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    Praise for the Foremothers

    This is how it works: men and women do things - write books, build institutions, start movements - that change your life forever, and the men get into the history books. The women mysteriously fall out of the story, over and over. How many times have you heard or read the words, "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to be free"? How many of you can name the writer off the top of your head? That's what I'm talking about. As Virginia Woolf put it, "Anonymous was a woman." Men learn to make their debts to other men public, to make a virtue of acknowledging what they owe their forefathers, and to forget what they owe women.

    I like to think of myself as pro-feminist, and I was raised by a woman who had a badge and a gun. But when I list the writers and teachers who have been influences on me, the women somehow get left out. I don't do it on purpose, or know that I am doing it. No one is ever explicitly taught to do that, but somehow in our time and place it keeps happening.

    If you asked me which teachers in college had been the greatest influence on me, I would have named two younger men, early in their teaching careers. That is true as far as it goes. Those teachers were obvious role models for me, and bits of their old teaching personae still show up in my classroom. If you asked me who my senior role model was when I was an undergraduate, I would have named a particular eminent man, a beloved and revered figure who was nearing retirement. But while I still think of that professor with affection and reverence, his influence on my own teaching is virtually non-existent. There is no trace of his pedagogy in my classroom. When I was nineteen, under the spell of his charisma, I thought that I would follow his particular specialty myself, but that has not been the case. I stopped studying his field even before I had graduated.

    On the other hand, until about five years ago I would not have singled out the influence of the very senior female professor, the person I have blogged about as "Professor V.", who taught the introductory lecture classes for the major. It wasn't until I had finished a PhD, found a job, written a book, and achieved tenure that I began to reckon with her deep and pervasive influence on my scholarly practice. I use some intellectual tools and approaches that Vendler herself seems to think of with dislike or indifference, but there remains a baseline of critical practice that Vendler herself laid down, a bright thread of her influence that runs through the way I read poetry no matter how many other, less Vendleresque, threads I weave. And that level of influence is only more striking because Vendler only taught me intro in a lecture class with hundreds of people. She has never known me as anything but an anonymous 18-year-old face in a 10-am crowd. But even her lessons for beginners had an influence I will likely never shake off.

    But to be honest with myself, Vendler was not the first woman to have an intellectual influence on me. It is only that, like many other men, I have unconsciously dropped the female influences from my intellectual autobiography. The first book of literary criticism I ever bought, which I bought for myself as a high school student, was written by a woman. The first scholarly book I ever bought, the first book with scholarly notes, was written by a woman, too. It was Jane Ellen Harrison's Mythology (bought, I think, in the gift shop of the Boston Museum of Science), a book that was probably too erudite to be on the kid's shelf where I found it, but I doggedly read that book and the endnotes too. Partly because Harrison got to me so early, before there was even any intellectual radar to get under, I still have a soft spot for her particular approach to Greek mythology, the so-called Cambridge Ritualist school.

    If my childhood interest in mythology led me to Harrison's scholarship, my teenaged interest in science fiction led me to my first book of essays about literature. It was Ursula K. Le Guin's The Language of the Night. Like the Harrison book, it turned up randomly in a gift shop aimed at the young, offered among books it only superficially resembled. Maybe because those books dealt with fantasy or fairy tales, and maybe also because they were written by women, they were offered to young people without much thought given to how challenging those books might be. Le Guin, like Harrison, slipped through the lines because she was being underestimated.

    I no longer know how many times I have read The Language of the Night. And while it was not the full-dress academic literary criticism that is part of my job today, it was my first example of how to write an essay about a piece of fiction. More importantly, it was my first model of an essayist's prose, and I could not have had a better. Le Guin's prose, lucid and evocative, as clear and as complex as running water, still gives me my sense of what a paragraph or a sentence ought to be.

    I am occasionally complimented by other academics for the clarity of my academic prose. That of course is just what people say when they are being nice to me, and we are still talking about academic prose. I can never really know how clear my own writing seems to other people. But clear writing is, at least, something I value. The most obvious influence on my scholarly writing is my main scholarly mentor, my famous doctoral advisor and his own famously clear and jargonless prose. That is certainly true in itself. He is a great influence on me, and I became his student because I valued many things his work embodies. But I did not meet that mentor until late in my twenties, when I already had a degree in creative writing from another university. Other influences had shaped my writing long before I met Stephen. If I had asked about those influences even a few years ago, the first name I likely would have said is Orwell's, and that's not untrue either. Orwell's essays, and perhaps especially his newspaper columns, have been important. But until the last few months I think I would not have mentioned Le Guin, and she may be the most important influence of all.

    I was all too slow to be aware of it, but this is the truth: I am trying to write like Ursula K. Le Guin. I am always trying to write like Ursula K. Le Guin. This is no less so because I do it without thinking of it; it is only more so. Her style is the ideal against which I am measured in my own judgment. She is the essayist I wanted to be when I grew up, and she is the stylist whom I, having grown up, would like to be. My fiction shows less of her influence, and is the poorer for it. But as an essayist I am and remain her apprentice. She has never met me, nor I her. But she has left her mark on everything I write. Her influence has only grown stronger, further from the surface and deeper in the structure, as my writing has matured. In the middle of my life, better late than never, I am obliged and honored to acknowledge her as my master.


    Emma Lazarus wrote that poem the inscription came from. "The New Colossus"

    It was written to help raise money for the statue in 1883.  It was found in a file by the statue's patron Gorgianna Schuylar.( I had to look up her spelling of her name.) She had it put on the pedestal of the statue.   

    Emma died before her poem was discovered in that file. 

    Isabella Singer the second wife of Isaac Singer the inventor of the Singer Sewing Machine was the model for the statue in France. 

    I used to include this information when I was giving quilting classes to keep things interesting. 

    Your homage to Ursula K. Le Guin is striking to me because I come from it from at the opposite end of the scale. She taught me when I rarely had a job and was barely getting along. I was another kid wrapped in the cocoon of stories. 

    But there was this twist....

    Nice blog, Doc. I can't say that my "formative" years were influenced by women writers but later when I began to read again and collect books, I was profoundly attracted to  "Death Comes for the Archbishop" by Cather. My mother, who was great at these kinds of statements, when I talked enthusiastically about the book said, "Well of course, would you like my first edition?"

    Taking a seminar on Emily Dickinson, I read Habeggers "My Wars are laid away in books" and Sewell's ​"The life of Emily Dickinson" both so detailed that studying her poetry together with the bios was nearly a transformative experience---especially given Habeggers rich 19th century, New England, context. Somewhat more to the point, I was astounded to discover that Dickinson and my mother had the same birth date. (There is a new biography by Connie Ann Kirk---going to read this.). I love the ground Emily Dickinson walked upon and have a measured drawing of her small writing table which I may live long enough to reproduce.

    Eudora Welty's short stories always affect me in ways I can't describe, they just penetrate me.

    I suppose I'm most satisfied of a long winter night to read PD.James. And Adam Dalgliesh is my kind of guy---immaculately constructed by a woman---a suspect comment coming from someone who is always told that "he's just like his mother". Dalgliesh always seemed an alter ego of Gervase Fen, first featured in Crispin's "The Moving Toyshop", one of my all time favorites---oops---and I was interested to see that Edmund Crispin was a favorite of James. "Death comes to Pemberley" is currently streaming on Acorn on line.

    It's feels good to reflect for a few minutes on a subject like this, especially as a counterpoint to pulling fence and digging post holes by hand all week on this patch of sandy loam and red clay along the Red River in Texas. My women writers would have found solace here and so would have my mother. Are we men ever very far away from our mothers?


    Certainly, my own mother has been on my mind lately, Oxy.

    That your mother had a first edition of Cather is hilarious and fitting. And certainly Cather, Welty, and Dickinson are all wonderful, powerful writers.

    I get Welty and Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers all run together for me, in a nice way. Well, nice perverse disjointed way. A bit like Faulkner without the overwrought vocabulary. Always something lurking under there, not the sin you've suppressed - the sins you live with every day. If this is solace, my mother must be one mean son-of-a-bitch and a helluva carney act.

    Solace somewhat in the sense of time to think and coming to terms with life but the placid surface of the country is easily interrupted by, say, a bible salesman who gets a girl drunk and then steals her prosthetic leg. (O'Connor, Good Country People). The bizarre language of my mother arrived late in her life and shocked me.

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