Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Fairy tales from my father

On Thanksgiving morning, my 82-year-old father and I sat together to watch NFL football. Men love sports because we can lose ourselves in them as in nothing else. That’s why we become fanatic apostles of one specific team—we submerge ourselves in it, preferring its fortunes and misfortunes and even its style of dress to our own. No surprise, then, that I had fled the demands of my wife and children on Thanksgiving morning to concentrate my entire being, in an easy chair in my father’s living room, on my beloved Houston Texans.

But my father had demands of his own. A coal miner’s son, he grew up in rural Greene County, Indiana, and became the first in his family to go off to college, taking his 17-year-old bride forty miles away to Terre Haute and Indiana State Teachers College, as it was known then. After graduation, he accepted a teaching post in a rural high school outside Crawfordsville (where I was born), and then tried a larger school in the Gary metropolitan area (where my brother was born). Still dissatisfied, he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin to earn an advanced degree in microbiology. There he was recruited by the chairman of the biology department at Riverside City College. Southern California was booming: the city of Riverside nearly doubled in population between 1950 and 1960. My family arrived in 1957, one year before the Dodgers.

Dad was a teacher—that was all he ever wanted to be. I remember him at the dining room table, a stack of blue books at his right hand, grading straight through until the stack had disappeared. He was quick to explain scientific concepts to his children, and he excelled at illustrating what he was saying with common objects—fruit, string, masking tape—from the kitchen and garage. Although he earned enough credits for a PhD in microbiology at the University of California at Riverside, he did not have the research interests of a scholar. He never finished his dissertation. He may not even have begun it. Instead, my father taught at full load of large classes at RCC for more than four decades. For years, whenever I returned to Riverside for a visit, he and I would run into his grateful and admiring ex-students when we went shopping or out to eat. (One of the strippers at my brother-in-law’s bachelor party had even been one of his students. I never mentioned her to Dad, figuring he would not be nearly as proud of the connection as I was.)

My father did not lack ambition, but he did not have what is conventionally thought of as ambition. He did not itch for career advancement. He avoided academic politics, stayed as silent as Clarence Thomas during faculty meetings, never sought an administrative appointment, and did not waste his time cozying up with the comers and climbers who could have taken him with them up the ladder. He remained loyal to the chairman who had first recruited him. They became friends and bowling teammates, but the chairman was no more hungry for career advancement than Dad. They stayed where they were, in the classroom, on the RCC campus, earning small annual raises, for their entire professional lives. My father demonstrated his loyalty to the man who had hired him, and to the institution that had given him a place, by teaching as well as he could—as imaginatively, as faithfully—for as long as he could.

Talking to him about his teaching career as the Texans ground out an overtime win against the Detroit Lions, I realized that my father had passed along his values to me without really trying. Somewhere along the line I acquired the idee fixe that if only I wrote well—if only I was honest and thorough, having original things to say on important subjects, in prose that was not entirely undistinguished—success would come. When I was about to enter graduate school at Northwestern (I took off a decade to work as a reporter), a leftist friend who had preceded me to a doctorate warned that I would be marginalized in English. I ignored him, because I was convinced that if only I wrote well, etc. After two decades at Texas A&M University, I was the lowest paid associate professor by almost $10,000 a year, although I had written some things I was proud of. The year Paul Hedeen and I published Unrelenting Readers, our large anthology of post-Vietnam poet-critics—the first of its kind, with a historical introduction by me—I was told by the review and evaluation committee that I was “not meeting departmental expectations.”

My experience at Commentary was different only in institutional setting and political orientation. In my fifteen short months as the magazine’s fiction critic and literary blogger, I wrote 139,000 words—a book the size of Lord Jim—and reviewed or wrote reconsiderations of thirty-eight different books. Some of what I wrote wasn’t bad either. I was convinced that if only I wrote well, etc., but in the end, even at a magazine with a long intellectual tradition, different criteria were in force.

Only now, late in life, do I realize that my father’s career was a fairy tale. Dad reached his intellectual maturity at exactly the right time—an expanding postwar economy, a massive population shift to the West, a sky-high confidence in education and a rising demand for scientific training. He could afford to neglect his professional image, to avoid the avoidance of risk, to fulfill his responsibilities and expect to be rewarded for nothing else. Although my father never served in the military—he is blind in one eye—his values are what used to be honored as martial virtues: “Selflessness, devotion to duty, and the courage to challenge difficult and controversial problems,” as an Air Force officer described them. But that description dates from the early ’eighties, the officer was retired, and even then “the military [was] moving away from an institutional orientation where the job is viewed as a ‘calling’ toward a civilian job outlook which emphasizes self-interest.” The martial virtues, in other words, were just as hollow and naïve as my father’s values—propaganda on behalf of institutions that fostered loyalty in an era of labor shortages.

What I believe in is untrue. The alternative of self-interest and seeking career advancement before all else, including personal integrity, is nothing I can believe in. What then do I teach my children?


Anonymous said...

The grabbers and shitheads who claw and scratch their way past the decent ones will, without exception, end their careers disappointed and envious. They already have their reward. You are better than that: chin up.

Ellen Hansen said...

Nice description of your dad. Loved our times together growing up. My dad was allot the same...just wanted to teach...not get awards....or degrees. It was all about thinking. Ellen Hansen

PMH said...

A fairy tale or just a different tale. And is this story generational? "The Greatest Generation" passing the baton to. . . . Probably not completely. I suspect that the history of every profession is marked by tensions between those with a steadfast belief in merit, or ascribe to the ambitions associated with merit, and those whose orientation is Nietzschean or political, for whom merit may or may not be either an end or a means. Still, it would be difficult to say that nothing has changed in our profession.

Unknown said...

Dr. Myers,

I have greatly benefited benefited from your dedication to language and from your integrity towards inquiry and criticism, and it saddens me to read this account of your disenchantment with these values. Your classes at Texas A&M are some of the only positive memories I have of my time there. I continue to enjoy your writing, even if it is not bringing you the kind of success you had hoped it would.

That and a quarter will get you a bag of chips, but I hope you can appreciate that you have made a great impact on a lot of people, and I hope that this can bring you some happiness and sense of satisfaction.


Jenny said...

"Somewhere along the line I acquired the idee fixe that if only I wrote well—if only I was honest and thorough, having original things to say on important subjects, in prose that was not entirely undistinguished—success would come . . . . What I believe in is untrue."
First - thank you for continuing to be a voice of sense in the increasingly pretentious and confused literary world. I greatly appreciate your blog and articles and hope you'll continue to write things the way you see them.
Second - what you believe IS true, depending on whether we experience success in tangibles or intangibles.
Keep fighting the good fight (another martial value)!

Anonymous said...


What Scott said. It's been well over a decade now (a sobering thought), but I still recall your classes as some of the most stimulating in my time in the TAMU DOE. Can't say I'm happy about the Commentary kerfuffle, but it did lead me to your always-engaging blog. Oh, and "Go Texans!"


Anonymous said...

I hope with all my heart that your children will take after you : with your ethics, gift for words and writing, and a gift for passing on enjoyment (albeit possibly not via a blog).

People are not fools who can't recognise base qualities. There are more of us than them.