In a recent fit of procrastination compounded by nostalgia (why, yes, the first paper of the semester came in about the same time), I did a web search for the name of a man whose class I took in the final semester of my undergraduate career: let us call him Ambrose Booker, for that was not his name. He was a VAP, visiting from the Ivy League. This seemed very prestigious to west coast undergraduates at the time, though of course I have a radically different view of the status of VAPs now. To be sure, during the same semester a number of us also took the class of a very distinguished visiting senior professor, likewise from an Ivy League school, who subsequently returned to that position, so we had some reason to be confused about how this “visiting” thing worked and what it meant. I don’t know whether the senior visitor was considering moving to the west coast, or if she had research to do at our library and worked out a teaching gig to supplement her sabbatical pay, or what the deal was.
But to return to Ambrose Booker, my web search showed that he died more than five years ago, at a shockingly early age. That is, at Sir John’s present age. Sir John, I hasten to add, enjoys robust health. All the same, it is a shock to a wife’s feelings to consider that men of her husband’s age can die of natural causes. I was further surprised to find that Ambrose was still an academic, because in some previous fit of nostalgia—presumably more than five years ago—I had sought him online and in the MLA bibliography and found not a crumb. But my conclusions were wrong. He had taken a job at what we might as well call East Jesus Tech, in the sort of department that has one full professor of, it might be, Spanish, a couple of associates whose terminal degrees are in philosophy or rhetoric, a trio of assistant profs (at least one tenured assistant professor) in French, Japanese, and another humanities discipline of your choice, and a legion of instructors who may or may not hold terminal degrees.
In other words, the ass-end of nowhere. The sort of job where the Chron fora divide between urging “Bloom where you are planted!” and “Leave academia; you can find other uses for your skills.”
He was chair there for most of his tenure. He was beloved by students and colleagues, so the obituary assured me, and I believe it, because his students at my undergraduate institution adored him, even the ones who struggled with the esoteric topic of his course. He was so enthusiastic, about the topic and about us. It was in his class that I realized that I had a real talent for analyzing poetry, that I understood grammar better and more easily than most of my classmates; and yet this discovery, welcome though it was to both me and Ambrose, did not distance me from the other students, because he treated them with the same encouraging enthusiasm. At the end of the semester, after grades were in, he took a group of us out to brunch, at the coffee shop where he did his grading, near the hotel where he lived that year.
He graded in a coffee shop! He lived in a hotel! Like Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre! He was leading a Parisian life in a west coast city! I can’t tell you what an exciting discovery that was. He let us into his life, at least briefly; he showed us such amazing possibilities. He was kind. I was suffering from heartbreak, and he suggested that, as the world is full of circular journeys, my boyfriend might, in time, return. He was intelligent: he had mastered his esoteric topic, he spoke several languages fluently, he had studied with Very Important People at his Ivy League school. And he made us feel that we might do all these things as well, or at least, if we could not, we could warm our hands at his fire.
But what about that invisibility in the MLA bibliography? I searched again. I searched J-STOR. I worked through any number of online bibliographies to which LRU’s library subscribes, and finally found his dissertation and a couple of book reviews. I wondered if he had published in Europe, and somehow missed being picked up by Anglo-American bibliographies; but if that were the case, J-STOR still ought to pick up his name in footnotes, when other scholars reference his obscure writings. So I think not.
As for that dissertation, my first thought was “WTF were your advisors thinking?” It was a study of a trope in two authors of radically different periods, through a lens that might, perhaps, bring them together adequately; but I had to wonder if Ambrose had been playing the flâneur in graduate school until someone told him, “Take some of your seminar papers, write an introduction and conclusion that will tie them together, and we’ll give you a degree. But you have to finish.” There was no way it would make a workable book, and it didn’t even look to me as if the chapters would have worked well as stand-alone articles. If that was where he was starting from, I’m not really surprised he didn’t publish. Better just to start over. I suppose what his advisors were thinking (this was, after all, more than 30 years ago), was “We are Big Names in the Big Leagues and of course our students will get jobs no matter what because of our Big Names.”
Maybe he really didn’t care about publishing. Maybe all he wanted to do was teach and administer a humanities program. I feel reasonably certain that he was happy, because he met the world with such enthusiasm. He appeared to love it all. At any rate, I hope that wasn’t just delight at being with us on the west coast, away from the eastern winter. I hope he enjoyed his students and colleagues at East Jesus Tech, and opened up new worlds for his students there, and made his instructors feel like colleagues. Maybe I’m a snob to wish that he’d managed to turn his lectures on his esoteric topic into at least an article, if not a book, so that there would be something written in which I could hear his voice again. Maybe there are some other students of his who, like me, have become publishing academics; perhaps we are his legacy. Or, who knows, he could have written a dozen well-received novels under a pseudonym.
I do know what he would say to me now, if he could still speak, because he said it to me during that long-ago spring, about another death: “Portez le deuil, mais ne le portez pas trop.”