The Clothes Aren’t It

Hipster prof would rather be known for his work

When Leland de la Durantaye delivered his first lecture at Harvard, his mother insisted on coming to hear him speak. At the end of the lecture, she “brightly and loudly” announced that he was her son.

“It did make me feel rather young,” says de la Durantaye, a 32-year-old assistant professor in the Department of English and American Literature and Language.

Seated in a dimly-lit office in the Barker Center with open cardboard boxes and a tennis bag on the floor, de la Durantaye folds his hands in his lap, crosses his legs, and muses with a small smile on his face. Slim and tall, he wears black slacks and gleaming dress shoes. A silver wedding ring winks on his left hand. Brushing aside his dark hair, he looks up into the air as he searches for his words.

Since he came to Harvard two years ago, de la Durantaye has been faced more than once with the problem of distinguishing himself from the students he teaches. One student, Dan P. Gilmore ’05, calls de la Durantaye a “young, dandy professor” with theatrical flair. An Advocate writer once labeled him a “hipster,” part of a generation of young English department hires who are “wildly unconventional.” For support, the Advocate mentioned de la Durantaye’s side job writing essays for The Village Voice.

While it’s true that the young professor frequently lends his byline to that New York magazine, and while it’s true that his style bespeaks serious thought and careful attention—Jeff F. Severs, who TFs for de la Durantaye, says the professor is known for his cutting wit, impeccable dressing habits, and “tennis star-like hair”—that’s not the whole story.

“If clothes make the man,” says Severs, “then Leland’s quite a man.”

But in this case, at least, the clothes aren’t everything. De la Durantaye’s youthful face and blithe reputation belie a deep academic seriousness. True, he referenced the White Stripes in a recent Village Voice essay. But he also quoted Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, and the sixteenth century Chinese artist Ding Yunpeng.

HIPSTER? NOT SO FAST

Last semester, de la Durantaye taught a class on the post-World War II novel and a seminar on Vladimir Nabokov. While writing his dissertation at Cornell, de la Durantaye had become fascinated by the author’s “thoroughgoing independence of mind.” What began as a mere chapter devoted to Nabokov became the whole dissertation.

De la Durantaye draws on this rich background in his Village Voice pieces, the latest of which took famed 20th-century literary theorist Jacques Derrida as its subject—but he also adds a little bit of the nonconventional. In one piece, de la Durantaye traces the cultural significance of the elephant, from Paradise Lost to the eponymous White Stripes album. It was this piece that led the Advocate to label de la Durantaye a “hipster.”

While de la Durantaye recognizes that being a hipster can sometimes be useful, he rejects the epithet for himself.

“The English department is not a release party for a new soft drink, and there one does not wish to be singled out as a hipster,” he says.

Severs considers de la Durantaye’s role in the larger world unusual among the faculty.

“It’s interesting to have Harvard intellectuals who have some life out there in the public sphere as writers,” says Severs.

Though de la Durantaye is often rumored to be of mysterious European origins, he actually hails from East Lansing, Mich., where his family has lived since the sixteenth century. His Midwest rearing was not as parochial, however, as it may sound.

His parents, who he describes as hippies, set their child apart from the crowd, giving him his distinctive first name to honor a soldier who protected the French supply of arms and beaver pelts against the English.

And de la Durantaye does have European connections: he spent several years traveling and studying in France, Italy, and Germany, and his wife of six months is German.

She currently lives in New Haven, and de la Durantaye commutes most weekends to be with her. The trek, he claims, is a relatively easy one when compared to their earlier long-distance relationship between Boston and Berlin.

Despite his hippie breeding, de la Durantaye nonetheless learned certain “bourgeois” sports—like baseball and tennis—from his more traditional grandparents. Although he played baseball seriously, he quit in an “act of weird rebellion” against his father, who had once seriously considered becoming a professional baseball player himself.

HOW TO BE INTRIGUING

The former athlete is now teaching an introduction to 20th-century literary theory in addition to a sophomore tutorial on critical methodology. He says he is too busy at the moment to consider future plans.

“My job,” he says, “consumes happily so much of my time that I don’t worry too much.”

Various literary hobbies occupy his time, but he hopes in the future to have “an idea big enough to fill a book.”

Despite his notably youthful looks, de la Durantaye says that his age does not have any significant effect on his relationship with students. “I’m a good deal older than them,” he says, but he admits that he dresses up at the beginning of the semester to clarify his role in the classroom.

De la Durantaye was even closer in age to his students at Cornell, where he says it was difficult to maintain a professional boundary. “You have to fight that temptation and be a little colder, a little sterner than you might otherwise be,” says de la Durantaye.

But his appearance no longer matters once shopping week is over, when he begins the real work of attempting to present his material “intriguingly and intelligently,” he says. At that point, every professor, regardless of his age, is equally accountable to his students.