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June 1 2004
Letter from Dan

Welcome Readers and Friends,

I’d like to talk to you for a minute about my daughter’s graduation from college and – since I love big topics – about the whole idea of education.

As I write this, I’m just back from an 8-day drive across two-thirds of the United States in which my wife Karen and I went to our daughter Jane’s graduation from Hamilton College in central New York, crammed all her stuff in the back of our Land Cruiser, and drove her home across New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and the big-empty-plains part of Colorado. It was a wonderful experience watching Jane graduate – all parents are thrilled at that event – and it was made even more wonderful by the quality of work she did at Hamilton and the changes it brought out in her during those four years.

Driving back across the heart-of-the-heart of the country, dodging hailstorms, terrible thunderstorms, flooding and tornados, I had time to reflect on the idea of education in general and why I’ve always been so passionate about it.

André Gide once wrote – “The only real education comes from what goes counter to you” – and while there must be exceptions to that rule, I’ve come to see the truth in that statement over the decades. For me, the great tragedy of someone who protects himself or herself from education is that they’ve committed the sin of finding their slide and then greasing it – that is, they form ideas and opinions early on and allow no challenge to them. They protect their earliest prejudices from assault. Personally, I think it’s a recipe for provincialism and ignorance, not to mention intolerance.

Any good education is a dangerous proposition. It tosses you into the deep end of the pool of ideas and demands that you learn how to swim. It makes you aware that there are no new ideas under the sun – that every issue of importance, in literature, art, philosophy and all the other disciplines – has been discussed, in some form or another, for centuries and millennia by men and women far smarter than you. With luck, any real education will not only make you aware of this ongoing dialogue, but will demand that you join in it, adding your barbaric yawp to the din.

To those who enter a good school – say Jane’s Hamilton College – with their minds filled with certainty (religious, political, social, philosophical, scientific, literary, historical), the good education there will rock the very foundations of all those certainties. Verities which satisfy the proudly ill-educated and preliterate stand no chance at a fine liberal arts college. Books, professors, visiting scholars, and even fellow students will chip away at provincial attitudes – whether those attitudes were formed in the rural Midwest or suburban California or uptown Manhattan or inner-city Chicago – and by being exposed to such dangerous ideas, any serious learner ends up discovering her own priorities, opinions, and true intellectual passions for life.

And make no mistake – learning is a scary proposition. I’ve never given Jane much advice (I hate the thought of sounding like Polonius), but one thing I did say to her some years ago has made me nervous over the years as she – wildly, foolishly – appeared to be following my advice. (Actually, of course, she was following her own personality and sense of character.) Years ago, I mentioned to her that in life, when confronted with several options, the one that seems the scariest frequently turns out, in retrospect, to be the most rewarding.

Besides academic honors, they should hand out ribbons for courage under fire to undergraduates. Jane would have earned more than a few. Her freshman year (excuse me, first year), she tried out for a student improv comedy group – Yodapez – and was the only freshman (sorry, first-year student) to get in. Not only did she perform this improv in front of large crowds for four years, but as a senior she headed up the troupe, keeping the tradition alive and handing it off to younger students as she left.
Not content in performing improv, she auditioned as a solo stand-up opener for visiting professional comedians’ gigs and did that as well. (This, I confess, was the one gutsy thing – of all of Jane’s gutsy decisions at Hamilton – that made her dad break out in a cold sweat.) Fifteen or twenty minutes alone onstage in a spotlight in front of scores or hundreds of people who’ve come to hear a professional comedian. She loved it. The audiences loved it.

One of the reasons Jane chose Hamilton was that she wanted to pursue her cello playing while at college, without declaring music as a major or disappearing into a conservatory, and this is precisely what she did there – playing in the orchestra for most of her time there, starting a string ensemble, etc. Small, liberal arts colleges are a peculiarly American institution, unique to our country – the intellectual secret weapon of the United States, if you ask me – and as a classics scholar friend of mine (Keith Nightenhelser of Ilium fame) once said – “Small liberal arts schools let the interested students get their hands on all the levers.” And so it was for the Kid – Jane kept performing music, had a show on the campus radio station, did comedy improv, wrote and directed her own plays, took art courses, was involved in countless extracurricular activities, made close friendships with students and profs in a myriad of disciplines – all while pursuing her own high-level studies in comparative literature.

Jane’s academic decisions also showed real courage. She’d been looking forward to her junior semester abroad for years and had a program in St. Andrews Scotland all arranged, but during the first semester of her junior year she became so involved with senior-level literature courses that she decided to stay on campus and pursue the highest level courses imaginable with the toughest scholars available rather than enjoy the time in Scotland. During her senior year, as part of a Proust seminar taught by the redoubtable Peter Rabinowitz, Jane took on an extra independent project, under the supervision of a writer and poet, in which she responded to Proust’s 4,500-page IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME by creating her own series of poems based on Proust’s characters and themes, the poems themselves evolving in style and complexity just as Proust’s novel does.

What does all this have to do with other than a proud dad bragging about her kid? Well, a lot if you’re a reader or interested in becoming a writer. All of you serious readers out there know that a serious education is required to fully enjoy the best books available. The long dialogue of literature is a wonderful and rich thing – few writers with ambition can resist the urge to jump into the stronger, deeper currents of it – and too much is lost if the reader isn’t able to swim in those currents as easily, or more easily, than the novelist.

I love working with would-be writers – from college-age to post-retirement-age individuals who dearly and deeply want to become writers – and their most frequently asked question might be paraphrased as – “What’s the one thing I need above all others to become a writer?” They’re often surprised when I answer (as John Gardner did in his wonderful ON BECOMING A NOVELIST), “The perspective that only a serious education can give you.”

I spent several years researching Ernest Hemingway’s life for my novel THE CROOK FACTORY– (as I’ll mention again later, I often decide on what I’m going to write based on what I want to learn about) – and I enjoyed the true story of Hemingway’s encounter with one such wannabe young writer.

A young man was following the writer around Key West and later, Havana. It was a time in Hemingway’s life when he was already suspicious of the FBI (they were keeping tabs on him because of a radical essay he’d published in 1935) and finally the big, brusque writer braces the kid in a bar. “What the fuck are you following me for?” The young man stammers out that he wants to be a writer, that he thinks Hemingway is the man to tell him the secret of being a writer. Hemingway glowers, looms, then says, “Buy me a beer and I’ll tell you the secret of being a writer.”

The kid brings the beers over to a table. Hemingway drank deep and revealed the one and only secret to being a real writer –
“ . . . the most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all good writers have it.”

Then Hemingway went back to his friends and left the young man sitting there.

All colleges and universities shovel a lot of the above-mentioned shit – especially of the political, deconstructive-semiotic-new-historicist-feminist-gender-post-Marxist and other politically correct variety these days – it’s part of their job; but all good schools also provide the basic components of Hemingway’s built-in, shock-proof shit detector. (The rest of the working parts will be delivered at the School of Hard Knocks and Real Life – which is a fine academy, but never complete unto itself.)

For those of you who might have read and – I hope – enjoyed my 2003 novel ILIUM and are awaiting the 2005 second volume, OLYMPOS, please know that I decided to write those two SF novels precisely because I was intrigued with the idea of re-engaging with Homer’s ILIAD for several years – rereading the Lattimore translation that I’d encountered at Wabash College decades ago but then discovering the more recent translations (I based my theft . . . er . . . homage sections of Ilium on Robert Fagles’s translation) and also returning to dozens of other translations in whole or part, from Pope’s rhyming heroic couplets to Stanley Lombardo’s wonderful 1997 translation where the Greek and Trojan heroes talk like World War Two G.I.’s and Vietnam grunts. Along with this celebration of reading, I had the pleasure of dipping into the scholarship of scores of Homeric critiques, as well as chatting with living experts such as my classics-scholar friend Keith Nightenhelser.

It’s always hardest to educate oneself – even as an undergraduate I could have found more information and insight faster on this project listening to gifted professors, discussing it with sharper students than myself – but when one is in his mid-50’s, self-learning projects such as this are sometimes the way we have to go.

Last week a French journalist asked me a question that has been asked before in the past year – “Why did you dedicate your novel Ilium to Wabash College?” The complete answer is long and personal and will be saved until another time, but the essence of that answer is that I couldn’t have written Ilium – or any of the 20-some novels I’ve published – without the education and perspective on learning that Wabash College gave me more than three decades ago. The professors and men there (it’s one of the last all-male liberal arts colleges in America) helped me build a shit-detector that’s still functioning well after all this time.

In the huge concluding volume I’m finishing this summer, OLYMPOS, I’ve been searching for a bit of poetry to give to one of my characters – Orphu of Io, a 10-ton, horseshoe-crab-shaped, Ford Expedition-sized “moravec” (sentient robot-cyborg thingee) – who is obsessed with all things Proustian. Luckily, I’ve been provided with some great poetry to choose from by someone Orphu of Io will refer to only as “a 21st Century poet – I can’t remember her name.” Well, dear friends and readers, just between us, her name is Jane Kathryn Simmons and she graduated with accolades and achievement from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, on May 23rd, 2004. Below is one of those poems. (For those of you who’d like to indulge a proud father or just read some decent poetry, all of Jane’s 19 Proust poems – under her title of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” borrowed, of course, from Wallace Stevens – will be posted on the NEWS page of this web site.)

Oh, one footnote here. We’re not into giving extravagant presents in our family, but this Christmastime, Karen and I were pleased to give Jane a graduation present – which she’s now earned – of a summer trip to Dublin. You see, the single book and class that may have most excited her during her four years at Hamilton was an advanced seminar on James Joyce’s ULYSSES taught by the Joyce scholar and all-around witty and amusing fellow Austin Briggs. (photo left) Well, as you Joyce and ULYSSES fans know, all of that novel is set in one day in Dublin – June 16, 1904 – following Leopold Bloom around the city. There have been “Bloomsdays” in Dublin for many years – with Joyce scholars and ULYSSES fans descending on the city like buzzards on fresh roadkill (or in this case, on beef and Guinness) – but this is the centenary of Bloom’s immortal day in Dublin, and Professor Briggs will be there delivering papers, heading up panel discussions, drinking beer at a breakfast with 10,000 other Joyce fans, and generally celebrating a wonderful book. Jane Kathryn Simmons, Hamilton ’04, will be there too.


Sincerely,

Stillborn

I.
Little Rudy Bloom, ruddy-cheeked in his mother’s womb
Red light permeating his sleepy, unfocused watchings
Molly clicking long knitting needles as she weaves red wool for him
Feeling his small feet move against the inside of her
Tiny fetus dreams consume him, preparing him for the smell of blankets

II.
A man gently pats his lips with a red napkin
Eyes focused on a sea of clouds drifting behind high brick chimneys
Submerged in the sudden memory of hawthorn stalks rubbing together in a storm
Reaching small hands out towards fluttering pink petals
The scents of days long past curl into the low wings of his nostrils

III.
Eleven days. Eleven times the lifespan of a tiny creature emerging from a cocoon
Eleven hush-stained mornings of warmth and shadow creeping across floorboards
Eleven thousand heartbeats before night fell and the ducks abandoned the far pond
Eleven indicated by the long and short hands when she held him to her breast
Eleven days they watched his pink body sleeping in ruddy wool

IV.
Fragments of the novel were bound in his imagination
But loose pages drifted through the dark channels of his mind
Some were blank, others contained nothing but footnotes
Tediously he had suffered the contractions of his imagination
But once in ink, the memories never survived the night

-- Jane Kathryn Simmons
>>Click here if you wish to read the rest of Jane Simmons' Proust poems

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