Saturday, 21 March 2009

The American Scholar ~ Of Love and Letters.

I seem to have fallen in love.

As Spring blooms forth with dazzling displays of daffodils and crocuses and as even the cynanothis tree at the end of the garden becomes more blue-tinged by the day, the sap rises and a single man’s heart turns to matters of amorous adoration.

In my case this affair d’amour is not with a human or indeed any other life form, but with a publication, a rather special periodical that I’m ashamed to confess I’ve only recently discovered.

I owe this burgeoning love to Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, who in a piece he wrote in January under the title “A pencil box of bees” drew my attention to a delightfully wistful memoir by Professor Steven Isenberg in which he recalled four lunches of his early adulthood, each with a great man of letters: Larkin, Auden, Empson and Forster. Isenberg’s wonderful piece was entitled “Lunching on Olympus” and as I read it I was transported to his front row seat in the theatre of luminaries. It is a beautiful piece of writing, as one might expect from Professor Isenberg, a vividly remembered recollection of a young man’s sense of being not quite up to the task of reciprocating the generosity of insight and intellect that his lunch partners offered. In his case the sense is of course unfounded, but it reminded me of the years I spent in a radio studio interviewing my own literary heroes and fearing that however diligently I had read their work, however hard I had thought about their meaning, I would never quite be able to do justice to the time that I was able to spend with them. It is a sense I still have every time I mount the steps up to a stage in order to interview or be ‘in conversation with’ an author at those literary festivals that will have me.

So exercised was I by this thought that I wrote a brief letter to the editor of The American Scholar, more as an exercise than with the intention of sending it, but merely to nail the emotion, the sense of not being good enough. Foolishly I then emailed the publication to congratulate them on publishing ‘Lunching on Olympus’ and more in haste than consideration included some of the lines from the letter as part of the email.

Remarkably the associate editor replied and wondered whether they might publish part of the text in the letters page and in the ensuing e-conversation kindly agreed to send me some back copies of TAS.

The anticipation of waiting for them was more acute than any I have know for some time, like waiting for a phone-call from a lover or for a reply to a billet doux. When they slid through the letter box, wrapped in that curious shade of yellow/orange envelope that is peculiar to North America, I resisted the urge to tear at the package, instead finding a letter opener and somewhat formally teased the flap open, slowly revealing the contents before sliding them gently out to lie in all their beauty on my desk. I have treated lovers with less regard. Dresses have been cursorily cast to the floor in more frenziedly impatient haste to reveal their contents. But this was different. This was textual, not sexual.

And so began the love affair that I am currently enjoying, that has consumed me as all good affairs should. I have read articles on torture and dictators, on the best westerns, on the story of John Wilkes Booth. I have read about Cy Twombly in Paris and a superb piece on why black Americans need a new story, a piece that was published long before Obama was elected President. And in the course of this reading I have fallen in love with the size and shape of The American Scholar. I love its typeface and its quietly worn intelligence. I love the fact that Einstein, Bellow, Didion and Sagan all wrote pieces for it, that in 2006 they published fiction by Alice Munro, Louis Begley and Anne Beattie. I love the fact that its title is drawn from the Ralph Waldo Emerson speech to the Phi Delta Kappa society at Harvard in 1837 and that it has stayed true to its ideals of self-knowledge, independent thinking and a commitment to science, arts, books, history and world affairs. I can’t help but feel that Socrates would have loved it too. He’d probably have edited it given the chance and a sizeable tear in the lacework of time. But even he wouldn’t have been able to improve it, because it is perfect as it is.

I am therefore slightly ashamed that my letter was published. I feel that I have somehow sneaked in under the wire, in the same way that I‘ve assumed past girlfriends have lowered their normal standards and I have just been very lucky. The feeling that I’m not quite up to the task whispering to me all over again, a little demon on my shoulder saying “look what you’ve done, you’ve spoiled it now.” But I’m also honoured to have had a little contribution immortalised in such august company.

In a reply to Peter Stothard’s piece a correspondent reprised Larkin’s line that “depression is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth” and as I look at their nodding heads at the end of the garden I can but agree with the old song; that love is indeed a many splendoured thing. An American Scholarly thing too.



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