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Mowbray Allan: On the Scholar and the Writer

On the Scholar and the Writer

March 16, 2012

Dear Mowbray,

I was intrigued by your remark that you had never really liked Dante. Recently you had confided that it was Swift whom you most enjoyed but had never written about him. I never wrote about any of the poets in the generation that immediately preceded me (much to their dismay), confining myself instead to Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Williams, Pound and Eliot. I will not go so far as to say that I did not like the modernists (I liked everything that I chose to teach), but I have never picked up a poem by any of them since I taught their work.

In China I was fortunate in being able to start over again. Apart from my teaching a four-course survey of English literature, in which one had an obligation to be representative, I never taught much of anything that I did not enjoy. I chose to teach Homer, Hesiod, Theocritus, Apollonius, Vergil’s Eclogues and Aeneid; I chose to teach Castiglione, Ariosto, Sydney and Racine; I offered a seminar in masterpieces representative of the allegorical (Ovid), sacred (Dante), ironic (Cervantes), universal (Goethe) and absurd (Dostoevskii).

Except for Dante, however, I actually liked most of these authors, as I did the Victorian prose writers, novelists and Wilde, in another seminar. I chose to do seminars in Spenser and Milton and enjoyed at least the process of becoming familiar with them (it was a rare opportunity). About seven years after I retired and gave up teaching these ten courses in regular rotation (plus directing research in six of them), I had a tremendous memory dump in which I lost all my expertise. Ten years earlier my lawyer in Norman had sold all the books that I ever owned in the USA.

My library now consists (apart from the books in my bedroom/study) of three shelves, which I keep for reference, in a country where they would be very difficult to replace. So I have given up virtually everything that I used to read. I sent to Richard Beck all my books by James Merrill. I no longer have Chinese and Indian books, or the long shelf of reference works that were once so important. Nonetheless I am perfectly happy. You may underestimate the difference between a scholar and a writer, as you are speaking of me. I have 20,000 copies of my own books.

It is more important that I keep track of what I said in 25 books, as I approach the 26th and last in Sentence of the Gods, than that I rehearse what I had once known about everyone else. A writer must be egotistical. It is part of his vocation. For years I spent a great deal of time reading my own work and wondering about this activity. I have since realized, however, that without rereading my own work I would not know where I am in the Sentence: I would not know what to leave out and what to put in. Once I finish the last book, I will be glad to forget everything.

Kenneth Koch, in a poem, says, “You live long enough.”

For a decade I have read only factual books: scientific, historical, touristic, things about religion and other topics of my special presentations. I have finished all these (or will have, when we post and illustrate the Islamic art piece); I will then have published two “critical” books, one printed, one digital. I will be happy not having to do any such hard work again. The rest of my career will be spent augmenting my website (it already has 400 “pages”) with photographs, translations of my work and whatever critical attention it may receive.

I have always been impressed by something that Updike said about Joyce: “When he died, his desk was clear.” The final book in the Sentence, Life, is open-ended, i.e., can be added to or not. Its episodic structure is complete, so to speak, at every point along the way, so I need only add to it, if I wish. Since the first word of the Sentence is “white,” I would like for the last to be “black,” but I do not insist on this. I may write a pamphlet that ends with the word “black,” then add to it any new pamphlets before this final pamphlet.

As always,