Only Mom and me were there – my words, somewhat prophetic; her memory, precise.
First, an admission. While returning to my Stan Musial – Ted Williams Little League days in reading and commenting on When Magic Throws a Curveball in my recent “Blogging Bad” post, I recalled my Mother, quoting me: “I like writin’, but I don’t like readin’.”
My youthful discretionary reading consisted of baseball books and King Arthur stories. A friend recently suggested I return my B.A. English degree to my Alma Mater, when she learned I hadn’t read Tom Sawyer until after my retirement. (I had read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, my favorite all-time novel, long ago.)
A confluence of events – nearing high school graduation, hearing a friend perform “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” in a performance by the girls’ drum-and-bugle corps, and (King Arthur again) the premiere of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot – closely followed by an exceeds-lonesome freshman year two thousand miles from home – led me to discovering that Broadway was the source of my favorite romantic songs, and many weekends I would take the T into Boston and buy for $2.49 the LP album with my new favorite song. Among the highlights of these forlorn Bean Town excursions was catching a couple of double-features – “Knights of the Round Table” and “Ivanhoe,” and “Oklahoma” and “Carousel.”
I believe it was my college advisor who steered me into the English department. I met him on college day two, asking to change from Pre-Law to Chemistry, thinking I could tap into my Father’s gene pool. Tapping the gene pool proved unsuccessful, and at the end of the year he analyzed my high school record and re-directed my meandering.
Hello, Milton, Chaucer, and colleagues. Readin’: The classics were one-hundred percent creative works; Writin’: the term papers, one-hundred percent analysis, commentaries, and critiques. There was one Creative Writing course.
Of all the papers I wrote, only three jump into my memory.
For “Creative Writing”: For the first paper due, the professor, a short story writer, needed to make the point that writers aren’t special people, and he demonstrated by selecting one paper and destroying it, line by line. “C’est moi!” First line – “where is the character?” Second line – “where is the plot?” And on, and on, and on and on. I hadn’t read the syllabus. Maybe it said “Creative Writing = Short Story writing.” I had written amusing themes in high school, and I submitted a paper I thought was channeling James Thurber. My humiliation was partly relieved, near the end of the essay, by one student in the back row laughing at something that was supposed to be funny. Result: I succumbed to grade pressures and wrote short stories, didn’t submit the musical I had been working on all semester – a book (script and lyrics) for Sunspots on the Moon, inspired by a Time Magazine story about parents in Darien, Connecticut, arranging social dates for their eleven- and twelve-year-olds – a kind of “Leave It to Beaver” scenario. It may have embarrassed the professor when I was the only class member with an honorable mention in the Atlantic Monthly short story contest. He commented it was probably because my story, “Valves an’ Thangs,” was set in a distant country, Texas. I never wrote another short story. But I have written two and a half other musical scripts, and several transition scripts and lyrics for local parish musical variety fun-raiser shows.
For “The Romantic Movement”: The professor would read whatever would get a laugh, and Byron’s Don Juan was low-hanging fruit. My term paper, written in verse – an introduction, six cantos, forty-three eight-line (octrain?) verses – was “Satire and Byron’s Don Juan.” I tried to emphasize that the work was a good romantic tale, as well as a satire, but I think the point escaped him. He commented, “I have read your magnum opus several times, each time with a little more enjoyment… and the format brings me much relief as I move through some fifty papers.” He later told me “several” meant “two times,” and his wife said it reminded her of Byron’s writing. I was disappointed in the ‘B’ grade, same as my colleague who merely summarized The Flowering of Byron’s Genius. My Father said I probably shouldn’t have, in my dedication to Byron before my Canto the First, written: “Now rest in peace, while I compose baloney; You can’t strike back – but wait, there’s Jack (rhymes with baloney)!” I thought he would appreciate the Byronic style.
Finally, an A- from my most esteemed professor’s “Shakespeare Comedies” – twenty-two pages and two graphs depicting intersections of confusion between a set of twins marrying a set of twins – Greek to Shakespeare to Broadway (Triple Play!):
“MISTAKEN IDENTITY AND OTHER SOURCES OF COMEDY IN
PLAUTUS THE MENAECHMI TWINS (c. 200 B.C.)
SHAKESPEARE THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (1589-93)
GEORGE ABBOTT THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE (1938)
(Music and Lyrics by Rodgers & Hart)”
With graduation on the horizon, a Shakespeare classmate helped clarify my future goals. He was heading to a PhD and professorship in literature, because “Literature teaches the great truths of mankind.” I totally agreed, and admired the certainty of his passion – and realized that wasn’t me. I was trending elsewhere. On further review, my degree should state “B.A. Meanderin’.”
Remembering those days of criticism, I summarized a few sarcastic thoughts in an homage to critics everywhere:
Theophilus Snodgrass, that critic all know
For seventeen years just read books and said “no.”
And so every author knew fame would pursue
Anyone who could please Mr. You-Know-Who.
They sent him their manuscripts, subscripts and all.
Then sent them in winter – he kept them ’til fall.
And even though no one could pass Snodgrass’ test,
At last, and at least, he found one he liked best.
It was called, simply, “Horses,” by Farnsworthy Boyd.
Theophilus liked the symbolism employed.
He commented nicely, though without any praise,
That he wanted to talk to Boyd, one of these days.
He said, “I read “Horses” ten minutes each day,
So tell me, Farnsworthy, what does it say?”
The author, not knowing he was under duress,
Said, most sincerely, “It says what it says.”
“Oh, but it’s much deeper,” said Theo in haste –
“We can’t let it go without laying it waste.
Tell the secret, now Farnie, you know where it stands.”
And the author said, “Horses should eat with their hands.”
“That’s right!” exclaimed Snodgrass, in rampant delight –
“With the fork in the left and the knife in the right!
I see deeper patterns of manners and such…
And it’s hard to believe your ancestors were Dutch!
“It reminds me of Purdy – in fifteen sixteen
He wrote of the English – the weak and the mean,
And the struggle for years, ’til the weak won the right
To stay in one place and be ready to fight!
“Yes, Farnie, I see Purdy’s influence there!
Horses transport us, but don’t get anywhere!
And you also resemble – was it Simpson of late?”
(And Boyd said to himself, “Was it something you ate?”)
“Yes, Simpson saw cows as a symbol of fate,
Eating only to someday wind up on a plate!
Do you know any other influences so keen?”
Boyd left mumbling, “Horses… you know what I mean.”