I came back from Europe looking for tools to help me survive as an adult. The only option I saw was teaching. I would be a professor. But what would I profess?
Mother always wanted me to be writer, but the dream of writing the great American novel seemed elusive after my abortive attempts to put words on paper in Europe. I could teach Literature. However, Reed took High Culture seriously, and it took a crimp in my aspirations. Aside from the classics of 19th Century fiction, James Joyce was the only contemporary novelist worth paying attention to and T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were our only contemporary poets worth considering.
James Jones had published From Here to Eternity and Herman Wouk The Caine Mutiny in 1951. According to my professors they were pop culture. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden published in 1952 demonstrated that Steinbeck was over the hill. Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath had been a significant cultural artifact, if not a great book, but nothing of Steinbeck’s since had measured up. Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea appeared in 1952 and was grudgingly recognized as worth a read. As was Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953, was only an advocacy memoir. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 published the same year was pop culture. So were William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in 1954 and Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar in 1955. Trash. That year’s Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov was only whispered about.
We read Joyce’s short stories and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, longing, as Joyce put it at the end of Portrait, to “… encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” (What “race” was that?) I struggled through Joyce’s Ulysses in my spare time and devoured Eliot’s The Wasteland. I was so enamored with this poem that I learned large sections by heart and can repeat them to this day.
The Wasteland was High Culture at its highest. You needed a guide to classical literature and the multi-volume version the Oxford English dictionary to begin to understand the poem. I read it again in 2007, struck by its deep pessimism. Written in 1922, it spoke as eloquently to the survivors of World War II as it did to the survivors of the first grand “war to end all wars” for whom it was written. Both wars had destroyed an imagined ideal past and ushered in ages of uncertainty. Eliot begins by turning the traditional season of hope, Spring, on its head.
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm …
The fear that Eliot was able to evoke in his simplest narrative lines, as the Son of man seeks solace in a cave, told us how the world would appear after nuclear destruction.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
Modern civilization was a wasteland, of course. Ginzberg’s Howl was a variation on a theme. The Wasteland ends with the poet’s quest for meaning, a meaning which also enamored the Beats. He’s at the Ganges River, where he hears the words of the Upanishad as the Thunder God speaks, “datta, dayadhvam, damyata,” which is roughly translated: “Give, Be Compassionate, Be Self-Controlled.” And then the word Shanti is repeated three times, which is the ending to the Upanishad and is usually translated, ‘The Peace which passeth understanding.”
Neither Joyce nor Eliot inspired me. The truth is, they intimidated me. As for teaching literature, there seemed to be more books of criticism than worthy books of fiction to criticize. By the end of the semester I didn’t want to teach literature. I wanted to seek the truth that Unitarians talked about by studying philosophy. I changed majors in my Junior year.