Call and Response

“We seize the unrealistic question–the call–as an opportunity to formulate a response. Maybe my “call” and our “responses”–yours; mine; my students’–might be just enough to anchor us, to ground us, to keep us steady, and to keep us connected to what matters most.”

A few months before Daniel Boorstin retired in 1987 as the 12th Librarian of Congress, I had the honor to interview him. It was a rare opportunity. Armed with pencils and pad, I was readied with more than an ample number of questions, the answers to which I hoped might reveal new insights into the man whose prolific, prize-winning books included the trilogy: The Americans: The Colonial Experience (1958); The Americans: The National Experience (1965); and The Americans: The Democratic Experience (1973).

I still remember one of those questions.

I wanted to know, as preposterous as I knew the question to be, what book in the Library of Congress he would keep if he had to throw every book away save one.

I still remember Dr. Boorstin’s response. It stings as much now as it did then.

“Oh, I can’t answer a question like that. It’s not realistic.”

Of course, he couldn’t.  After all, the Library of Congress is the largest library in the world with more than 25 million cataloged books.

Nonetheless, he proceeded to respond to my unrealistic question.

“I might say the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). When dictators burn books–let me say the first books to keep are the books that would be burned by a dictator. I’m saddened that people in parts of the world … can’t read what they want. We should weep for our fellow human beings who can’t read whatever they want.”

You would think that I would have learned a lesson about asking unrealistic questions.

And I did.

But if you’re thinking that I learned not to ask unrealistic questions, you’re wrong.

What I learned is this: ask the questions even if they might be perceived as unrealistic.

And that is exactly what I have always done. And that is exactly what I will keep on doing.

It should come as no surprise, then, when I tell you that I love asking my students questions, even unrealistic ones.

Just last week, smackdab at the beginning of the semester, I tossed one to my Creative Writing students: 

“What important lesson have you learned during the pandemic?” Write a 500-600 word essay responding to the question.

I had no sooner given the assignment than Dr. Boorstin’s comment started reverberating in my memory. “I can’t answer a question like that.”

But after the echo quieted, I remembered that Dr. Boorstin responded to my question anyway, unrealistic as he considered it to have been.

And I remember so vividly that his response joyed me, thrilled me–not so much for the content (though I think that his selection of OED was a stellar choice)–but more because he graciously went right ahead and responded to a question that he had just stingingly characterized as unrealistic!

Truth be told, it wasn’t until just now–this very moment, actually–that I realized how successful I was with that interview. I went into the interview simply hoping that I might gain at least one new, unique insight into this acclaimed historian. And I did! By asking my unrealistic question, I gained a priceless response: Dr. Boorstin’s statement that the OED might be the one book from the millions of books in the Library of Congress that he would save.

Search and explore, if you will, all the published interviews with Dr. Boorstin, and I daresay that you will not find this little nugget anywhere other than in the September/October 1987 issue of Insights: The Library of Congress Professional Association Newsletter that published the full interview.

But I digress, as I am so inclined to do, as I so love to do when I’m fooling around with ideas and words.

Let’s get back to my students, wherever it was that I left them before my digression caused my moment of forgetfulness! Ah, there they are: I found them again. I usually do! It seems that they might be talking about how preposterous the topic is that I asked them to explore, how unrealistic it is.

If they feel that way, I get it. I feel that way, too. No doubt, you do, too. No doubt, we all feel that way because we have all gone through so much during a pandemic that has lasted for two years and that threatens to dog us into the future. Globally. Nationally. Personally.

How do we cope with the challenging times ahead, whatever they might be?

Maybe, just maybe, we make it through the same way that my students will make it through as they write about what they have learned.

Maybe, just maybe, we take a moment to pause.

Maybe, just maybe, we take a moment or three or more from all the busy-ness that so often prempts the genuinely important things in our lives.

We let our minds wander. We pause in wonder. We think about what we have learned. We reflect.

We seize the unrealistic question–the call–as an opportunity to formulate a response. Maybe my “call” and our “responses”–yours; mine; my students’–might be just enough to anchor us, to ground us, to keep us steady, and to keep us connected to what matters most.

I have no idea how my students will respond to the call–absolutely no idea. I am writing this blog post days before I will have seen their submissions. But I am confident that they will respond. And it won’t be because of a grade. It will be because they have an opportunity to sort through it all.

It will be an opportunity for them to explore a question that, perhaps, no one has asked them to explore before, especially with the requirement that they chronicle their explorations in writing.

As they sort through it all and share what they have learned, I reserve to them the right to preface their lessons learned with the same caveat that Dr. Boorstin used to preface his response: “I might say […].”

Tomorrow, my students might change their minds and explore another lesson learned. Actually, I hope that they do!

Whatever it is they might say, I will value, honor, and respect their responses. For they will have done what I hope each of us will do as we grapple with a pandemic that baffles science and scientists and that requires daily changes to the game plan.

Respond. Write. Distill.

Since my students have to grapple with and respond to my unrealistic question, it seems to me that I should have to do the same. It seems to me that I should have to sort through my own pandemic experiences and arrive at a lesson that I have learned.

And that’s exactly what I’m doing in this post.

What I have learned (re-discovered, if you will) is how much I love fooling around with ideas and words. It brings me great delight. It always has. As a child, I fooled around with ideas and words in the dictionary, letting one definition lead me to the next and that one to the next and so on, just as my mother ran reference in her Biblical commentary books. It was so easy to get lost running after ideas and words. Sometimes I even lost myself.

More important, though, sometimes while fooling around with ideas and words, I landed upon moments when a great calm washed over me and comforted me and made me believe that everything might be all right after all.

It’s akin to what Robert Frost observed about poetry and about love: “[Poetry] begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life-not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion […] Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting” (“The Figure a Poem Make,” Collected Poems, 1939).

I’d like to claim that thinking about today’s post began in delight. It did not. My initial thoughts were a mishmash of all that I have missed out on–lost, if you will–during the last two years. I won’t even begin to list my woes and heartaches and tragedies here because you know them all, already, all too well. I’m betting that yours have weighed as heavily on your spirit as they have weighed on mine.

I had to reign myself instanter. I had to shift my focus from lost to found. From lost to learned.

Ideas and words have always anchored me and held me fast during the raging storms of life, even before the pandemic, and they will continue to do the same long afterwards.

As soon as I made that much-needed attitude adjustment, my essay-in-progress–this post– started giving me delight! Then, I allowed impulse to take over, and I went with the flow as the essay rode along on its own melting.

And, by the time that it ended–as it is about to do–I had a moment of clarity– perhaps even a moment of wisdom.

I am delighted that I called on my students to tackle my unrealistic question.

I am even more delighted that I tackled it myself because in sorting through my own lessons–in creating my own “call and response”–my essay ran a course of lucky events, and I achieved my own Frostian stay against confusion, momentary though it might be!

The Final Drive

“Knocking? No. Pinging? No. Tapping? Yes. Tapping. A rhythmic tapping, tapping, tapping, growing louder and louder and louder as I climbed my mountain, homeward. Neighbors stared. Dogs ran. This was a palpable noise that required reckoning.”

My two-door Jeep Wrangler was a substantial investment. I took good care of it, hoping that it would last forever. I felt that it deserved the longevity that I desired, so I came up with a fool-proof, sure-fire plan.

I read the owner’s manual carefully and repeatedly.  

I vowed: never skip scheduled service appointments.

I pledged: always review the maintenance and service checklists, always review the safety checklists, and always review the fluids checklist.

Easy promises for something worth so much. Right?

I swore to review faithfully all the other checklists. Tires—pressure, tread, spare, jack/tools. Lights—headlights, hazard lights, park lights, and fog lights.

I even swore that I would check all the general things that need periodic checking: hoses, filters, batteries, and belts.

My fool-proof plan worked well.

My Wrangler aged over the years, but gracefully so.  

Fading headlights didn’t matter much since I don’t drive a lot at night anyway.

Failing sound systems mattered more. Silence is golden for some, but not for me. I figured out with great speed how to jerry-rig my iPod to a Bluetooth speaker. Voila! I had perfect surround-sound gospel music wherever I went.

The miles crept up and up and up. I couldn’t turn back the odometer, but I couldn’t stand to look at it either. So I opted to use just the trip-odometer to track single, solitary journeys. Those lower numbers comforted. But, in the back of my head, I was mindful that the real engine mileage was getting higher and higher.

And then came the day when I forgot to recharge my jerry-rigged sound system. Alas! No music.  

For once, I heard internal sounds, and they were not what I expected. I had never heard such reverberations before.

Knocking? No. Pinging? No. Tapping? Yes. Tapping. A rhythmic tapping, tapping, tapping, growing louder and louder and louder as I climbed my mountain, homeward. Neighbors stared. Dogs ran. This was a palpable noise that required reckoning.  

My local mechanic figured that heavier oil with an additive would reduce the friction and lower the noise. His concoction became a new part of my old plan to keep the Wrangler going.

Sadly, the remedy didn’t last long. The tapping grew louder and louder, even after I recharged my sound system and regained my soul music. I knew that it was time for my Wrangler to go back to the dealership, back to the manufacturer.

Off I drove.

It only took an hour for the diagnosis: faulty hydraulic lifters. My heart sank.

It rose again, though, when I heard the recommended fix: replace the lifters.  We all believed the old Wrangler still had lots of miles ahead.   

It took hours to get the job done. One led to two; two led to three; three led to four; and four led to saddened faces.

Yes. The lifters had been replaced, but the repair hadn’t worked. The problem was deeper. The whole engine had aged, had given away.

That was it. Finis!

Little did I know—when I drove my Wrangler back to the dealership, back to the maker—that I would not drive it again.

I emailed a friend about my dilemma.

“Does this mean your poor Wrangler is in the shop getting that rattle fixed? Or worse …???” she probed.

“Worse,” I answered. “It looks like the engine is shot.”

“Awww, I’m sorry. Wranglers are sort of human, aren’t they?”

“Yes,” I mused. “Both are wrangling for the final drive.”

The Power of Consistency and Persistence

‘Tis true there is much to be done […] but stick to it steadily, and you will see great Effects, for constant Dropping wears away Stones, and by Diligence and Patience the Mouse ate in two the Cable; and little Strokes fell great Oaks, as Poor Richard says in his Almanack, the Year I cannot just now remember.

Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard Improved (1758)

A few years ago, I bought a new indoor bike. I had to. The axle on my old bike snapped, just like that. I wasn’t surprised: I had biked 20 to 30 miles on it every day—seven days a week—for the previous eight years.

I was surprised, however, by the total mileage: 73,000. Actually, I was stunned. If I had biked from West Quoddy Head (Maine) to Point Arena (California)—the two most distant points within the mainland United States—it would have been 2,892 miles. Round trip: 5,784 miles. I had biked from sea to shining sea and all the way back again, the equivalent of 13 times. 

Incredible. Impossible. Yet, I did it, even though I had never intended to do so. All that I had set out to do was to bike regularly—no, faithfully, every day, seven days a week. 

I’ve been thinking about other things that I have done regularly.

Like the $25 Series E Savings Bonds that I started purchasing bi-weekly in the 1960s when I was in college and kept purchasing for decades. When the time came to buy my first home, I was surprised by my investment. Actually, I was stunned. I had a down payment for a row house in the shadow of the United States Capitol. My own piece of the American Dream.

Incredible. Impossible. Yet, I did it, even though I had never intended to do so. All that I had set out to do was to save regularly—no, faithfully, every other week. 

Or what about the pocket change I started saving daily when my niece/goddaughter was born? That first year, pennies. The next, pennies and nickels. Then, pennies, nickels, and dimes. Pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters followed. Finally, all of my pocket change. I saved it regularly—no, faithfully, every day, seven days a week. Seventeen years later, when it came time for Minnie to go to college, it was time for me to take all of my coffee cans—chock-full of daily pocket change—to the bank. I was surprised. Actually, I was stunned. The total? Nearly $10,000, not nearly enough for even one year’s tuition, but certainly more than enough for textbooks, computers, cell phones, and even a $500 Series EE Savings Bond. A future as bright as a shiny new penny.

I shared these examples and my essay-in-progress with my students. One emailed me later, “I think your essay would be marvelous. Your three examples are kind of unbelievable, but, of course, anyone could bike 13 times round trip across America or save up a down payment for a house or start a college fund if they tackled those goals a little bit at a time, fairly regularly.”

Yes, Bonnie: that’s my point, precisely. Anyone can achieve any goal—regardless of how impossible or how incredible it may seem—simply by tackling it a little bit at a time regularly and faithfully.  

Anyone can.

Anyone.

Thank You, Dear Readers!

” If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

We have all grappled with the age-old question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

No doubt, a physicist would answer with a resounding, “Yes. The existence of sound is objective and does not depend on its being heard.”

On the other hand, some philosophers might take a contrary view, arguing that sound is subjective, existing only in our minds.

I started thinking about that brain teaser late last night when I should have been sleeping. Instead of sleeping, however, I decided to look at the blog statistics for last year to see the extent to which it was an objective or a subjective entity! I guess I wanted some kind of evidence that the blog mattered even if I had not been as faithful to myself and to my readers last year as I wish that I had been.

I ended up with a confirmation. “You’re reading my blog! Therefore, it is! Therefore, I am!”

There! That settles it! It certainly settled it enough last night for me to lie down and sleep peacefully right through the night!

The blog’s statistics for last year make a far stronger showing than I had expected. Let me share some highlights.

Last year, the blog had 3,940 visitors. Twenty-five percent of those were from the United States. Seventy-five percent were from 40 other countries. I am delighted–simply delighted–to have such an international readership!

My most visited post last year was “Serendepity on Sullivan’s Island” going all the way back to 2013. I’m still pondering why that post would be so popular! No doubt, it’s because it deals with Edgar Allan Poe. The second most visited was “In Praise of Fruitcake.” No doubt because it is a recent post. No doubt, too, because folks wanted to see what claims I would make in praise of fruitcake! And, as an educator, it pleases me, of course, to see that my “Philosophy of Teaching” is another popular read.

Dear readers–whoever you are and wherever you are–I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for continuing the journey! Thank you for continuing to read my blog! You continue to mean the world to me!

Moving ahead in 2022, I have lots and lots of ideas tumbling around in my head–hopefully being polished and smoothed–headed your way, hopefully on a more regular basis!

As a teaser, I will share with you that one of the forthcoming posts will be a full exploration of what I will declare to be the Great American Novel. It is not Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. It is not Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It is not Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It is not F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I could continue to dismiss many other contenders, but I won’t. Let me say, simply, that it is a recent novel–one that has received considerable international acclaim–one that will be acclaimed, right here in this blog, to be the Great American Novel!

Hopefully, that teaser alone will keep you coming back for more!

A Cursive New Year’s Resolution

“We spend January 1 walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a lot of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance this list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives … not looking for flaws, but for potential.” –Ellen Goodman

I have never been a big believer in New Year’s resolutions. In fact, I have never ushered in a new year with any firm resolution to do–or not to do–something. This year, however, I may make an exception. This year, I may make one, single solitary resolution.

Here’s why.

Last week I sat down to write some personal notes to a few alumni of Lord Fairfax Community College where I am a professor of English. It seemed to me that the personal touch would be the right touch. 

Armed with my blue-ink, roller ball pen—and just barely into my second note—I realized that something was wrong. My fingers felt cramped. My upper arm muscles felt atrophied. My relaxed and cursive grace of yesteryear was gone. 

I was “drawing” my letters. They were tight and cramped like my unused writing muscles.

Once upon a time, I knew how to use those muscles, and they were robust and firm.

Once upon a time, I knew how to write naturally and smoothly and uniformly.

But that was long ago when I wrote letters in cursive—in longhand—with my special pen, on my special paper.

Suddenly, I realized that I had not written in longhand for a long, long time.  For nearly four decades, I have word processed nearly everything. I just don’t “do” longhand anymore, beyond the mechanical “Enjoy the holidays” or “Feel better soon” or “I love you” scrawls. How strange, especially considering that I love reading published volumes of letters and, in fact, I spent ten years locating, deciphering, and editing the letters of New England writer Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and I am now working on a revised, updated, two-volume edition. 

Suddenly, I realized that I have not received many personal longhand letters and notes in a long time either. Over time, the volume has decreased steadily, and I no longer need trunks and file cabinets to store those personal artifacts, treasured objets d’art. Handwritten notes from friends and family have been hardly better than the scribbles I have sent their way. Touché.   

Paradoxically, I receive far more communiqués these days. My smart phone goes with me everywhere because I want to stay connected and be accessible. My email inbox has nearly reached its maximum storage capacity. Truthfully, those messages are far more frequent, far more detailed, and far more extensive than the longhand letters of yesteryear.

I store these electronic messages in virtual folders, where, hopefully, they will remain, virtually forever. But I doubt it. Maybe I should start printing those messages. Maybe I should start putting them away somewhere for safekeeping.   

I’m thankful that I sat down to write personal notes to some former students. Writing them has given me a wake-up call. I realize that some traditions can be preserved alongside all the marvelous advances that propel us magically forward.      

Ironically, here I sit at my computer on New Year’s Day, pecking away at the keyboard, wondering: What else in my life is cramped? Atrophied? What else should I re-train? Re-learn? Preserve? Potentialize?

For now, I’ll resolve to make one—just one—New Year’s resolution for this year and this year only. I’ll strive to renew my old tradition of reaching out to folks from time to time with longhand letters—my hand, my pen, my ink, my paper, my postage stamp. My arm, my hand, my mind, my heart, my soul—retrained to a cursive tradition that is natural and social and graceful.

Touching Lives through Giving

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

Sir Winston Churchill

As a student and as a professor, I have learned some of my best life-lessons through classroom repartee—those lively, light-hearted and spontaneous exchanges that give way to intellectual magic.

As this season of celebrating and gifting winds down and as the year 2021 that gave us all fantods comes to a thankful end, I am reminded of one those magically powerful exchanges from long, long ago. However, its initial significance has been outdistanced by its long-range influence: perpetual mind food (more accurately, soul food) given freely (perhaps, unknowingly). It matters little or not at all whether it was intended for mind or soul. It matters little or not at all whether it was given deliberately or unknowingly. I have savored it and relished it down through the years.

I was a 25-year-old graduate student in an American Literature class at the University of South Carolina. One of the short stories that the late Professor Joel Myerson gave us to read was “Life Everlastin’” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.

I knew that I had better know all the intricacies of the story before going to class. It was, after all, a graduate class. Equally important, the class was so small that we met in a small conference room and sat around a small oval conference table, with Professor Myerson charismatically leading us. Youthful (only several years older than I and the rest of the class), energetic, and intellectually stimulating, he inspired us to come to class prepared to engage in stimulating conversations, demonstrating our abilities to analyze literary works. Professor Myerson was a Formalist and a Textual Bibliographer. Nothing mattered but the literary work itself. Nothing mattered but the text. Without doubt, I needed to give that story my best.

I had been introduced to Freeman the semester before when another professor gave us some of her stories to read, and I had fallen in love with her fiction. Having to read her “Life Everlastin'” was a joy for me.

I read the story initially, and I gave it a second reading, and I am confident that I gave it yet a third reading. Professor Myerson loved giving literary works a close reading. So did I.

I wondered what take he would give the story.

Would he give it a close reading based on the story’s accurate depiction of New England village life?

Would he give it a close reading focusing on the sharp character delineations of the two diametrically opposite sisters? Maybe Mrs. Ansel who is totally preoccupied with being fitted for a new bonnet: “She was always pleased and satisfied with anything that was her own, and possession was to her the law of beauty.”

Maybe her spinster, non-churchgoing sister, Luella Norcross, who was always giving to others, who was always going “somewheres after life-everlastin’ blossoms. … If she was not in full orthodox favor among the respectable part of the town, her fame was bright among the poor and maybe lawless element, whom she befriended.”

Would he take the conversation up a notch or three by pitting seemingly shallow churchgoers (e. g. Mrs. Ansel) against those of seemingly deeper convictions (e. g. Luella Norcross) who stayed home and foraged the fields in search of life everlasting blossoms to give away, much in the same spirit of Emily Dickinson’s “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church”? Or would he perhaps compare Mrs. Ansel’s apparent lack of religious depth to E. E. Cummings’ poem “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls”?

Or might he go even deeper and explore the story as a subtle indictment of religion similar to the charge that Mark Twain gave organized religion in his “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Who does not recall the fact that Dan’l, the frog, was so full of quail-shot that he when he went to hop, “he couldn’t budge: he was planted as solid as a church and he couldn’t no more stir than if he was anchored out.” 

And, without doubt, Professor Myerson had to give the backbone of the story lots of attention: Luella’s discovery of two murdered neighbors; her discovery that the alleged murderer (John Gleason) was holed up in a vacant house next to her home; her realization that she had to give him up to the law; and her dramatic decision that she had to give in to her faith: “I don’t see any other way out of it for John Gleason!”

I went to class fully prepared to give my own two cents worth on any or all of those angles.

Indeed, we gave all of them lively pursuits, all that is save one. We did NOT discuss what seemed to me to be the very essence of the story: life everlasting.

I was stunned. No. I was surprised. I suspected that it was with deliberate intent that Professor Myerson did not take the conversation in the direction of the story’s obvious eschatological meaning: the destiny of the soul and of humankind after death. I knew that he wanted us to think about—and talk about—that aspect of the story independently without giving us any coaching.

Silence fell over the class.

There I sat, feeling that we had an obligation to move toward the eschatological and that he had an obligation to take us there. I gave a question that broke the silence.  

“So, Professor Myerson, what exactly IS life everlasting?” I was hoping that the question I gave him would make him squirm.

But he had the upper hand and knew precisely how to make me squirm. An expert in the Socratic method, he gave the question right back to me. “What do YOU think it is, Brent?” 

Aha! The chance for repartee had arrived! I gave in to the moment. I seized it. 

I looked him square in the eye, with an ever-so-innocent look, as I gave him nothing more than the straight botanical definition—a flowering plant in the mint family, noted for its healing, medicinal properties. Then I rambled on about Luella’s inclusion of life-everlasting in the pillows that she made and gave to help neighbors, especially those who were asthmatic.  

I could tell that Professor Myerson was on to me. I was known for this sort of academic maneuvering, and he was not amused. He gave me his over-the-glasses look that he was so skilled in giving. 

I waited to see what he would say—he always said something whenever he gave that look—but we both had to give up for the time being. Class ended.

But Professor Myerson always had a way of getting his way, in one way or another. This time would be no exception. A few days later he stopped me in the hall. With a twinkle in his eyes, he gave me an offprint of one of his articles that had been published in a scholarly magazine. On the front, he had written:

Brent,

This is life everlasting.

Joel Myerson

“What does THAT mean?” I pondered, as I walked away. I confess, however, to no small degree of jealousy. At that point in my life, I was unpublished. Nothing had appeared in print under my name.  But here was Professor Myerson—already a well-known, published scholar, albeit a young one—giving me an inscribed, offprint of his most recent scholarly article.

I had to give this gift more thought.

Did he realize the full impact of his gift?

Or was he a young professor giving me the selfsame banter that I had given him in class?

Or was his gift more serious? Was he giving me another way to look at life everlasting—perhaps different from the traditional eschatological view? Was he suggesting that we live on forever through what we share with others, especially ideas that are immortalized in print? Maybe so. After all, some cultures believe that we live as long as our name is spoken. If that was his intent, he succeeded. Here I am blogging about him, nearly fifty years later. Here I am placing his name in public view, albeit this time under my own name. Whoever reads this blog post will speak his name, even if silently. They may even share my story with others. Professor Myerson continues to live. 

His inscribed offprint had an immediate impact. It gave me some extra encouragement not only to finish my doctoral degree in American Literature but also to publish my own scholarly articles and books. I wanted to give my ideas away to others through the printed word. When that happened for the first time, I was thrilled, and the high that I experience now through being published is as high as it was then.

But here’s the greater truth. His gift touched my soul perhaps more than it touched my mind. It kept me mindful that as human beings we all have needs—immediate and long-range.

It kept me mindful that the needs are great, always and in all ways. In fact, during these pandemic years, the needs are daunting. No. They are staggering. 

Fortunately, for us and for others, the ways that we can touch lives through giving— whatever it is that we have within ourselves to give—are countless. 

We can give our ideas.

We can give our talents

We can give our time.

We can give our purse.

We can give our love.

We can give ourselves—mind, body, and soul

Our gifts need not be large. Our gifts need not be given with any expectation of ever knowing how much they touch others’ lives or of how much they impact others’ lives. This much, though, we do know about giving. It connects us to one another. It binds us to one another. It makes us aware of our relatedness to one another. 

Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, when we touch others’ lives by giving freely of ourselves—without any expectation of receiving anything in return—we might be edging our way, even if unawares, closer and closer and closer toward the very essence of life everlasting.

The Gift that None Could See

The children’s poem below, by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, was first published in Wide Awake, Vol. 14, No. 1 (January 1882). May it awaken your trusting, childlike heart!

And how, although no earthly good
  Seems into thy lot to fall,
Hast thou a trusting child-like heart,
  Thou hast the best of all.

The Gift that None Could See

“There are silver pines on the window-pane,
  A forest of them,” said he;
“And a huntsman is there with a silver horn,
  Which he bloweth right merrily.

“And there are a flock of silver ducks
  A-flying over his head;
And a silver sea and a silver hill
  In the distance away,” he said.

“And all this is on the window-pane,
  My pretty mamma, true as true!”
She lovingly smiled; but she looked not up,
  And faster her needle flew.

A dear little fellow the speaker was —
  Silver and jewels and gold,
Lilies and roses and honey-flowers,
  In a sweet little bundle rolled.

He stood by the frosty window-pane
  Till he tired of the silver trees,
The huntsman blowing his silver horn,
  The hills and the silver seas;

And he breathed on the flock of silver ducks,
  Till he melted them quite away;
And he saw the street, and the people pass —
  And the morrow was Christmas Day.

“The children are out, and they laugh and shout,
  I know what it’s for,” said he;
“And they’re dragging along, my pretty mamma,
  A fir for a Christmas-tree.”

He came and stood by his mother’s side:
  “To-night it is Christmas Eve;
And is there a gift somewhere for me,
  Gold mamma, do you believe?”

Still the needle sped in her slender hands:
  “My little sweetheart,” said she,
“The Christ Child has planned this Christmas, for you,
  His gift that you cannot see.”

The boy looked up with a sweet, wise look
  On his beautiful baby-face:
“Then my stocking I’ll hang for the Christ Child’s gift,
  To-night, in the chimney-place.”

On Christmas morning the city through,
  The children were queens and kings,
With their royal treasuries bursting o’er
  With wonderful, lovely things.

But the merriest child in the city full,
  And the fullest of all with glee,
Was the one whom the dear Christ Child had brought
  The gift that he could not see.

“Quite empty it looks, oh my gold mamma,
  The stocking I hung last night!”
“So then it is full of the Christ Child’s gift.”
  And she smiled till his face grew bright.

“Now, sweetheart,” she said, with a patient look
  On her delicate, weary face,
“I must go and carry my sewing home,
  And leave thee a little space.

“Now stay with thy sweet thoughts, heart’s delight,
  And I soon will be back to thee.”
“I’ll play, while you’re gone, my pretty mamma,
  With my gift that I cannot see.”

He watched his mother pass down the street;
  Then he looked at the window-pane
Where a garden of new frost-flowers had bloomed
  While he on his bed had lain.

Then he tenderly took up his empty sock,
  And quietly sat awhile,
Holding it fast, and eying it
  With his innocent, trusting smile.

“I am tired of waiting,” he said at last;
  “I think I will go and meet
My pretty mamma, and come with her
  A little way down the street.

“And I’ll carry with me, to keep it safe,
  My gift that I cannot see.”
And down the street ‘mid the chattering crowd,
  He trotted right merrily.

“And where are you going, you dear little man?”
  They called to him as he passed;
“That empty stocking why do you hold
  In your little hand so fast?”

Then he looked at them with his honest eyes,
  And answered sturdily:
“My stocking is full to the top, kind sirs,
  Of the gift that I cannot see.”

They would stare and laugh, but he trudged along,
  With his stocking fast in his hand:
“And I wonder why ’tis that the people all
  Seem not to understand!”

“Oh, my heart’s little flower!” she cried to him,
  A-hurrying down the street;
“And why are you out on the street alone?
  And where are you going, my sweet?”

“I was coming to meet you, my pretty mamma,
  With my gift that I cannot see;
But tell me, why do the people laugh,
  And stare at my gift and me?”

Like the Maid at her Son, in the Altar-piece,
  So loving she looked, and mild:
“Because, dear heart, of all that you met,
  Not one was a little child.”

O thou who art grieving at Christmas-tide,
  The lesson is meant for thee;
That thou mayst get Christ’s loveliest gifts
  In ways thou canst not see;

And how, although no earthly good
  Seems into thy lot to fall,
Hast thou a trusting child-like heart,
  Thou hast the best of all.

In Praise of Fruitcake

 “From time to time, I savor a slice, but I’m parceling it out ever so rarely and ever so thinly.  I want the magic of this fruitcake to last forever.”

I believe in fruitcakes.1  I know—that’s ridiculous.  Most folks hate fruitcakes because they’re hard and dry and filled with citron and raisins and Lord knows what all.  Most are so bad that jokesters rightfully disparage them as next year’s paperweights or doorstops.

            Obviously, those naysayers never tasted one of my Mom’s fruitcakes.  For time immemorial—seventy years, perhaps longer—she perfected her fruitcake recipe, recording her adjustments religiously.  For one single, seven-pound fruitcake, she uses four pounds of cherries, golden raisins, pineapple, and pecans.  For her batter, she mixes just enough to hold the fruit and nuts together, and it’s rich with a half dozen jumbo eggs, a pound of butter, and a magical blend of lemon juice, vanilla, freshly grated nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice.  And when it comes to fruitcakes, Mom’s no tee-totaler.  Her fruitcakes are redolent with booze.  She soaks the fruit in brandy before baking, and, once her baked cakes have cooled, she nestles them in thick layers of brandied cheesecloth, replenished weekly—starting in August when she bakes her cakes and continuing through Christmas when she gives them away. 

            Mom shared her treasured, secret recipe with me, right after two strokes in quick succession left her paralyzed in both legs and one arm.  She was 92 then.  It was the last year that she made her fruitcakes, from start to finish.

            For the next few years, I made the fruitcakes.  Everyone raved, even Mom. To me, however, something magical seemed missing.

            Then, one year, my oldest sister called, claiming the ritual as hers.  Mom had given her the recipe, too. 

            My sister followed it with precision, but as she started spooning the batter into the tube pan, she broke down in tears.  She phoned Mom, who lived just two houses away. 

            “It’s all mixed,” she sobbed, “but it’s not going in the pan right.” 

            “Audrey, bring it on down here and prop me up in bed.  I’ll show you how to do it.”

            My sister went down and propped Mom up.  With her one good arm and all the love and courage that she could muster, Mom packed the batter into the pan, pressing it down with the back of a wooden spoon, as only Mom knows how to do.  Then she adorned the top with a ring of brandied, candied fruit flowers, just like always.  Undoubtedly, that fruitcake was her most beautiful, ever, and it tasted just as first-rate as any Mom ever made all by herself. 

            My sister gave me a huge hunk of that love-laden fruitcake—undoubtedly, the best in the world and, sadly, Mom’s last.  I have it wrapped in brandied cheesecloth, and I keep it in the freezer, the same way that Mom always kept one or more fruitcakes, from one year to the next.  From time to time, I savor a slice, but I’m parceling it out ever so rarely and ever so thinly.  I want the magic of this fruitcake to last forever.

1 This essay reflects minor revisions to my essay originally published in 2009 as part of NPR’s “This I Believe.”

Had We but World Enough and Time

Had we but world enough and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

We would sit down, and think which way

To walk, and pass our long love’s day.

[…]

But at my back I always hear

Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near

And yonder before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity.

Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress” (1681)

People are always asking me questions, and, quite often, the questions relate to my research.

“Are you still working on your Humourist essays?”

“Have you discovered another [Humourist] mystery to tantalize your audience?” 

And just a day or so ago, the same good friend who is always tantalized by mysteries—mine, hers, and others’—quipped in an email:

“Do you know what happens to professors who get too caught up in their mysteries?”

She even shared her response— well, for the sake of accuracy, I must say that she shared response—and I will share it with you anon.

Finally, comes the cruelest question of all that I get asked:

“So, tell, me: when exactly DO you plan to finish your Humourist project and move on to something else?”

I am always glad to answer the questions that are tossed my way—including the cruel ones—and I shall do so right here for the world at large!

Yes, I am still working on my Humourist essays! I am not working on the essays constantly, of course. It is with this project as it is with all research: it lingers, hidden away in the hidden recesses of the mind.  From time to time, it enjoys a rebirth, crying and screaming, demanding that I pay attention to a new idea or a new possibility and that I lay either—or both or something or anything—gently down to rest.

As to the second question, I have NOT found any additional Humourist mysteries to tantalize my audience since I announced that Our Illustrious Alexander Gordon Now Joins the Ranks Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville! Discovering that Gordon (like Hawthorne and Melville) had once worked in a Customs House is pretty tantalizing in and of itself! No? I suppose, however, that in the scheme of this research project, my Colonial Charleston’s Biggest Literary Mystery Is Solved is more tantalizing, and in the overall scheme of things, perhaps it’s as tantalizing as it’s going to get!

Now for that third question about what happens to professors who get too caught up in their mysteries. Well, of course I know what happens: they solve the mysteries, just as I have done! Right? Well, apparently not always. My good friend who posed the question for me to consider went on to share an article about John Kidd, at one time “the greatest James Joyce scholar alive.” Kidd became so caught up in solving the mysteries in Joyce’s Ulysses that he lost his directorship of the James Joyce Research Center, became jobless, “haunted Marsh Plaza at the center of Boston University,” and ultimately disappeared! It’s a fascinating article about a fascinating professor, a fascinating novelist and a fascinating novel! After you finish reading my post—and mind you: not until you have finished—you might want to read The Strange Case of the Missing Joyce Scholar.  It’s a long article, well worth the read, but you will need (or want) to brew yourself a full pot of coffee!

As my good friend knows, I have not disappeared, I am not missing, and I am not jobless. I can only presume that she shared the article with me as an ever-so-subtle caution filled with her ever-so-gleeful, twinkle-eyed, virtual humor! Thank you so much, Bonnie!

The fact of the matter is that I like (for whatever reason) being in Joyce’s good company. I am not certain that I have ever fared so well except perhaps when I was an undergraduate and somehow found myself distinguished as the young student on campus who—all year long—always carried an umbrella! I have no earthly idea what prompted me to do so since it certainly did not rain that much in northern West Virginia. Be that as it may—and it may be nothing more than my feeble recollection—I carried an umbrella around with me often enough that my English Department Chair called me “Lord Chamberlain!”

When she first called me Lord Chamberlain, I had no idea who he was, so I made haste to the library to check the card catalog—yes, when I was an undergraduate, libraries still had card catalogs—to see what I could discover. I discovered just what I was looking for: photos! Lord Neville Chamberlain looked so dapper and so handsome as a young man that I did not mind at all being his transitory namesake, so to speak. Years later when I could conduct research at home or anywhere or everywhere via the Internet, I checked the good Lord out again, discovering this time the political backstory behind his umbrella. And after Bonnie catapulted me— if not mysteriously then certainly miraculously—from James Joyce to Lord Neville Chamberlain, I checked out Chamberlain again and found a delightful BBC radio episode, Prime Ministers’ Props. After you finish reading my post—and mind you: not until you have finished—you might want to check it out, too!

(Let me add here—since one more digression will do no greater harm than that already done—that it was this very same Department Chair who, in response to a question that I wearily asked one day in class—“Please, Dr. Callison, can’t you give us some uplifting stories to read instead of all these depressing ones that you have assigned?”—came back with—to my chagrin and to my classmates’ euphoria—“Yes, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm: let me see what I can do.” I knew nothing about Rebecca or her farm, but I knew that I did not like being called “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.” (After all, I was Lord Chamberlain and had my campus reputation to maintain!) So, once again, I made haste to the library to discover the extent of the insult! And, dear reader, if you do not know about Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, perhaps you should make haste to Google and make the discovery on your own, that is after you finish reading my post—and mind you: not until you have finished!)

See how easy it was for me to fool around with my answers to those first three questions? Can you not tell that I did so willingly, cheerfully, and even playfully? Three yesses are in order! In fact, I had great fun!

However, I cannot make the same claims about that fourth question. It’s downright cruel, and it sticks in my craw: exactly when DO you plan to finish your Humourist project and move on to something else. And I can safely say that I am so safe in saying that it sticks in my craw that I will say it again: it sticks in my craw! I say it without hesitation and without fear of offending any of my followers because I am the culprit—I am the one—who perpetually asks that question of myself! (I suspect that many of my readers have wondered the same thing but have been too polite to ask! Thank you very much!)

Truthfully, the time has come that I must finish! I don’t have world enough and time. Who does? Right?

And, to be certain, I have committed no crime. Right?

“Wrong!” exclaims a virtual voice! “Have you forgotten your many months of controlled revelations? You were ever so coy in them, and, one might say, just as guilty of a crime as Andrew Marvell’s mistress!”

Coy? Me, coy? Well, perhaps I was slightly coy in those Controlled Revelations wherein—week by week, as I am sure my readers will recall—I revisited the Humourist essays that I had made available already, in toto,  and analyzed the clues therein that led me to identify Alexander Gordon as our beloved Humourist. I suppose that I was shy and modest and firtatious in my attempt to allure my readers and keep them reading! See for yourself. Go back and revisit! Here’s the debut coquettish post that prompted someone to call me coy: Controlled Revelation #1: Classicist. Bibliophile. Historian. Lover of Literature. Painter. Re-read it to see whether the charge that has been levied virtually holds any virtual water whatsoever! Who knows: you might need to re-read all of the controlled posts up to and including the last one—Controlled Revelation #13: The Humourist as Musical Virtuoso! Plus, a Curious Challenge! (Yes, I was coy! And I enjoyed every blissful moment!)

Bliss aside, I have come to the realization that I am finished with my Humourist research, so to speak, and I must wrap things up and move on to other things.

First of all, I have fulfilled my initial goal which was to make the previously unavailable Humourist essays available to the world! I did just that! I’ve just looked at my site’s stats to see the extent of the traffic since launching the blog. The numbers are staggering, especially for such an esoteric topic: Visitors: 2,818; Views: 5,823.

Even more staggering, perhaps, is the array of countries contributing to the traffic: Argentina, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Ecuador, France, India, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and United States.

Clearly, the world at large is more familiar with The Humourist today than ever before, even when the essays were first published in the South Carolina Gazette!

Moreover, at the end of the day (as well as at the beginning), I confess that I am a New Critic in terms of my approach to literature. I am one who can be perfectly happy examining a “work of literature as an aesthetic object independent of historical context and as a unified whole that reflect[s] the unified sensibility of the artist.” Other schools of literary theory abound as well—and you might want to read about them after you finish reading my post—and mind you: not until you have finished. A good place for you to start might be Literary Theory. For me, though, if I must choose from among the various theories, I choose to be what I have chosen to be: a New Critic. The literary work itself is all that matters!

Second, I have fulfilled my secondary goal as well: solving the more-than-two-hundred-years-old literary mystery surrounding the identify of The Humourist. I am convinced that I have found everything that can be found to confirm that Alexander Gordon, Clerk of His Majesty’s Council, is indeed our Humourist, thereby solving what is perhaps the biggest mystery in the annals of American literature.

At this point, then, other scholars—those living and those still to come—must either accept my findings or prove me wrong! It’s that simple. I rest my case. I am willing to put my research out there for public view—as I have done already—and I welcome full and close public scrutiny. 

“What remains?”

Publication.

To be certain, what I have shared and continue to share in this blog constitutes publication, but what I have in mind now is a formal publication, available in print and digital format.

And so my search for a publisher begins! (Who knows: perhaps one will read today’s post and contact me. I would welcome such a query, of course, and I would be glad to pay the virtual postage.)

In the meantime, however, I will be up and doing! In fact, I am in the process of developing a formal book proposal, thus the driving force behind today’s post! Obviously, I will customize the proposal to meet the specific requirements of several publishers whom I will approach with this publication opportunity. Generally, however, the proposal will include:

  • Introductory Discussion, emphasizing the importance of adding the Humourist essays to the formal Colonial American literary canon (as noted by scholars before me) and stressing the fact that the scholarly gap will continue to exist until the essays are published in book form. The discussion will also note that the essays bring Southern perspectives and insights to a literary genre that until now has been deemed the exclusive domain, essentially, of Colonial New England.
  • Deeper Background Discussion of the essays and of Alexander Gordon as their author.
  • Chapter Breakdowns of the proposed book, including highlights of my research identifying Gordon as the author along with a list of the essays, giving a one to two sentence synopsis of each essay.
  • Timeline to Complete the book in accordance with press requirements.
  • Marketing Strategy.
  • Conclusion reiterating the importance of filling the current gap in Colonial American Literature.

Now that I have put my intent to find a publisher in writing, it is a reality, and I must fulfill it! The awesome power of writing never ceases to leave me in awe: now I must go forth with the book proposal simply because the words written here compel me to do so and propel me forward!

Clearly, then, I have begun to wrap things up with my Humourist work.

My blog, needless to say, will continue! I am as wired now as I was when I first started. Actually, I think that I am even more wired!

I have at least three other significant and important projects waiting in the wings. And I do hope that I will have world enough and time to complete them because that’s about how much time that I will need.

“What are those projects?” someone just asked?

Oh, do not dare to ask that question! Well, ask away if you will—and, indeed, you have dared to do so already—but I dare say that you should not expect an answer just now.

I am mindful of Robert Frost’s caution to Sydney Cox in a 1937 letter:

Talking is a hydrant in the yard and writing is a faucet upstairs in the house. Opening the first takes all the pressure off the second.

What I will do, however, is this: I will share my new projects here, one by one as they come into being.

And as I wrap up my Humourist work and morph into this brand new world of new projects and new research, periodically I will share other things with you as well, including (for example) essays in the style of NPR’s This I Believe. As you may know, NPR no longer accepts new essays on their website. But that has not stopped me from continuing to write a goodly number of  “This I Believe” essays, so my blog may very well give me an outlet for them! We shall see.

Times wingèd chariot may be hurrying near as we search for a world that can provide us with world enough and time, and, indeed, deserts of vast eternity may lie yonder before us. But, for now, ideas call us—today, this day, this very day—as dawn unfolds, revealing a whole world of marvelous possibilities.

 

Our Illustrious Alexander Gordon Now Joins the Ranks of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville!

We’ve looked and looked, but after all where are we?
Do we know any better where we are,
And how it stands between the night tonight
And a man with a smoky lantern chimney?
How different from the way it ever stood?
—Robert Frost, “The Star-Splitter”

I have been looking and looking at the contents of the two envelopes that I finally mustered up enough courage to open last week!

I hoped to find a word.

I hoped to find a phrase.

I hoped to find an allusion.

I hoped to find something—anything—known to be by Alexander Gordon that matches precisely something—anything—in The Humourist essays that I have attributed to him.

I identified Gordon as the author on August 8, 2013, at the Charleston Library Society in my presentation, “Colonial Charleston’s Biggest Literary Mystery Is Solved.”  I anchored my claim to a preponderance of evidence found in the essays after I had given them an ever-so-close reading. I laid out the evidence out point by point in the presentation, but the main thrusts are as follows:

  • The Humourist essays show extensive knowledge of the classics, of languages, of literature, and of drawing and painting. So, too, did Alexander Gordon.
  • The Humourist essays show extensive knowledge of theater and drama. So, too, did Alexander Gordon.
  • The Humourist essays show extensive knowledge of history and “the antients.” So, too, did Alexander Gordon.
  • The Humourist essays disclose insider information about the workings of the South Carolina General Assembly. Gordon was the Clerk.
  • The Humourist essays often mention “constables.” Gordon served as a constable.
  • The Humourist essays include references to Egyptian mummies.  Gordon had written two essays on Egyptian mummies.

Since last week I have spent my research hours—yes, I do allocate blocks of time for research—looking at the documents in those two envelopes. I have NOT even begun to finish the task. Historical documents are not easily read. I have been skimming and scanning, in much the same way that researchers always skim and scan.

I confess that so far I have not found any exact words or phrases in these documents that line up precisely with anything in The Humourist essays. (Allusions, perhaps.) I have found excellent supporting evidence and excellent additional information about Gordon, and I will get to that anon.  It’s simply that I have not found the sought-after exact match. Yet. I’m still looking.

I further confess that I am reminded of Brad McLaughlin, the hugger-mugger farmer in Robert Frost’s poem “The Star-Splitter.” Having failed at farming, Brad burned his house down, took the insurance proceeds, and bought himself a telescope “To satisfy a lifelong curiosity / About our place among the infinities.”

So, out of a house and out of a farm, Brad turned to another occupation so that he would have the leisure of stargazing! Occasionally a neighbor joined him:

Bradford and I had out the telescope.
We spread our two legs as it spread its three,
Pointed our thoughts the way we pointed it,
And standing at our leisure till the day broke,

Said some of the best things we ever said.

The two of them spent a lot of time looking! But by the end of the poem, the speaker—presumably Brad’s neighbor—confesses:

We’ve looked and looked, but after all where are we?
Do we know any better where we are,
And how it stands between the night tonight
And a man with a smoky lantern chimney?

How different from the way it ever stood?

I—and you, too, dear follower— have looked and looked and looked,  but where am I with my Alexander Gordon research! Do I know any more now that I did in 2013 when I identified him as the author of the Humourist essays?

Probably not, at least in terms of having discovered additional evidence to seal my already tight claim.

But I have found information that makes my knowledge of Alexander Gordon more rich and more robust.

Since last week, I have been looking at the two letters from “Chindonax Britanicus” (William Stukeley, antiquarian best known, perhaps, for his investigations of Stonehenge) to “Galgacus” (Alexander Gordon. Stukeley and Gordon were lifelong friends. And, indeed, it was Stukeley who, in his diary entry of May 28, 1758, credited  Alexander Gordon for a detailed account of the natural history of South Carolina that  had been read at the Royal Society that same day.  However, Stukeley was mistaken, as I discovered! The true author was the naturalist Alexander Garden, also of South Carolina. (See my A Correction to Alexander Gordon’s Canon, 256 Years after a Mistake Was Made!)

Be that as it may, the two letters that I have been looking at are intriguing to say the least. In the September 25, 1723, letter, Stukeley alludes to the fact that Gordon might have been on the “brink” of marriage:

Methinks I see the foundation of Chateaugordon a laying while Signior walks gravely among the workmen–measuring out the length of the gallery, disposing of the drawings, the basso relievos & the likes into the proper pannels.

Stukeley continues with:

Or perhaps his leading Lady spouse by the arm and drawing a ground line for a fountain, a shady walk, an alcove where he is to sit in a summer evening with Horace, Milton, Tasso & the like. I suppose there is to be a fine vista to some Grampian Mountain, Roman Camp, etc., & here the descendants of the Gordonian Race are to be depicted round the dining room like olive branchyes.

The above passages–short excerpts from the letter–are revealing because Stukeley knew Gordon’s interests: Italy, architecture, drawings, vistas, and writers such as Horace, Milton, and Tasso. These interests appear as well throughout The Humourist essays as well.

In the next letter to Gordon, dated November 30, 1723, Stukeley continues to talk about marriage, seemingly in an effort to dissuade Gordon from taking the leap, noting that marriage is not for everyone and that many who had “cast the dice” wished otherwise! Nonetheless, he says to Gordon:

May your spouse arise from the nuptial bed more lovely than the July sunbeams when they play upon the tops of the Caledonian mountains […]

Earlier in the letter, Stukeley also thanks Gordon for his drawings:

I commend you prodigiously for the pains you have taken in searching out & measuring & drawing such an immeasurable parcel of Antiquitys as you give me an account of.

Drawings of antiquities, as I am confident you will recall, play an important role in The Humourist essays.

And, even earlier in the letter, Stukeley makes a special-jewel comment:

Mr. Kirkel gives his service to you & wishes much he had your drawing of Raphael to make a print from.

While I knew that Gordon was an accomplished artist, I did not know until now about his drawing of Raphael. So that knowledge—allusion—may be helpful. I am reminded of a passage from The Humourist essay of December 24, 1753, in which he, too, speaks of Raphael:

If a sign-painter can imagine himself possessed of the finger of a Raphael, that his portraits are surprizing, his pencil bold and animating, and that his figures swell on the canvas and quicken into life, permit him to hug the blest idea, no one suffers for it, no one receives an injury;

While in the midst of looking at the letters, I ventured off into some more general research on Alexander Gordon. Remember: only in an ideal world does research move along smoothly and methodically from points A to B to C to D to Z!  In the real world, research—like writing—is recursive. We often find ourselves at what we believe to be the end of the task when we find ourselves circling back to an earlier point.

And I am glad that I circled back, trying to find out more about Alexander Gordon and William Stukeley. In doing so, I landed upon Iain Gordon Brown’s meticulously researched and well-documented article “Chyndonax to Galgacus: New Letters of William Stukeley to Alexander Gordon,” published in 1987 to commemorate the tercentenary of Stukeley’s birth. Brown includes the two letters that I have discussed briefly as well as a third one. His introduction to the letters is invaluable, especially for some new and detailed information about Alexander Gordon.

I knew—at least I think that I knew (and I may have mentioned it in an earlier post)—that Alexander Gordon had worked in a Custom House in Scotland. Brown’s article, however, provides Gordon’s own views of his “other” occupation. In a letter to his friend and benefactor Sir John Clerk, Gordon writes:

As to the Custome House, I confess if the question was putt to me sincerely, if these matteres sute exactly with my genious and taste, I could not so far hipocrese as not to confess that the keeping talies of Norwegian barrell skews on a bitt of stick or paper, and the retaining the nice number of hemp matts and Almagnia whistles in one’s head, is not the very noblest exercise that a rational creatour may be employd in these so precious hours. ‘Tis a sad thing not to have been born to few riggs … I am observant of Caesar’s due even to the methematicall division of pickled herring. The town is astonished to see one whom they thought un huomo di [Piazza] so far metamorphosed as all at once to drop into salmond barrels, matts of flax, ganging firkins, etc.

Who would have guessed? Alexander Gordon now joins the ranks of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, two other American writers who worked in a Custom House!

Therein lies one of the joys of research: sometimes—without even looking—we land on the unexpected!