More than 30 years ago I wrote an article for the first issue of The Threepenny Review, a literary magazine launched by writer and critic Wendy Lesser, who, at the time, was a friend. In the article, I reviewed Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, and writing it, as I recall, was a torment. Although I didn’t save a copy of this article, I think now that it was probably longer than it had a right to be and likely more bombast than substance.
Wendy and I met when we were doctoral students at UC Berkeley. She liked me, she said, because I was easy to talk to and because I was diplomatic, and I admired her for what I considered then to be far more important qualities: her wide-ranging intellect, determination, and self-confidence. Although I was intelligent enough and could be determined in fits and starts, my lack of self-confidence made me a dupe for a student and a dangerous literary critic.
Like a child who mimics the language and posturings of the adults around her, I learned in graduate school how to behave in ways that were imitative, empty of conviction, and cruel. The truth is that I cared very little, if at all, about the ideas that seemed to preoccupy others, and, even if I did take a fancy to any of my own ideas, they changed faster than you could say ticker tape.
My academic career ended before it started, when I took a seminar on the Renaissance from Stephen Greenblatt, whose star was very much on the rise. For the final paper, I wrote a critique of a Shakespearean sonnet and agonized over it as I agonized over everything I wrote. In the end, I had so parsed myself into a corner that the only conclusion I felt I could reach was that it was impossible to ever know the meaning of a poem or the meaning of any piece of writing, for that matter. As you can imagine, this didn’t bode well for me—or for my star. So, I slunk away from the Department without even signing out, and, since I was a rabble-rouser, albeit a preemptive one, I don’t think I was much missed; yet, I wanted very badly for someone to come after me—to miss the particular brand of me—and, from time to time, I wonder how my life would have turned out had I been coaxed back to Wheeler Hall.
I didn’t leave Berkeley just because I couldn’t find much meaning in what I was doing. I simply didn’t have the temperament of a scholar, and this was nowhere more evident than in a course I took on eighteenth-century literature from Margaret Doody, a visiting professor who now teaches at the University of Notre Dame. She was a very sincere and passionate teacher with a good sense of humor and with what I seem to recall was a compelling take on first-person narratives written by women of the Enlightenment.
All of the students appeared to like her very much, and I liked her very much, but I couldn’t bring myself to do what was required. For one assignment, as an example, we were supposed to make a presentation on a topic of our choice, and, while others offered what I think I thought were well-mannered, if dreary, responses to the task at hand, I broke onto the stage with some wild thing written in the voice of a heroine from a novel we had been reading. I’m pretty sure I was proud of what I had done, and I had no idea that I had made a fool of myself or that others were tittering behind my back until I met with Dr. Doody for an end-of-the-quarter conference, during which she squared my shoulders and got down to it: When was I going to get serious about my life, she wanted to know. I was so shocked by this that I laughed involuntarily, which no doubt affirmed for her the necessity of having asked such a question. I didn’t know then that meeting with her was the most important experience I was to have during my short-lived life as an academic. Since that day, I have not stopped asking myself the same question.