Failure Is Only the Beginning

Student-faculty summer project makes failure a virtue

by Tony Moore

Professor David Ball talking with student Colin Tripp.

In The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway writes, "A man can be destroyed but not defeated," and if you were to look into the musings of many iconic American writers, you would see one after another applying that philosophy to their own failures and successes. The role of authorial failure, and specifically succeeding in spite of it, is at the heart of Assistant Professor of English David Ball's new book, False Starts: The Rhetoric of Failure and the Making of American Modernism, and it's a topic that has interested him for years.

At the heart of it all

"In graduate school, I was struck by how commonplace authorial expressions of the 'successful failure' were throughout American literature," he explains. "Melville famously wrote that 'failure is the true test of greatness,' and Faulkner extolled his 'splendid failure to do the impossible' as his highest achievement. These claims went beyond the clichéd 'failure is instructive' brand of optimism and spoke to a more gnawing sense of unrealized, or unrealizable, aspirations."

This summer, Ball enlisted Colin Tripp '14 to assist him in getting his manuscript through the editorial process and ready for publication. Tripp is a student of Ball's and one of the first two Dickinson students to participate in Oxford University's Visiting Student Programme at Mansfield College.

"Professor Ball taught my First-Year Seminar, and he helped my writing a ton," Tripp says of the origins of his involvement. "So when he asked me if I would be willing to do this internship with him over the summer, I was extremely happy to. It was a great chance to work with a professor closely and learn the ins and outs of academic publishing and editing. I am strongly considering a career in publishing or as an editor, and I thought this would be a fantastic way to begin."

The study of the rhetoric of failure, as Ball puts it, is particularly compelling as it expands across generations of American authors—from the American Renaissance to contemporary times. Writers such as Melville, Fitzgerald and even graphic novelist Chris Ware "push against an ethos of success peculiar to American optimism and economic determinism," he says, noting that connections the reader might not notice between otherwise disparate authors began to appear as he looked more closely. "As in my teaching, I particularly enjoy making unexpected connections between writers and ideas, and this topic allowed me to do so."

Unglamorous but necessary

Tripp had to make connections of his own, oftentimes of a more concrete nature. "My job was to do many of the necessary, though often unglamorous, tasks that contribute to putting together a book, such as compiling an index," he begins, "which involved looking through the manuscript and finding key names and ideas so that others may later find them." His primary task, however, was more editorial in nature. "At the end of the project, I will have read the entire manuscript twice: once to make corrections and offer advice on a sentence level and a second time to check facts and quotes."

This prong of Tripp's work on the project was aimed at helping Ball make his points as needed and get the manuscript ready for a wider readership. "While my primary audience for this book will be other academics, I'm working very hard to make it approachable to a lay reader as well," Ball explains, "and Colin is my model: the advanced undergraduate reader. He's a tough critic, and he was great at indicating places where my argument isn't as clear as I'd like it to be." 

Working together to build a better book is what the project was all about, and for Ball, it's a win-win for both parties. "Faculty-student collaborations like these are one of the best parts of my job at Dickinson," he says, "and I think they make the student experience here that much more engaging."

For Further Reading

Published September 11, 2012