Saturday, September 26, 2020

'To Break Bread With the Dead'

Several years ago Dana Gioia sent me a copy of Unrelenting Readers: The New Poet-Critics (Story Line Press, 2004), a collection of essays edited by D.G. Myers and Paul M. Hedeen. In the accompanying handwritten note, Dana writes:


“I don’t think many people know this book. I thought you would enjoy seeing it. There aren’t enough of us who remember Myers.”


David Myers died six years ago today, on Sept. 26, 2014, a fact that still floors me. If his name is new to you, please visit A Commonplace Blog. David was a literary scholar without the academic stuffiness that title may imply. He was also a father, husband, Orthodox Jew and my friend. David liked a good fight. Someone characterized him as the pit bull of the literary blogosphere. He hated what has happened to universities, particularly English departments, now in the business of turning out highly educated illiterates. He had a way of attracting charmers like the author of this:

“Myers and Kurp are racists and sexists pure and simple -- the worst kind too, masquerading as principled intellectuals. And if they didn't want to be called such, they should have avoided the ghastly stupidity of putting an obviously slanted ‘canon’ out for public consumption.”


That’s what sometimes happened when you befriended David. I have little taste for controversy. He thrived on it. But that’s yesterday’s skirmish, half-forgotten after almost twelve years. As Dana writes, “There aren’t enough of us who remember Myers.” We have an obligation to remember our significant dead and share that memory with others. This week a reader wrote to say he was reading Alan Jacobs' Breaking Bread with the Dead (2020). He remembered a post of mine from January 2019 in which I used a version of the line by W.H. Auden that is the source of Jacobs’ title. My reader passes along a footnote from the book:


“This is an image that Auden seems to have come up with late in his life, but he liked it enough to use it repeatedly. Its first occurrence I believe, came in a lecture he delivered in 1967: ‘Let us remember that though the great artists of the past could not change the course of history, it is only through their work that we are able to break bread with the dead, and without communion with the dead a fully human life is impossible.’” [The source is The Complete Works of W. H. Auden, vol. 5, Prose: 1963—1968 (ed. Edward Mendelson, Princeton University Press, 2015).]


One of the reasons we read Henry James, J.V. Cunningham or D.G. Myers is to humble ourselves momentarily, to concede our ignorance and myopia, and become open to what they can teach us. I haven’t yet read Jacobs' book but I find these sentences from it quoted in a review:


“The dead, being dead, speak only at our invitation: They will not come uninvited to our table.”

1 comment:

Edward Bauer said...

When David Myers died, I lost my other regular dose of literary commentary (to use the name of the location from where he was exiled rather abruptly). Like you, he got me in trouble with my wife for spending too much money on books by people she never heard of -- and she's well-read too. May his memory continue to be a blessing.