“It just about killed me,” says SPS undergraduate literature instructor Ray Gleason about writing his latest book, The Violent Season. The book is a collection of interconnected stories about a young man’s experience before, during and after serving in Vietnam. For Gleason, a Vietnam veteran, the writing process was painful but it brought closure to a long process of recovering from the war’s toll. Gleason’s military service and his former days as an SPS graduate student are part of the richness of experience he brings to the classroom and to his writing.
They were just kids
Living in his native New York and barely out of high school, Gleason and a best friend joined the army in 1966 just as the offensive against North Vietnam was escalating. “We were just kids, wondering what we would do with our lives, who we would fall in love with and what we would become,” says Gleason. “I had an acceptance letter from Hunter College in New York, and I intended to come back and pick up where I left off.” But after four brutal years with the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam’s central highlands and the K/75 Rangers in Cambodia, Gleason came home a different man.
He struggled with the mental trauma of war but was also determined to get an education; he walked into Hunter College with his old welcome letter in hand and earned a BA in English while remaining in the army reserve. He intended to study business, but discovered that literature helped him cope with his complex post-war emotions and escape from his life as “the object of frustration and discontent” for the many who had opposed the war. He also began noticing that despite our culture’s fascination with the 1960s in books and film, he wasn’t seeing himself in those representations.
“My generation is defined by this war, more so than Woodstock or changing sexual mores or anti-establishment behavior,” says Gleason. “All of those were connected to or a result of the war. But the Vietnam stereotypes — the disturbed, anti-social veteran, the macho Rambo type — those weren’t a part of my experience. And there was a kind of heroism unique to Vietnam that’s difficult to convey: soldiers putting their lives on the line, although we knew it was entirely futile. It was a story that needed to be told.”
A new beginning
While stationed at the U.S. Army’s Fort Sheridan in 1986, Gleason began writing and his colleagues encouraged him to continue his education. He earned his master’s in English literature through SPS and then went on to complete a PhD in English at Northwestern University. He specialized in medieval literature and studied under Barbara Newman, one of the foremost scholars in medieval literature and religion. The period’s cultural character has special affinity for Gleason, who spent his formative high school years in a Roman Catholic seminary, which exposed him to medieval literature and history. Later, his immersion in literature helped keep him going during those years, as he continued to grapple with his war experiences, fulfill his reserve duties and raise four children.
“I grabbed those moments when my kids watched cartoons to work on my dissertation,” he recalls. “The flexibility of SPS class schedules also helped a lot. After going through the war and attending a city college, I really enjoyed the classic ivy-covered campus experience — I thought I had missed out on that, and it was a sort of rebirth. I think my graduate school days made me a more supportive and inspiring instructor; I know what it’s like to juggle other responsibilities and to question whether it’s worth doing.”
Teaching, storytelling and healing
Gleason completed his PhD in 1997 at Northwestern and began teaching at Culver Military Academy in Indiana in 2002. He also teaches undergraduate courses in medieval literature at SPS. He published his first book, A Grunt Speaks: A Devil’s Dictionary of Vietnam Infantry Tales and Terms in 2009. The Violent Season will be published in 2013. Gleason’s contemporary fiction and subject matter may seem at odds with his academic specialty, but for Gleason, there’s a clear connection:
“I wanted to teach because I wanted to help students access the emotional and intellectual history of mankind,” he says. “My own experiences as a writer help me to convey to my students the process of turning raw emotion into images, into a story the reader can feel and understand. And you need good literary models to do that well. For example, I loosely base a scene in one of my stories on the ending of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. Allusions from literature can be used to express something altogether different. I want students to understand the richness and timelessness of these texts, but to enjoy them as well.”
Gleason describes The Violent Season as a book “40 years in the making,” and one he believes has brought him a sense of closure with his Vietnam experiences. Gleason plans to continue writing and teaching. He currently lives in Indiana with his wife Jan Peyser, an award-winning silversmith jeweler and former English teacher.