Don Ault told me that to write the dissertation I had proposed I would need to use a computer. What an extravagant suggestion! And, of course, he was right. But what he hadn’t considered (this was 1984) is that when I convinced the English Department to invest in a monitor that would connect to the university’s mainframe, I would actually spend most of my time playing Star Wars. It was thus that Don brought one of the most conservative English departments into the digital age. That was an advance that he had already brought to the world of Blake scholarship, as he pushed his Kaypro 4 to its limit to expand his reading of The Four Zoas into a complexity that rivaled the poem itself.
During the years I was writing my dissertation, I would walk over to Don and Lynda’s house almost every day, since they lived just one block over, and all I had to do was cross the alley and sneak through some unsuspecting citizen’s driveway. The Ault house was one of those enormous Nashville structures that had room for Don’s study (filled with Barks’ paintings), Lynda’s photography studio, the famous movie theater downstairs, and piles of electronic equipment connected with wires that seemed to run in all directions, through all the rooms, and in and out of the ceiling. Whenever Don would talk about his work on The Four Zoas, I would think of those wires connecting numerous pieces of stereo equipment, TV monitors, video recorders (always Betamax, never VHS) to various control panels that only baffled me, and then I would have a concrete image of the Aultean mind at work. I would hear Don stress the materiality of Blake’s poem, and I would recall that I had seen the materiality of Don’s critical thinking.
What else can I tell that would present Don as he was – at least to me – in those years? Should I describe that ancient Pontiac he filled with stereo equipment and always spoke of with undisguised affection as his old friend? Or perhaps I could reveal his character by detailing his obsession with aerobics, and how many times in his office he would point out the advantages of his newest sneakers and then show off the latest moves he had learned in his pump class. Maybe I would do best to keep to the academic realm and mention the inaugural conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism where I heard people talking over and over about his paper on Blake’s use of the ampersand as an emblem of non-Newtonian infinity. That was also the trip he had been so anxious about, since he had mostly stayed away from the conference circuit, that he called me the night before leaving to ask if he could wear jeans or if he should dress up. Once there, he looked happier than I had ever seen him, taken utterly by surprise that so many people knew his work and wanted to meet him and hear about his latest project, and didn’t care what he wore.
All that was a long time ago. Don left Vanderbilt right around the same time I did. And the inaugural conference was the last time we saw each other. Anyone who has written a dissertation knows that the person who directed that dissertation can’t be forgotten. And anyone who worked with Don will know what I mean when I say that my memories of him are as complex as that network of wires running throughout the Nashville house.