revived by the National Endowment for the Humanities in the 1970s.

Anderson as Henry James
Anderson as Henry James

Chautauqua sessions typically have a theme, and Anderson has portrayed Washington Irving lecturing on early America and Ernest Hemingway on modernism after the first World War. As Henry James, he has spoken on the Civil War and WWI, and as Faulkner he has talked about the 1930s and America in the movies.

Most characters have been developed with humanities grant funding for specific Chautauqua performances but with the hope there will be invitations to perform at universities, libraries and museums. That has been the case with James, Faulkner, Irving and Robert Frost. Baylor senior lecturer Dr. Tracy Hoffman, president of the Washington Irving Society, has invited Anderson to perform at literary conferences. Likewise, he’s spoken at the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum in Arkansas where Hemingway wrote portions of “A Farewell to Arms” and several short stories.

Anderson builds his portrayals by researching primary sources and scholarship available on the authors. For Henry James, with obviously no recordings and only one interview, “you have to depend on his letters and his autobiographies, which are in that late Mandarin, Jamesian style, so I have to massage it a little bit to make it more oral,” he said.

In contrast, he’s had audience members who met or studied under Faulkner and Frost.

“They have a pretty specific memory of how they looked and sounded, and you have to present a reasonable facsimile,” he said. “And then there’s a Q&A in character, so you have to mentally footnote everything so you can document anything you say. You’ll sometimes get audience members who want to trip you up and ask you something really obscure, so there’s a kind of high that you get when you know something that somebody didn’t expect you to actually know.”

Anderson traces his love for theater and literary interpretation to growing up in Waco and his time at Baylor. His debate and drama teacher at Richfield High School, J. E. Masters, came out of the Baylor theater program, and Anderson saw him in productions before having him as a teacher. Anderson also attended workshops sponsored by the oral communication department.

“I remember vividly a class in the Student Union that Chloe Armstrong gave on oral interpretation where she performed Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess,’ and I was just mesmerized by it,” he recalled.

Anderson’s preparation for the historical research required for Chautauqua included a graduate seminar in oral history with Dr. Thomas Charlton, as well as time spent in the Texas Collection with director Kent Keeth. Among his oral interpretation influences was Dr. Charles McGeever, who cast Anderson in an adaptation of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” at the Baylor Theater.

Anderson retired to Cape Cod in 2016 and has expanded his acting to include local theater while still performing regularly under Chautauqua tents. A current project that spans his entire career is a two-person play about Madison Cooper, an eccentric Waco businessman, bachelor and millionaire, who in 1952 published “Sironia, Texas,” a novel set in a fictional town but based on Waco in the early 1900s. At 1,731 pages, it was the longest American novel in its day.

“It has its flaws, but it’s really an amazing book. It’s a wonderful social history of Waco, even though it’s fictionalized,” said Anderson.

Cooper devoted 11 years to writing the book, which won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award and was a New York Times best seller for 11 weeks before fading. Anderson’s play focuses on a time between the novel’s publication and Cooper’s death four years later when he sought more appreciation for his work. It is built from a chamber theater piece that Anderson wrote and performed for his master’s project based on interviews and letters held at The Texas Collection.

“The play has bookended my academic career for sure,” he said.