Mr. Mehan's Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals
“To prepare for the Good News, we have to prepare the imagination.”
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Matthew Mehan about his new book Mr. Mehan's Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals: A Hypothetical Alphabetical, or Mehan’s Mammals, for short (TAN Books, 2018). Dr. Mehan's book has already captivated both my attention and that of numerous other readers. I am thankful to Dr. Mehan for the opportunity to learn more about how this thought-provoking book came to be, and what it has to do with matters of the Catholic faith.
Dr. Mehan teaches at The Heights School. The Heights is a highly reputable school for boys in Potomac, Maryland (within the Archdiocese of Washington). The Heights, founded in 1969 (and thus about to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary), is operated by the personal prelature of Opus Dei. At The Heights, Dr. Mehan teaches a course titled the History of Western Thought to seniors, U.S. History to sophomores, and American Literature to sophomores (with the latter two courses actually combined into one core course for sophomores). He is also the Director of the Jackson Scholars Honors Thesis program at the school. Dr. Mehan teaches classes and seminars for undergraduates and young professionals at Hillsdale College's Kirby Center, which is a satellite campus in DC, on Capitol Hill. Dr. Mehan is a proud alumnus of the University of Dallas, having received all three higher education degrees there: a B.A. in Politics, an M.A. in English, and a Ph.D. in Literature. Likewise regarding the University of Dallas, Dr. Mehan is a fellow at their Center for Thomas More Studies.
Enjoy learning more about Mr. Mehan's Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals via this transcript of our interview.
Where did the idea for this book come about?
I used to teach a course in England called “Thomas More in England.” It was a three-credit course for the University of Dallas. I was impressed with Thomas More’s amazing efforts in poetry and writing generally, especially with all that he had going on. More taught me that being able to speak and communicate well means being at the service of peace. In imitation of More, one of the genres that I began to write was poetry. For a while, these poems were just stand-alones. Then, I returned to graduate school at the University of Dallas, continuing to study Thomas More and the great tradition of good letters (Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Augustine, Homer, Virgil, Dante, etc.). Eventually, I turned this disparate set of poems into a cohesive whole, incorporating many aspects of our long tradition into a menagerie of mammalian poems and paintings.
How long total did it take you to write the book?
Depending on how you count, the first poem was written in 2001, but it did not start to come together until 2007. After about five years, I brought on board my dear friend John Folley, the illustrator. So, it took about ten years.
You are a man of various talents, including music. What type of music do you perform?
I sing and play the piano and guitar. I play some classical music as well. I'm not a virtuoso, but I did have the good fortune to come up with a beautiful new song, which is presented in the book, as beautifully illustrated sheet music, among the poems. It’s called “Las Vaquitas Lullaby,” and it is haunting. You can hear a professional recording of the song at www.mythicalmammals.com, if you like.
What does your touring entail?
I have been doing TV and radio and visiting bookstores, classical academies, and various colleges and universities: Notre Dame, Baylor, Princeton, etc.
What do you hope is the outcome of your book?
It depends. I hope that it is medicinal counsel, a chocolate-covered cough drop. I hope that it helps people dealing with everything from anxiety to loneliness to the simple temptations to dull sadness that we all must face. I hope these verses help people improve in the art of friendship — and it is an art, by the way, in need of practice, like any art. And it is an art that can bring us great joy. Hopefully, the images and counsels in Mehan’s Mammals will help people to be less anxious and less fearful. It’s not an easy thing to combat loneliness in the modern world, and my book offers some comfort and counsel through seemingly silly songs of poetry.
It's essentially a book of liberal arts. It's a preparation for virtue. I wanted a book that both delights and instructs. Mehan’s Mammals is full of the sorts of things that will, hopefully, help you to be good.
Is the book primarily for Catholics, or for a more extensive audience?
The book is a work of Christian humanism, with an emphasis on the human aspect. The seed of faith is most fruitfully cast upon good soil, but we need to ask the question "Yeah, but how do we get that good soil?" If you are of the Catholic faith, then the book has many images and allegories that you will enjoy. For someone not of the Catholic faith, it is still a preparation for the faith. To prepare for the Good News, we have to prepare the imagination. The book is a great gift for a friend or family member who is far from the faith, but that you’d like to see take a few steps in the right direction. That, and it's just beautifully whimsical. Who doesn’t like that?