Last Things, by Lawrence E. Hussman. Portland: Inkwater Press, 2020. 37 pp. ISBN: 978-1-62901-678-8.
Acanemia: A Memoir of Life in the Halls of the Higher Learning, by Lawrence E. Hussman. Portland: Inkwater Press, 2017. 300 pp. ISBN 978-1-62901-413-5.
The green film reel was empty, and it struck me as sadly, and deliberately, symbolic. It had been nailed to a hallway wall just outside B’s bathroom. People knew her only as “B,” but her full name was Beverly Grant, or if you wanted to use her married name, Beverly Conrad. She had been married to Tony Conrad, a maker of art films in the 1960s, and B had appeared not only in his movies but also in Andy Warhol’s. In New York City, she’d been known as the Queen of the Underground. That film career, though, and that marriage had ended, and now, to make ends meet, she ran a little taxi service in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she had settled. She always called me and her other friends, “darling,” which never sounded affected in her voice. She was authentic, down to the way she let her cigarette ash grow until it fell off on its own, onto the floor of her dingy kitchen. My new friend Greer Allen, who was about B’s age—they were both in their fifties then, a good thirty years older than me—had introduced us. He called all of his friends “darling,” too, and in Greer, also, this endearment seemed genuine. He must have acquired the habit elsewhere, I thought, not in New York and surely not in Ohio, but some faraway world where everyone was ardent and affectionate. Like B, Greer would let the ash drop off his cigarette on its own whenever it was ready.
To meet such people was like walking into the decadent Germany of Christopher Isherwood’s novels, Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin. Those stories, and Isherwood’s great character, Sally Bowles, had been made famous by Liza Minnelli in Cabaret, a musical whose charms I still find hard to resist, perhaps more so today than ever before, since we seem to be falling, as Isherwood’s Germany was, into brutal authoritarianism. Isherwood’s was a world of misfits and artists bound by their rejection of warmongers, thugs, blind patriotism, and all else that was “common” and “ordinary,” two of Greer’s favorite words.
In Weimar Germany, however, and in Yellow Springs in the early Eighties, one could find the uncommon, the “extraordinary”—another of Greer’s favorite words—if one looked in the right places. B’s house was one such place. Greer had shown me a yellowed newspaper clipping, featuring a photo of a younger B with her long black hair and straight bangs, as she still wore it when I met her. According to legend, it was from B that Cher, in the Sixties, had gotten her signature hairstyle.
I asked Greer if he had read Isherwood’s stories. “Of course, darling. They’re extraordinary, aren’t they?” Greer had, in fact, as I was beginning to learn, lived that kind of life himself, as a dissolute young medical student in Europe.
“He has slept with princesses, but he prefers princes, you know,” B told me, just five years before she died of cancer, and not long before Greer, a few years after that, perished in the AIDS epidemic that ravaged so many communities of artists and free thinkers.
Greer never finished his medical degree after a series of missteps and memorable mishaps. In one campus laboratory, while performing vivisection on an anesthetized pig, he had accidentally allowed the poor creature to die. To avoid being discovered, he had inserted into the pig’s anus a bellows, which he then covered with a towel and worked with his elbow while, with his surgical tools in his hands, he pretended to be carefully examining the heart and lungs in action.
Greer’s interests had been too broad for medical school, and he abandoned medicine but stayed in Europe, mainly in Switzerland, where he spent time mastering French, befriending like-minded bohemians, and reading widely in philosophy and literature. His father, who was practicing medicine back in Springfield, Ohio, must have been dismayed. In 1981, many years after that prodigal son came home, he and I crossed paths. He was in search, once again, of extraordinary people, this time in Dayton, Ohio, in the halls of Wright State University, where we were both enrolled in the graduate program in English.
My memories of those two years have been stirred up by my recent discovery of Lawrence Hussman’s memoir, Acanemia, a frank, concise, and often sharply critical account of his experience as an American academic. Beginning with his childhood in Dayton, his education there, and his time in Europe as a soldier, Hussman’s memoir is unflaggingly forthright about his friends and enemies, his doomed marriage, his scholarly pursuits, and his work as an academic, and concludes with the years following his retirement, which took him back to Europe as a visiting scholar. The bulk of the memoir, however, covers his long career as an English professor at WSU. Hussman chaired the English department while I was there, but I didn’t know then that he had been among the founding members of that university, nor did I know of the struggles he had faced in that position. In his memoir, he skewers several colleagues for their incompetence and pretentiousness, giving special attention to the university’s first six presidents, most of whom had no understanding of the noble ideals of higher learning.
In Greer, however, to whom he gives few lines, Hussman found “a generous and valued friend” and a refreshing distraction as well.
Greer was generous in recounting his past exploits to his friends. He had once, according to Hussman, “famously driven a motorcycle at some speed through several floors of a dormitory at Ohio State.” This story’s details were remarkable enough to appear in a 1963 Columbus Dispatch article, which noted there had been a “wild” party on Good Friday, not at a dormitory, but at an off-campus house Greer was renting. “Persons unidentified,” perhaps not Greer himself, had ridden a motorcycle through the house repeatedly. The motorcycle ride and other shenanigans severely damaged the home, leaving it “in a shambles,” according to the Dispatch. Furthermore, Greer, along with six others, had been arrested.
Some of his stories, however, were serious and reflected his interest in writers and literature. In Switzerland, Greer had spent an afternoon visiting with Richard Wright, the author of Black Boy. “He was a bitter man,” Greer told me. “I don’t think he knew I was mulatto.” Greer’s knowledge of writers, says Hussman, “put my own in the shade and probably exposed me as an imposter to the other students.” Hussman was hardly an imposter. He was part of the reason that Greer and I became fast friends at Wright State. We took classes together, read Shakespeare and James Joyce together, and together, at Hussman’s direction, we discovered Emile Zola. In and out of classrooms, we enjoyed discovering the “extraordinary” together and making fun of all that was “ordinary” and “common.” One day in the cafeteria, after the girl at the cash register had been rude to us, Greer leaned toward me and whispered into my ear, “La Mouquette,” and hilarity overtook us both. La Mouquette, of course, was the vulgar, saucy girl among the coal miners in Zola’s Germinal.
When I arrived at WSU, however, before I met Hussman, Greer, or B, I knew no one there. That first morning, alone on the campus green, I tried to find the courage to introduce myself to Professor Hussman. It was late August, and I remember that I could feel the heat breaking as I sat on a bench just outside the building that housed the English Department. The long-awaited letter had come earlier that summer. I had been accepted into the graduate program and granted an assistantship. I would be teaching freshman composition, a terrifying prospect since I had never been in front of a classroom before. Was I ready? Would I teach sitting down? Or would I stand, pace, and affect the philosopher’s pose? I would look a fool, no doubt, or so I feared.
Moreover, would I be able to write about imaginative literature? Perhaps I would be exposed as a fraud and duly ridiculed. Admittedly, I thought, Hussman must have seen something in my application that had led him to believe I could do the job. Otherwise, why would he have encouraged me to pack my things and move to Dayton, and spend the next two years of my life there? How illuminating it is now, to discover that Hussman himself, who was anything but an imposter, was also suffering then from this very anxiety, though on a much higher level.
Decades later, I would realize how formative those two years had been. It was not so much the content of my professors’ lectures, however, that would leave such a deep impression. Instead, what most shaped the way I would read and write was the manner of the professors, the feeling with which they talked about the books they loved. Their passion for books was impossible to hide; every professor, it seemed to me, had a unique manner, a kind of carapace which in every case seemed to be protecting a delicate, vulnerable world of feeling. Books, I knew, housed such worlds of feeling in stylized, timeless forms, gave them a place to live, “a local habitation and a name,” as Shakespeare called it. I might be a fraud, but some things were certain: I had been electrified by Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur and engrossed in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I had been moved to tears by Isherwood’s novels and D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, and I wanted to do little else but read and discover more such worlds to live in. There was no other way—I was convinced of this—for me to find my place in the world of flesh and blood. Such were the thoughts that coursed through my mind as I mustered the courage to get off that bench and walk into Professor Hussman’s office and announce my arrival on campus. How quickly four decades have gone by.
Now, Hussman says, in his “diminishing days,” he spends most of his time writing and walking on the beach in Oregon. “The writing beats fruitless reminiscing,” he says, “and the walking keeps me in relatively good shape for extremely unlikely but longed-for love affairs.” He was about 85 when he wrote that, but there it is still, his enduring subject: desire. He concludes Acanemia with one of his own poems, “The Inland Gull,” a brief meditation on a seagull that has wandered far from its ocean home. “What brought you those many miles from the surging surf?” the poem asks.
Hussman, who did his undergraduate work at the University of Dayton, then went, after his military service, to the University of Michigan for his graduate work, had found his first teaching position in coastal Oregon, which he came to love. Like that gull, however, he had been drawn inland again, back to Dayton, where he spent most of his career, building Wright State’s English Department from the ground up. What moved him inland—“inland” richly suggesting the inner life—was the same thing that moved that seagull: something deeper than lust or greed or any other drive that we human beings know, some indefinable “gnawing need,” as Hussman puts it, that is “outside the fix of flight,” and that keeps us all on “the hunt.”
He is still, today, on the hunt. It is a recurring theme in Last Things, his first chapbook, which opens with a slightly revised version of “The Inland Gull.” Most of these poems are free-verse meditations on desire and the unavoidable losses and disillusionments that attend it. Rounding off this collection, for example, is a stark six-line poem, “Diner,” which turns on the image of seagulls, but here they are, like himself, back home on the seashore:
Gulls clear my path as I stride the sand,
except on the days I bring them fare.
Bags of crumbs or scraps of salmon
make a mayhem of wings and beaks.
Feel for those that sadly lose out,
but losing is what life is finally about.
Sensing perhaps that this would be too melancholy a conclusion to his series of twenty-eight poems, Hussman appended a coda, an amusing poem called “The Tenth Circle.” Here, in rhyming couplets, he imagines an addition to Dante’s nine circles of Hell, a region where desire never dies. This circle is reserved for “those like me,” for lechers, that is, “straight males of the innumerable legion,” whose doom is to be “eternally foiled” as they pursue an uncatchable swarm of “strumpets winging fore and aft.” The humor of this poem—of this vision of a hell where the condemned live in a perpetual state of unsatisfied titillation—is accentuated by the pat rhymes. The concluding couplet welcomes the reader in:
Behold this dark realm capping nine of yore.
Welcome unsaintly, plenty of space for more.
The same wry humor marks the memoir: his “estimate,” he says there, is “that the sex drive finally dissolves somewhere around three months after death.” Desire, human and otherwise, has always been and continues to be, the subject of Hussman’s scrutiny.
Back in the ’80s, however, when I was among his students, what most preoccupied him was the peculiarly American brand of desire. The preoccupation had taken hold of him before I was even born. Even in 1956, when he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, he had been obsessed with “the American reach” and how it “nearly always exceeds its grasp,” how “even the grasped nearly always disappoints.” What drew him to this topic was, he speculates, his “own drives and disappointments” and his broader observations of the world around him: “the American spirit of the time,” he says, “with the wars over” suggested “unlimited prosperity and possibility ahead.” He would find the fullest expression of this constant yearning in the works of Theodore Dreiser, who had spent, or misspent, his life in search of the perfect woman, whom he called “the impossible she.” Hussman once observed this yearning in its essential form while he was teaching at the University of Portland:
On certain fall days, when the quality of the Pacific Northwest air and light reached near perfection, students would wander, usually one by one, to the edge of the cliff and focus on the horizon for a time. It struck me that they were making the same sort of gesture of expandable longing that American writers described so often in their novels, stories, poetry, and plays, that insistent ache for something that could not be named.
Robert Frost’s “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep” suggests he would have agreed: “They cannot look out far. / They cannot look in deep. / But when was that ever a bar / To any watch they keep?”
An obsession with the intricacies of desire cannot bode well for one’s marriage. It was Hussman’s “still active Catholic conscience,” as he calls it, that kept him “voluntarily trapped” in his marriage. It would end after some twenty years and two adoptions, which he and his wife had hoped would bring them together but served only to “widen the rift” between them.
I knew none of this as his student, and yet I sensed that his lectures were informed by firsthand experience. His demeanor was severe and dour, his voice unmodulated and soft. At times he looked gaunt. He came to embody, in my view, the grim vision of the godless Naturalists we were studying: Zola, for example, whose brand of fiction had become a movement in France, and the Americans, such as Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, and Dreiser himself, to whom Hussman has devoted a lifetime of scholarly attention. During this time, Hussman was finishing up his book, Dreiser and His Fiction: A Twentieth-Century Quest, which would come out in 1983, the year I left Wright State. Among the definitive studies of the work of this great American novelist, Dreiser and His Fiction illuminated how the Naturalists believed that our lives are shaped entirely by heredity and environment and that no such thing as free will exists, only chance and raw desire. Such a vision, bleak though it is, confirmed for me the preciousness, the urgency, of each waking day. I was inspired by Hussman’s flat, dry voice, which heightened the spareness and precision of his diction. That voice, that handling of the language, and the sharp look—was it a glare?—that he occasionally gave the class, made me understand that the beauty of art is a reflection of the dark beauty of nature, and the austerity of truth.
Unknown to me then was that Hussman was in search of his own “impossible she.” The one who came closest, whom he calls Rose in his memoir, was, as all such ideals are, tantalizing and elusive. He met her when the great American literary critic, Harold Bloom, gave a guest lecture at Wright State. For a reason I cannot remember, I missed that lecture, but I remember how amused some of my professors had been by Bloom’s use of the word “facticity.” For Hussman, that lecture was “a turning point,” but not because of Bloom’s display of knowledge. What changed Hussman’s life, instead, was the event that followed the address, the party where he would meet and fall helplessly in love with Rose. She was a thirty-five-year-old graduate student with “a spectacular mass of wildly frizzy, henna-colored hair.” Six months later, however, Rose would end their affair and vanish from his life, leaving him crushed.
From this distance of time, I realize that Hussman’s intimidating demeanor was a reflection not of his displeasure with his students but his profound unhappiness. “My thoughts,” he writes, of the days that followed her departure, “focused entirely on different methods of suicide. I’ve never since come so close to going through with the act as in the following weeks, but something, probably cowardice, kept the deed at bay.”
Rose reappeared five years later, divorced and available, and fell into his arms again, promising that now, finally, they would be together. She had to leave, temporarily, she said, on a Sunday, and vowed to return to him the following Thursday, but that Thursday would never come. Every Thursday, for decades after, his “hopes would flare up, only to flame out.”
Among the most extraordinary people in Hussman’s life was Marguerite Tjader. She had been one of Dreiser’s many mistresses and had written a book about him. Hussman met her in 1971, when he was in his thirties. Tjader, in her seventies then, belonged to an earlier generation. “Marguerite’s evident energy,” he says, “her penetrating blue eyes, flowing red hair, and bright mind combined to invite intimacy of the kind that Dreiser had sought and found irresistible in certain women.” Having known Dreiser for the last thirty years of his life, she could write about him as no one else could.
Their shared interests in Dreiser united Tjader with Hussman for years of friendship and fruitful collaboration. Tjader inscribed her edition of her Notes on a Life: “For Larry Hussman who understands Dreiser.” Among the high points of their friendship was her WSU visit, where she charmed students and faculty with “her fervor for Dreiser” and stories of “literary adventures.” Hussman and Tjader continued to correspond years after, but he would never see her again. Tjader died in 1986.
The value that enriching and fascinating friendships have for a literary academic—those between a writer’s Muse and the writer’s Scholar—can not be overstated. Hussman’s experience echoes in one of my own in Trieste, where I go at times to study the works of Italo Svevo, Italy’s most celebrated modern novelist. Svevo was discovered and befriended by James Joyce, who was his English teacher. Joyce modeled Leopold Bloom, the hero of Ulysses, on Svevo. The archivist at Trieste’s Museo Sveviano, where all of Svevo’s manuscripts are housed, gave me the telephone number of a scholar—Bruno Maier—whom she urged me to call.
“He lives nearby,” she said. “You could walk to his house in twenty minutes.”
Maier had edited the works of Svevo and founded the archive. He invited me up, and as I climbed the stairs, I remember saying to him, “this doesn’t seem real.” We talked for an hour about Svevo, who came to life for me as never before. Svevo died in 1928, but Maier had befriended Livia Veneziani, Svevo’s wife, whose long flowing hair was immortalized by Joyce as the River Liffey in Finnegans Wake, not as a character but as the similarly long and flowing River Liffey, whose name playfully echoes Livia, or “Livvy.”
To hear Maier say that Livia had entrusted him with all the manuscripts, to hear him call her, so simply, so casually, “la signora,” sent shivers up my spine. She had been real, after all, and so had her husband. The people and places in his novels, stories, and plays had been based on living, breathing people. Maier himself had written a brilliant novel, L’assente, or The Absentee, the story of a lonely scholar, a man made of paper—of books, that is, and articles and letters—and always on the move, never quite at home.
“I wrote it in forty days,” Maier told me, “sitting right there.” He pointed at his desk. I had brought a copy of his novel with me from Alabama for him to inscribe. His handwriting has preserved his tremor. I never became Maier’s close friend—I read of his death a few months after I met him—but I will always remember meeting him at his house in Via Mantegna in Trieste. I left his house thrilling at the prospect of reading and writing about Svevo: this, surely, is precisely what Tjader had done for Hussman.
Why had I been so attracted to Svevo’s work in the first place? It occurred to me even then—I visited Maier in 2002—that the reason lay, ultimately, in Hussman’s lectures. Svevo had written his first novel, A Life, while he was under the spell of Zola, the same influence that had operated on some of the American Naturalists. The days when Greer and I were reading Zola and laughing about La Mouquette had played a role in drawing me to Trieste, to the Museo Sveviano, and to the home of that extraordinary scholar, Bruno Maier, who in turn inspired me to dedicate the next fifteen years of my life to Svevo, the Triestine writer who had so fascinated Joyce.
The lives of dedicated literary scholars, such as Maier or Hussman, may appear to consist merely of paper. The truth is they are fully inhabited lives, passionately engaged with its variety and unpredictability, committed to making sure its details never slip into the dark oblivion of the past, like Shakespeare’s “airy nothing,” to which the poet must give that “local habitation and a name.” This is why writers turn life into literature.
When Hussman crossed paths with a truly extraordinary man, Sam Hall, he knew that he had to make time to translate that adventurer’s experiences into a book. In Zimbabwe, Hall and a small band of mercenary soldiers rescued a group of children who had been kidnapped by guerrilla fighters. He had also been a silver medalist diver at both the 1959 Pan American Games and the 1960 Rome Olympics. Hall then served in the U.S. Air Force, as well as in the Ohio House of Representatives. The massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics inspired Hall, says Hussman, to do “covert intelligence missions for the Israelis, fighting with Miskito Indians in Honduras against Sandinistas in the Contra War.” Hall had vivid tales to tell, he needed a writer to help him document them, and Hussman embraced the opportunity to be that writer.
Hall was “a whirlwind of motion and ideas,” says Hussman, “a charismatic character full of intriguing stories.” And he especially wanted to record his experience fighting the Sandinistas and being imprisoned by them. The resulting book, Counterterrorist, was published in 1987. Hall then disappeared from Hussman’s life.
Ten years later, when Hussman was a visiting professor in Poland, his telephone rang: “I had no idea how he’d found me on another continent.” Hall wanted to write a second book, for his adventures had continued since they teamed up, along with Felicia Lewis, Hussman’s colleague, on the first one.
After our last collaboration, Sam had worn a wire for the FBI to get the goods on some drug moguls; begun what would become a multi-million-dollar construction business; chased hurricanes, including Andrew and Floyd, and done cleanup work after them; served as a “tunnel rat” scouring debris for clues and searching for bodies in the caves created by the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11; joined the hunt for remnants of the Columbia spacecraft after its explosion; and helped fight the forest fires that were ravaging the western US at the time. What was more, he’d signed up to work for the Salvation Army in Iraq, where the war had recently begun. He would be leaving for Baghdad within the month. I couldn’t resist his insistence and I started writing and titled the would-be book Danger’s Disciple.
After Danger’s Disciple was published in 2009, Hall disappeared from Hussman’s life again. Hussman tracked him down in 2014 and learned that he had been very ill with a mysterious illness that had reduced him to ninety-five pounds. Hall died later that summer. Was it, asks Hussman, “some tropical bug”? Was it perhaps the dust that Hall had inhaled amid the rubble at Ground Zero? Or the chemical weapons of the war in Iraq? “Whatever the cause,” the truth is “that few men have led fuller lives than Sam Hall.”
Meanwhile, during this same period, Hussman was in Poland. A Fulbright scholarship had given him a way to retire from his position at Wright State and remain intellectually active. As a young soldier, he had seen much of Europe, and had observed the “shameful chauvinism that too many Americans flaunt,” their “fondness for flag waving on foreign soil.” When he says that “nothing could be more grating” than that “to people of other countries,” it is clear that to see it firsthand had been grating to him too. Now, as a visiting professor with a lifetime of reading behind him, he could bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to bear on his observations of Europeans and their responses to American literature.
Hussman’s stint in Poland proved so satisfying that he would go back to Europe several times over the next few years, to teach not only in Poland but also in Portugal. His European students, to his great delight, were among the brightest and most appreciative he had ever known. In Warsaw, where he had them reading Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner, most of them “showed an intense interest in American literature of all stripes” and produced commendable critical papers. He found himself handing out a “preponderance” of top grades. In Lisbon, too, some of his Portuguese students wrote “papers that could have found their way into academic journals in the States.”
There is no clichéd cataloging here of visits to famous piazzas and cathedrals. Instead, Hussman records, for example, the hospitality of his Polish students and colleagues, which was no small reward for the hard work he put into his teaching.
“Invitations to dinners,” he says, to the homes of students or other professors, “always led to enjoyable evenings and the opportunity to learn about Warsaw’s past and present.” And he rediscovered the little daily amenities which he must have remembered from his days as a soldier, and which had shown him that “life could be lived quite satisfactorily beyond the United States.” He recalls the “yellow street cars” in Lisbon that took him wherever he wanted to go, and the pastelaria, or bakery, where he would get his latte and caracol, “sweet, snail-shaped bread with raisins,” for which one paid “a pittance.”
And then there was his favorite place: the Alfama, “the poor but picturesque red-roofed quarter near the sea, its jumble of narrow streets appealing,” he says, “to my naturalist’s eye.” These are among his warmest memories of his European stints. How humble, how basic, how true to the unwavering honesty of his character. I had never detected this quality in him, this appreciation for the little amenities—the cup of good coffee, the wholesome pastry, the public transportation, the aesthetically pleasing design of even the humblest towns, the openness of the people and their exercise of good manners—which in Europe make daily life endurable and happiness possible. This appreciation for cobblestones and café life, no doubt, had disposed him favorably to our mutual friend Greer, who was often exalting and pining for, his beloved Europe.
Greer’s European stories charmed us all. He would hold his cigarette between two long, elegant fingers, and as its ash grew, he would reduce me and the rest of us to uncontrollable laughter. Hussman must have heard many of these stories but most of them, such as the following one, did not make it into his memoir. Once, Greer told me, during his first night at his host family’s home—it was in Lausanne, I think—he had gotten so drunk that he had defecated in his sleep. He was mortified. There was nothing to be done, he thought, but to take his clothes and his host’s sheets and bury the whole bundle in the garden before anyone else woke up.
They never asked me what had become of the sheets, but they must have known. That morning their little girl kept pointing at me and saying merde! merde! And her mother said, “O be quiet! That’s a bad word, and you know it!” They were marvelous people, darling. And we had crepes with wild strawberries for breakfast.
Another time, Greer told me, he had been ill with influenza for many days and his friends, with no regard for their own well-being, brought food and drink to his bedside, and stayed there, talking and laughing until early the next morning, celebrating their friendship, celebrating life.
Hussman must have appreciated the deep civility, the unadorned courtesy, which was so often at the heart of Greer’s stories. And what a contrast those stories form with Hussman’s accounts of the abuses and sheer foolishness, the crassness, and ignorance, of university administrators and their low vision of what a university ought to be. These accounts, which, again, take up the better part of this memoir, are marked by an earned sense of outrage and contempt. When he was hired at Wright State, the university was new: its first members had a rare opportunity to get things right from the very start. The almost religious American regard for success in the corporate world, however, leads all too often to the appointing of university presidents who know nothing about higher learning.
Wright State’s first president, a chemical engineer, had been “a research director for a varnish company.” Later he had become an administrator at Purdue University. Still, he had never been a full-time college or university teacher: “a deficiency,” says Hussman, “that taints too many administrators in academe,” and that president’s influence on the university would be “destructive.” When an English instructor formed a chapter of the American Federation of Teachers at Wright State, that president, who, as Hussman says, “thought of unions as little more than Communist cells,” considered the gesture an act of “treason.” The instructor’s contract was not renewed. Hussman came to the instructor’s defense, but “Number One,” as he calls that president, “overreacted and accused me of threatening him, and I had to assure him, in an absurd attempt at a fitting comeback, that what he took to be threats were promises.”
Soon after that, Hussman himself was replaced by a permanent department chair whom he calls, here, “Chet,” to conceal his real name. “He had no influence over the department he supposedly ran,” however, because “he didn’t have the confidence of the faculty,” who knew that Chet had been approved by “Number One.” I would come to know “Chet” quite well a few years later, while Hussman was again serving as department chair. Chet was a linguist, a specialist in American dialects, and his accent was clearly Southern. He was among the world’s experts, he told me, in the low back vowel, on which he had written an entire book. Copies of his book could be had from the trunk of his car. He would teach some of the courses I took towards a certificate in TESOL, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, a new option for graduate students pursuing a master’s degree. I had chosen that option because I was determined, at that time, to leave the United States and spend the rest of my days teaching English in Europe. His courses were thorough and fascinating, and I never sensed the rancor that existed between him and his colleagues, whom he had offended in a variety of ways while he had been chair. “Much of Chet’s time,” says Hussman, “would be spent harassing faculty with tales of his Southern aristocratic forebears.” And he had hired a Shakespearean scholar when the department already had two of them.
This and other acts of incompetence—such as employing “people apparently picked at random from a bottom drawer of applicants”—made for a “ruinous reign” that sent the department adrift. One story about Chet’s attempt at leadership, which Hussman recounts here, did reach my ears while I was there. Chet was bragging one day about his extensive travels and his mastery of dialects, and claimed that “he could say ‘hello’ correctly in twenty-some of the world’s languages.” The associate professor who had to listen to this lost his temper and said, angrily, “Just say goodbye in one!”
There is a great deal in this memoir to edify the university administrator. Merit pay, for instance, which Hussman calls “a misguided practice,” nearly always fails to reward the most deserving. No matter how well-intentioned the plan, it eventually degenerates into “a treasury for toadies,” rewarding those who comply with whatever the administrators most want to see. “I argued so often in college meetings against merit pay,” he says, “that one of the other department chairs presented me with a Russian commissar’s cap. I wore it proudly.” When merit pay was instituted at my own university, the administrators claimed not to have any funding for it at the time, and the faculty were asked to apply instead for merit pay “points.” These would then be “banked” and turned into actual pay raises, we were assured, when funding became available. We banked our points for years. Then one day we learned that the points, along with the “bank,” had vanished. Nothing more was said about it. For this and all manner of other abuses, the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of overpaid administrators. By the time Hussman reaches his account of Wright State in 2015, the university is being rocked by a series of financial scandals caused by administrative incompetence and corruption. The president, now “Number Six,” is enjoying a “total compensation package of $854,000,” while the “vice president for planning” is getting a yearly “car allowance” of $7,200. This failure, says Hussman, “saddens many of us who came to the embryonic institution in the sixties,” only to see this “opportunity to start fresh” squandered.
In retirement, Hussman has turned to verse, perhaps his way of dealing with the reality that so much of life must, to borrow the title of one of his poems, go “The Way of All Fish.” This tender and bracing poem, about “little Stevie’s” pet goldfish, turns on an event that left its mark on this scholar of the grim, Darwinian world of Naturalism. Stevie, who was “tightly wired” and “mostly tossed and turned in his crib,” grew up and learned all about fishing from his father, “a master of rod and reel.” The father returns home one evening to discover a “startling sight”:
There, flat in a frying pan atop the stove,
poor Goldy, headless, expertly scaled,
and cleanly gutted, the missing parts set aside.
Save for oil and breading, ready for the flame.
The title echoes a moment in the memoir, towards the beginning, where Hussman recounts how his grandfather and his great uncle “had plenty of time to teach me the ways of all fish”: what hooks and tackle to use, “what water conditions and depths held the most promise of success,” and also, I presume, how to dress and cook one’s catch. Fish, in fact, along with birds and other animals, get a special place, and particular respect, in the poems. One, for example, is about the homely carp, which is seen as undesirable in the United States, but which in China is credited with curative powers and in Poland, as Hussman would discover, is a traditional Christmas delicacy. “The carp pâté,” he says in his memoir, “had me begging at several holiday parties for extra slices to take home.” His poem, “No Respect,” is about the arbitrariness of this taste. Carp were “only fit for the starving,” or so he used to think; he “caught them or shot them” and “tossed them alive aside or gave them to a neighbor,” only to discover, years later, an “awe for all of Nature’s invention.”
As all good lyric poetry must be, Hussman’s is clearly autobiographical. “Great Uncle Frank” is especially moving. We learn in the memoir that his uncle, who “died some five years beyond his hundredth birthday,” had studied piano with Jan Paderewski, the great Polish pianist, and composer. Hussman was a boy when he knew this uncle and watched him at the piano trying to play. He was deaf by then and could only produce “a succession of plinks separated by several seconds.” They never spoke, and yet this figure from Hussman’s childhood left an indelible impression on him, deep enough to merit a place in his verse:
Great Uncle Frank’s final featherings of those undusted keys
have sometimes kindled my own diminished dreams,
conjured scenes of fortune and favor opposed by truth.
Fool’s gold, the hardheaded would insist,
but only death can quell a hungering heart.
Here, again, is Hussman’s enduring theme: how desire, no matter what the ravages of time, persists as long as there is life. The image of this “ghostly figure,” whom he watched “slipping furtively from his room like a lonely lodger” and over to the dusty piano, would shape Hussman’s unique sensibility, a sensibility that is at once receptive and fearless and capable of great empathy. When I knew him at Wright State I was not fully aware of the complex humanity behind his lecturing voice; but there was no doubt in my mind, even then, that that voice was utterly genuine, that the wisdom it conveyed was not an inherited privilege but one that somewhere, somehow, he had discovered on his own and earned. It was this authenticity that made him so engaging to his other students and to me.
The excitement of those two years in Dayton would have no equivalent in Columbus, where I moved to do a Ph.D. at Ohio State. As a doctoral student, I felt, as I do still today, that I was behind in my reading. And my time, perhaps because I had begun to worry about how, or whether, I would make a living by reading and writing, seemed short. Indeed my fellow students at Ohio State were more resolute, more practical than those at WSU. Certainly there was no one there like Greer. Most of them were pursuing marketable specialties, such as Rhetoric and Composition or Young Adult Literature; but some were posing as literary theorists before they had read any literature. “Deconstruction” was all the rage among this sort. They believed that the clever reader could know the writer’s meaning better than the writer could. I saw this approach as an evasion, a substitute for real reading, and deeply offensive. Imaginative literature was, and will always be, sacred to me, and the writer’s talent, if not the writer, is to be revered. In a William Blake seminar, we were asked to present and defend our research as we sat around the table. One student had written an entire paper on Blake’s Book of Urizen and his use of the word “perturbation,” a word which, we were assured, operated in ways that were unknown even to Blake and that told us all sorts of things about the poet’s private life and political beliefs. When I saw that the others in the room, including the professor, were all nodding stupidly in affirmation, even though no one could understand what the fool was saying—it was meant to impress, not to be understood—I lost my temper. “Why,” I asked, “must you write in such a hideous way?” “Ah well,” he said, clearly taken aback. “This is the language of literary theory. I understand that it might seem unfamiliar to you.” I could not let that go. “No, I’m all too familiar with this rubbish. It isn’t English. It’s hideous. It’s also without meaning, and it’s pretentious.”
The professor, to his credit, said to him, “well, actually, much of what you say here actually is bullshit.” That day, my small circle of friends at Ohio State became even smaller.
Such experiences made me miss Dayton and Yellow Springs dearly. I made a few trips back there to visit Greer, but there was no way now to revive that magical time. He was drinking heavily and more often, and I began to fear for his health. Unbeknownst to me, and perhaps also to him, he had already been infected with the HIV virus. “Have I ever told you about Babette and her money?” he asked. I had heard about Babette, yes, one of his lovers in Lausanne, who might have been a princess of some sort, and who had once dared him to make love to a young man on the carpet as she, lounging on her divan, watched and smoked. Afterward, she had said to them both, “How tiresome!”
But about her money? No. That story would be new.
“Yes, well, it was a bright sunny day. It was spring. We were driving in the countryside in her convertible. She told me gleefully that she could do anything, go anywhere she wanted, whenever she wanted, and didn’t have to work.” She then pulled down the sun visor above the steering wheel and down came a fat pouch stuffed with thousands of francs. “All of this can be yours, darling, if you’ll be a good boy.” Greer, however, who had always been an incorrigibly bad boy, tried to abscond with the car and the money some days later. When he was a safe distance away from Babette’s villa, he pulled down the visor, but the pouch was gone.
“She was extraordinary!” he said, and that was one of the last times that we laughed as we had once done.
The last time I saw him was a couple of years before his death. The local Columbus television station was airing a poetry competition. I recognized among the contestants, to my horror and deep disgust, the man whose writing I had attacked in the Blake seminar. As I was about to turn off the set, a figure dressed in a toga and crowned with fake laurel leaves staggered, laughing, onto the stage carrying the winner’s plaque.
It was Greer. He might have known, by then, that he was dying. Had I been there, he would have turned to me, laughed, and said, “Don’t waste your time being angry, darling. Of course, he’s a fraud. Try to imagine Emma Bovary’s husband writing verse. There he is! Now be a good boy and have a drink. Have I ever told you how Babette. . . .”
His cigarette ash would have dropped to the floor. Greer was, as Hussman says, “a generous and valued friend.” And the spirit with which he faced, and redeemed, the ugliness of life was, to use his own word, extraordinary.
Extraordinary, too, is how Hussman, in his memoir and his poems, confronts his own losses to the brutal, inexorable passage of time. In “Manuel’s Tree,” he writes about the death of his neighbor, a dear friend and colleague at the University of Portland, who had sold a parcel of his land to Hussman so that he could build the house he lives in today. The poem’s narrator—Hussman himself—hears the woodpeckers tapping away at an “ailing tree,” which has become their “meal ticket” and knows that the “wood-boring beetles” are thriving on the “sap enduring behind the bark.” One night, sometime after his friend’s death, the sound of “that fierce Pacific wind” makes the “unsettling gap in the woods” palpable, and he realizes that “the tree,” now fallen and lying on the ground, is “just wreckage and advancing rot, callous Nature’s claim.” The tightness and irreducible quality of the imagery make this poem one of the finest, and most moving, of this collection.
During my own experience as an English professor—in Iowa, in Tennessee, and finally in Alabama, where I have been for the past twenty-six years—I have thought often about my time at that young university in Dayton, studying literature with Professor Hussman and the other founding members of that department. His memoir and his poems have made me recall and reflect upon my own impressions—the buildings, the smells, the sounds, the faces, the voices. I cannot pretend here to have provided the usual “objective” review—has there ever been such a thing?—but I can say that I stumbled upon these two books purely by chance, and it happened like this.
I was at my workbench in my basement, listening to National Public Radio and repairing a violin (something I do for myself and my fellow string players). After a gorgeous, plaintive song called “Extraordinary Love,” the host interviewed the singer, whose name, when I heard it, made me put down my tools at once. Could it be? Could that singer, who was now quite famous, be the same Erika Wennerstrom, that energetic, chattering toddler I had met when I was a guest at her house in Dayton? Her mother had been a friend and fellow graduate student at Wright State. I wrote to Erika immediately to express my delight and astonishment, and my congratulations, and I asked about her mother.
Months went by with no response, then one day she wrote back saying, yes, her mother, whose voice I had not heard in more than thirty-five years, would like to hear from me.
Some voices never age. On the phone, although many of the people we had known were no longer among the breathing, it nevertheless seemed that no time at all had passed. And it was she, the singer’s mother, who told me that Professor Hussman was not only very much alive, but still quite active with his pen, and that I must get his memoir and his poems. Pure chance. Zola himself would have been amused. How extraordinary!