A similar fate has befallen decade, “ten of something,” now used almost exclusively to mean ten years. We don’t think that the only thing you can have a dozen of is eggs, do we? But our universal anxiety with time sweeps all before it, including your bloguiste as he sets about writing his one hundredth blog post. For the wheels of Time’s Winged Chariot have been clattering rather than whirring softly since my last effort. For starters, I turned seventy-five on the very day I flew to Europe. Yet more sobering was the news that reached me when after several days I reconnected with my email in Compostela. My Sewanee classmate and long-time friend Dave Evett had died on May 25 at his home in the Boston suburbs. Herein, perhaps, is a topic of sufficient solemnity for the occasion.
David was a great man—brilliant, talented, energetic--an athlete, a singer, an actor, a powerful writer. Our careers, personal and professional, had several external parallels. When we first met in the fall of 1954 we were amused by the coincidence that we both came from small towns called Mount Pleasant—one in Michigan, the other in Texas, but both double misnomers. After college Dave went to Dijon on a Fulbright Scholarship, then on to Harvard for his Ph. D. in English and, as it turned out, an equally doctoral spouse, with whom he would raise three highly accomplished children. We almost but not quite overlapped in the English Department at Wisconsin, from which he later moved on to a long and distinguished career at Cleveland State University. He was the author of important studies in the field of Renaissance Literature. In retirement he and Marianne removed to the Boston area, where all three of their children had put down roots. He died peacefully, as I understand it, after a meal at which his whole family was gathered.
Dave was also an excellent poet. In lieu of a Christmas card he would send out each year an original Christmas poem, and we never could regard our seasonal preparations as complete until it arrived. Naturally in my state of disorganization I cannot now lay my hands on the anthology of these poems he prepared for distribution at our fiftieth class reunion a few years past. But I do have one poem of his in my computer—one not entirely inappropriate for this blog century. It is called “Alumni News,” and it responds to the announcement of the death in 2004 of another classmate (called by the poet’s sensitive pseudonym Matthew George Todd), once close friends to us both.
Gertrude Stein famously called her fast-living expatriate Parisian friends of the 1920s “a lost generation”. But I doubt that her generation was much loster than mine—or perhaps yours, or any other. The sheer number of my bright shining classmates who crashed upon the shoals of life, not a few of them last seen adrift on a sea of alcohol, is appalling. Of them there might seem no more poignant example of sheer waste than that afforded by “M .G. Todd”. Evett’s evocation of the “inheritors of unfulfilled renown”—a famous and tragic phrase from Shelley’s “Adonais”—was hardly hyperbolic, given this man’s talent and potential. Like most good poems, this one tells a story, the outlines of which are sufficiently clear, even without any footnote explication of its enriching details:
Matthew George Todd, ’58, of Austin, Texas, died March 11, 2004.
with a voice like George Sanders'
and a wry snort of a laugh
and a graduation watch identical to mine.
Riding the Southern on the last leg together,
Nashville to Cowan, Tennessee,
through leads in the senior play,
we frisked into cronyhood
like two dogs into a wood.
dismayed to find him deadly from the key,
though I was stronger off the boards,
I challenged him at tennis,
and lost there, too;
we both paid homage to Bill Rotten
if the last trump refused to fall.
When the old Dodge balked
an hour north of Knoxville
on the way to some Virginia college weekend
we watched the winter sun strike
through the window of a clean, well-lighted place
the silver bubbles rising through the Bud,
the plywood booth, the green baize; Keats
was more real to us than the bodies of girls, then,
and we were all inheritors
of unfulfilled renown.
Later, he dared auditions and casting calls
off Times Square, the high life
of singles in D.C. played
against a barren federal job,
too much drink and sex,
while I took a safer road
through graduate school and marriage.
After this fraying globe
spun him back to Rose City, Texas,
an epistolary confession
twenty years long
on sheets from yellow legal pads
tracks his battles
with the flesh and the world and the church:
addiction was the Devil,
he knew, and wrote a long, strange book
to prove it that no-one would publish.
When a draft of this sat unread
while I tried to finish a book of my own
the letters stopped. I let it lie.
Can we not think about how he died last month,
leaving me this glum rage
over the slow corrosion
of bronze hours and my failure as a friend,
and about that devilish voice instead?
Three no trump? Double, I say. Snort.
Is there any more beer? [David H. Evett, 2004]
The concluding lines about the obligations of friendship cut to the quick. After twenty years of silence "Todd" had resurfaced in my sphere as well, first with a mad and truculent essay about the Cathars, then with the searing but incoherent manuscript about addiction to which the poem alludes. One didn't know where to begin. I, too, "let it lie". But a couple of years later, around 2000, an academic conference took me to Austin. By a near miracle I tracked "Todd" down by mail, and arranged to meet him for a meal. He had greeted my initiative with something like enthusiasm, but the night before our scheduled meeting he called me at my hotel. He abruptly, rudely, indeed angrily cancelled, then hung up the phone. I never saw him nor heard from him again.
As for David and me, the friendship was continuous if seriously intermittent. In the last decade (of years, I mean) we tried to meet at least once each year, in New York in November, at an annual conclave of the somewhat Trollopian group known as the Guild of Scholars of the Episcopal Church. We had in fact pre-scheduled a private conversation on the topic of "the nature of religious faith" for last November, but I bagged it when I had the chance to go to Paris instead. At the time it seemed to me one of life's easier choices--between talking about religious faith or going to Paris, I mean. Now I am not quite so sure. I'll think about it more during the next century.