Theodor “Teddy” Hamstra is not your typical English student or University of Colorado Boulder graduate. Naturally, no students are “typical,” but Hamstra took a particularly unusual path to his graduation ceremony, in which he marched this past Dec. 16, and is certain to distinguish himself even further as he pursues his goal of becoming a future professor of English literature.
Hamstra sat for nearly two hours earlier this month, during which time he discussed, among many topics, his Denver childhood, his taste in music, the online blog he keeps “just to write about movies to spark conversation with friends,” his “mind-blowing” semester abroad in Cuba, the many books he’s read and is reading, as well as how he arrived at his early chosen career to join the priesthood and the Hollywood film he encountered at the just the right time to inspire him to change course and embark on a life in academia instead.
As of today, Hamstra will one day be an ecocriticism scholar for an English department not unlike the one here at CU Boulder, “or maybe this exact one,” said Hamstra.
When he first started at CU Boulder, Hamstra was a member of the President’s Leadership Class (PLC). While most freshman see their early college days as an opportunity to let loose, Hamstra, already “burned out on the typical high-school behavior,” went in the opposite direction. “I just sort of fell in with the Catholic crowd and I was like, all right, I’m going to become a priest. I’m interested in intellectual history, so I was really drawn to the theology.”
Asked what had initially attracted him to seminary study, Hamstra said he had arbitrarily gone to a Catholic high school, but while there, he endured a major family event that sent him on a quest for life’s greater meaning.
“There happened to be a priest there who I could talk to,” said Hamstra. “Catholicism just seemed so total. It says, ‘here are the answers to every question in life.’ As someone who didn’t grow up with any religion at all, and all the rituals and formality… it was very interesting to me.”
It was around his junior year when he felt himself pulled more toward the direction of the classroom than the clergy. “Then this movie came out that talked about the church a little critically – or very critically,” he said. “And I felt freer to look at things differently.”
He was speaking of the 2015 film, Spotlight, which depicts The Boston Globe’s investigation of child abuse within the Catholic Archdiocese. Having already begun to rethink his direction, after that, said Hamstra, “The academic life just made more sense to me.”
Hamstra is well-mannered and an engaging speaker. Clean-cut and very funny, he has a disarming nature about him. He discusses ideas, even abstract ones, confidently. When talking to him, one quickly learns he has a great deal of experience and even wisdom for a man 22 years of age.
“Sometimes I think I want to write a comic novel about a Jewish kid in the priesthood, because it’s like something totally out of Larry David’s mind,” said Hamstra, imagining himself, deservedly, as a character written by the Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm creator.
“I would love to teach a class about Jewish comedy.” Hamstra, himself, is half-Jewish; no one in his family is Catholic. “I’d love to do Larry David and (Portnoy’s Complaint author) Philip Roth,” he said.
“We read The Metamorphosis in class. A lot my classmates thought it was bleak and depressing. I said to them, ‘You don’t understand. Kafka’s Jewish. The entire plot is basically, what a schlep it is on everyone that Gregor’s now a bug! Everyone has to work harder, later. There’s no sense of, 'what’s going on behind that bedroom door?’ I think it’s a hysterical story. It’s Jewish humor. How do we cope in a world of constant misunderstanding?”
Ecocriticism is the humanities’ response to the environmental crisis. We’re talking about environmental issues by examining literary texts, so that responses to these problems are not just coming from the sciences.”
Hamstra ran cross-country at Mullen High in Denver, where he gained an encyclopedic knowledge of hip-hop. “I’m a vinyl junky,” he said. So, when asked what he listens to now, he fires off John Coltrane’s name immediately, followed by, among others, Nick Cave, Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen, whose novel, Beautiful Losers, he recommends with enthusiasm. “That is a wild, wild ride,” grinned Hamstra.
An insatiable reader, he described many cherished books this way, such as Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, a Cold War satire narrated by a fictitious Richard Nixon about the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which he read this past summer.
Hamstra was an English major his entire time at CU Boulder, though, for a brief period, he nearly double-majored in art history. He described an epiphany he’d had last spring when “everything came together, and the timeline through art came into focus for me. Reading all the experimental stuff from the ‘20s made more sense to me after I took a class about Picasso.”
At the same time, he was organizing the material he’d later explore in his English honors thesis: an ecocritical, or environmental, reading of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon.
“Ecocriticism is the humanities’ response to the environmental crisis,” said Hamstra. “We’re talking about environmental issues by examining literary texts, so that responses to these problems are not just coming from the sciences.”
Speaking of his first experience with Pynchon, “I read Gravity’s Rainbow in high school, and the vision in that is crazy. I had no idea what was going on,” he said, “but I knew there was something profound there… I think what I loved about it is that it was funny. The guy can make you laugh. He’s got these amazing love scenes that are just so intimate, but then also just like really kind of disgusting. I fell in love with his range. The standard reading of Pynchon,” he continued, “is that he talks about technology, paranoia and pop culture in modern life, right? So, people view him as postmodern. But there’s a lot more to him. He writes about environmentalism, the climate crisis, all that stuff. I would argue that Pynchon deserves to be regarded in the same sphere as people like Thoreau. But for some reason he’s been overlooked in this field.”
“So I wanted to take Mason & Dixon and say, ‘Can you look at that environmentally?’ So, Gravity’s Rainbow has that famous line, ‘everything is connected,’ and people say, that’s a paranoid concept. But if you look at ecology, that’s sort of what they’re all about, that a volcano in Iceland does affect people around the world, and that global systems are connected. And to see that his interests and aesthetics actually are very environmentally applicable, that’s really the short of it.”
As he prepared to leave campus, both for the day and as an undergraduate, Hamstra felt compelled to say something about the professors who had impacted him while at CU. “Karim Mattar was my thesis advisor,” he began. “Working with him was wonderful. I had him for a class last year. We did the modern novel, and that was one of the best classes I took here… I had a lot of great teachers,” he went on:
“The first was probably Ed Rivers, who taught my literary analysis class. I met with him in his office about a paper, and we just started talking about what he studies, and he’s a Nabokov scholar. I had just read Pale Fire the summer before, and wanted to know more. He was just an inspiration to read widely… Ben Robertson was great. I took a theory of science fiction class with him, and that blew me out of the water. I never thought sci-fi had so much depth. It was just a lot of fun to read all these intense German thinkers who usually scare me but you’re doing it in a way that’s accessible. Now, when I watch sci-fi movies, like that Interstellar with Matthew McConaughey, I don’t know if they’re actually going for it, but I can see what Adorno would say.”
But today, Hamstra is a college graduate and an English honors scholar, with his sights set on further academic achievement. He has applied to doctoral programs throughout the West, and said of CU Boulder, “I’d love to teach here in the future,” hoping to begin his graduate study somewhere in the fall.
“So, I have the spring to myself,” said Hamstra. But he hasn’t thought much about the immediate future. “I’ve got too much on my mind right now. I might just find a shop to work at for six months, while I wait to hear back. I’d like to travel with my girlfriend,” he mused. “I seem drawn to Ireland and Scotland. I’d like to go to Japan. I don’t know why. It’s intriguing to me. We’ll see what that looks like in the spring.”