categories: Cocktail Hour
The following originally appeared in The Georgia Review and was included in the Pushcart Prize Anthology in 2006.
On Being Boswell’s Boswell
I sat in the front row like a rock groupie, straining forward so that I could catch every word. He sometimes spoke in a plaintive whisper and, never having quite mastered the use of the clip-on microphone, presented no more than a dramatic mime show to those seated in the back of the class. He was frail with wispy tufts of white hair floating out above his large ears and thin bones canopied in oversized clothes, a mismatched plaid jacket and striped pants. Occasionally his lectures, like his appearance, were haphazard, dissolving into wistful monologue.
“Let’s skip some of this stuff,” he’d say, waving it off.
Once, I remember, he looked down at his watch and, startled by the amount of time left in the class, exhaled a loud woof. His comments could be dream-like: “I may have mentioned this to you earlier—or was that years ago?” Or halfway through the lecture, he’d apologize: “I’m sorry that this wasn’t better.”
The transition of English literature from neoclassicism to romanticism was our stated theme, but a leitmotif of old age and melancholy ran through the lectures. Aging and Loneliness 104. “Don’t let anyone tell you about how wonderful it is to grow old,” he sighed. “The only value of getting older is that you care less about what other people think of you.” He looked down from the podium with his elastic face, twisting and pulling at it as if it were made of putty. It was a great comic face, a gentle clown’s face that had led a studious and difficult life. Introducing Keats’ Endymion, he took off his glasses and stared out with blue eyes. He referred to the biography of Keats he’d written “in my greener, happier days.”
Those were the moments that made me love the man, but there were other moments, too, when an idea would catch his fancy, and he would spark alive. Then his hands slid from their resting place below his chin. First, the right hand would pulse to life, slowly rising up from the podium in a circling flight. It opened and closed steadily, then began fluttering and darting, dipping and rising as if barely within his control. When his point was made, the hand would fall gently, a leaf dropping in slow, unpredictable swoops, back and forth, never twice along the same path, finally landing on the podium, or nestling back into the folds of his face and resting for its next flight. Then, just as the room was calming, the other hand would take off, dipping and flying out toward the class.
“We must look to the past’s great examples,” he exhorted, and it took all my will not to shout “Amen!” He spoke of Samuel Johnson and as he did his left arm flew up so violently that it looked as if it might pull him off the ground. He stood there—strict, masterful, and commanding, his white fingers balled up into a fist. But then, abruptly, a second later, they broke into an undulating dance. With this same light pulse, he removed his thick black glasses, and, with that, underwent another miraculous change: glasses off, hand and voice in unison again, he calmed. Rubbing the creases arcing below his eyes, he looked out with an expression watery and kind. The transformation was complete. There again stood the most gentle man in the world.
* * *
I was drunk, in one way or another, the better part of my time at Harvard. Like a lot of people, I felt I had no right to be there in the first place—this was a place for geniuses and Thurston Howells after all—and so I threw myself into a bacchanalian frenzy: drinking, skipping classes, smoking pot from the hookah I bought at the Leavit and Pierce tobacco shop, sleeping late, spending afternoons playing Ultimate Frisbee by the stadium. I didn’t take Harvard too seriously, or maybe I took it too seriously and so, as a defense, I acted in very silly ways. During my freshman year I tore a sink off the wall of our communal bathroom in a fit of drunken fury, and the next year, hoping to impress a girl, I leapt out of the second floor window of her dorm after bidding her goodbye. I thought I would catch a branch and swing, Erroll Flynn-like, to the ground in a dazzling exit. Instead the branch snapped. I fell fifteen feet backward and fractured my skull on the concrete. It was a pattern that would repeat itself throughout my twenties: grandiose visions, impulsive decisions, disastrous results.
For me the campus was less an ivory tower than a territory which I prowled at night like an animal, full of beer and lust. I remember a particular oak tree in the quadrangle in front of Eliot House where I liked to mark my territory. Often I roamed until morning, when the garbage trucks came rumbling and roaring like dinosaurs down theCambridgestreets. I grew my hair long and did countless push-ups, the latter my only concession to discipline. Feigning a deep lack of ambition, I was secretly, intensely ambitious. Though I had no definite idea what it was yet, I knew deep down that I would do something great. This secret vision, coupled with my profligate behavior, caused me no small amount of self-loathing.
My one saving grace in college was that I loved to read. Under my brutish exterior, I was bookish. I discovered Rabelais and then Montaigne, whose earthiness and constant self-examination struck a chord; Dostoyevsky, taught by a brilliant gnome-like Russian professor; and, of course, Thomas Wolfe, who stoked my delusions. It was after reading Wolfe that my previously vague and inchoate ambitions began to coalesce into clarity. I became more interested in Wolfe’s biography than in his actual writing, which bored me after a while. What I loved was the myth, the idea of being a famous writer, and of also being, not incidentally, a giant (he was 6’7″), bigger than other men—though I, not quite six feet, could only imagine. I loved reading about his life: the fame, the intensity, the anguish, its oh-so-exciting wrought-upness.
I learned that Wolfe had gone to Harvard for graduate school and had reacted to his new surroundings with characteristic volatility. He was, as always, overwhelmed by the “pity, terror, strangeness, and magnificence of it all.” But he was also lonely. “He felt more lost at Harvard than ever before,” wrote Elizabeth Norwell, an early Wolfe biographer. I understood: after the leaves fell that first autumn inCambridge, the cold winds whipped down the brick streets between the buildings and I felt lost.
Partly in response to his loneliness, Wolfe spent hours prowling the deep stacks of Widener library. My first encounter with those book-lined catacombs was not quite so literary: I was playing a stoned game of tag with my five roommates, running through the underground corridors and catacombs. But later I went back on my own. I descended three floors below the ground into the darkness (you had to flick on the lights in each row) of acres and acres of books. I loved the smell of the place and the sense of possibility. There was an added layer of self-consciousness to my explorations, of course, since I had just recently read about Wolfe’s own monumental assault on the Widener stacks. Unlike me, he gorged systematically, timing his reading with a stopwatch. He records that rapacity in the autobiographical novel Of Time and the River:
To prowl the stacks of an enormous library at night, to tear the books out of the shelves. . . . The thought of these vast stacks of books drove him mad. . . . He pictured himself tearing the entrails from a book as from a fowl. . . .
Prowling the same stacks sixty years later, I pictured Wolfe and then pictured myself picturing him while ripping through books of my own.
But if reading Thomas Wolfe was like the lighting of a fuse for what would become my incipient megalomania, then by far the most important event of my college life was my discovery of Walter Jackson Bate. Bate, who had recently won the second of his two Pulitzers, was one of Harvard’s fabled great men, a lineage that extended back to Alfred North Whitehead (whom he’d heard lecture in the 30s) and beyond. I blew off many of my classes but I never missed The Age of Johnson.
The thrill of Bate’s lectures came first—his malleable face, trembling voice, and hand floating above the podium—but soon his ideas began to infect me. I took long walks by the Charles Rivermuttering to myself, mulling over the notion that literature must retreat from modern games and return to essentialism, whatever that was. I did poorly in the rest of my courses; this was the only class that mattered. Back in my room I hunched over his biographies of Johnson and Keats, and his little book The Burden of the Past and the English Poet, ripping deep furrows beneath the sentences with my ball point, feverishly scrawling down notes and quotations.
By my sophomore year Walter Jackson Bate—the great man himself—lived only a few doors down from me and I often saw him eating in the dining hall, not ten feet away. There he was, taking his breakfast or lunch, wearing mismatched plaids or what looked like pajamas, often eating alone, absorbed in his Salisbury steak and profound thoughts. At least a hundred times I picked up my tray and started across the room to sit with him, but I always chickened out. Though I was taking another of his lecture courses, I’d never encountered him in person outside of class. I could have gone to see him during office hours, but by then he meant—he symbolized—too much to me, and I didn’t have the courage to approach him.
That was left to Jon, my bolder and less self-conscious roommate. Jon and I had become good friends and it was in Jon that I confided my growing hope that I might one day become a writer. I also confided how much Bate meant to me. “Why don’t you just go over and talk?” Jon asked, logically enough. Finally one day, fed up with my equivocations, Jon, with my halting blessing, marched over to Bate.
Jon introduced himself and soon the two were friends. Three months later, when Bate invited him up to hisNew Hampshirefarmhouse, it was a crushing blow. I hated hearing the stories from that weekend, but of course I asked Jon to tell them again and again until I knew them by heart. I heard about Bate and Jon spending the day pitching horseshoes and walking through the woods, then drinking hot cider and rum that evening in front of the fire with Bate reading out loud the poetry of his “old friend Archie MacLeish.”
I was devastated.
* * *
But if Jon knew the actual man, I still believed that I alone understood his ideas. I’d entered college flirting with the notion of going to law school, but Bate’s lectures permanently derailed that course. “The boldness desired involves directly facing up to what we admire and then trying to be like it,” I read. “It is like the habit of Keats of beginning each new effort by rereading Lear and keeping close at hand the engraving of Shakespeare.” And so I tacked pictures of Keats and Johnson, and yes, of Bate, too, above my desk. In his biographies—his stories, as I saw them—great writers always struggled and eventually persevered.
“The hunger of youth is for greatness,” was a line from Longinus that Bate often quoted. By my senior year my own hunger was a gnawing one. Near the end of that year I finally got up the nerve to visit Walter Jackson Bate during office hours. There he was in person, white hair disheveled, sitting behind a large desk and slamming his empty pipe on a glass ashtray. I stared into his watery blue eyes and wondered what to say. I knew I needed to make an impression, to become his friend the way Jon had. We had just begun to talk when he managed to shatter the ashtray with a particularly sharp whack from his pipe. He called in his secretary and the three of us got down on our knees, sweeping up ash and gathering broken shards.
When we resumed talking I tried to explain how much his courses and books had meant to me. I admitted that I wasn’t a very good student overall but that I’d spent the better part of the last four years prowling Widener and reading, as Samuel Johnson had put it, “by inclination.”
He studied me closely, brushing ash off his pants.
“It sounds like you’ve given yourself quite a self-education,” he said.
That was as close as I would come to a blessing that day. We had a nice chat, but there were no invitations up to the oldNew Hampshirefarmhouse, no special advice conferred. I left his office happy to have finally spoken to him, but disappointed that I hadn’t performed better or garnered more pearls of wisdom. “There are a series of answers available in man’s long and groping quest,” he had said in class, “answers that can shed some light on our problems now, can teach us what might work, and what not to do.” That was what I really wanted, some of those answers.
It didn’t matter, though, not really. Unbeknownst to him, Bate had already given me his blessing almost a year before. It had been during a survey class called “From Classic to Romantic” in the spring of my junior year. In a lecture during that course I heard him speak about the possibility of a “new romanticism,” a return to the essential tenets of romanticism that might rise out of the compost heap of postmodernism. He described how the romantic movement itself grew out of neoclassicism, in part born of a rebellion against neoclassicism’s “worst excesses”: the 18th century’s increasingly rigid emphasis on unity of form, order, decorum—that is, “the rules.” Then he suggested the parallels to our current situation, comparing the worst excesses of postmodernism and deconstruction to those of neoclassicism: a dry emphasis on reason, on mind; a focus on games, a literature that had moved away from essentialism, from a direct connection to life. “What is literature if it isn’t relevant to how we live?” he asked the class. Though a scholar and not a prophet, Bate speculated that the next logical movement in the arts would be toward a kind of “new romanticism.”
It was just a theory, of course, maybe even an off-hand remark, but in my fervid young brain it quickly became much more than that. In my mind’s eye I saw Walter Jackson Bate floating above the stage, clad in a tunic, reaching over with a blazing sword which he placed on my shoulders. In my head his new romanticism became The New Romanticism. Was there any doubt who the first great New Romantic writer would be?
* * *
I graduated from college in 1983. For the next seven years I tried to write my New Romantic novel. I wrote it in every conceivable fashion from every conceivable point of view. I had many titles, but I might have aptly called the book Quagmire. I never found an angle into my material or, more to the point, I found too many angles. Too much freedom, I was beginning to learn, could be just as deadly as too much restraint.
My classmates grew rich as I labored at my intangible, and possibly insane, project. During the years I actually did my taxes, the profession I wrote insistently down on the forms was “writer.” What that meant, for practical purposes, was that I worked in bookstores, substituted at high schools, framed houses, and once did a stint as a security guard at a phone store.
At the time I thought these jobs the gravest injustice on the planet. With a wild sense of entitlement I once asked my girlfriend what Shakespeare’s fate would have been had he been forced to labor as I did. I said this in anger and without irony. I thought my situation unique, not understanding that I was just a type. The type I was was an apprentice writer, and the side effects of that vocation—the bitterness, the occasional megalomania, the sense of injustice and impotence, the envy and frustration and rage—were as much a part of the job as carpal tunnel or tennis elbow were part of my work as a framing carpenter.
I felt a growing sense of panic and failure, but deep inside I was sure that if I finally completed my book it would change everything. Then I’d be hailed as the great artist I secretly dreamed I was. I saw myself creating a Wolfe-ian tome that I would someday bring to Bate and drop on his doorstep, just as Thomas Wolfe had brought his manuscript to Max Perkins. Samuel Johnson spoke of the “epidemical conspiracy for the destruction of paper,” and during those years I did my part. I created new drafts, destroyed them, created dozens more. The trouble was that while I had a romantic vision of a great writer writing a great book, I had little else.
But it wasn’t only delusion that Bate spurred. Looking back it seems that the important thing was to continue writing, to get the bad out and get to the good, and Bate’s books helped keep me going.
There’s a profound impotence to apprenticeship. Beginning is terrifying business, and chaos is inherent in beginning. Most of us are unable to see that beginnings will ever end. “I spit on the grave of my twenties,” wrote Mencken. I can’t quite build up that much anger for the character I was; he was silly and immature, but I don’t hate him. If anything I feel a little sorry for him, and, at times, even feel gently admiring. I like the fact that when the whole world was saying “Pick door A and you’ll be a success,” he picked door B. And I like the fact that, when everyone was saying that the most important thing in the world was to make money, he tried, however clumsily, to make art.
It isn’t just how to write that a writer learns during his or her apprenticeship. Looking back, I can’t feel that there’s something healthy about spending years banging one’s head against a wall. One gains, among other things, the luxury of failure, a necessary luxury for an artist. Working long and hard at things that others consider ridiculous builds the muscles of nonconformity. And perhaps delusion is a necessary tool. “Without hope there is no endeavor,” was a line of Samuel Johnson’s that Bate was fond of quoting. I wonder if any young writer would ever finish a book if he knew just how long and hard the effort would be, and how little the end result would impact the world. Without the drunkenness of excitement, would we ever even start anything? I admire the grit of that character I was, but I also know that much of his energy sprang from his delusions. He would never get the fame and glory he so craved, but in its stead he would get regular habits and pleasure and the sanity of work—not such a bad trade in the end. I’m glad it wasn’t easy for him. Our failures are our strengths; our calluses define us.
* * *
My extended adolescence showed no signs of abating as I approached my thirtieth birthday. It was only through the good fortune of a life-threatening illness that I finally stopped my obsessive scribbling. Had I not gotten sick, I’m sure I’d be sinking in my Quagmire to this day.
I learned I had testicular cancer. For a month or two the prognosis was uncertain and I wasn’t sure if I would live or die. When it became clear I would survive, I felt like a snake that had shed its old skin. I secretly hoped the surgeon had cut the old book away with the tumor. I began to make a story out of what was happening to me as soon as I got sick; I understood that now I finally had something to say. But during the enervation of the radiation treatments, I couldn’t yet muster the energy to begin to say it.
In April, in the midst of radiation, I received some good news. I had been accepted into a writing program inColoradoand would move West in September. But before I left the East, I had some unfinished business. Perhaps freed by the desperation of sickness, I finally had the courage to contact Walter Jackson Bate. I wrote him a long, honest letter, telling him how much he and his books had meant to me over the years, how I had struggled to begin to write, and how I would like to visit him. He responded by inviting me to his home inCambridge.
A few weeks later he was greeting me at his door, wearing a light blue flannel shirt with blue suspenders and blue pin-striped pants. His hair was whiter now, and I noticed, as we shook hands, that his fingers were smaller than I recalled, not the elongated flesh spiders they had grown into in my imagination.
We retired to the living room where he reclined in a brown La-Z-Boy. I sat on the edge of the couch across the room, leaning forward again like the old days, eager to catch every word. Tobacco spilled out over his side table; he pinched up a finger full and jammed it into his pipe.
I sat silent and waited, with no thought of starting the conversation. Older, a little wiser maybe, I was still deeply intimidated by the sleepy-looking septuagenarian with blue smoke swirling up and around his face. What could I possibly say that would be significant to such a man?
Around his waist Bate wore a white cummerbund, or girdle, that I now realized was a brace. He leaned back farther in his La-Z-Boy.
“I can’t sit up for long,” he sighed.
“Your back’s bad?” I asked quickly.
He studied me. His eyes were a soft blue, weighed down at their ends by the slight droop of age.
“Oh, it’s not good I’m afraid,” he said.
I had mentioned my own health problems in my letter, and now I saw an opening, a way to at once change the subject and sound literary.
“I’m thinking of moving out toColorado,” I said. “Like Hans Castrop going to the mountains to recover.”
“Oh, yes, Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, “he said with a smile. “I’m afraid I could never bring myself to reread it. Every time I started it would bring out my hypochondriacal tendencies.”
His pipe had gone out and he began to distractedly bang it on the ash tray, dislodging old tobacco, but then he blinked once, and looked up at me, his blue eyes shining alert.
“But your health,” he said. “You are feeling well again?”
Up until that moment he had sounded weary, but now he was wide awake. I like to think that it was empathy—the quality that so distinguishes and enlivens his work—that woke him up that day. In his books he had always become those he wrote about. The legend in college was that he had grown sick and developed a nearly tubercular cough as he neared the end of his life of Keats, and in the same way my sickness seemed to draw him out of himself. Worried about my health, he leaped to his feet to cook us a lunch of broccoli soup and grilled cheese. During the meal of course I was on my best behavior, as if my literary future were being judged by my table manners, but I couldn’t help smiling when he put down his spoon and his right hand began to flutter above our sandwiches.
I listened as he railed against former Harvard presidents and deconstructionists and the excesses of modern art.
“Perhaps I’m lost in the past,” he said. “But I have a preference for the 19th century straight narrative novel. Since Joyce, it seems that fiction has become a puzzle built for academics to figure out.”
I reminded him of a comment he’d made in class once. “You were talking about that Henry Moore statue in front of Lamont. You said it looked like a giant pretzel left out in the rain.”
He laughed. “That might have been a little harsh.”
For the rest of the afternoon his mind tendrilled into different subjects, crawling out into them, exploring one idea, moving on to explore the next. I drove him to theMt.Auburncemetery where we walked for over an hour. Anything seemed capable of sparking new thoughts.
He pricked his finger on a rosebush and swore. Immediately the subject turned to the derivation of common curses. He began a discourse on the word “shit.”
“It comes from the Latin, you see. It means to shoot—to expel.”
He shot his arm out quickly as he said the last word.
“And what about ‘fuck’?” I heard myself asking.
“Quite a direct word, isn’t it?”
Directness led to indirectness which led to Samuel Johnson’s disdain for periphrasis. He pointed at me.
“Johnson wouldn’t have liked the way you called the toilet a ‘washroom’ after lunch. He had no patience for roundabout talk. Like calling fish ‘the scaly breed.'”
I asked him if he still lectured.
“Oh, no, no. They’ve put me out to pasture, you see. This retirement age is a relatively new thing, but they’re quite steadfast about it. Even John Kenneth Galbraith couldn’t fight it. When I was an undergraduate it was different. I remember listening to Alfred North Whitehead lecture in a course called Cosmology. His voice was thin and frail by then, and you had to lean forward to catch his words, but what he said was fascinating.”
“Yes, they let people carry on a good deal longer back then.”
* * *
It was a good day. Afterward we wrote letters and spoke on the phone a few times. Then later that summer, right before I left forColorado, Walter Jackson Bate called and invited me up to the mythic farmhouse inNew Hampshire. It had taken over ten years, but I had finally achieved the same status as my roommate Jon.
In early August I made the trip toNew Hampshire. On the first afternoon we toured the property in his old Jeep, just as he and Jon had. I had to bite my tongue to keep from crying out as we bombed down dirt paths, through briars, and across farmland. Here was my old professor wearing a pair of flip-up sunglasses and smiling with delight at the speed and rushing wind. I’d heard stories about his charging round campus on a motorcycle as a young man, but I’d never before been able to imagine Walter Jackson Bate as daredevil. This was a new twist.
After dinner that night, he poured us drinks. We drank several “Italian kisses,” a mixture of red and white vermouth, then small glasses ofMadeira, or “old Maumsby” as he called it—”The liquor that Richard the Third had his brother drowned in,” he muttered. I nodded as if I knew the allusion.
That night, as usual, his talk was varied, ranging from cattle to religion. The first subject came up because it turned out he’d owned a small dairy farm “after the war,” the second when I, emboldened by liquor, asked him if he believed in God.
“Oh, yes, I suppose.” he said. He pointed out through the plate glass window. Rain poured down hard on the flower beds and mist rose above the rolling hills. “I have to believe that there is something behind such a miraculous world.”
I was surprised by his statement, even more surprised by the adamancy of my response.
“I can’t believe in Heaven,” I said. “Heaven seems the worst case of wishful thinking. Like believing in Santa Claus.”
He studied me.
“I said I believed in a God who created the universe,” he said. “I never said I believed in an afterlife.”
He stood up and excused himself, and I wondered if I had committed a grave faux pas. But he returned a moment later with a book in his hands.
He sat down and, without introduction, began to read from T.S. Eliot’s “East Coker.” He began in a near monotone, but then his voice began to quaver, becoming more dramatic, and his hand—the wonderful right hand—fluttered and rose off his lap. Throughout the poem he held his hand up by the side of his head. It trembled slightly like a dry leaf as he read:
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
He sighed as he finished, cupped wrinkles drooping below his eyes. At that point in my life his reading was the most dramatic thing I’d ever heard. I had no idea what to say.
“Thank you,” I managed.
“Thank you,” he said. “It’s been years since I read poetry out loud. The last time I read this piece was at Eliot’s memorial service.”
If I had not already been transported to some other mythical literary stratosphere, this last bit of casual name-dropping sent me there. The poetry, the liquor—”Old Maumsby”; here even the booze was poetic!—and Bate’s presence intoxicated me. Of course I should have let the moment settle, should have savored it, but that wasn’t my style. Before I could stop myself my lips began to flap and words spilled out of my mouth.
“I don’t really know how to tell you this, or even if I should,” I blurted. “But I feel I have to. Since I first heard your lectures I’ve tried to write the book I mentioned in my letter. For seven years now I’ve been writing it and rewriting it, but I can’t stop. No matter how I try I can’t get it right. You see I want it to be a great book but. . . .”
I carried on in this vein for a good ten minutes, my words becoming more and more tangled. I tried to explain how I had begun a new story, about my cancer, but I didn’t feel it would be right to start the new book until the old was finished. Wasn’t it logical to kill off the old and put it to rest before starting the new?
When I finally finished my confession, I stared down at the floor. I had no idea what to expect, but wouldn’t have been too surprised if he’d walked across the room and slapped me.
“A tar baby.”
I heard the words and looked up. His chin rested in one hand while the other rubbed his eyes.
“What?” I asked.
“A tar baby. That’s what we used to call it before the word became unfashionable. A tar baby. You put your hands on it, get stuck to it, caught on it, never get away from it. I’ve seen the same thing happen to friends and colleagues. Seen it ruin careers.”
He paused to sip his drink.
“They say that knowing too much about a historical period makes it impossible to write historical novels. Maybe you know too much about your book. Maybe it’s time to stop for a while, to put it aside and work on other things.”
“But I feel I have to finish it. If I don’t, the last decade will be a failure.”
“Of course you feel that way,” he said sharply. “If you didn’t it wouldn’t be a tar baby. But despite how you feel, you must put it aside. Keats had the right idea when he refused to further revise Endymion. He wrote: ‘Let this youngster die away.'”
* * *
The next two days passed quietly. We read, walked, talked, and toured the property in his jeep. I took notes in my journal, a Boswell to his Boswell. During those days Bate spoke of many things but never mentioned my outburst over my writing or his response, and I thought perhaps he’d forgotten about it since we’d both been a little drunk. Our conversations grew less literary, often revolving around domestic affairs.
“The one rule is we don’t let the cat out at night. If we do a fox might get her. You’ve got to be careful. She waits by the door and then—zip!” With the last word he shot his finger and whole arm forward with amazing speed.
Another day passed and I imagined that I was perhaps overstaying my welcome. I decided to leave a day early. The night before my departure Bate left me in his study as he headed up to do his nightly reading.
“The TV is set on channel three for the VCR,” he said as he left. “You just call me if you want to turn it on. It’s easier to do than to explain, like so many things in life.”
I had no interest in watching TV. Instead I sat quietly at the plain oak desk without drawers where he’d composed the Johnson and Keats biographies. He had written them, he’d told me, while teaching full time.
“The teaching is the pleasure,” he said. “The writing the work.”
I began to examine his bookcase, the classics and the Agatha Christies and The History of Hand Cut Nails in America. I came across an old, particularly tattered book, an Avon Classic that had cost thirty-five cents: The Aims of Education by Alfred North Whitehead. The pages were working their way free of the spine, and I delicately picked up each one, turning them over one by one. It wouldn’t be going too far to say there was an air of religious discovery about my enterprise. I couldn’t tell what was more exciting—Whitehead’s own words or Bate’s notes scribbled excitedly in the margins. “Knowledge does not keep any better than fish” had a checkmark next to it, and “Above all the art of reading aloud should be cultivated” was underscored twice. “Interest is the sine qua non for attention and apprehension,” Whitehead had written. Next to that, scrawled in the margin, was Bate’s response; “So literature, when it is taught, must be tied up with a student’s concerns. It must be shown as projecting or dramatizing the problems of life with which he is familiar.” At times Bate argued with his old professor. “The second-handedness of the learned world is the secret of it’s mediocrity,” Whitehead wrote. Bate took exception: “But the second-handedness can be supplemental. Also it depends on how the feeling is felt. If felt directly, it is not second-hand.”
I was lost in his books when Bate himself called down goodnight. Jamming Whitehead back into the case, I returned to my bedroom. But I was far too excited to sleep and soon was back in the study. I took a volume of Johnson’s Rambler off the shelf, copying down in my notebook the sections Bate had underlined. Among the passages was one from Rambler #60 on biography. I’d heard Bate quote it often before; it would become a guide for me in my future work. “There are many who think it an act of piety to hide the faults or failings of their friends,” I read, but, “If we owe regard to the memory of the dead, there is yet more respect to be paid to knowledge, to virtue, and to truth.”
Next I took Bate’s own biography of Johnson down and, on a whim, skimmed forward to the front pages. According to the title page, Bate had been born in 1918. I checked that date against the date of publication of his various books. Despite being obsessed with Johnson, Bate had not published his first book about him until 1955, at the age of thirty-six. He published the Keats biography eight years later at forty-four, and hadn’t produced his great life of Johnson until 1975, at the age of fifty-six.
There was something comforting about those numbers.
I hadn’t yet experienced the exhilarating feeling of re-birth and regeneration I’d feel the next year while living and writing my new book in a cabin in the Rockies, but perhaps it was then, in Bate’s study, that I got my first hint of it. I remembered Johnson’s phrase, “Without hope there is no endeavor.” I put the books aside and turned off the light. That night, for the first time in many nights, I fell asleep comforted by a feeling of hope.
* * *
Before I leftNew Hampshire, I already knew that I would follow my Boswellian impulse and write an essay about the experience. Of course I would. That weekend had been one of the most thrilling occasions in my life. I would do what almost any writer would do: I would record it. What I didn’t know was that Bate would react with indignation to that essay, which I thought a tribute, ending its chances at publication along with our friendship.
As any sophisticated reader knows, these mentor/disciple stories rarely have happy endings; they follow a fairly standard arc of infatuation to worship to disillusionment. My story is no exception. I wrote my essay a couple of years after my visit, having by then abandoned my “tar baby.” I wrote about Bate well, I think, and sent it out to a prestigious review where it was accepted, my very first acceptance as a writer. To be polite I also sent the piece to Bate, sure that he would appreciate the admiring, even loving, spirit in which it had been conceived. What he saw instead was a caricature of an enfeebled, senile old man. He called the editor of the review and raged, and the editor promised not to run the piece.
Due to the miracle of modern technology, I got the news of my first acceptance and subsequent rejection within seconds of each other, both singing out to me from my answering machine. I had been away for a weekend of cross-country skiing and had come back home, my face flushed from the outdoors and from the beer I’d drunk driving down the mountain. My fine mood got better as I listened to the first message on the machine, accepting my essay. I was in the middle of a celebratory dance when I heard—and was crushed by—the second.
Bate wrote me a scathing letter, along with a marked-up version of the essay. He particularly objected to my description of his overactive hands, saying they made him look crazy, like something from “Hogarth’s pictures of Bedlam.” The essay’s pages were filled with his scrawled notes: “Too much fluttering of hands!” “Hands again!” “Do you have a mania for hands?”
Reading the old piece today I agree with him up to a point. The essay verges on caricature, but my admiration for my subject—why call him anything other than my hero?—comes through. At the time I was decimated. Wasn’t this the man who embodied magnanimity and empathy? I sent a letter of apology, but Bate refused to respond either to it or to my phone calls. I wrote again, promising never to publish the piece.
I’m now breaking that promise. I do so with Bate dead five years and with the Johnson quote about the salutary effect of honesty in biography in mind. Though I blamed myself for the incident, I later heard stories of Bate’s occasional irrational rages, how he once threw his ash tray against an English department wall, for instance. At first it didn’t sit well with my image of the kindly, wise professor, but later I was a little more inclined to believe it.
Of course it isn’t big news that heroes have faults. For all that we pained each other, Bate remains my greatest teacher, an inspiring guide whose voice I still hear and who helped me define who I am. What I choose to remember about him is that he was heroic in the Johnsonian sense, struggling to manage his own imagination, disciplining it toward empathy and the creation of art. That that imagination might have been a bit more unruly and irrational than I first believed is no longer cause for despair or bitterness, but hope and reassurance.
* * *
At Bate’sNew Hampshire farmhouse, of course, I knew nothing of the feud to come and still regarded the idea that I might one day publish an actual book the way a dying skeptic regards the possibility of a miracle cure, hoping but unbelieving. My infatuation with Bate was still in full bloom: I saw him as my Merlin, my Obi-Wan-Kenobi. If this sounds mythic and overdone, it was. But also somewhat fitting. Recovering from cancer, coming back from the dead as it were, I was about to move to the West into a new life. And, now, how could I fail? I had the benediction of a wizard.
We took one final jeep ride around the property on that last day—the last day I would ever see Jack Bate, as it turned out. I had spent the better part of the morning thanking him, but before stepping into my car, I extended my hand for one final “thank you.” To my surprise he clasped my hand tightly and then laid his other hand on top of mine. His voice was gentle.
“I’ve been thinking about your book,” he said. “The more I think of it, the more I think you must be done with it.”
He let go of my hand.
“You understand?” he asked as I climbed into the car.
“There are plenty of other things to write. You can always go back to it. But for now be done with it. ‘Let it die away.'”
I nodded again, and he turned and began to walk the cobbled path back to the house, the cat running in front of him. He didn’t turn around as I pulled out of the driveway, but threw his right hand straight up above his head in a final backward wave.