Cycle to the Sea

by Kate Devlin

It’s 8 a.m. Will Dunlap’s English 1102 class is like a book club where only half of its members are awake.

“Does someone else have an interpretation before I spill my guts here?” Dunlap says, surprisingly chipper.

Friday morning can be a tough crowd, but Dunlap manages to get a laugh from his students upon mentioning the novel’s first sex scene.

Will Dunlap is a historical fiction writer working toward a doctoral degree in English and Creative Writing — but for the past four years, he’s been moonlighting as a teacher at the University of Georgia. It’s working quite well, because Dunlap’s section of the introductory English course is receiving rave reviews.

History has always appealed to Dunlap and he’s designed this course in his own image, with a focus on analyzing works of historical fiction.

David Bowler, a freshman in Dunlap’s class, says that other than the whole 8 a.m. thing, the class is quite enjoyable — in part, due to Dunlap himself.

“[Dunlap] seems really down-to-earth, but at the same time he does want us to learn something and understand the works we’re reading,” Bowler says.

Julia Jefferson, one of the class’s most outspoken students, says that she’d never liked an English class until now.

Some works of historical fiction, however, have taken on a different meaning while teaching in the heart of the Deep South — especially since this is Dunlap’s first home east of the Mississippi.

“I don’t know if I actually had an interest in Southern culture before I moved here,” Dunlap says.

As a part of his curriculum in past semesters, Dunlap taught E.L. Doctorow’s The March, a popular Civil War era novel about Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea.

The first time he taught The March in a UGA class, Dunlap was wary of being too “risque.” Instead, he found the students were mostly indifferent, as undergraduate students in introductory courses often are.

But there were exceptions.

“Every time I’ve taught it, I’ve always had students who are still really pissed off about it,” Dunlap says.

Dunlap remembers one such “pissed off” student, a young man named Jake. Dunlap describes Jake as the stereotype of a Southerner, the kind of person that would have a confederate flag on their truck.

Dunlap was fascinated by Jake’s strong reaction: Did people really feel this way after 150 years? Was the South really still “pissed off” about the Civil War?

It was this curiosity that led Dunlap to do something perhaps out of character, but at the least out of his comfort zone.

He decided to bike across Georgia, retracing the steps of General Sherman’s March to the Sea. And then he was going to write about it — a cycle to the sea.

In November of 2014, Dunlap set off — almost a year after the plan had first formed in his mind and almost 150 after Sherman himself. Dunlap biked Sherman’s route in three distinct legs, each one matching up to the timeline of the Civil War as closely as possible.

“If I had my druthers, I would have found a way to walk it and take a month, but there was no way to do that. I was also a little concerned about my welfare. The bike thing was a compromise,” Dunlap says. “Anyways, I like biking more than I like walking.”

The route took him from Atlanta to Madison to Milledgeville to Savannah. He followed historical markers, attended commemorative events, and tried to immerse himself in as much Civil War history as possible. Along the way, he spoke to the descendants of confederate soldiers, Civil War reenactors, Civil War scholars, and regular people.

Just as in his own classroom, many were indifferent, but some were even more than pissed off — they were enraged. Dunlap is reminded of the Civil War historian he met in Madison who had urinated on Sherman’s gravestone.

Dunlap comments points out that many of those born and bred in the Deep South come to view Sherman as the villain of the Civil War, and rather unfairly so.

In an article for Hallowed Ground, a magazine publication of the Civil War Trust, John F. Marszalek remarks that although Sherman’s march was “nearly bloodless,” it is more often remembered as “barbarism unleashed.”

“There was glory to die in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, but only humiliation to have one’s barn burned, silverware taken, house damaged or destroyed, or horses added to the enemy cavalry. Sherman successfully fought a psychological war of destruction. He entered the Confederate psyche and remains in some minds to the present day,” the noted Civil War scholar writes.

“I think it pays to think about the history of where you live,” Dunlap says.“The South frankly has much more interesting history — present history — than any almost other place in the United States, because of the Civil War.”

Dunlap believes Sherman’s March to the Sea is a good starting point to understanding how race and violence have shaped this history. And that’s some of what Dunlap hopes to understand with his writing.

Back at home in Athens, Dunlap is still trying to make sense of it all.

In an interview with The Paris Review in 2000, E.L. Doctorow says, “One of the things I had to learn as a writer was to trust the act of writing. To put myself in the position of writing to find out what I was writing.”

In the months to come, Dunlap will put the finishing touches on the work. It won’t be a novel, but rather an essay or a collection of observations. Eventually, he hopes to eventually incorporate his experience and the piece of work that comes out of it into one of his classes.

By 8:50a.m., the students are shuffling out of Dunlap’s classroom.

Will Dunlap is not a teacher — he’s a fiction writer. But this whole teaching thing is going quite well.

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