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:
This is life everlasting.
“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.