How I became a Shakespeare scholar and literature and humanities enthusiast is buried somewhere in the shell of a story about my failure to be a man. Perhaps it starts here: when I was in high school, just starting out, I figured that my 5’8” 140 lbs body was fit for football. When lying dazed on my back after two offensive linemen plowed through me during a scrimmage game my sophomore year, I figured I should go with something else. So, I decided to focus on what I was good at: Math. Chemistry. Notice, I haven’t mentioned anything about my high school social skills. But all that—the math and chemistry, I mean—I had trouble applying to anything. I mean, I could do the work well—I understood mathematical formulae and processes, I knew that a mole was not only some critter digging up peonies in my grandparents’ front yard but also a certain number of molecules—but I could not make the connection between that kind of work, that kind of information, and my life. So, I filled in “English” in the intended major space on my college applications.
My brief gloss over almost 20 years of my life tells me that my decision to major in English was not based on the sort of rational exercise that we English folk are told to use to decide what we should major in. “What will you do with an English degree?” “What are your plans?” We’re told either directly or tacitly that these are the questions to ask and answer because, and I quote, “It’s a tough world out there, you need to know what you are going to do.” The assumption is that we can only teach or write, which are activities that hardly guarantee financial success.
We ask a follow-up. “Why is it a tough world? What makes it tough?” Literature teaches us the answer: to quote the title from the late Chinua Achebe’s novel, things fall apart. Not much a career can do to really prevent that from happening. Parents and grandparents and great grandparents can tell you that. Work hard, buy a home, sell a home, buy another home, invest in a 401K, set aside money for your children’s college education, have some to spare for trips, or a car, or a vacation home, then watch as economic calamity strips your retirement money away through no fault of your own, or watch as a storm floods your basement, your first floor, your attic as you stand on the roof waiting for a boat. If you’re fortunate, if Fortune has been kind to you, then maybe those things haven’t fallen apart, but other things will.
This is not a prediction. Watch as your parents quarrel, divorce, fight over a couch or a dining room set or a grandfather clock or child custody. Things fall apart. Someone dies. Things fall apart. Christmas dinner or a Passover seder or a Ramadan dinner turns into a nightmare that you have to sit through. Things fall apart. Your dream to become more than a joke on the football field ends with you as a joke on the football field. Things fall apart. Your blog post in the new Iona English blog gets trolled. Things fall apart.
Let me step back for a moment. All the skills that we have learned and continue to learn in our discipline—critical thinking, textual analysis, persuasive writing and speech, research methods—are keys to success in publication, in politics, in entrepreneurial pursuits, in law, in banking, in tech. Mid-to-upper level managers, human resources administrators, business owners, even corporate officers can teach you business practices, policies, and methods, and trainers can teach you the new software, the new program, the new spreadsheet model. They will not teach you to write well or to speak well. (Just check out this link for how that’s a problem in our economy: http://www.inc.com/kaleigh-moore/study-poor-writing-skills-are-costing-businesses-billions.html.) They will not teach you how to organize your work load, how to manage your time, how effectively and efficiently to research. So, when someone asks, “What can you do with English?” you can respond with something like, “A lot.”
So, let’s get that problem with perception out of the way. People who do not see the tremendous, practical value of an English focus are wrong to conclude, therefore, that there is no tremendous, practical value of an English focus in college.
But that problem is not the problem that worries me.
What do we do in a world where things fall apart? How do we cope? How do we manage? Literature does not so much tell us the answer as it deepens our appreciation for those questions as we continue to seek answers.
An example: when I was a child, I belonged to a very traditional family. The father was the breadwinner and the rule-setter and the authority figure. My mother was the caretaker, the soother, the sympathizer. I was one of three boys. From my father, I learned that to be a man in this world, you have to be aggressive, loud, and assertive at home and at work. He was a police officer and an owner of a landscaping business. He and my mother divorced after I failed at football (not for that reason?). They’re still around, but as a child, I saw my father as a mean, angry person and I vowed to myself as early as 7, that age of reason, that I would not be like him when I grew up.
Such a dream—to prevent the sins of the father from passing to the son—seemed less and less likely once I read and learned about literary mainstays like The Great Gatsby and Absalom, Absalom. As I read more and more literature—think Mrs. Dalloway, Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, The Road, King Lear—I came to think that the things that matter fall apart, but the things that you do want to fall apart will not fall apart for you. Depressing. But still, I had this drive to figure out a way to distinguish myself from my father, and I continued to read literature, sometimes, whether I knew it or not, to sort through the messes around me.
Shakespeare, Hamlet. Nope. My uncle didn’t kill my father and marry my mother. But maybe I was reading literature incorrectly. Rather than search literature for a pattern of life that best resembles my own, I should pay attention to my desire to put myself in the trappings and suits of the characters that had meaningful things to say. So, when I was in England for that year-abroad in college, I started a quote journal. You know, I would read whatever I was reading—a poem by John Donne or a novel by Virginia Woolf or a play by Shakespeare or a mystical text by Nicolas of Cusa—and I would write down quotes that meant something to me for some reason. The quotes maybe spoke to me about an issue or a condition that I could relate to, or they gave me insight into the pain and hopes and fears and desires of the literary character whom I found so fascinating. “We live as we dream—alone,” or “All thy suffering be divine,” or “We live in a night ocean wondering what are these lights?” I also wrote down definitions; it took me hours just to read 20 pages of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. Over years, I wrote down quotes, sayings, both wise and funny, odd and lasting, that, even if for a moment, had something to say to me.
Eventually, I was fortunate enough to discover a book that said something to me about others and that said something to me about my own desire to avoid the sins of my father, too. Russell Banks, Affliction. It is a story about a high school football star whose success as a teenager did not carry over into adulthood. Once he was a man’s man as a teenager in New Hampshire, but we find him as a middle-aged divorcee who cannot maintain a relationship with his daughter and whose own anger at his father fuels his anger toward others. No spoilers, but what mattered to me when reading this novel is that there was someone else out there who could write about an issue so much better than I, who could relate the father-son problem in terms that profoundly affected me, who could, through fiction, through literature, teach me that my wish not to be like my father was rooted in the same anger that I blamed my father for having. So, why not try to strengthen a relationship with my father not rooted in past anxiety and fear, but rather rooted in love and mutual respect.
Things fall apart. But then, as English students, we look for things to say that help us to put things together. Aside from the skills key to career, we learn how to marshal other human functions—imagination, introspection, comedy, empathy—to cope, to mature, and to find the good. We look for new ways to see our experiences and to mend relationships. We discover that some relationships are not worth mending, and we understand others without ridiculing or bullying them. We grow into our humanity. Things fall apart, so we say things, write things, read things to put things back together.