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Remembering Edward Ericson, Calvin College teacher and Solzhenitsyn scholar

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If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

These are among the most often cited lines, for good reason, in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. In a 2010 interview for Acton’s Religion & Liberty, Solzhenitsyn scholar Edward E. Ericson Jr. explained that for all of Solzhenitsyn’s heroic efforts to expose the ideological roots of terror and political oppression, it was his understanding of the reality of good and evil that undergirded all he wrote. “To get Solzhenitsyn right means to see him as a moral writer, and the moral vision comes out of a religious context,” Ericson told R&L. “So to get him really right means to understand the religious context, which for him is Russian Orthodoxy.”

Ed Ericson taught English at Calvin College for 26 years. Credit: Calvin College archives

Ericson, who died on Saturday at the age of 77, was a scholar and long-time teacher of English literature at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. Calvin colleague Jim Vanden Bosch remembered that Ericson deep involvement with the life and work of Solzhenitsyn began with the great man’s novels.

“When he discovered Solzhenitsyn, he found his new academic purpose — to find an adequate audience for Solzhenitsyn in the West, to explicate his fiction and non-fiction work, to advance and defend Solzhenitsyn’s analysis of and arguments against totalitarian regimes, to engage in the critical wars over Solzhenitsyn’s relevance, and, with Solzhenitsyn’s approval and assistance, abridge the Gulag Archipelago,” Vanden Bosch said.

Ericson worked side-by-side with the author on that first abridged edition, which was published in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom in 1985. “When Solzhenitsyn and I got to know each other a little bit, he made clear to me that the reason he allowed me to abridge The Gulag Archipelago was, well, that he and I shared a common Christian faith,” Ericson recalled in his R&L interview.

A gracious man who was generous with his time and freely shared his experiences with Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), Ericson had a long association with the Acton Institute. In 1993, his monograph “Solzhenitsyn & the Modern World” was published with an introduction by Russell Kirk (a few are still available in the Acton book shop). A recording of Ericson’s Acton University lecture, “The Unknown Solzhenitsyn,” is also available for purchase in the book shop.

On the PowerBlog, we reviewed “The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings 1947-2005” (ISI, 2006), an indispensable one-volume collection edited by Ericson and Daniel J. Mahoney, another scholar who has done exceptional work in communicating the meaning of Solzhenitsyn’s life and work to readers in the West. The editors observed that “more than any other figure in the twentieth century, (Solzhenitsyn) exposed the ideological ‘lie’ at the heart of Communist totalitarianism.” Although “widely misunderstood” by journalists and academics, the editors assert that Solzhenitsyn “has been a consistent advocate of the rule of law, economic development fueled by human-scale technology, and a revived local self-government in Russia along the lines of the prerevolutionary zemstvos (local and provincial councils).”

In a 2008 opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, “Solzhenitsyn Optimist” (excerpted on the PowerBlog), Ericson wrote that the writer had “the last laugh” in his struggle with Soviet authorities:

What could his mortal foe do about Solzhenitsyn’s great weapon, “The Gulag Archipelago,” first published in the 1970s? Solzhenitsyn was “sure” that “Gulag” “was destined to affect the course of history,” and early reviews reinforced his optimism. A German newspaper editorialized, “The time may come when we date the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet system from the appearance of Gulag.” Diplomat George Kennan said that this “greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime” would stick in “the craw of the Soviet propaganda machine . . . with increasing discomfort, until it has done its work.”

I was fortunate to have known Ed Ericson, as were so many others. Former Calvin colleague Dean Ward put it this way. “I wonder if Ed knew just how massive his presence and influence was: in the classroom students adored him and he became the model teacher for many; in scholarship he was both prolific and wide-ranging; as chair of the English Department he administered with purpose and precision,” Ward said. “He did everything you could want a college faculty member to do and did it all brilliantly.”

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John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.

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