Sunday, April 06, 2014

`Now Let Us See What I Can Do'

“What mattered to Jack was not what you knew or could find out. What mattered was how you responded to others, to experience, to what you read. The great qualities for Jack were intensity and empathy, and his touchstones for both came from Keats.” 

“Jack” is W. Jackson Bate (1918-1999), longtime professor of literature at Harvard and biographer of Keats, Coleridge and, supremely, Samuel Johnson. The writer is Robert D. Richardson, Bate’s student and friend, and biographer of Emerson, Thoreau and William James. The first and better half of Splendor of Heart: Walter Jackson Bate and the Teaching of Literature (David R. Godine, 2013) is Richardson’s remembrance of Bate as teacher, writer and mentor, though perhaps intellectual conscience is a better description. The rest of this slender volume is the transcript of the interview Bate gave another former student, John Paul Russo, in 1986. It focuses more on strictly academic pursuits and is rather dull. Richardson emphasizes the humble, provincial origins Bate shared with his great hero, Johnson. Bate was born in Mankato, Minn., and grew up in Richmond, Ind., the son of a school superintendent father and a Christian Scientist mother. Johnson (“with almost all the odds against him, temperamentally and otherwise”) was from Lichfield, son of a book dealer. Richardson, who is a gifted quoter of other men’s writing, here and in his biographies, writes: 

“Writing was a crucial, life-saving but difficult part of Johnson’s redemption. Speaking of an account the young Johnson wrote, in Latin, of his own despair verging on insanity, Bate wrote – and this is only on the eleventh page of [The Achievement of Samuel Johnson, 1955] – “For the struggle to rise above what threatened to overwhelm him by trying to isolate and describe it, hold it at arm’s length – to pluck its teeth so to speak, by seeing it intellectually for what it was, and at the same time to avoid self-absorption and subjective rationalization – is, in a real sense, the real story of Johnson’s personal achievement.” 

Richardson takes his title from a passage on the final page of The Achievement. That’s what Bate was most interested in, his former student tells us – “that human nature is able to remake and remold itself.” Bate teaches us to appreciate the quality of the writing by learning more about the qualities of the man. Bate took literature personally. Richardson writes: 

“His enthusiasm for the great eighteenth-century figures of Johnson and Burke was matched only by his passion for the Romantic poets, especially Wordsworth and Keats. He loved Dickens, admired Arnold, worshipped T.S. Eliot. I mean literally worshipped. If Jack had a religion, it was Four Quartets.” 

Bate adored Frost’s poetry and admired a fellow transplanted Midwesterner, Abraham Lincoln, above all men. He loved reading poetry aloud. Among his strongest influences were William James and Alfred North Whitehead. He was powerfully moved by the decline of Hurstwood in Sister Carrie. He possessed a bright boy’s sense of wonder and curiosity about the world. With Richardson and other students he visited Shaker villages in New Hampshire and Massachusetts: 

“Jack was deeply and openly sentimental and nostalgic about these places. He seemed utterly at home in the Shaker world. Everything interested him. There was never a professorial sniff, never the ironical nip of the urbanite.”     

Richardson calls Samuel Johnson (1977) Bate’s “best book, his major achievement, and the nearest he came in his own work to the greatness he so admired and taught.” To read Splendor of Heart is to savor a splendid bond among three writers across more than two centuries. Richardson concludes his treatment of the Johnson biography like this: “No one puts down Bate’s Johnson feeling beaten, discouraged, overmatched, or outshone. One finishes the book and, putting it down gently, thinks `Very well. Now let us see what I can do.’”

1 comment:

Guy Walker said...

' rise above what threatened to overwhelm him by trying to isolate and describe it, hold it at arm's length - to pluck its teeth so to speak, by seeing it intellectually for what it was...'This is marvellous.It confirms that humans, by being capable of observing their lives at one remove, can escape any imprisonment afforded by them. The intellect does not live in the confines of our personal geography and our temporal home.