I look back upon my so-called career with wonder. How it went by, how long ago it all seems, its origins lost in obscure mists compounded of ignorance and opportunism, laziness and sheer chance. At the centre of this history, in my mind’s eye, are my lectures in American History, which I delivered for forty years, sometimes in the survey course for beginners, sometimes in courses with more advanced numbers and with specialized titles, in actuality all the same protean, expanding catch-all, a hair-ball of accreted themes and references, unchanged in general outline during all that time, unchecked in its momentum toward impenetrable self-reference and weird tenacity in performance.
My first lectures were delivered at the little college in Missouri where I had been an undergraduate and I do not remember much about them. Then as a graduate student at the University of Missouri I was given responsibility for a large survey class, and it was here already that the engine my lectures would become started taking shape. I wrote these lectures out and delivered them in a style copied from teachers I had myself admired. It was very stressful at first. One’s bowels routinely gave out. I learned to make room for it in the planning of my lecture days.
More disturbing was the recurrence of stammering, a curse since childhood which I thought I had in some fashion outgrown. I was terrified these attacks would emerge full-blown in all their hideousness and so went along to a programme of speech therapy at the university, then consisting of a form of behavioural modification in which sufferers were encouraged to seek out hazardous scenarios, such as speaking on the telephone to strangers, rather than avoid them, and, more importantly, learn how to stammer, how to cut out all the secondary manifestations: the gasps, the grimaces, the spasms.
Until the director of the programme, a shrewd old woman, took me aside one day and quizzed me closely about my strategies for coping during lectures. I told her about clever word substitutions, feigning moments of forgetfulness or distraction, writing key words on the blackboard rather than saying them, and so forth. All familiar tricks to stammerers. She said that she thought these “tricks” were in effect good stagecraft, dramatisations of a thinking process, and that I should at once quit the programme, as it might actually do me harm. From that moment I knew I had found what would become my mature classroom style: affectation of spontaneity, a faraway gaze, much pacing with chalk in hand, an elaborate ironical diction, the acting out of the search for the mot juste.
The content of these early lectures derived, not unsurprisingly, from the course of reading in American History of graduate students of that time. The old nationalist and progressivist historiographies, of politics and personalities, epic sweep and narrative drive, were being superseded by social science sophistication, quantitative data, minority perspectives, new moral urgencies arising from the civil rights movement, feminism, anti-war feeling, and the sheer explosion of courses and university places. The great books of the 1950s and 1960s were to be chewed over and quarreled over for the next forty years, but the terms of the debates they engendered were never displaced. They were anyway simply better books than anything that came after, and in retrospect I can see why I was drawn to the discipline as it then was, and why I was never afterwards diligent about keeping up with the literature, as they called it.
I ought by rights to have been attracted to the lefty end of this spectrum. The very first book of American History I ever read, in fact, was Howard Fast’s The American, on John Peter Altgeld, the courageous immigrant mayor of Chicago in the 1890s who pardoned the Haymarket anarchists, a book I found on the bookshelf of an uncle and aunt I was visiting for a summer in rural Pennsylvania, when I was about twelve. Besides which, we were unequivocally working class in an immigrant neighbourhood, and benefited richly from the little social-democratic republic that New York City was in the 1940s and 1950s. If my father did not belong to a union, he understood perfectly well that only the threat of unionisation forced the Wall Street bank, where he was night-porter, to offer decent working conditions.
It was not that I drifted politically to the right. As I look back on it now, I think I sensed as a young man, and especially in the heated atmosphere of graduate school in the sixties, that while a left-wing politics was the only defensible position to take as a person, as a citizen, it didn’t follow that one’s task was to add another footnote to the chronicle of exploitation and oppression, since no one of good faith could fail to observe them in operation daily. Far more interesting, it seemed to me then, was to show how such states of affairs came to be embedded dialectically, inscribed as normal in collective life, and for this the practices, the mentalities, even the spiritual aspirations, of cultural élites were the high road to understanding. I switched from an early interest in Black History to write a dissertation on a wealthy American politician and pamphleteer in the Revolutionary era. This was a mistake, however, and a dead end. It led exactly nowhere. I had made a category error, thinking that you could understand a machine by studying the weather.
Out of the haphazard, even random, reading of those days, three influences stand out in memory, all of them misunderstood at the time and discredited in different ways since—outcomes that could have been predicted once you grasped that these were counterfactual exercises, arguments not so much from the presence of a thing as from the absence of a thing, histories of a void, a wound, a great emptiness, an innocence not-in-a-good-sense, and therefore deeply offensive. Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America, a book thought sometimes, then and later, to celebrate American exceptionalism, but which, in demonstrating why Socialism was not possible in America—having never experienced Feudalism, it was doomed to Liberalism from its birth—went a long way toward explaining the arrested infantilism of American public discourse. Stanley Elkins’s Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, drew on Bruno Bettelheim’s insights about concentration-camp life to illuminate observed slave personality. Elkins got in trouble eventually with both Jews and African-Americans, allowing critics to sidestep the other pillar of his work, derived from Frank Tannenbaum’s Slave and Citizen, which described the shockingly meagre resources a Protestant culture had to bring to bear on ultimate questions of ethics and human dignity. Elkins showed that, in America, before you were denied rights you were denied a soul. Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society, especially the chapter “Reflections on the American Identity,” argued that the American frontier as a fact and as a template, which is to say the promise of limitless but unrealizable potentials, reaching far beyond the original wilderness settlements, produced a personality at once precocious and permanently retarded, eager to spring into action but with no suitable model for maturity. A necessary adaptation for the young but tragic for generations of bewildered and heart-broken immigrant mothers.
Together these works suggested, I thought, that a society with no organized memory of evil cannot recognize evil when it appears and is defenceless before it, that a society that values inexperience over experience will never learn by experience, that a society ever on the move will never leave behind a durable monument to its labours, however violent the upheavals which it occasions or clever its technical skill.
So I had my theme, but there were two structural flaws with it that I was slow to take into account, and never surmounted. First is that a negative, the history of an absence, does not lend itself to a narrative. It was not coincidental that each of the works I’ve mentioned were comparative in method, measuring its subject against another, Hartz measuring America against societies with a feudal past and against settler societies with other starting points in their separation from the old world, for Elkins that other was the experience of slavery in the Roman Catholic societies of the New World, for Erikson childhood in European society. The second flaw is that this history, if that is what it is, predicts its own failure as pedagogy. Or, put another way, the whole argument requires a vantage point from outside the culture under discussion, which is also the culture of one’s students.
I lit early upon a method in my lectures—a method I did not recognize fully as such until much later, when I began writing fiction. In writing fiction I discovered the best way to proceed is to have in mind an event—no, not so much as an event, a mere image, or even a smell or a sound, will do—that will tell you when you are close to the end. It will be the thing for which everything else is prelude and setting. Then get as far away from this thing as you can and start writing, postponing the arrival of the thing until it won’t be held off any longer, along the way having assembled some characters and discovered a plot.
So it was, I see now, in the creation and development of my lectures. Long before arriving at the Puritans, one had to understand Israel. The agony of the black man in America required an entire Heilsgeschichte, a Redemption History, stretching from Christ to Uncle Tom. Log cabins, ballooon framing and Levittowns required excursions into medieval craft guilds, traditional manufacturing, class-based sumptuary rules. And so forth. Chalk in hand, sketching in the air and on the blackboard imaginary intellectual castles, pacing back and forth, searching for just the right word, I wound my skein year after year, all the while observing with the melancholy of all teachers that as the curve of my search for the adequate presentation approached a degree of finish, such fragments of an older literate culture as one still counted on in students were slipping away one at a time. Classical references, the Bible, the history of Western religion, the canon of Western art and literature and music, all dead letters. What these several cohorts of students, the attractive and intelligent as well as the dull and dodgy, made of it all, I can’t imagine.
I knew it was time to quit when I watched younger colleagues lecturing. No chalk, no pacing, no figurations in thin air. Earnest young men and women hiding behind consoles from which they directed PowerPoint presentations to a big screen. See and hear Martin Luther King deliver his “I have a dream” speech in person. What could be left to explain?
I have never regretted my lectures. They were my work after all. It gave me pleasure on occasional visits to Britain, where Professors were rare and exalted people, to explain that I was a Senior Lecturer, a rank unknown in Canada, but a title I felt exactly suited what I was. Nor have I substantially changed the views expressed in my lectures. I have sometimes wondered what text or phenomenon, what smell or sight or sound, might now prompt another journey into that heart of darkness, something of the urgency and scale that the problem of slavery was for Stanley Elkins. I suppose it would have to be the vast and unprecedented carceral system of the United States, its jails and prisons, that empire of the living dead, the savage completeness, yet again, of the denial of a human soul. How far would one have to back away from the phenomenon to present the whole picture in a proper light? What ancient and modern comparisons? What hinterlands of subtly interconnected phenomena?
But then the stammering would surely return with redoubled vengeance. The stagecraft wouldn’t work a second time. That trick with blackboard and a piece of chalk, irony and the mot juste.