Thursday, December 12, 2019

'We Saw Literature Growing Out of Life'

A friend reminds me that I dropped out of a large state university in the Midwest, where I was majoring in English, in 1973, just in time to avoid the plague of theory that was already lapping at the shore of literary studies. I had come as a freshman armed with two convictions: I wanted to read and wanted to write. Nothing I encountered in my three undergraduate years persuaded me otherwise. All of my professors, even the less gifted among them, assumed there was a body of books to be read and cherished. One told me I should forget Saul Bellow and embrace Jerzy Kosinski, but even he seemed to have read everything. Thanks to him (he is now a writer of unreadable novels) I first read Joyce Cary and Ford Madox Ford. Voluntary illiteracy was not yet fashionable. V.S. Pritchett writes in his brief preface to A Man of Letters: Selected Essays (Chatto & Windus, 1985):

“We saw literature growing out of life and the common experience. I had fortunately read such books when I was a youth. I had also earned my living in trades that brought me close to people more diverse than the literary. I was not a product of Eng.Lit. I had never been taught and, even now, I am shocked to hear that literature is `taught.’”

I don’t wish to romanticize the life of a dropout. Most of my motives were less than admirable but, like Pritchett, I earned an education outside the academy. My first job after dropping out was making submarine sandwiches. I worked in a car wash, a bookstore and a library before landing my first newspaper job. My idea of career planning was reading the Help Wanted ads. But that was a different world – less professionalized, less rooted in vocational training – that is, in having a bachelor’s degree. The autodidact willing to work hard still had a fighting chance. And all the while I was reading.

The friend who reminded me of this distant world called on Sunday to say he was culling his library for reasons of space and indifference. I have known Mike for more than fifty years and we roomed together as freshmen. Among the books he offered to ship were five novels by John Gardner, all first editions in mint condition, which raises another story. I was briefly a Gardner enthusiast in the early Seventies. I even interviewed him in 1974, a year after dropping out, and published a profile in an “underground” magazine. (For the same publication I reviewed, among other things, Gravity’s Rainbow.) I don’t think I’ve read a word by Gardner in forty years but I told Mike I would love to have the books. I wasn’t lying nor was my motive resale greed – more like curiosity. How will it feel to hold those once-familiar volumes again? Might I be moved to reread one or two of them? Would I feel embarrassed for my younger self or sympathize with him? Earlier in his preface, Pritchett writes of the reader/critic’s role:

“We do not lay down the law, but we do make a stand for the reflective values of a humane culture . . . . And we know that literature is rooted in the daily life of any society but that it also springs out of literature itself.”

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