Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Return of the Native

As a boy in school I memorized quite a few poems. They were naturally such poems as appealed to the vestigial Victorian tastes of my earliest English teachers, most of whom had been born in the nineteenth century. They have stuck with me, and “when in idle or in vacant mood” they often return to my mind, less colorful than Wordsworth’s daffodils, but hardly less pleasurable.

There is, for example, the great “Ode” of Arthur O'Shaughnessy. What? Not on your ipod? Shame on you. “We are the music makers. We are the dreamers of dreams…” That poem is the origin, I believe, of the now clich├ęd phrase movers and shakers. Another favorite was James Russell Lowell’s prelude to The Vision of Sir Launfal--“And what is so rare as a day in June?...” That is a lovely poem with many sweet phrases and images, though it does have one line that schoolboys are likely to apply in a context probably unintended by the poet: “Every clod feels a stir of might.” There were quite a few clods in that particular class. Also, lines from The Lay of the Last Minstrel by the great Sir Walter Scott, so unread and undervalued today:

BREATHES there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
‘This is my own, my native land!’
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d
As home his footsteps he hath turn’d
From wandering on a foreign strand?

Fog along the Buffalo River, Marion County, Arkansas

Such a man perhaps does breathe somewhere, but not within my mortal frame. Even without the prerequisite foreign strand that’s the way I always feel as through the small, square window of an airline cabin, I catch my first glimpseof the Ozarks. Such glimpses have been infrequent for the last thirty years. They are bound to be rarer still now that my last two remaining Fleming aunts are gone. But just now my own, my native land is particularly vivid in my memory.

I arrived at Newark from Paris in the middle of the afternoon last Wednesday. Less than twenty-four hours later I was back at EWR to catch a flight to XNA. As O’Shaughnessy is to English odes, so perhaps XNA is to airport codes: insufficiently known. It stands for “Northwest Arkansas Regional,” and by rights it should have a “W” (for Walton) in it. Mr. Walton was of the opinion that if a manufacturer, distributor, or importer wanted to sell things to Wal-Mart, he ought to be willing to come out to Arkansas for a little chat. Soon there was a handsome airport, with daily direct flights from the East Coast, rising among the cattle ponds and the scrub oak.

Tempted though I am to pause in admiration of the superior powers of the law of supply-and-demand in creating useful infrastructure (what you might call Bridges to Somewhere), I must move on to Fayetteville, one of the towns principally served by this airport, the home of the University of Arkansas. For I was on my way to that institution to deliver an address before the Arkansas Philological Association. This was an experience delightful to me in every way. The weather was beautiful. My hosts were gracious. The conference itself offered many engaging papers and fiction readings, but at a pace sufficiently leisurely to allow opportunity to walk about the burgeoning town. Fayetteville has become a happening place, with all the funky evidences of a vibrant student culture that one would find in Madison or Ann Arbor.

If you absolutely must have an animal mascot, and of course you must, go for baroque. What Styrofoam badger or cardboard wolverine can compete with a really gross razorback hog in vermilion plastic? On the fresh autumn morning of Saturday, as I was preparing to leave, they set up a bountiful farmer’s market around the county court house, complete with scruffy or languid musician at each corner. Listen! I’ve been to the Farmer’s Market in Santa Monica, and if the Arkansans can just cultivate a little more pretension, they’ll be there.

J. William Fulbright (1905-1995)

The newish liberal arts college at the University of Arkansas is named in honor of J. William Fulbright, who had first been a law professor and then the young president of the institution in the late 1930s, before he began his distinguished career in Congress. He played a role in my own life. He had been a Rhodes Scholar. His experience of study abroad was a major factor behind the legislation he sponsored in 1946 establishing those international study grants that bear his name. It also encouraged some private philanthropy. He took a personal interest in any young Arkansan elected to the Rhodes—an event that happened perhaps every three or four years. That is how I came to spend the summer of 1958, before going to Oxford, in Washington in a high-paying sinecure in his patronage gift, filling orders in the Senate Document Room. That whole operation has doubtless disappeared in the computer age, but it offered me a uniquely educational experience. It was probably a similar arrangement that first brought Rhodes Scholar-elect William Jefferson Clinton into Fulbright’s orbit a decade later. The rest is history.

Though we have politicians galore in Washington, you’ll be hard pressed to find a statesman. But Bill Fulbright was, in my view, a real statesman. Since people come in packages he was also, perforce, a few other things as well, a southern politico among them. But history, which seems so soon to have forgiven Teddy Kennedy Chappaquiddick, and Robert Byrd the Ku Klux Klan, will probably turn a blind eye to Fulbright’s signature on the Southern Manifesto.

I had no commerce with the Senator after Oxford. But once about 1990, before XNA had opened, I was on one of the old Ozark Airlines propeller flights to Harrison, with only about a dozen passengers. Senator Fulbright and his wife were aboard, to be taken by a plane yet smaller from Harrison on toward Fayetteville. I don’t like fame-chasers, but I spotted him and struggled up the bouncing aisle to speak to him. It frequently happens in life that what is a plausible idea in theory turns out to be an impossible to achieve in reality. I murmured a greeting, but one close glimpse revealed an ill and confused old man with trembling jaw and uncomprehending, vacant stare. I returned to my seat. Perhaps this little memoir can belatedly convey my gratitude and admiration.

I am overwhelmed and embarrassed to have received so much public and private encouragement in response to the unseemly grumbling with which I began my last post. You can expect another essay next week, sans grumble. It may, exceptionally, be posted on Thursday, since I’ll probably want to report on what happened on Wednesday night. There’s a big hint.