By Matthew Stevenson '72
Getting ready for my 40th Reunion, I decided I ought to catch up on the readings assigned in my freshman English seminar with Professor Michael Payne. I would have gotten to the readings sooner, but in fall 1972 I found too many diversions, including impromptu touch football on the lawn in front of Olin Science Building.
I did enough of the readings that semester to pass and enjoy the course, which dwelled on existentialism. But several books on the syllabus eluded me, including Andre Malraux's Man's Fate and a collection of poems by Emily Dickinson.
Not even quiet evenings in Vaughan Literature Library or runs along River Road could get my head around either writer.
A few lines in Malraux drew my jejune marginalia ("Europeans never understand anything of China that does not resemble themselves"). Nevertheless, the interior world of Marxist revolutionaries wasn't what I was looking for, and I would give up on my reading and head to the Bison at 11 p.m.
Because I have kept most of my college books — including Sigmund Freud's The Future of an Illusion, which we read that year in English, history, philosophy, religion and, I am sure, gym — I found as I moved through adult life and houses that I could never quite shake Malraux or Dickinson. Were they there to remind me of my literary incompleteness?
When I moved to Europe in the 1990s, I brought Malraux and Dickinson along, although I could easily have donated both to a thrift shop or library. Who in Switzerland would have noticed I was ducking some required reading?
Instead they gnawed at me — Malraux because few in Homeland America understand the revolutionary mind ("You want to make a kind of religion of terrorism?") and Dickinson because I sensed her disapproval of all that touch football ("Ambition cannot find him").
First I made my peace with Emily. On a summer vacation to the States, I visited her splendid house in Amherst, Mass., and devoured one of her many biographies (My Wars Are Laid Away in Books by Alfred Habegger).
Little did I know that she, too, had spent her life avoiding reading lists ("They shut me up in Prose") and that her spirit was one of rebellion ("My Country is Truth"). She would have been waiting at the Bison, not keeping me from it.
Only after three trips to China and a long lunch with Professor John Murphy in Chamonix, France (where he lives part of the year in retirement, perhaps to remind me of books from sophomore English that are next on my catch-up list), did I give Malraux the college try.
Finally, 40 years after it was assigned, I did finish Man's Fate and recognized its greatness. Malraux writes famously, "A man is the sum of his actions, of what he has done, or what he can do." In my case the revolutionary stand was to finish the reading list for Professor Payne's freshman seminar, although, truth be told, I also think about some incomplete passes in those touch football games on the Quad.
Matthew Stevenson '72 lives near Geneva, Switzerland, and is the author of a number of books (look on Amazon), including the recently published Whistle-Stopping America.
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