January 25, 2019 | Katherine Adams
Most college students would agree there are some irrefutable facts about English professors: They read a lot, of course. Research is one of their favorite hobbies. And they love to write or give lectures on topics that might be a bit on the abstract side, connecting ideas and theories that explore a different perspective on people and things. That is what Samuel Gladden intends to do, having accepted an invitation to write a chapter on rock icon David Bowie, to be included in a book tentatively titled “David Bowie and Romanticism.” Gladden is associate dean and Professor of Literature in the University of Houston-Clear Lake’s College of Human Sciences and Humanities.
The book is edited by James Rovira, an associate professor of English at Mississippi College in Clinton, Miss. Publication is expected in summer or fall 2020 from Palgrave, the same publisher of Rovira’s most recent collection which also featured an essay on Bowie by Gladden.
Gladden said that he did not realize how important Bowie had been to his teaching and thinking until Bowie’s death in 2016. “I woke up that morning to find I’d received quite a number of messages from former students telling me that David Bowie had died, and one told me that it was because of my classes that he understood the cultural significance of Bowie and his work,” Gladden said. “I realized then that one of the most effective ways I had to teach about cultural shifts was through an examination of David Bowie’s career. I suddenly realized how often I must have done that. I never focused on him as a literary subject but as a means and a mechanism for helping students understand themes, concepts, and interpretive approaches.”
Gladden said he can always find ways to meaningfully incorporate Bowie’s artistry and career into what he is teaching. “I’m just a Bowie fan,” he said. “It’s the same with literature, when you just seem to like a certain author. This is also the case with fandom, you can make infinite connections with the person you’re a fan of and the era you’re teaching.”
Bowie’s first step into Britain’s musical consciousness was with his first hit, “Space Oddity,” which entered the top five on the U.K.’s Singles Chart in 1969; his last was with his 25th album, “Blackstar,” released just three days before the stunning news of his death.
Bowie shot to fame in the early 1970s with an alter ego, the flamboyant and androgynous Ziggy Stardust, which, Gladden notes, could have been the first time mainstream audiences may have ever heard the word “androgyny.”
But the chapter Gladden intends to write will focus on Bowie’s more conventional years, starting in the early 1980s with the meteoric popularity of his album, “Let’s Dance,” and extending through the final, relatively private two decades of his life when much of his time was devoted to his wife and daughter.
“I’d like to write about Bowie’s use of gender as a performance in whatever embodiment it takes,” Gladden said. “The Bowie of the last three decades seemed more real to people than Ziggy Stardust. Most would say he looked more like a regular person in the early 1980s, shifting away from androgyny, instead presenting himself in a way that was much more conventional. He wore business suits, but in very bright colors.”
The former “Thin White Duke” sported a tan, continued Gladden, and where he’d always been very thin, he bulked up a bit with boxing lessons, creating a much different appearance than before.
He said in his chapter, he would explore what these things tell us about the artist in relationship to his culture. “There is a lot of scholarship being produced about the emergence of the notion of celebrity during the Romantic era,” Gladden said. “It was the first time that authors’ images could be cheaply produced and widely disseminated. It’s how people could finally see what the authors they read actually looked like. Those images became commodities with value to those people, and it’s the one of the ways in which what we now know as celebrity culture began. The notion of celebrity is key to the link between David Bowie and Romanticism.”
The fact that Bowie’s most conservative album became his most successful begs a lot of questions. “Was it because the music was that much better? Or that he looked more conventional physically, as opposed to looking outrageous? All of this could be true, or none of it,” Gladden said. “But the biggest-selling album of his career came with his most conventional embodiment to date, both buying and trading on a specific kind of privilege Bowie could claim as a white male star of a certain stature, as a newly mainstream figure of a certain power.”
Bowie, said Gladden, is an inheritor of a Romantic tradition. “Studying him yields insights that tell us about our culture and the culture of the Romantic era, particularly in terms of gender and celebrity, especially as viewed through the lens of privilege,” he said.
Gladden is teaching a sophomore-level Literature and Experience course at UH-Clear Lake in the spring semester. “And Day One, I will talk about David Bowie,” he said.
For more information about UHCL’s Literature degree program, visit www.uhcl.edu/academics/degrees/literature-ba.