Friday, October 18, 2013

Remembering JVC

Yesterday the Powerline blog—a politically conservative blog out of the Twin Cities—linked to my essay on Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather. Over a thousand first-time readers descended upon A Commonplace Blog, although few lingered long enough to poke around in the remains of my literary thought. One who did was the photographer and printmaker William Porter, who had been a classics scholar in another life. From 1979 to 1982, he had held a Mellon postdoctoral fellowship in Renaissance studies at Brandeis University. It was there that he became friends with J. V. Cunningham.

Porter soon discovered Cunningham’s significance to me as well. Four-and-a-half years ago on this blog I published my notes from a course in the history of literary criticism that Cunningham taught at Washington University in St. Louis, where he was the Hurst Visiting Professor in 1976. (I also reproduced a rare early photograph of Cunningham.) And of course I have repeated to anyone who would listen that John Williams’s brilliant minor novel Stoner, a testament to the scholarly life, is based on the life and personality of JVC.

Porter shared his own memories. (He has given me permission to quote them here.) Cunningham, he told me,

ended up writing an important letter for my dossier that helped me a lot when I moved on in 1982. I was also a poet and translator, and in particular fancied myself a writer of epigrams—so I had that to share with Cunningham as well. I got to know him and his lovely wife and visited his house out in Sudbury. I learned more from “hanging out” with Cunningham drinking coffee than I had from nearly any of the teachers with whom I’d studied for semesters or even years.Our experiences are oddly parallel. I too spent several happy afternoons with Cunningham and his wife Jessie MacGregor Campbell, an Austen scholar recently retired from Clark University, at their home in Sudbury. (Mrs Cunningham never failed to serve me carrot cake. Cunningham would not take a piece. He had given up sugar, he explained. Why? “I found that it was easier,” he said.)

For me too he wrote a recommendation, and though I doubt that it helped me very much—by the time I entered the profession of English in the late ’eighties, he was considered a reactionary by those to whom he was not obscure—the letter was precious to me. I have always wished I could use one line of it as a blurb to all my writing: “Mr Myers,” he said, “writes a prose that is always distinctive, and sometimes even distinguished.” Anyone who knows anything at all about Cunningham knows just how high this praise is. After having such a thing said about me (and by him!), there was no possible way for me to stop writing.

Porter himself turned away from the life of scholarship a decade and a half ago. “I wanted to stop reading other people’s footnotes,” he says, “and didn’t fancy lecturing Honors freshmen on Homer and Sophocles.” I have read few indictments of the humanities at the turn of the century that are more devastating, and in fewer words. Cunningham would have admired its epigrammatic quality. Harried by student complaints that my grades are too low and the Jewish holidays are “too many,” I am tempted to follow Porter into a less puerile life.

Why I stay, though, can be directly attributed to Cunningham. I have described before on this blog a scene from his course in the history of criticism. (Link provided lest my close readers fear that I have forgotten the earlier account.) One day in class, Cunningham asked the dozen or so graduate students enrolled to fill the blank in an epigram by Sir Henry Wotton:He first deceased; she for a little tried
To live without him, ________, and died.
The other students in the class struggled valiantly to rise to the occasion, devising all manner of poeticisms to satisfy the missing cretic foot. I was dull and embarrassed by my dullness. I wrote in resignation:He first deceased; she for a little tried
To live without him,
went to bed, and died.
Wotton’s original, of course, is far more distinguished:He first deceased; she for a little tried
To live without him,
liked it not, and died.
Cunningham read my pitiful effort aloud to the class and said, “In twenty-five years of teaching, this is the best wrong answer I have ever received.” Porter’s reaction to my anecdote is worth quoting in full:“The best wrong answer I have ever received.” Sounds just like the man. Seems to say very little, but in fact prompts one (well, if one is attentive) to start wondering about lots of things. That’s what I remember about my conversations with him. There was a lot of silence, but when talking was done, he’d let me do more than my share. This of course encouraged me to think what I was saying must be interesting or important. And then he’d drop some little comment that would keep me awake at night for a week. Without a doubt the most efficient teacher I ever knew.Yes, exactly. Every word of Cunningham’s was measured. (The pun is intentional.) His speech was as packed and pointed as his famous epigrams. (See here and here and here for examples.) He never belabored a point, because he expected you to reach the understanding, upon further reflection, that what he said was necessary and true.

Cunningham’s comment in class has kept me awake for three and a half decades. Only after corresponding with William Porter, though, did I realize the meaning of his “prompt” in my life.

In one sentence, Cunningham defined the scholarly life. It is not a matter of formulating correct answers, which is something that undergraduates, with their obsession over grades, cannot seem to grasp. It is a matter of so inhabiting other men’s minds, other men’s time, that your wrong answers are very nearly their own thinking.

I have never become disgusted with “other people’s footnotes,” because I have never wasted much attention upon them. I have been distracted by greater minds. Of course, I’ve never had a very successful academic career, and this in part is why. Despite my professional failure, though, I have remained in the university to pursue a scholarly life. And why? Because the difficulty of entering greater minds, whether they are the founders of creative writing or the Roth to whom I keep returning, is a challenge that has never grown stale for me.

There are only so many footnotes that a person can read. There are, however, an inexhaustible number of lines of verse to get almost right.

9 comments:

George said...

I have been thinking about Cunningham lately, partly because I have been teaching ESL an evening a week, and verse seems to me an excellent way to illustrate how stress patterns work in English. I had in mind the epigram for a college yearbook, and the one for (I think) The Helmsman. I have not yet copied them out to make the students read, but probably will.

Unknown said...

I cannot help but read these entries in your actual voice.

PMH said...

No memories of JVC for me, I truly regret to say, for such encounters are rare--as they should be. But at the mention of sustaining persons, texts, or processes, my mind flashed to Spender's "One More New Botched Beginning": "Such pasts / Are not diminished distances, perspective / Vanishing points, but doors / Burst open suddenly by gusts / That seek to blow the heart out."

The best of lives. Thank you for prompting me to remember that.

perkofashion said...

be better for the live

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