Sunday, July 11, 2010

Love of the Written Word

A Shakespearean Tragedy is a representation on the stage of a protagonist of colossal proportion who, through some tragic fault of nature, is brought to destruction carrying others with him. This spectacle arises in the audience the emotions of pity and terror with the catharsis of each.

I learned to recite the above definition in the fall of 1976 for extra credit in my college sophomore lit class. The title: 231 – English Literature Survey to the beginning of the Romantic Movement.

I wrote the above from memory. My notes from 34 years ago have been lost a long time, probably on some move or other. That’s fine, though. I’ll be able to recite it as long as I have a memory. Just as I’ll remember the professor who wrote it on the chalkboard all those years ago.

Her name was Dr. Imogene Bentley Dickey (later Mohat), and she had been on the English faculty of what was then North Texas State University since 1943 (at that time it was known as North Texas State Teachers College). From then until 1968 she also served as Dean of Women and was known by the students as “Big Red.” When she left that post, she returned to teaching full time. Indeed, she was quite tall and regal and had auburn hair (though with distinguishing gray when I knew her), hence the nickname. Her demeanor was of someone considerably younger.

Dr. Dickey was idiosyncratic. Despite the subject range of the course, she also required us to read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Dickens was from the Victorian period in the nineteenth century, and Lord of the Flies was published in 1954. Her rationale?

“No one should escape an English class without reading a Dickens novel,” she said. “And I just read Lord of the Flies for the first time last summer and loved it! It is my privilege, then, to foist it onto you.”

She didn’t stop there. She often quoted Dorothy Parker, Edward Arlington Robinson, Mark Twain, all Americans, in this Brit Lit course, so much so that I went out and read their work, though they weren’t required. I’d never read Life on the Mississippi until this British Lit course. Never heard of Parker’s amazing wit, or felt the emotional wallop Robinson delivered throughout his three Pulitzer Prize winning career.

I didn’t just read the half dozen assigned Shakespeare’s sonnets. I memorized those, and read them all. Didn’t just read Othello and King Lear, I devoured all four of the major tragedies plus the major comedies and a number of the histories. All during this semester.

Watching and listening to her enthusiasm for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (particularly the fabliaux ... which she called “bawdy, but so much fun”) infected me and everyone in that room on the third floor of the Auditorium Building, southwest corner. Not to mention her enthusiasm for Milton. And, let me tell you folks, if you can make Milton interesting, you’ve DONE something.

What she desired most for us was to learn how to think.

She once admonished me in class, “I know what the critics think, Rocky. I want to know what you think.” I was nineteen years old. I didn’t know what I thought. Didn’t believe it was important, anyway. She understood that, too. And the whole class walked out after the semester knowing better how to think. Myself, included.

And now, here I am trying to tell wonderful stories with great characters keeping those lessons in mind. What’s wrong with tossing a little Lord of the Flies with Shakespeare? What’s wrong with a topping of Dorothy Parker on a cone of Beowulf? Not a damn thing, in my book.

Our final exam was an essay. I don’t remember the question, exactly, but it was one of those topics on which volumes could have been written and had been. “You don’t have to complete it,” she said. “Just write for one hour, and I’ll know what you know.”

Whoa! They don’t make teachers like that anymore. I don’t believe they will again.

Dr. Dickey retired in 1979. Passed away in 2000, just short of her 92nd birthday.

I’d loved stories since childhood, could sit and listen to good yarns well into the night. Can still do that. But it was the inspiration of Dr. Dickey and that survey class that took me by the hand and led me to a love of the written word.

So those times when I “go without the meat and curse the bread,” I can fall back, not just on story, but on lovely words spliced together to make a sentence, a paragraph, a page until at the end something wondrous and beautiful is born.

Thank you, Dr. Dickey. I’m learning everyday how to think for myself, and to give less credence to the critics. And after all these years, I still have your definition of a Shakespearean tragedy memorized, though I have long since forgotten most things from other courses. I think the reason for that is what you told us at the time, “Just do it in the spirit of fun.”

Fun lasts.

I worked hard this last week, though I was sick a lot of it. I’m farther along on my outline of Catch a Falling Star, and I created a kinda fantasy story of about 3000 words. It would actually be a cutting from a novel. I like it. I think it has legs. We’ll see what the Wayward Writers think. They’re the ones who have it now. Fingers crossed.

In the meantime, I’ll continue with the outline, creating new scenes for my characters, deleting others. Come back next week, and I’ll let you know how I did. And thanks ever-so-much for reading. It means a lot.

1 comment:

  1. Rock, my high school English teacher made us read Robinson's poem Richard Cory (quoted above), then listen to Simon and Garfunkle's recording of the song by that name to compare the two. Do yourself a favor and seek out the S&G song (from their Sounds of Silence album, I believe) and see what you think!