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The letter not answered, the road not taken



I spent the morning making pea soup and thinking of Robert F. Gleckner. I had set out to make the pea soup because I had a leftover ham bone, and was ambushed by an impulse to find the man who had issued an invitation to me nearly 20 years ago to which I had never responded.

In 1986, I had nearly completed my undergraduate course work at NCSU when I received notice that I had been awarded a Mellon fellowship to pursue graduate studies in English. This was heady stuff. I had been waiting tables to put myself through college, and in those lean years, a grant covering tuition, all fees, plus an $8,500 stipend seemed a small fortune. Meanwhile, I had been dating a man whose ex-wife, upon quitting their marriage, took the kids, the house and the continuity, leaving him subject to her whims on visitation and with child support payments stretching far into the future. My own childless first marriage and years on Wall Street, embedded in an unconventional career path, had conspired to turn me into a feminist who was more concerned with how to live my values than how to abstract and capitalize on them.

Things happened fast that spring of 1986. I got the fellowship, got married and graduated in short order. Because of the kids, there was no question about taking the Mellon fellowship out of state. I would commute to Duke while I got my sea legs for marriage-cum-parenthood. It didn't work out that way. Before the first semester was out, I had withdrawn from the Ph.D. program at Duke and relinquished the fellowship.

If you had asked me at the time, I'd have said it was because I had walked into the pressure-cooker center of high-powered academic superstakes, where career and prestige and intellectual fashion then loomed largest. Stanley Fish was at Duke in 1986, as was Jane Tompkins, his wife. So were Lee and Annabel Patterson and Frederic Jameson and Frank Letricchia. It was not the time and place to try to live as Thoreau suggested--and I had hoped--"a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust," attempting "to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically." From 20 years out, it strikes me that my choice was an attempt to do just that, although few people would see it that way.

Of course, it was theoretically possible to continue with my studies while making a home with a new husband and children. It was theoretically possible to prepare meals mindfully, with economy and environmental consciousness, to clean and to keep a garden without exploiting someone with fewer options than I had to do it. It was theoretically possible to be as attentive to my home and family as I was to my work at Duke, to maintain conversations and fulfill community obligations at the same time. But practically, I had not the suppleness for it. If I had tried, I would have broken my neck on the slippery slope of rationalizations that takes us gently away from what we say we believe and leads us into the glen of casual hypocrisy.

My resignation letter to Prof. Gleckner, then the director of graduate studies, was all heat and passion, sizzling with the kind of self-righteousness only those who still believe they can get through life unscathed can muster. I said the Duke program was a factory, allowing no time to nourish outside experiences; academia had fallen victim to the culture of professionalism, featuring trial by ordeal and measuring success in terms of volume of work and output alone; feminists seeking to approach literature and work in the service of other values could not do so as things stood at Duke. I went on at some length.

A couple of weeks later Prof. Gleckner sent a reply. He apologized for his delay, and he expressed distress over my decision. At the end of his letter he asked if I would be willing to come in and talk with him about it. Not, he said, in order to persuade me that I had made the "wrong" decision, but because at the very least, the conversation might help him to do his job better.

For 10 years the letter lay in a folder in a file, too painful even to touch. Rubbed to roughness then to callous by time and struggle, eventually I took the letter out and put it in a pile on my desk, a vague sort of quasi-Things To Do pile. It lay there, the tides of impulse and duty rising and falling around it for another 10 years. It became a kind of talisman, I think, something that, when the time and portents were right, might deliver me to the portal I had failed to enter years before. From time to time, I looked at it, assessing the auspices, weighing my mettle. Something--maybe my own daughter's imminent departure from home for college--moved me to go further that day. I looked for him in the telephone book, then wandered through 30 or so pages of Google before scoring the fatal hit.

Robert F. Gleckner died on Aug. 21, 2001, at his home in Raleigh (he had lived in Raleigh!), the notice said. He was born in Rahway, N.J., and grew up in Staten Island. (I had not known we were both New Yorkers.) He went right from high school into the Air Force, serving from 1942-45 at Harvard AFB in Hastings, Neb. He married a girl from Hastings before he was 21 (just as I had married the first time). He graduated from Williams College in 1948, magna cum laude, and got his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins while teaching at the University of Cincinnati. He had two children and six grandchildren. He was the author of several books on romantic poets and authors and had been named Professor Emeritus by Duke.

Reading these lines, I found myself wracked with sobs in waves throughout the day. Instead of offering closure, discovering Gleckner's death had pried open a tomb of longings, buried alive. Longing to have been able to combine family life with satisfying work among my peers. Longing for collegial relations. Longing for rewards I could have had and now had not. Longing for my lost youth. And longing most of all for people who had touched me and whom I could touch no more. Some of my grief had to do with the feeling I had let many people down when I took the path I did. I wished, as I cried, that I had had a chance to know Prof. Gleckner, to talk with him about the practical and the theoretical--even if it was only to learn that Mrs. Gleckner was the one with whom I should be speaking.

But I did not wish I had made another choice. I still believe that when we say something matters most to us, our actions should show it. If children really are the most important thing, our efforts should work to their benefit and to the benefit of the world they will inherit. I believe that we should do this even when it hurts, even when the rewards are not apparent or forthcoming. It is why--at the level of the most concrete--I do not throw away ham bones or turkey carcasses or leftovers of any kind, even though many days the prospect of getting the most out of every bit we have isn't what I would most like to do. What I do wish is that there were more of us who tried Thoreau's path and that we met at frequent intervals to discuss our travails and satisfactions. The years since 1986 have taught me that the problems of life the outside world brings to our doorstep can only be solved in conversation with that world, and that we who struggle with pea soup and leftovers have little time or opportunity for the conversation. When Prof. Gleckner offered me one, I wish I had taken it.

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