“Literature in a hurry”: that’s how Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), perhaps best known for his poem “Dover Beach,” once defined my profession, journalism. Arnold died in the city where John Lennon, who appears in my previous blog, was born: Liverpool. In his A Concise Treasury of Great Poems (my crumbling copy is a 12th edition paperback from 1966), anthologist Louis Untermeyer, who is no longer well remembered as a critic or poet, introduced Arnold’s most famous poem this way:
“It has been said that Arnold’s verse is respected but no longer loved, that his social criticism is infrequently read, and that he is quoted only for a few phrases, such as ‘sweetness and light,’ and his definition of poetry as ‘a criticism of life.’ His poetic activity lasted less than ten years, yet Arnold did not underestimate his verse. It is ethical, earnest, and melancholy in tone. What was once considered to be its great virtue now seems to be its chief defect: its purposeful ‘high seriousness’ is muted by the low emotional pitch. But poetry is not all song; and here, for the most part, instead of singing, it searches.”
Can you imagine the reaction to a graduate student making that remark in a course taught by a great Arnoldian and Victorian literature scholar, such as the late David DeLaura? I took a seminar, entitled “Arnold and Clough,” with DeLaura during my years (1974-1976) as a student in the Graduate English Department at the University of Pennsylvania. My future wife, Nancy, was also in that seminar, and her brilliance as a student and writer often cowed me into relative silence in class. (I called her “the machine” back then, and she is still my vast superior as a writer.) Though only mildly interested in Matthew Arnold, Arthur Clough, and Victorian literature (my passion was for post-WWII American literature, which made me something of an odd duckling in that swan-filled Penn pond), I loved the seminar because of DeLaura’s own passion. Like poet, critic, anthologist, librettist, and former NEA chairman Dana Gioia, who is the subject of the doctoral dissertation I’m now working on at Drew University, David DeLaura was one of the most articulate and knowledgeable men I’ve ever encountered. He was exceedingly supportive, considerate, generous, and gentle in his treatment of me and my classmates. He was, in short, a magnificent teacher.
Even so, I had not thought of David DeLaura much in the intervening years until I read Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading by Maureen Corrigan. You may know Corrigan as the book critic heard on Terry Gross’s justly popular National Public Radio program Fresh Air. “I read for a living,” Corrigan notes in her book. She is a true bibliophile, as I suspect everyone who regularly visits the Best American Poetry blog is. Her radio commentaries on books are consistently sharp, smart, and, according to format, succinct. I enjoy them.
Corrigan was also a student in Penn’s Graduate English Department, although I think we did not overlap there. At least, I can’t recall if we did. “I stayed officially registered as a graduate student at Penn for almost a decade,” she writes. “I stayed there out of inertia, because Penn was giving me a free financial ride, and because retreating home to Queens [New York] seemed like a defeat. And I stayed out of love, because even after a few ego-shredding years as a graduate student, I still couldn’t imagine a better line of work than to be an English professor, always lecturing and writing, surrounded by books.”
All of that rings absolutely true to me. As one of my Penn classmates confessed over beers at Smokey Joe’s pub near Penn’s campus, “I just want a life of the mind and a cushy job.” That, too, rings absolutely true to me, although every English professor facing a pile of undergraduate papers to read and grade would probably bristle at the “cushy job” remark.
I was fascinated by Corrigan’s account of her Penn years until her recollection and depiction of her dissertation director, unnamed in her book but crystal-clear to me. It was David DeLaura. I have a hunch that Corrigan knew at the time she was writing her book that it would be easy to learn the name of her dissertation director. She actually mentions her dissertation title. “The best thing I could say about my dissertation was that it was ambitious: ‘Medievalism and the Myth of Revival in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Thought,’” she writes. Even if she didn’t, it’s readily accessible through “Dissertation Abstracts,” the online portal most university libraries offer. I also know who Corrigan’s eczema-afflicted “Professor Y” is in her book: Malcolm Laws.
I was horrified by some of her comments about David DeLaura. I know she has the right to vent, as all writers do, just as all readers have the right not to read all writers’ vents, including my own. (My wife, Nancy, who was in Penn’s grad school longer than I was and aware of Corrigan there, thought my prior blog on Philip Levine had too many resentments bubbling up in me. “I liked your Melville blog better,” my best and toughest critic told me. That’s just one of countless reasons why I love her.) At minimum, Corrigan seems uncharitable in describing her unnamed dissertation adviser as “a nice man and a waning Big Name” who “had a fondness for using arcane Victorian slang, so that often I left conferences in his office feeling clueless, like a newly arrived immigrant who couldn’t grasp her American employer’s housecleaning instructions.” A couple of lines afterward, she writes of DeLaura: “I had no idea what the man was saying.”
What gets lost or glossed over in all this is that Professor David DeLaura—who taught at Penn from 1974 to his retirement in 1999 and died from a heart attack at age 74 on April 9, 2005—stuck by Maureen Corrigan for all the years she was his dissertation student. Not every professor necessarily would, but he did. As she notes in her book, Corrigan entered Penn as a graduate student at age 21 and finally left with a Ph.D. at age 32. “I slowly finished my dissertation and got that academic monkey off my back,” she writes. Surely DeLaura helped get that monkey off her back. What a long-wished-for relief it must have been. I know, because the same monkey is on my back now. I’m proud to let everyone know the name of my dissertation adviser: Dr. Laura Winters, another great teacher and supporter.
Maureen Corrigan is a good writer. You can hear it in her radio commentaries and read it in her book. She knows how to turn a phrase in service of an idea. One of my favorites from her book is: “the woman is valued for the radiance of her mind, not the radius of her bosom.” I could never get away with a line like that, but she could and did. Her role as book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air also qualifies her as a journalist. Like most adept journalists, she can be kind as well as cutting, poignant as well as pugnacious in her ongoing production of “literature in a hurry.”
I obviously disagree with portions of her portrait of David DeLaura, but, as a writer, I would never presume to tell her what to write or even how to write. I reserve the right as a reader, however, not to like what or how she writes at times. As that great phraseologist Yogi Berra once said, “If people don’t want to come to the ballpark, you can’t stop them.” If people don’t want to read your writing, you can’t stop them.
Nevertheless, I recommend that you do not leave Maureen Corrigan alone and that you do read Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading. I also recommend that you re-read Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” pasted below. It’s a poem David DeLaura loved and, bless his memory, made me love all over again.
The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits;—on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.