A friend in Peterborough, New Hampshire (Thornton Wilder’s model for Our Town), just taught her last class after sixty years of pedagogy during which time she devoted herself to the possible literary enlightenment of generation after generation of students who expressed a declining interest in what we used to call, if memory serves, belles letters (not to be confused with the postal person ringing the bell!).
She chose as her valedictory lesson a discussion of Thomas Gray’s famous 1751 “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” This seemed, as she explained (in an email, of course), an appropriate way to drop the curtain on a long career and to pay homage to authors whose works she had lovingly shared with students during a cultural shift from pecking out words carefully on a Remington to born-again telegram-(Tweet)-users.
When she came to the line, “The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” she was too tactful and respectful of her students’ needs and rights to be in step with their own generation to suggest that anything morbid like the “death of literature” was on her mind.
In fact, it wasn’t. Not Gray’s “moping owl,” but an indomitable optimist, a Unitarian Universalist who believes we all possess a “higher self,” she is convinced Great Literature will survive as Giant Redwoods of insight into the human condition without which knowledge we are unlikely to survive.
She was tempted to tell her night-school students where she teaches as an adjunct, post-official retirement, that literature which has passed the “test of time” is just that –timeless, a National Park of received wisdom.
Which brings me to another National Park Service analogy (Ranger hats off to TR and Ken Burns ), even as I am of Manhattan a son. When you’ve taught in an advanced Department of English for many decades as have my friend (an old flame who became a beacon in the night) and I, each new critical approach keeps pushing you further down the academic gorge like a stratum of flint so that, in time, you become the bottom layer of a literary declivity.
It may not be the Grand Canyon or even the Zora valley south of where I live (Buffalo), but there you are for a while, maybe even a long time, one of the lower Gorky-like depths of literary geology. It’s not a desperate place to be. One will have more than a few collegial boulders nearby for company, but it’s an emotional load to bear.
Until, viola!, the old becomes so old and forgotten that its starts to look new, becomes a site of excavation, and is heralded as the most fashionable -ism around.
Something like that is happening now. During a recent historic snowstorm in Buffalo and its south towns, old friends, hither and yon (think “Moon Over Miami”), were sending me quotes from John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1866 Snowbound and lyrics from an old Amherst College song: “Paige’s horse is in a snow drift…” (1889).
It seems as if “The Times They Are A-changing,’” and Frank Sinatra’s affirmation of marriage in “Chicago” – “I saw a man, he danced with his wife/In Chicago” – may be dated no longer in light of the recent passage of the “Respect for Marriage Act.”
Sometimes the future looks like a version of the past captured (not to coin a phrase and add to inflation). If we ever encounter another life-form in deep space, it may turn out that they will dress (if they do) like Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln.
This is all a way of saying, “Don’t feel obsolete, no matter how old and old-fashioned you are, you may become a role-model for future generations!”
And when they sing a quantum redndition of“Auld Lang Syne” ages hence, you just may be a symbol of who they — somewhat robotic and computer generated versions of us – would like to resemble.
On second thought, I may need more than one drink…waiter!
P.S. The ex-old flame just texted and suggested we share a cabin on a Luxury Barge Tour of the Loire Valley. Garcon!
Howard R. Wolf ‘s daughter (“A+”) once told a friend when she was nine, “You don’t understand, my father likes old things and wood.” He has struggled ever since to reconcile this preference with a commitment to progressive Democracy. A graduate of then button-downed Amherst College in the mid-20th century, he is the author of a collection of radio commentaries: Life at the Top of the Bottom: A Tableau of Provincial Life in America.