“Do any of us get beyond the boundaries of the selves we start with?” — David Gessner
Raindrops pattered against my leather jacket as I walked through Salt Lake’s Avenues neighborhood the other day. I carried an umbrella in my hand, but the light drizzle wasn’t yet annoying enough to bother unfurling it. In fact, I was rather enjoying the sensation of rain on my face without the bother of getting spots on my glasses. (LASIK is a pretty amazing thing.)
The Avenues aren’t far from the campus of my alma mater, the University of Utah, and I often find myself thinking about my college days when my constitutionals lead me there. On this particular afternoon, the location, combined with the soft, gray light and an evocative podcast playing through my earbuds, guaranteed a wander down Memory Lane.
The podcast was an interview with the writer David Gessner, who has just published a book on the authors Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey. If you’ve never heard of those two, you’re probably not from around here. Although they themselves chafed at the idea of being called “regional writers,” they were profoundly influenced by the landscape and cultures of the American West, and they are enormously significant in the eyes of Western literati. I know Abbey by reputation only — I’ve never gotten around to reading him — but I studied the works of Stegner as a lit major at the U, and while I didn’t exactly idolize him, I found many things about him and his career worth emulating. I came within a whisker of meeting him, too: My professor for that class was acquainted with him and trying to set up a classroom visit just before the unfortunate car accident that took Stegner’s life in 1993.
I remember being utterly enamored at the time with the idea of Western writers. Up to that point, pretty much all the literature-with-a-capital-L I’d encountered had been Southern, or Eastern, or European. I’d studied Shakespeare and the British Victorians and the American Realists. I’d read Nadine Gordimer (South African) and Thomas Keneally (Australian), but somehow I’d never run across a literary novel with its origins in the Western United States. (The Mountain West, I mean; California doesn’t count, Frank Norris.) To discover, right at the tail end of my undergraduate career, that there were writers from my part of the country, who wrote about places I recognized and in dialects I knew, was revelatory for me. And I remember thinking that this revelation might be the key to my own future. I imagined a career for myself studying these writers, and writing my own novels and non-fiction rooted in the surroundings I’d grown up with.
I was so naive. It physically hurts to remember how naive I was then. There are a lot of reasons why I didn’t end up with a career in academia, why I didn’t even go any farther with my education than a bachelor’s degree, but if I’m honest, the biggest one is that I was just too damn ignorant to make it happen. I spent my college years so narrowly focused on the task at hand — making the grades so I could keep my scholarship so I could keep making the grades, rinse and repeat — that I never bothered to figure out what I was going to do after I graduated. When that day came, I didn’t understand how to research or apply for grad schools, or even where I could turn for help. It was as if I’d been sleeping off a hangover while a really important orientation session was held, or something. Needless to say, my last-minute, half-hearted, half-assed efforts to get into some kind of graduate program didn’t take me very far.
Looking back, it was probably for the best. From my adult, middle-aged perspective, I don’t think I’m very well-suited for the politics and the insular, ivory-tower irrelevance that I now see as the hallmarks of career academia. My idea of what it was like to be a professor came mostly from Dead Poets Society, and I now understand that my ideas of how one should study literature were somewhat… outdated. Superficial, even. Oh, don’t get me wrong… I don’t have a guilty conscience about whether I really deserve my BA. I read the texts, I wrote the papers, I passed the tests. I even learned some things along the way. But I could never make the cognitive leaps that my classmates did when they were analyzing something. In the words of a professor who tried to help me grasp what a Master’s in literature would require, I never dug deeply enough. It was like a blind spot for me; I just couldn’t figure out how to get beyond the high-school-level concern with themes and imagery. Moreover, I didn’t really want to. All of the esoteric critical approaches that were in vogue then — semiotics, deconstruction, a whole raft of political isms — struck me as vaguely interesting, but of little actual value. I still feel that way. Does a jargon-heavy thought exercise help ordinary, non-English-major people appreciate, understand, or enjoy literature any more? Or is it just about people within a exclusive little domain trying to impress each other? An intellectual circle jerk, if you’ll forgive the vulgarity? Further, it seemed like the point of these “critical theories” was often to tear a text down and show what was wrong with it, rather than admiring what was good and valuable and true in it, and that simply rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, yes, we all know Hemingway was a horrible sexist with a whole raft of psychological issues, but we’re still reading him, right? Why is that, if he and everything he stood for was so terrible? That’s the question the “theorists” never seemed to have an answer for. I didn’t want to destroy the traditional literary canon, I wanted to know why it was canon in the first place… to find the beauty in it. And to share that with others.
I’m pretty sure Wallace Stegner probably felt the same way.
Maybe this is all a rationalization built upon 20 years of hindsight. Certainly I remember being hurt when I started getting the polite “no, thank you” form letters from the handful of programs I applied to. And I was utterly freaked out to be without any clear direction for the first time in my life. But there was also a part of me that was relieved. And that speaks volumes about what I really wanted, or at least didn’t want, doesn’t it? Maybe. Maybe I just didn’t want to put in the effort.
I wonder sometimes if I gave up too easily. If I got lazy or scared or simply discouraged. Maybe I should’ve acted when the professor who taught my Stegner class offered to pull some strings on my behalf with a guy he knew at Louisiana State. If nothing else, taking that path might’ve helped me avoid a decade of floundering until I finally staggered into something that could be called a career. Or maybe not. Maybe I would’ve ended up a decade down a road I really didn’t want to be on, and then I really would have been in a pickle…
Just some of the things I think about when I’m walking in the rain and see a little balcony with French doors, and for just a moment it seems like I can feel the gravitational pull of other lives unlived, tugging at the membrane that forever holds them out of reach.