318 readings

14

He always had an edge to him. He would poke and probe in his affable way, an agreeable curmudgeon. Maybe it was just his generation; I don’t know. But now he was getting old, and I wanted to do something for him—something to bring calm, a new beginning I hoped. I was delighted to find what I needed—a gift for a great Thoreau scholar, from a Whitman guy who was coming into his own. Gordon Driscoll was standing at the door of his house, tall but slightly stooping, waiting, as I pulled my car in the driveway. I made my way up the walk, and as I approached, he smiled and asked, “How are the multitudes?”

He didn’t care for Whitman. He thought my study of him unserious, an indulgence, compared to his study of Thoreau. He mocked Whitman’s “barbaric yawps.” He liked to ask if I’d loafed and invited my soul lately. I used to cite Emerson’s “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” but he’d only add, “Yes, and he put that line on the spine of his book, never asking permission.” It was true. I eventually learned it was best to let Gordon go on for a bit and then turn the conversation in another direction.

In the foyer, his gracious wife Louisa welcomed me warmly. We talked briefly about children and grandchildren, and then, with glasses of wine in hand, Gordon guided me to his study, where carpet yielded to hardwood. He offered me the seat of honor, his maple captain’s chair, which recognized his twenty-five years of service at the university. He sat in a nearby sofa. I looked around the well-shelved study, delighted at the extraordinary collection of scholarly Thoreau books, many in dust jackets, probably many inscribed to Gordon years before I was even in graduate school. I readily spotted the shelf of Gordon’s own books on Thoreau. In the far corner was a row of olive-colored file cabinets, piled high with books and papers. And above them all was a framed portrait of a dreamy-eyed Thoreau. There was just too much to see at once. Gordon rose, reached to a high shelf behind the sofa, and showed me his prize—a first edition of Walden, with the publisher’s catalogue in the back, in pristine condition. I placed my glass on a coaster and held the book with pleasure. He seemed glad to hear my admiring words and after a short while returned it to its shelf and sat down again.

“This is a wonderful study, Gordon—your private Walden, I think.” I’d hit the right note. He was getting comfortable—and so was I. I decided to recall some of his old friends, great Thoreau scholars of bygone days, and some not-so-great ones. He was glad to follow my lead and soon took over, telling me of the most outrageous conference papers he’d ever heard, laughing and harrumphing with easy glee. I sipped my wine. He was in rare form.

Finally he slowed down and looked earnest and asked, “OK, so—what are you working on?” I was quiet for a moment or two. He knew that something was coming.

“It’s about that 1856 visit to Brooklyn—”

Gordon stiffened a bit. “Now that’s a contentious topic. I’m surprised you’d bring it up. You know what I think. Whitman never sufficiently respected Henry. He was just so full of himself. Sure, he admired Henry’s independence, but his main interest in Henry’s visit was in Henry’s opinion of him. Whitman was in love with his own greatness. He didn’t adequately value his extraordinary visitor.”

“That may be so. And yet—”

“And yet nothing. They argued about reading. Henry held to a standard, and Whitman argued for man ‘en masse.’ He offered the same old sentimental stuff. He didn’t get Henry’s idea of great reading—he saw only what he thought of as ‘disdain.’”

Gordon was getting worked up. He was always annoyed with Whitman’s cosmic sense of himself and what Gordon considered his sloppy democratizing. Gordon shared what Whitman himself had recognized as Henry’s “reservations” about him.

“I understand, Gordon. I understand; I do. But I have something new.”

“Hmmm.” He looked doubtful. He took a sip of wine. “OK, then: what’ve you got?”

“Whitman did understand. And he was impressed. Thoreau’s argument stayed with him.”

“What? How do you know?”

“It’s in the language.” Gordon was interested. He’d always argued that everything was in the language.

“When Thoreau wrote in Walden of his ‘high sense’ of reading—”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Gordon said impatiently, leaning over to reach his Princeton edition. “Of course, the ‘Reading’ chapter”—he flipped through the pages and found the passage, intoning, grandly, “‘Of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tiptoe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.’” He looked at me as if to say, “Here is wisdom. What’ve you got?”

I withdrew the paperback edition of Democratic Vistas that I’d carried in my blazer pocket. I turned to the bookmarked page near the end. “Listen to this,” I urged. Gordon seemed put out to have to hear the words of my man, but he bore up, and he melted a bit as I went on: “‘Books are to be called for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle.’”

Gordon said nothing, clearly absorbed.

“Did you hear it?” I asked.

He checked the earlier Thoreau passage and then directed, “Read it again.”

I read the Whitman passage again, and he listened carefully, and I could see that he heard it—with those words “reading,” “sleep,” “in highest sense,” and “exercise.”

“Nobody’s seen this yet?”

“Not as far as I know.”

He hesitated, then said, “This is great. This is really great,” and, reaching back, added, “It may perhaps have immense significance.”

There was a stillness—I could not tell of what. Perhaps he was embarrassed. Finally he said, “Good for you,” enjoying his ambiguity of tone. But I knew what he meant. “Where will you publish on that?” And we talked of various journals and their merits and of whether I should save it for the book. He was prudent and practical, suggesting that I stake my claim in an article in one of the top journals and develop the implications further in my book. I agreed.

And then he offered a toast: “To Henry—and Walt--and great reading.” We clinked our glasses and drank slowly and fully.

The visit was soon over. Gordon stood up and thanked me for coming. He ushered me out of his study back to the soft carpet and to Louisa, who looked curiously at the two of us. Gordon made a dismissive gesture, and we walked back to the front door.

I turned to him before I left and said, “Gordon, this is for you,” and I gave him my copy of Democratic Vistas. He read my inscription, and his eyes misted. And for a moment that I will long remember, he hugged me. I was amazed. His wife was amazed. I think he was amazed.

Then he backed off and softly recited the most surprising thing I ever heard him utter--a benediction that will never end: “‘A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.’”

I could say only, “Thank you, Gordon. Thank you very much.” We shook hands, and I returned to my car and drove home.

I never saw him again—he died a few months later. But we had had that moment that almost never happens—the moment that reveals what’s behind it all. In his standing on tiptoe to read, he had not been alone.

CONTEST

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14

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Image of Peterrugg
Peterrugg · ago
Great comment!
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Image of Larry Taitelbaum
Larry Taitelbaum · ago
A wonderful short. I really appreciated the settings, it gave the story visual legs. Reminds me of a discussion of how a composer might have been influenced by the phrasing of a predecessor, found only in a short comparison of a less known work. Are these thematic phrases and your literary nuances influences, or are they memories that creep in? Although not contemporaries, compare one of Schubert's piano sonatas (in G) with Sibelius's famous Finlandia.
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Image of Peterrugg
Peterrugg · ago
Thank you!
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Image of Jopee Trollaynus
Jopee Trollaynus · ago
Ah, intriguing. You force your reader to look for that deeper structure in a passage. Perhaps the reader finds it. Or perhaps, as the adult in the benediction does there at the end, the reader is not sure how to respond to something so profound as the child's observation about grass. Nicely done Peterrugg!
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Image of Carey
Carey · ago
Thanks for the story!
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Image of Peterrugg
Peterrugg · ago
Pleased to have been included.
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