‘I longed for the coming of the Teacher of Lore’, remarks the Lady of Abundance in Morris’s The Well at the World’s End; and I have myself been lucky enough to know some remarkable teachers, whom I intend to commemorate in this blog. My former Lancaster colleague Professor Raman Selden died twenty years ago today, at the shockingly premature age of 53 and at the very height of his academic career and intellectual powers. In a kinder world, he would still have been with us enjoying retirement, and we would have had two decades’ more writing from him.
Ray Selden is best remembered today as a highly successful populariser of literary theory during the so-called ‘theory wars’ of the 1980s, though his more scholarly work on the eighteenth century retains its importance too. As Head of Department, he appointed me to the Lancaster University English Department in 1989 just as he himself was leaving it, and my brief was very much to take forward the second-year literary theory course which he had instituted. Ray himself wasn’t a Morrisian (though he was a Marxist), but I had copies of my journal News from Nowhere balanced on my knee when I was interviewed by him and I like to think that played a part in his decision.
In literary studies more generally, we now sometimes hear of the ‘death of theory’; but in Morris studies in particular, I still don’t think we’ve had enough theory in the first place! Names like Barthes, Kristeva, Foucault, De Man, Lacan, Bakhtin, Bloom, Iser, Jauss and Derrida, whom Selden expounded so lucidly in his various readers’ guides to theory, don’t feature very regularly in discussions of Morris’s work, so in our specific field at least, the task that Raman Selden enjoined upon us – to get literary theory thoroughly integrated into our literary-critical thinking – remains to be carried through. So I salute this wise and humane Teacher of Lore, still much missed two decades later.