Faculty Bookshelf: Sam Pickering

Books by Sam Pickering

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Parade’s End: Essays (Mercer University Press, 2018)Parade’s End is a collection of familiar essays. The author comes from the generation in which girls read books about horses, and boys, about dogs, and his prose is old-fashioned and marvelously clear. He is a meanderer, and Parade’s End celebrates the passing drift of days and the quiet miracles of living. Trees bud, snow falls, and Christmas blooms green and red with joy and happiness. As Time passes, acquaintances vanish.

In these essays the author cruises the Adriatic and the Caribbean, he summers on a farm in Nova Scotia, receives an honorary degree in Tennessee, and roams the fields and woods of Eastern Connecticut. During his travels he meets many improbable people, most of whom exist. However, he follows the advice of Oscar Wilde and does not degrade truth into facts. Amid the bony ruins of Olympia, a man says, “All in all, I prefer the Alamo.”

The sweet bird of youth left the author’s shoulder long ago, and the author writes about the pleasures of aging. He refuses to sink into an armchair and wait for himself or others to die. Time, of course, brings changes. Every day the author runs six miles. Recently as he was “whizzing along,” a man standing beside the road said, “I can’t run any more either.” “You will die jogging,” his wife Vicki said last month, “in full stride or in the middle of one of the tip-toeing steps you call running. The battery in your pace-maker will spring a leak, and you will be short-circuited.” Vicki then laughed and laughed. For a moment the author frowned, but then he laughed, for PARADE’S END is a remarkably bright book. At times the band saunters out of tune, but that is the way things are–some moments blare and others are melodious. No matter the air, though, this book is a rich concert of high-stepping fun and thought.

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One Grand, Sweet Song (Texas Review Press, 2016)

One Grand, Sweet Song is a collection of familiar essays in which Sam Pickering explores libraries and woods and fields. He wanders over hills and far away—to Caribbean and Canada—but he always returns to the local, to Connecticut and his memories of a Southern childhood. He ponders writing and aging, joy and lunacy.  He celebrates family and Christmas. He laughs and tells terrible lies, and jokes.  He runs half-marathons, and on a farm in Nova Scotia, he tries to write his Walden. “O World, I cannot hold thee close enough!” Edna St. Vincent Millay once exclaimed. In these pages Pickering embraces his world with great love, wrapping it in words and pulling it and the reader unforgettably close.

Pickering has written 28 books and 100s of articles. The subject matter of the books ranges. Three are scholarly studies, two of which focus on 18th century children’s literature. Four are travel books, three of these describing his family’s meanderings in Australia. One book mulls teaching, and another is a memoir. The rest of Pickering’s books are collections of familiar essays, providing his take or perhaps “untake” on things. “Reading Pickering,” a reviewer wrote in the Smithsonian, “is like taking a walk with your oldest, wittiest friend.”

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Happy Vagrancy: Essays from an Easy Chair (University of Tennessee Press, 2015)

The essays in Sam Pickering’s new collection sing with thoughtful observations on life, death, love, and literature. Whether attending a reunion at Sewanee, cruising the Caribbean, wandering the streets of Storrs, Connecticut, or rambling through Nova Scotia, Pickering is able to work a quotation, insight, or reminiscence into almost every page. His collection sparks with copious observations from other writers and books that he’s devoured through the years. One of the many joys in Happy Vagrancy is finding a new author or essay hiding in the deep foliage of Pickering’s prose. He delivers his insights with humor, wit, and a keen eye for the ordinary wonders that surround us.
Many of the essays touch on death and the dying, and nothing escapes description and fascination whether profound or seemingly less so: the death of a dear friend or two fledgling cardinals blown from a nest in the back yard and now covered with “periwinkle at the corner of the yard.” During a walk down a country lane, the names of flowers, birds, and bugs fill the page. Even in a meadow buzzing with life, there are reminders of our mortality and brief light too soon gone—and they remind us to read, think, and live with gusto and love.


All My Days Are Saturdays (University of Missouri Press, 2014)

A New York Times article once stated that “the art of the essay as delivered by [Sam] Pickering is the art of the front porch ramble.” As Pickering himself puts it, “Well, I have gotten considerably older, and humor has come to mean more and more to me. And if I’m on the front porch, I am in a rocking chair.” All My Days Are Saturdays offers fifteen new pieces in which he ponders a world that has changed and, in new ways, still delights him. This collection features Pickering writing about teaching and his recent retirement, visits to various locales, and, as he tell us, “the many people I meet…who tell me their stories, small tales that make one laugh and sigh.”Distinctive and unmistakable, Pickering’s style deftly mixes the colloquial language of everyday life with references to a lifetime of extensive reading. The seamless blend of these two worlds in his writing is indicative of how they fuse together in his daily life. As Pickering puts it, “All my life I have roamed libraries, almost as much as I have roamed the natural world. I try to get at many truths, but when I tell the truth, I ‘tell it slant.’ I do so to describe life as it is and indeed celebrate that ‘as it is.’”


The Splendour Falls (Mercer University Press, 2013)

Alexander Smith stated that a good essayist needed “an ability to discern the infinite suggestiveness of common things.” Arthur Benson seconded the idea, saying an essayist needed a “far-ranging curiosity.” Pickering’s words roll in a fine frenzy over ordinary life discovering the marvelous and the absurd. His curiosity ranges, but it also rumpuses and rollicks. He wanders the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee, rural Connecticut, farmland in Nova Scotia, and islands in the sun. Strangers tell him their life stories—tales that are almost as odd as the fictional characters he meets. He runs half-marathons and wins prizes, but finishes so late in the day that he misses award ceremonies. His friend David tells him, “Sam, if you weren’t so damn smart, you would have been a great success.” Pickering writes a lot about teaching, and classroom doings quicken his pages. “In my dormitory I keep a stuffed cat on the table by my bed,” Kirsten told him last year. “I’ve attached a fishing line to its tail. Just outside the window of my room is a tall tree with lots of branches. I live in a quadrangle through which campus guides lead prospective students and their parents. Sometimes when I see a group approaching, I toss the cat into the tree then duck below my window sill and meow. Often the groups stop, and I hear people saying things like “look at that poor cat” and “oh, dear, what can we do?” The aim of an essayist, Benson wrote, was “to make people interested in life and in themselves.” Add smiles and laughter, a smidgen of melancholy, and happy lies, and you have Pickering the essayist.


Dreamtime: A Happy Book (University of South Carolina Press, 2011)

Sweeping in and out of real and imagined places, Dreamtime highlights the curious character of an unconventional teacher, writer, traveler, husband, and father as he takes stock of his multifaceted life. Sam Pickering—the inspiration for the main character in Dead Poets Society—guides us on a journey through his reflections on retirement, aging, gardening, and travel. He describes the pleasures of domesticity, summers spent in Nova Scotia, and the joy of sharing a simple life with his wife of almost forty years.

“Life is a tiresome journey,” Pickering muses, “and when a man arrives at the end, he is generally out of breath.” Although Pickering is now more likely to shuffle than gallop, he isn’t yet out of breath, ideas, or ink. The refreshing and reflective substance of these essays shines through a patina of wit in Pickering’s characteristically evocative and sincere prose. The separate events depicted in Dreamtime invite the reader into Pickering’s personal experiences as well as into his viewpoints on teaching and encounters with former students. In “Spring Pruning,” Pickering describes the precarious tumor in his parathyroid and the possibility of cancer affecting his daily life. In a refreshingly honest tone Pickering says, “Moreover the funeral had become a staple of chat, so much so I’d recently mulled having the raucous, insolent ringer on my telephone replaced by the recording of taps.”

Appealing to creative writers and readers who enjoy an adventurous account of travels through life, Dreamtime accentuates the lifestyle of a longtime master teacher whose experiences take him from sunny days in the classroom to falling headfirst over a fence after running a half-marathon. Unpredictable, spontaneous, and always enlightening, Pickering’s idiosyncratic approach and companionable charm will delight anyone who shares his intoxication with all the surprising treasures that might furnish a life with happiness.


A Tramp’s Wallet (Mercer University Press, 2011)

“I find it harder and harder to know where literature ends and life begins,” Christopher Morley once said. In A Tramp’s Wallet, Sam Pickering spends six months roaming Australia and New Zealand, tramping landscapes pocked by sheep stations, mountains rip-rapped by scree, art galleries and bakeries, and always libraries, their dusty shelves troves quick with life and literature. Pickering lectures on a cruise ship, travels the Murray River on a paddle wheeler, and rides the train from Sydney to Perth across the Nullabor, the land of no trees. He describes “galores” of gardens. His eyes climb forests of trees: mottled river red gum and arthritic sandalwood. Birds more lyrical than poetry flutter through his paragraphs, magpies, rainbow lorikeets, and candied pink galahs. Kites whistle beyond margins, and gannets dive like carets through paragraphs: His mind is an odd place peopled by crowds, some folks actual, others fictional—a man born with a wooden leg and vagabonds who invite him to tour New Zealand on a fiftyyear- old bus lobbying “to free marijuana.” The saunterings of one of America’s best and most popular essayists stretch the seams of A Tramp’s Wallet. Far from the hoes and saws that prune days into convention, life flourishes, and this book is weedy and rankly rich with thought and description. “lord,” St. Odo of Cluny said on his deathbed, “I have loved the beauty of thy house.” In A Tramp’s Wallet, Sam Pickering records his love of that house, and, if truth must out, his love for a few neglected out buildings—barns and backhouses, even the ramshackled huts of thought.


Journeys (Texas A & M University Press, 2011)

Journeys is a collection of essays in which Sam Pickering mulls traveling. He travels to Nova Scotia and New Zealand. He wanders the South and makes speeches in the Mid-West. He haunts libraries in hopes of stumbling across intriguing oddity.

As he meanders he ponders teaching and the natural world, especially the green minutiae of this last. In several essays he explores the classroom. In others he explores matters medical, in them finding the staff of life and humor.

Family and age are his closest companions, both bruising him at times but both making him smile. As he ages he wonders about his changing perception of Time, his thoughts bringing delight, however, not melancholy, as befits someone constitutionally happy.

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A Comfortable Boy: A Memoir (Mercer University Press, 2010)

Happiness is precious. For some people happiness is hard-won, slowly distilled from the grit of rasping days. For others, like Sam Pickering, happiness has come easily. In A Comfortable Boy, Pickering describes the early years of childhood, rolling back through time on the wheels of anecdotal memory. With an eye peeled for detail, he recalls family and places. He meanders farm and school, roaming Tennessee and Virginia. He notices things that others sometimes miss or at least neglect. Recently, he wrote that he saw two stickers on the rear window of a rusting Pontiac, the warning “Baby on Board” inexplicably beside the command “Drive It Like You Stole It.” He owns three dogs, all mongrels rescued from the streets of Hartford, and he calls the trowel he uses to scoop up their droppings “Excalibur.” For Pickering life’s pleasures are endless, lurking amid the wildflowers of field and wood or sprouting in paragraphs written to his great-grandmother during the Civil War. In part A Comfortable Boy reveals what made Pickering a successful teacher and writer, not the wound of the suffering Romantic but instead the simple joy and gratitude for being born in the South at a certain time in a particular place and in a specific family among people, he writes, “whom it was impossible not to love and not to laugh at and with.”


Edinburgh Days: or, Doing What I Want to Do (University of South Carolina Press, 2007)

Edinburgh Days: or, Doing What I Want to Do is an open invitation to be led on a walking tour of Scotland’s capital as well as through the labyrinth of the guide’s swerving moods and memories. Along the way readers discern as much from Pickering’s sensual observations of Scottish lives and landmarks as they do about what befalls the curious mind of an intellectual removed from the relations and responsibilities that otherwise delineate his days.

Pickering spent the winter and spring of 2004 on a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh, making his return to the city after a forty-year absence. Edinburgh Days maps the transition from his life in Connecticut, defined by family, academic appointments, and the recognition of neighbors and avid acolytes, to a temporary existence on foreign soil that is at once unsettlingly isolating and curiously liberating.

Torn between labeling himself a tourist or a sojourner, Pickering opts to define himself as an “urban spelunker” and embarks on daily explorations of the city’s museums, bookshops, pubs, antique stores, monuments, neighborhoods, and graveyards. His ambling tours include such recognizable sites as Edinburgh Castle, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Castle Rock, the Museum of Childhood, the National Gallery, the Writers’ Museum, the Museum of the People, the Huntly House, the John Knox House, the Royal Botanic Garden, and the Edinburgh Zoo.

The holdings of city and university libraries present Pickering with the opportunity to revisit the works of a host of writers, both renowned and obscure, including Robert Louis Stevenson, Samuel Smiles, John Buchan, Tobias Wolfe, Russell Hoban, Patrick White, Hilaire Belloc, and Van Wyck Brooks.


Autumn Spring (University of Tennessee Press, 2007)

Sam Pickering’s essays are funny and wise-and always intoxicating, eggnog to warm glazed winter nights and juleps to cool sweltering summer days.  He wanders Connecticut, Canada, and the South, seeding his old farm in Nova Scotia with words and scattering paragraphs in and about classrooms at the University of Connecticut.  He describes the great flowerings of summers and falls.  He mulls over vanishing friendships, then hunts for buried treasure in a library.  He endures a massage, ponders the genteel, and explores shadowy alcoves and books.  For him home is where heart and heartache thrive together.  Students make him laugh and weep, and in part his book is a teaching manual crammed with anecdotal good sense.

He buries his old dog George and picks up Bert, a rescue dachshund addicted to unmentionable munchies and cloddish doggy behavior, an animal who obstinately refuses to cross the Rainbow Bridge.  Pickering runs road races, although he says anyone in a motorized walker could leave him far behind.  In “Premortem” he anatomizes his vanishing muscles and then decides to have a knee operation in hopes of shuffling fast enough to keep a heeltap ahead of the pale rider on the white horse.

This is a book about love and happiness-a restorative collection that shows readers how to enjoy life’s small glories even among its indignities.  When the going gets sour, Pickering tells a joke and transforms the sour into sweet delight.


Indian Summer: Musings on the Gift of Life (University of Missouri Press, 2005)

In this collection of essays, Pickering seeks to capture the gift of living. He brings to the page again his family, students, and a wealth of country characters who live in places that exist only in his imagination and who wander through the stories he tells.

He describes how his life has been altered by his children leaving home for college, and he ponders the changes aging brings and the things that never change. The consummate teacher, he celebrates academic life and the pleasures of the classroom. Readers will roam familiar ground with Pickering as he explores the fields and small hills of eastern Connecticut and the bogs and woods on his farm in Nova Scotia. Indian Summer celebrates hearing and seeing. Butterflies tumble across the pages, flowers bloom and wilt, and dragonflies glitter like stained glass in the sunlight. Pickering teaches us to value our words and to laugh at the world around us. His musings mirror his desire for his readers to appreciate life a little more after exploring this book.


Letters to a Teacher (Grove Press, 2005)

Letters to a Teacher is a welcome reminder that teaching is a joy and an art. In ten graceful yet conversational letters addressed to teachers of all types, Pickering shares compelling, funny, always elucidating anecdotes from a lifetime in the classrooms of school and universities. His priceless, homespun observations touch on topics such as competition, curiosity, enthusiasm, and truth, and are leavened throughout with stories—whether from the family breakfast table, his revelatory nature walks, or his time teaching in Australia and Syria. More than a how-to guide, Letters to a Teacher is an invitation into the hearts and minds of an extraordinary educator and his students, and an irresistible call to reflection for the teacher who knows he or she must be compassionate, optimistic, respectful, firm, and above all dynamic. This is an indispensable guide for teachers and layman alike.


Waltzing the Magpies: A Year in Australia (University of Michigan Press, 2004)

Sam Pickering seized the opportunity for a year-long sabbatical from teaching, and took his family on a trip to Australia. The result is Waltzing the Magpies , a tour de force of sensual observation. Pickering has the curiosity of a scientist and the soul of a poet. And whether he’s cataloging the cost of transferring nearly his entire family to the other side of the planet, describing the call of a lorikeet, or reveling in the beauty of a coral reef, no detail escapes his eye. Waltzing the Magpies invites us to participate in, not just observe, the author’s vision of life’s gorgeous pageant.


The Best of Pickering (University of Michigan Press, 2004)

The Best of Pickering amply demonstrates Pickering’s amazing powers of perception, and gives us insight into the mind of a writer nearly obsessed with turning his back on the conventional trappings of American success—a writer who seems to prefer lying squirrel’s-eye-level next to a bed of daffodils in the spring or trespassing on someone else’s property to pursue a jaunt through joe-pye weed and goldenrod. Indeed, Pickering’s philosophy, at least on paper, may very well be “Now is the only time.”

These wry and sometimes self-deprecating essays are witty and elegant and concrete yet wander widely, and include Pickering’s well-trod fictional Southern town of Carthage, Tennessee, full of strange goings-on. This definitive collection of the best of Pickering is a must for Pickering fans and a fine introduction for the uninitiated to one of our greatest men of letters.


The Last Book (University of Tennessee Press, 2001)

Readers familiar with Sam Pickering’s delightful essays will certainly  hope that the title of his latest collection is not intended as  prophecy. A true original, Pickering offers observation on everyday life  that never fail to sparkle with wit, insight, amusement, and wonder.

Freely blending fact with fiction-“Writing makes liars of us all,” he  notes-Pickering ranges easily and amiably from his home base in Storrs,  Connecticut, to his roots in middle Tennessee, with numerous side trips  to observe the natural world to refelct on the bonds of family and  friends. One essay finds him playing auctioneer at a local arts council  event, jollying the attendees with “tattered country tales” and  fanciful, extravagant claims for items being sold. In another piece, his  tongue-in-check remarks about the split infinitive, when quoted in a  newspaper, ignite a small controversy that lands him on radio talk shows  and provokes a flood of sometimes angry e-mail. Yet, whenever the  irritations of the human world become a bit too wearying, Pickering  finds ready refreshment in the doings of birds and insects and the  splash of sunlight on a tree or flower.

Throughout these sixteen  essays, Pickering implicitly heeds the advice he offers his son just  before the boy much meet the parents of his prom date: :The good  storyteller, I instructed Francis, heaps  paragraph upon paragraph, just like a waitress serving mashed potatoes  in a family-style restaurant.” Having dined at the table of a master  storyteller, readers will depart this collection feeling fully  sated-indeed, well nourished.


A Little Fling: And Other Essays (University of Tennessee Press, 1999)

Whether traipsing through a New England field near his home, overhearing a conversation at the local coffee shop, or enjoying idle time in Nova Scotia, Pickering finds connections in life that always seem to lead him back to Tennessee. His fleeting, well turned phrases that sparkle for a moment and make one forget weighty significance are like three-legged stools, equally supported by observations of nature, commentaries on family activities, and anecdotes drawn from memory.

Pickering captures the rich wonder of daily life: a son’s playing high school football, the friendly scorn of a wife long-married to the same conversation, the sound of sparrows flicking tails and cries through brambles. In the course of his verbal strolls, he transports readers to places and states of mind that are both real and mythic. Describing humorous and human characters like Googoo Hooberry and minister Slubey Garts, and events like a “Homegoing” parade, he finds lessons for modern life in the eccentricities of small-town Tennessee. Through his close observations, Pickering reminds us how varied the world is and how it can restore the spirit, examining things we often overlook, like moss or beetles or the quality of November light. Through essays grounded in his rich sense of the world and a poet’s feel for language, he invites readers to recognize bits of their own hours on these pages, to laugh without feeling guilty, and to appreciate the simple glories blooming in their lives.


Deprived of Unhappiness (Ohio University Press, 1998)

Pickering wanders from Nova Scotia to Tennessee, from a middle school athletic field to an English department. He tells stories about people named Googoo and Loppie. He examines trees and flowers. He watches a daughter play soccer and a son row. He attends funerals and remembers the past and imagines the future. His is the ordinary world observed closely.

Reading Pickering makes life blossom. Suddenly the small and the neglected bloom and charm. He is opinionated, too. “Foolishness in low places,” as a reviewer put it, is also his subject. Critics have compared him to Twain and Montaigne and have said his sentences flow like silk, caught in a breeze of verbs and nouns.

This book describes living—living within a family and with Everyman’s hopes and fears. As the narrator roams hill and field, he tries to make sense of life. Even better, he enjoys life, its big rooms and its small, dusty corners. Pickering breathes life into the weary letters of carpe diem.


Living to Prowl (University of Georgia Press, 1997)

Reading Pickering is like taking a walk with your oldest, wittiest friend, said Smithsonian magazine. Living to Prowl finds the acclaimed author walking familiar paths, taking time to enjoy family, friends, nature, and other simple pleasures.

Like Pickering’s earlier books, this collection records in highly personal and idiosyncratic terms a year in the life of a man with a tenacious commitment to pausing and wondering. Moving easily between humor and seriousness, the mundane and the philosophical, stark truth and evocative fictions, his essays saunter through life and rummage through lives. As Pickering himself puts it, Living to Prowl is meant to make people “turn away from the ‘razzleum-dazzleum’ of dream and abstraction to see the rich greens and blues at their doorsteps.”


The Blue Caterpillar and Other Essays (University Press of Florida, 1997)

In the title piece of this collection, Pickering is the Blue Caterpillar, a role he is asked to play in his daughter’s elementary school production of Alice in Wonderland. Funny and moving, these essays seem born of the murky inkling a caterpillar must have that things are changing; it is to the changes, especially the small ones, that Pickering attends.

Language changes, ideas of family change, Republicans change, the South changes. In “There Have Been Changes,” Pickering remarks that “domestic change is cyclical and wifely.” In other essays his two sons suddenly seem distant, and his daughter acquires a new talent at summer camp: “becoming the best mooner in the cabin.” Pets—tadpoles and salamanders, dogs, hamsters, kittens, and a baby squirrel—join and take their leave of the Pickering household. In “Down” his wife decides (very much against his wishes) to pierce her ears. Fifteen hundred miles away, an uncle grows old and needs caretaking. Pickering himself grows older. And of course, the seasons change.

Seeing and describing the world around him as if for the first time, he watches for “emblems of a decent life, a slow life in which little things matter: pets, wildflowers beneath mountain ridges, friends in wheelchairs, family and community, those soft, dancing dodos and bumblebees over whom everybody should watch, and watch carefully.” Pickering watches carefully, writes engagingly, and teaches us that the world is always new.


Walkabout Year: Twelve Months in Australia (University of Missouri Press, 1995)With humor, skill, and insight, Pickering describes the educational system his three children experienced; the family’s journeys from one area of Australia to another as he lectured; and the people—both academics and nonacademics—he encountered. He compares the flora, fauna, and economics to those in America, and reveals much else about daily life in a new country. As a result, Walkabout Year is part travelogue, part reflection on the differences between two cultures, and part autobiography. As Smithsonian stated, “Pickering has created his own comfortable world, and it is always a pleasure to slip into his company for a time.” Readers will feel a strong bond with the family and as if they too have been thoroughly exposed to the intriguing world of Australia.


May Days (University of Iowa Press, 1995)

In this collection of eleven wry essays, Samuel Pickering illuminates the ordinary, making what is common in life stand out with gemlike brilliance. An amateur naturalist and devoted father, Pickering offers his reflections on family lore, curious artifacts, the endearing absurdities of everyday life, and his attempts to understand and appreciate the rich world of nature.

With a self-ironic, unpretentious voice, Pickering takes us to the bucolic settings of rural Nova Scotia and small-town Tennessee, as well as a New England academic environment. There we witness his balancing act between suburban and rural life, between the pressures of the workaday world and the temptation of nature, the call to explore what is so often ignored, the need to remember the roots of our past.

Whether writing about Miss Kitty and Miss Jo Sewall, E. W. Childers and the fish he caught in Difficult Creek, or the naming and renaming of flowers—Purple Orchis, Skullcap, Riverwater Pink—Pickering reveals an inquiring, gentle regard for nature and humanity. His anecdotes present the history and folklore of his own family as well as Everyman’s history and lore as he uncovers some of the subtle truths that lie unnoticed in the common events and realities of life.


Still Life (University Press of New England, 1995)

Trespassing (University Press of New England, 1994)

Moral Instruction and Fiction for Children, 1740-1820 (University of Georgia Press, 1993)

Let It Ride (University of Missouri Press, 1992)

The Right Distance (University of Georgia Press, 1987)

John Locke and Children’s Books in Eighteenth-Century England (University of Tennessee Press, 1981)

A Continuing Education (University Press of New England, 1976)

The Moral Tradition in English Fiction, 1785-1850 (University Press of New England, 1976)