Last Word: The Wheatcroft Code
A teacher continues to inspire long after class has ended.
By Matthew Stevenson ’76
Because I live in French-speaking Europe, the only branches of the Susquehanna that run through my life are those that brush against my imagination. Pleasant as it is to live in Switzerland, I still need to be reminded of my Lewisburg past, even if just means hanging the University calendar over my desk or daydreaming about my freshman orientation week, when I skipped events to read All the King’s Men under a quadrangle tree.
More recently, I have reconnected with the University through the books and letters of Professor John Wheatcroft ’49, now retired from the English department, but well known to nearly everyone reading this magazine. For unexplained reasons, I missed his courses at Bucknell and only met him when I was senior, after I reviewed his delightful novel, Edie Tells, which is set around the Vaughan Literature Building. I wrote in The Bucknellian that “it took courage for John Wheatcroft to write this book which explores so vividly all that surrounds us.” Along with The Facts, by Philip Roth ’54, it remains some of the finest writing about university life. Not surprisingly, Wheatcroft was one of Roth’s early professors, and they remain lifelong friends.
After my graduation in 1976, I saw Wheatcroft occasionally on trips to campus. Despite the distance of our friendship, I remained drawn to his writing, which over the years has filled the voids of missed Reunions and fall Homecomings. Not only did his words let me imagine winter fog on the Susquehanna or fall foliage on the Rooke Chapel horizon, they also guided my own writing to the point that I felt that I was on a quest to uncover the sources of his own literary inspirations. Some travel in search of da Vinci’s coordinates; many of my trips have gone after the Wheatcroft codes.
Reading Answering Fire, a harrowing account of Wheatcroft’s naval service in the battle of Okinawa, encouraged me to write about my own visit to that bitterly contested WWII island.
At age 18, Wheatcroft barely survived kamikaze attacks to later write in a poem, “Let all coffin lids be made of glass./Let graves be shallow, with dirt on top.” His war ended in Tokyo harbor, where he bravely walked among the Japanese ruins at Yokohama, which I visited on my own trip to Japan.
When I discovered that he had set one of stories in Telling Tales in a French village not far from where we live in Geneva, I stuffed the book and a letter from Wheatcroft into my saddlebag, and set off on my bike to find Eloise, where he writes about the terrors of the German occupation and lonely courage. I rode through the French springtime, winding around local mountains until I found Eloise on a bluff overlooking the Rhone River, where I reread the story and poked around the little church.
To the world I was biking in France, not far from Bellegarde and the Jura mountains. In reality I was on River Road, riding beside the old Reading tracks, heading toward Wheatcroft’s writing studio at the Gundy Farm, eager for his advice on life and letters. Like all great professors, he was teaching long after the classes had ended.
Matthew Stevenson ’76 lives in Laconnex, Switzerland, and is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited. His e-mail is email@example.com.