by Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in the Yale Review, April 2001.
Copyright © by Joyce Carol Oates
Where we find ourselves is frequently not where we've sent ourselves. One day it happens we're awakened to the thought Here. Here I am. Why?
Madison, Wisconsin. September 1960. I arrived by air, breathless with anticipation. I arrived alone. I see myself across an abyss now of four decades as a figure of uncertainty like a line drawing by Saul Steinberg. In years I was an adult of twenty-two, in experience I was still an adolescent. I was romantic-minded and vulnerable to hurt as if the outermost layer of my skin had been peeled away. I was the quintessential daughter-student in whose male elders' eyes I was judged "bright"—"brilliant"—"an outstanding student"—a "promising writer." I'd even been published in national magazines (Mademoiselle, Epoch) as an undergraduate. I'd been valedictorian of my graduating class at Syracuse University, and I'd been named a Knapp Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, where I intended to enroll as a Ph.D. candidate in English. By romantic-minded I mean romantic in terms of books, literature, a practical career of university teaching. My vague, unexamined belief was that my "own" writing, fiction and poetry, would somehow fit into this scheme.
Shall I confess that, embarked on what would be the great adventure of my life, until I accepted the fellowship offer from Wisconsin I hadn't a clear idea of whether this remote and exotic state was east, or west, of Minnesota; I supposed that it bordered Canada to the north and that it was at least east of Montana and the forlorn Dakotas. I sensed that Madison, Wisconsin, was a northerly city as such cities of harsh climate are measured by one who'd spent four years as an undergraduate in Syracuse, New York, and whose home was a farm north of Buffalo in that area of western New York known as the Snow Belt. I'd come to the University of Wisconsin at Madison because certain of my Syracuse professors had urged me to apply to this "outstanding" English Department. I had no faith or confidence that I could make a living as a writer; the thought of trying to support myself, by writing, filled me with dread, for I was romantic-minded enough about literature to suppose that any violation of the highest Jamesian ideals constituted prostitution. (I hadn't known at this time that Henry James's most passionate wish was to have been a successful playwright, not a practitioner of the highest Jamesian ideals in prose fiction. Writing the great novels of his mature career had been, for Henry James, a second-best alternative.) As a Knapp Fellow, I could begin doctoral studies full-time and earn my master's degree in passing, in just two semesters.
I would tell no one that an equally strong motive for leaving New York State and journeying to Wisconsin was an emotional quagmire that, naively but as it turned out accurately, I believed sheer distance would resolve.
This great adventure! I'd fled the East because I had no wish to marry, and yet, within five swift months, in Madison I would fall in love, and marry; within ten months I would have become profoundly disillusioned with the Ph.D.-scholarly-academic profession, even as I earned the master's degree qualifying me to teach English as it happened I would do, in universities (currently Princeton) for more than four decades; I would, in Madison, cease writing anything except the most conventional or scholarly-critical papers, a development that would have seemed to me until this perilous time tantamount to ceasing to dream, or to breathe.
(Was there was no hope of adroitly mixing the academic and the "imaginative" at Madison, as I'd done at Syracuse? There was none. My graduate-level professors, most of them Harvard educated, were a generation older—or more—than my Syracuse professors and resisted even the analytical New Critical approach to literature; to these conservative elders, with the notable exception of the medievalist Helen C. White, canonical texts were to be approached as sacred-historical documents primarily, to be laden with footnotes as a centipede is fitted out with legs. When, in my initial idealism, I wrote a seminar paper on Edmund Spenser and Franz Kafka, on the ways in which the allegorical and the surreal are akin, my professor, the eminent Merritt Hughes, who knew nothing of Kafka and had no interest in correcting his ignorance, returned the paper to me with an expression of gentlemanly repugnance and suggested that I attempt the Spenser assignment again, from a more "traditional" perspective. My face burned with shame: I was made to feel, in the eyes of the other graduate students as in Professor Hughes's disdainful vision, a barbarian who stood before them naked, utterly exposed.)
How many times as a naive first-term graduate student, trailing remnants of literary-mystical idealism, I was made to feel, in the entombed confines of venerable Bascomb Hall, like the humiliated boy-narrator at the conclusion of James Joyce's "Araby"—a "creature driven and derided by vanity." I saw myself, too, as the older sister of a child born autistic and doomed never to utter a single coherent sentence through her life, as a creature of sheer chance, the consequence of a "normal" birth; the biochemicals of my brain, unlike those of my unlucky sister Lynn, in a benign equilibrium. I could not claim autonomy, or free will, as I could not claim credit for creating myself, yet I was obliged to play at autonomy, to assume free will, for what alternative is there? As William James said, My first act of freedom will be to believe in freedom. Yet to be proud of one's intelligence, talent, looks, or achievement has always seemed to me to betray a misunderstanding of the whimsical shake of the dice that grants us, or fails to grant us, our humanity.
For some personalities, the stronger the conviction of fate, the more driven to assert "free will." How is such a contradiction possible? Perhaps it's as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed in his self-excoriating confession "The Crack-Up"—The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
A disquieting odor as of disinfectant, bandages, and cafeteria food pervades my memory of Barnard Hall, the graduate women's residence in which I lived for a brief yet exhausting semester, though of course this is absurd and unfair; Barnard Hall wasn't a hospital, and its occupants, graduate women, so very different in the aggregate from the undergraduate women with whom I'd lived for four years at Syracuse, weren't patients or convalescents; on the contrary, these women, some young and others less so, exuded an air of determined bustle, grim-cheery energy, like novice nuns in a convent who must brave the world outside the convent, run by men, the other. (In fact, there were two nuns on my floor, from different orders, living in separate rooms.) My convent-room with its single window looking out onto University Avenue was on the third floor of the residence, and in that room in the first week I was stricken by insomnia as if by a swarm of invisible mosquitoes lying in wait in that space. No matter how exhausted I was from hours of reading, writing, library research, the restless walking-running that has long characterized my life, no matter how I tried to calm my rampaging thoughts. Insomnia! There's a sickly romance to the affliction—initially. To be awake while others sleep, particularly if you move about, is to seem to be moving through others' dreams. To be awake for long hours is to seem to possess more of the day, and of consciousness, than others who sleep. But the romance is short-lived and you soon find yourself panicked, lying in, or on, your bed willing sleep, sleep like a hypnotist with faltering powers. My particular insomnia-affliction in Madison was to see pass before my desperately shut eyelids careening shapes, bizarre forms, hallucinatory objects (bronze dogsnouts, human limbs encumbered by braces, splintered vegetation like flood debris), and most persistently the faces of strangers vividly detailed as in photographic close-ups, their eyes locking with mine. Was I supposed to know these people? Why did they stare at me so intently as if demanding, Don't you know us? The secret that connects us?
Madison, Wisconsin, was in those days an idyllic college town built upon the southern bank of Lake Mendota. The enormous campus inhabited woodland near the lake; the terrain was nearly as hilly as Syracuse, a landscape long ago convulsed by glaciers and retaining still, even on sunny autumn days, a wintry-windy flavor to the air. In Madison as in all new places before habitude dulls, or masks, strangeness, I realized how precarious our hold upon what we call sanity is. Daytime "dreaming" easily displaces it. Calling things by wrong names, stumbling at hallucinatory curbs, smiling and laughing inappropriately. And crying. Just as autism is now known to be the result of biochemical imbalance in the brain, so insanity, madness is the result of another kind of brain imbalance exacerbated by circumstances like isolation, overwork, stress, insomnia. As the radical psychologist Dr. Thomas Szasz was arguing at about this time in the early sixties, much "mental illness" is so diagnosed by society or government to control putative deviate or nonconformist behavior; hence Szasz's controversial book title, The Myth of Mental illness. Like fantasizing children we continually compose narratives to explain, contain, and justify ourselves, and these private narratives must replicate, in miniature, the larger public narrative that surrounds us. And how painful this stratagem, when it falters; how threadbare the weave of the costumes we spin for ourselves.
I can't fail, I must succeed. This mantra ran through my head like a deranged Muzak. Can't fail. Must succeed. Can't. Must. Who? How?
In Madison, during these months of intense academic study, when my head was filled with Old English, medieval and Renaissance and eighteenth-century English literature, of course I wrote no fiction or poetry, nothing of my "own" (as I thought it) except desperate fragments in a journal like feeble cries for help. As my imaginative life was smothered in the service of academic study, my intellectual life was heightened, revered, run to exhaustion like a hunting dog whose only food will be the terrified prey he flushes out for his master. (Hunting dog, prey, what's the distinction?) I admonished myself, What did you expect, this is graduate school. You're training to be a scholar. To be a serious adult. This isn't dreamland. To write about my "lost time" in Madison is very difficult even decades later. To violate the taboo of exposing the self, and those innocent individuals intimate with the self, is simply not possible. But mostly I've never written about my Madison sojourn because I have never known how. Emotions are the element in which we live, or fail to live; "events" seem to us comparatively detached; yet, in speaking of oneself, emotions are of no more interest than dreams; it's historic event that seems to matter, and one is baffled at how to match event with emotion, emotion with event. Our most profound experiences elude all speech, even spoken speech. What vocabulary to choose to attempt to evoke a flood of sheer, untrammeled emotion? —the common experiences of grief, terror, panic, falling-in-love, desperation-at-losing-love. For me, the vocabulary of loss, despair, frustration, defeat is inappropriate, or inadequate, in writing of my months in Madison, since in fact, much of the time, and nearly always publicly, I was very happy; after I met the man I would marry, I would have defined myself, and would certainly be defined by others, as very happy. For one can embody without at all understanding the paradox that one can be both happy and desperately unhappy at the same time; contrary to Aristotle's logic, one can be X and non-X simultaneously.
How dominant the confessional mode has become, and how difficult an art. As a writer I avoid it because I know that the "confessed" is a text; a text is language artfully arranged; language artfully arranged is not authentic; the not-authentic is not the aim of the serious confession. The vogue of sensational confessional poetry of the fifties and sixties was a healthy reaction against the taut, airless, acrostics-poetry being written at that time, under the directive of the Anglican T. S. Eliot, who prescribed that poetry should be impersonal, a matter of cultural allusions and symbols, never a cry from the heart. No Shelley, no Whitman, no Lawrence! With the eruption of the Beats into American culture in the mid-fifties, the old way of poetry was overcome, as by rabble beating down the palace gates, and things would never be the same again. Fortunately! But the new, raw mode of expression imposes its own conventions upon its practitioners, who are obliged to be perpetually radical, sensational, merciless in their exploitation of themselves and others. Where experience doesn't match the high stakes of expression, experience has to be, perhaps unconsciously, falsified; the remainder of life, the un-sensational, the quotidian, the quiet, the sentimental and tender, has to be denied. For these reasons among others, I've rarely written about my very personal life; and never about my husband, my marriage, the initial experience of falling-in-love; never have I attempted to record the minutiae, the daily-ness, of an intimate, companionate life. Enough to state that I met, by chance, the man I would marry (on 23 October 1960); we were engaged (on 23 November 1960); and we were married (with a sense of symmetry, on 23 January 1961).
Of our hurts we create monuments to survival; of our good choices, and our good luck, we are obliged to remain silent. Like happy families, happy marriages are all alike.
A memoir of lost time suggests amnesia, muteness, denial. What memories remain palpable are rare and highly selective. Not the open spaces of sunshine but the crevices of an interior dusk define the mood. And isolated incidents: the sobbing-hysteria of a young woman mathematician on my floor of Barnard Hall, and the fury with which she repelled others' offers of comfort, including mine; a sudden tachycardiac attack in my room one night while I was reading and annotating John Lyly's Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578), a Renaissance text of such Herculean dullness it must be read to be believed, but who today would read it? Though breathless and terrified that I would die, I wasn't able to lie down, the rapidly pounding heartbeat was unbearable in such a position, and even sitting still was impossible, so in a kind of trance I made my painstakingly slow way out into the corridor and to the stairs and down two flights of stairs as if to check my (empty) mailbox; I stood at the front door of the building and breathed in chill, windy night air; no better off, I returned upstairs to my room again, in my condition able to move only by inches, one foot in front or the other, as if I were walking on the thinnest ice and might at any time break through. If others glimpsed me, I cast my eyes downward; my vision was misted over; I wanted no conversation, above all no questions about why my face was so deathly white, and why I was walking so slowly and leaning against the wall. What would have taken less than five minutes under ordinary circumstances took me forty-five minutes; fortunately it was near midnight and most of the other residents' doors were shut. The medical term for my condition at that time is paroxysmal strial tachycardia. It's related to stress and can be triggered by caffeine, yet in my case it was nearly always idiopathic, arising out of nowhere, provoked by nothing, a state of violent heartbeat that strikes individuals with "heart murmurs"; I'd first been stricken by tachycardia at eighteen, on the basketball court, though I must have had a heart murmur since birth, undetected by my family doctor. Tachycardia can be eased by a powerful medication, and the most severe attacks require immediate emergency medical treatment, but attacks frequently cease as abruptly and mysteriously as they begin, within an hour or, with luck, within a few minutes. (In my long history of tachycardia, I've had every variety of attack: the mildest have lasted only a few seconds, the most severe requiring intravenous medication in a hospital emergency room.) This attack kept me in its thrall for about an hour. It was early October and I hadn't yet met the man I would marry; I would have had less regret at dying, thinking, with my usual fatalism, unless I meant to deflect fate with my "wit"—If I die, I won't have to read the rest of Euphues. No, I was chiding myself in a mother's cheery tone—You'll be fine! You've lived through these attacks before! Think of other things! Just keep breathing. The next attack was weeks later, an evening in mid-November I was to spend with my husband-to-be; I had to telephone this unsuspecting man to explain in a voice so breathless and weak he could barely hear it, why I couldn't see him at that time. I was stricken with anxiety and shame, for of course I hadn't told him of my condition, and would have deferred telling him as long as possible, perhaps forever, in dread that he would cease to love one so flawed.
The tachycardia episodes passed. Somehow, I kept breathing.
Since early adolescence I'd been susceptible to insomnia; in Madison, despite the cloistered quiet of Barnard Hall, it became worse. Insomniacs divide unequally into two types: night-insomnia and morning-insomnia. Night-insomnia can be construed as simply an extension of day-consciousness: the afflicted one stays up later and later, reading, working, and finally falls asleep (if lucky) at about 4:00 A.M. If you're young and in reasonably good health, you might not feel the effect the next morning, for adrenaline kicks in and you're borne along as by a rapid river current. Morning! Sunshine! Here I am! Let's go! Bruiselike indentations beneath the eyes and a general air of jumpiness are the signs, and among students such signs are surely not uncommon.
The morning-insomniac, however, is one who falls asleep normally but wakes suddenly, and irrevocably, at, for instance, 4:08 A.M., having fallen to sleep at midnight. At once, thoughts come stampeding like maddened horses. All that you must do; all that you'd failed to do; past humiliations and hurts, and the threat of more to come; guilty feelings about parents, relatives, friends; a terror of lying awake until dawn, and a terror of dawn. At these times I lay paralyzed as if under a cruel enchantment. Hypnagogic images of the faces of strangers rushed at me; I was awake, yet these images stormed my shut eyes; these were, I seemed to know, persons I should be writing about; some seemed normal, others were disfigured and lurid; and what eyes! It was my obligation to honor their undefined, chaotic, anonymous lives. We have only you. Don't betray us!
Whether these were pleas or threats, I didn't know.
Whether this was the onset of madness or just sleep deprivation, I didn't know.
Usually, I gave up trying to sleep. Morning-insomnia, unlike night-insomnia, is impossible to overcome.
Those early morning hours still in darkness when, restless, I walked, walked in Barnard Hall; prowling the semidarkened corridors in a fever of desperation. Sometimes, silently, I ran. I loved to run, indoors as well as out: only when I ran did my body's metabolism seem normal. (And this is still true.) My vague hope was to make myself physically exhausted so that I could return to my room and sleep, if only for an hour or two. The sweetness of oblivion! Insomniacs overvalue what eludes them, elevating sleep to a near-mystical experience. I told the man I would marry very little about my insomnia for I believed that it might lessen, once I was married; as I enacted the "normal" experiences of my species, I myself would become ever more "normal"; moreover, there was something weak-willed and contemptible about such minor complaints, and as a young woman in a mostly masculine, patriarchal world, studying in a field in which there were, at the time, virtually no women professors, I dreaded to present myself as feminine even in the eyes of one who loved me. In the short run such frank openness might be beneficial but in the long run, no. (This was an instinct shared by other women graduate students of the era; it was hardly my discovery. For years I would publish critical essays in academic journals under the names "J. C. Oates" and, my married name, "J. C. Smith.")
Sometimes in my nocturnal prowling I'd see a rim of light beneath a door. A sister insomniac! On the third floor of the residence, at the rear, there was a room whose occupant, unknown to me, often had a light burning as late as 5:00 A.M. I longed to knock gently at the door, to speak to the occupant (whom in my imagination I saw as a girl like myself, hollow-eyed and driven), but of course I never dared. Nor did I seek out the room's occupant by day. (By day, the concerns of the insomniac fade like images cast on a screen when the lights come on.)
Downstairs in the twilit lobby with its sharp ammoniac odor of newly scrubbed floors and scoured ashtrays, I once found on a vinyl sofa a paperback book—James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, which I carried stealthily away with me, back to my room, for the lights in the lounge were too weak to read by, and I supposed the book had been abandoned; no name was written inside. In heightened states of consciousness we become superstitious, and seek out "signs." I spent the waning hours of that night avidly reading, not about ecclesiastical controversies of England in the mid-1500s, which was my assignment, but Baldwin's eloquent and deeply disturbing memoir, the first of this great black American writer's work I would read, with the insomniac's rapt concentration and sense of fate: "All of my father's texts and songs, which I had decided were meaningless, were arranged before me at his death like empty bottles, waiting to hold the meaning which life would give them for me." (James Baldwin was speaking of his estranged, emotionally unstable father, who'd been a Christian preacher; he was mourning the man's death and trying to comprehend his tragic life.) Though I was a young Caucasian woman, whose skin had granted her privileges through her lifetime of which, like most Caucasians, she'd been unaware, I was thrilled by the calm and beauty of these words; and by their prophetic truth as they might apply to me. The meaning which life would give them for me. I was filled with a sense of mission that had no immediate object, like one on the verge of mania. I believed that my insomnia had granted me this revelation for a reason and would not have wished to sleep for the rest of the momentous night even if I'd been capable of sleeping.
Next day, I returned Notes of a Native Son to the lounge, where I'd found it. I would never learn whose book it was, and by evening it had vanished.
Yet my happiest, my most romantic morning-insomniac adventures were out-of-doors. If it wasn't bitter cold, or raining, or snowing, or oppressively windy, I gave up on Barnard Hall, dressed, and began the day early, in darkness. I'd grown up on a small farm in western New York, and rising early in the dark, in terrible weather, had been routine. Through the winter, the school bus swung by our road at about 7:30 A.M., in darkness. By my logic, to begin a day before 4:30 A.M. was eccentric; after that hour, when the clock's hands were moving toward 5 A.M., beginning a day was normal, a sign of optimism. Who knew what adventures the new day might bring? Outside the claustral residence hall I felt a surge of energy, for energy is hope, and hope is energy, and I would break into a run, as if I had an immediate destination; I ran on University Avenue and on Park Street to the foot of Bascomb Hill, and up the steep, windy hill itself until I could run no longer. (Hours later, midmorning, I would be among forty or so graduate students seated in a classroom in Bascomb Hall, in a hallucinatory drowse trying to take notes as the eminent Renaissance scholar Mark Eccles lectured on the Elizabethan-Jacobean drama, reading from copious notes in a quiet, uninflected voice like a hypnotist's.) In the gradually lightening dark I would continue past Bascomb Hill, in the direction of the observatory; my ultimate destination was a State Street diner that opened early, but I forestalled going there too soon; in these long-ago years a dense stand of trees, deciduous and evergreen, bordered the hill; beyond was Lake Mendota; I would return, down the long hill, passing by the State Historical Library and the mammoth Memorial Union, not open at this hour; if it wasn't too cold or windy, I'd walk along the lakefront; I'd pause on the terrace, to stare at the lake; here, I was nearly always happy; freed from the confines of my room and from the rampage of my thoughts; I was exhilarated and yet comforted by the lapping waves, and Lake Mendota was often a rough, churning lake; in the twilit early morning it appeared vast as an inland sea, its farther shore too distant to be seen. On misty or foggy mornings, which were common in Madison, the lake's waves emerged out of an opacity of gunmetal gray like a scrim; there was no horizon, and there was no sky, and it would not have surprised me if when I glanced down at my feet I saw that there was no ground.
Then there were starkly clear early mornings, a moon or the remnant of a moon overhead, and isolated stars; tattered clouds blown across the moon, like shreds of thought. No sound except the wave and random cries of those curious nocturnal birds, common in urban areas, called nighthawks; nighthawks must have nested beneath the eaves of the Union, or in trees close by. I liked to feel that, at this hour, alone, anonymous, and genderless, I was a nighthawk; a pair of eyes, a skein of brooding thoughts. How beyond mere happiness—or unhappiness—I believed myself. What rang in my head was Walt Whitman's little-known poem of surpassing beauty, "A Clear Midnight"—
This is thy hour O soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best:
Night, sleep, death and the stars.
Often in my circuitous route to the State Street diner, I would pass the still-darkened university library, which was one of my places of refuge during the day; swiftly I'd walk along Langdon Street, past fraternity houses, impressive facades bearing cryptic Greek symbols emerging out of the gloom, and invariably there were lights burning in these massive houses, who knew why? I was quick to note isolated lights in the windows of apartment buildings and wood-frame rental houses on Langdon, Gorham, Henry, as the early morning shifted toward 6:00 A.M.; still darkness, for this was autumn in a northerly climate, but with a promise of dawn in the eastern sky. The nighthawk takes comfort in noting others, kindred souls, but at a distance: warmly lit city buses on Gorham and University bearing a few passengers; headlights of vehicles; occasional pedestrians; a few among these might have been morning-insomniacs like me, relieved and grateful for the new day, the new chance, but most of them were workers, custodians, cafeteria staff, attendants at the university hospital; for them there was no special romance to the hour, nor probably any malaise; beneath their coats they wore uniforms. On Gorham Street I sometimes saw a man walking his dog; a man of an indeterminate age, perhaps in his late thirties; I'd seen him leaving one of the old Victorian houses partitioned into rentals for graduate students, crossing the wide porch and descending, his dog held to a tight leash; the dog was a springer spaniel, buff colored, slightly thick bodied but still youthful; my heart leapt at the sight of the spaniel, which reminded me of a spaniel out of my past and behaved in a friendly fashion toward me, even as his frowning master tugged him away. Elsewhere on Gorham I recognized certain lighted windows; I could count on teasing glimpses of a couple behind a ground-floor window with a negligently drawn blind; from a few yards away I could see into their kitchen, though not very clearly; I felt a stab of envy, for to be awake at such an hour is altogether normal if there's another with you. I wondered who this man and this woman were, were they both students, what were they studying, were they in love, of course they must be in love, and married. On Henry Street lived the man I would marry, by what concatenation of chance and fate I would never comprehend, in January 1961. So soon! He lived on the ground floor of a shabby wood-frame house, in a single-room flat with its own entrance, and crowded with books, journals, papers (he was completing his Ph.D. in eighteenth-century English literature, writing a dissertation on Jonathan Swift under the direction of the eminent scholar Ricardo Quintana); this flat in which, most evenings, we prepared and ate supper together. At this hour of the morning his windows were shaded and unlighted. This man was not, and would never be, afflicted by insomnia. You wouldn't wish to marry another like yourself. Another nighthawk. I wouldn't have wished this man to share my predilection; I wouldn't have wished him even to know about it; I believed that, after I was married, my insomnia would vanish, or at least lessen. I wouldn't have wished this man whom I'd met so recently to discover how I passed slowly by the house in which he lived, near enough to reach out and rap on his window ....
Instead I walked on. It was not really "early" any longer, it was 6:00 A.M., or later. It was a perfectly normal hour. At last I headed for the little diner on State Street, how warmly lighted it appeared, how welcoming it seemed always amid the somber darkened storefronts of State Street at this hour. In this restaurant I'd become a familiar patron, possibly, like several others, though we never acknowledged one another or spoke; perhaps there's the concern, in such circumstances, that if once you break the frame of anonymity and speak to another, you and that other must always afterward speak, and what a risk! what a commitment! We were customers who wanted to read at breakfast, in any case. We brought along books, papers. We were solitary and silent, and yet we were companions of a kind like those individuals seated at a counter in Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, our most poignant, ceaselessly replicated romantic image of American loneliness. In the diner, like Hopper's single woman, I too sat at the counter. I would not have been allowed a booth, unless I shared it with another. By this time, after so much compulsive walking, and suffused with the optimism of the new day, I was ravenous with hunger. For no one is so happy as an insomniac who has survived the night.
And I was in love, and loved! I wasn't one to torment myself with the riddle He loves me. His love is predicated upon not exactly knowing me. Am I morally obliged to enlighten him?
I have yet to resolve that riddle.
In January 1961 I was married, and moved from Barnard Hall to live with my husband in a surprisingly spacious, airy five-room apartment on the second floor of a wood-frame house on University Avenue, a mile away from the university residence in which I'd spent so many insomniac hours. In May, one sunny morning, I was examined for my master's degree, in venerable Bascomb Hall for what would be the final time. My examiners were all men; two were older professors with whom I'd studied and who had seemed to approve of my work; the third was a younger professor of American literature, very likely an assistant professor, who stared at me, now "Joyce Carol Smith," doubtfully. A married woman? A serious scholar? It did seem suspicious. In this man's unsmiling eyes, I saw my fate.
Two-thirds of the exam went well: I'd followed my husband's advice and memorized sonnets by Shakespeare and Donne that I could analyze and discuss; I could recite the opening of Paradise Lost, and key passages of "Lycidas" and "The Rape of the Lock"; but the youngish professor of American literature was unimpressed, biding his time. He didn't question me about primary works at all. I might have spoken knowledgeably about the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, but I wasn't given the opportunity; as in a courtroom nightmare, I was asked only questions I couldn't answer with any confidence about dates of poems, publications, editions; for instance, how did the 1867 Leaves of Grass differ from the 1855 edition, and what were the circumstances of the 1871 edition? Through a haze of shame I heard myself murmur repeatedly, "I don't know," and, "I'm afraid I don't know." Years later, as a trustee of a Manhattan-based foundation, I would encounter my interrogator at board luncheons at the Century Club in New York City, a man now deep into middle age, no longer a professor yet in manner and self-possession hardly changed, in his role as an administrative assistant to the foundation's director, and like torturer and torture victim meeting in a new, neutral environment, in new lives, he and I would never acknowledge the circumstances of our first meeting; never would we allude even elliptically to the fact, ironic in retrospect, that this man of no special talent or distinction or achievement had once hoped to defeat me at the start of what he would have supposed was my career. How vulnerable I'd been, that May morning in 1961! How negligible in his eyes, how expendable, a young woman, and married; not a likely candidate for the holy orders of the Ph.D. And it was so: though my love for literature was undiminished, I'd become profoundly disillusioned with graduate study and couldn't have imagined continuing in Madison for another year, let alone two or three; my subterranean despair would have choked me, and destroyed the happiness of my marriage; it would have destroyed my marriage. The drudgery of scholarly research and the mindnumbing routines of academic English study, above all the anxious need to please, never to displease, one's sensitive elders, weren't for me. My major writing effort of the year was a one-hundred-page seminar paper on Herman Melville tailored to the expectations of a quirky, very senior professor named Harry Hayden Clark, who had a penchant for massive footnotes and "sources"; this document was well received by Professor Clark but so depressed me that I threw away my only copy soon afterward.
The verdict of the examining committee was that "Joyce Carol Smith" be granted a master's degree in English from the University of Wisconsin; but she was not recommended to continue Ph.D. studies there. The verdict was You are not one of us, and how could I reasonably disagree?
When, a quarter-century later, in what might be called the second act of a fairy tale of wavering intentions, I returned to the University of Wisconsin at Madison to be given an "honorary doctorate of humane letters" in an elaborate commencement ceremony, the occasion would seem surreal to me; I couldn't help brooding on the irony of the situation, and perhaps the perversity, hearing my name amid those of other "distinguished alumni"; not that I was an impostor exactly, but if I hadn't been rejected as a Ph.D. candidate in 1961, if, instead, my examiners had urged me to continue with graduate work, I might have succumbed to the temptation; if I'd been a young man, for instance, of equal talent; I might have made myself into another person, and I certainly wouldn't have written the books I'd written, and wouldn't as a consequence have been invited back to Wisconsin to be graciously honored. The paradox was not one that might be elevated to a principle for others: to be accepted by my elders in one decade, I'd been required to be repudiated by my elders in an earlier decade.
And now, at an even later date, 27 September 1999, as I compose this memoir in a room at the Edgewater Inn in Madison, Wisconsin, overlooking a rain-lashed Lake Mendota, I'm forced to recall the bittersweet irony of my situation; another time I've been invited back to Madison, to give a public reading in a beautiful art museum built long after my departure, and to be honored at an elaborate dinner with the chancellor, his wife, and a gathering of the university community. Honored at the age of sixty-one as an indirect (and yet irrefutable) consequence or having failed at the age of twenty-two! Staring at the waves of Lake Mendota that emerge out of the identical scrimlike opacity I remember so vividly from that lost time, I'm forced to contemplate how we aren't absolutely determined by crucial events in our lives; an initial failure may release us to a new and more appropriate channel of action; we have the power to redefine ourselves, to heal our wounds, to fight back; like Henry James who'd failed so ignominiously, and publicly, as a playwright, literally booed off the stage in a London theater, vowing in his journal, "I take up my own old pen again—the pen of all my old unforgettable efforts and sacred struggles. To myself—today—I need say no more. Large and full and high the future still opens. It is now indeed that I may do the work of my life. And I will."
In Madison, I've been made to feel at last that I do belong. I've arrived at an age when, if someone welcomes you, you don't question the motives. You don't question your own motives. Rejoice, and give thanks!
Of our hurts we make monuments of survival. If we survive.
This has been a fragmentary memoir of a lost time; a time for which there was no adequate language; and so the effort turns upon itself like a Mobius strip, shrinking from its primary subject. I am paralyzed by the taboo of violating the privacy of individuals close to me, and by the taboo, which seems a lesser one, of violating the privacy of one's own heart; exposing the very heart, vulnerable and pulsing with life. There are intimacies, secrets, epiphanies and revelations and matters of simple historic fact of which I will never speak, still less write. Yet I'm thinking, in Madison, Wisconsin, in the early morning hours of 28 September 1999, of that Sunday afternoon, 23 October 1960. I'd come to the reception in the Memorial Union overlooking this same lake, these waves, about a mile from where I'm sitting now, composing these words. I'd come to the reception by myself. I knew no one. I was one of three thousand graduate students at the university, and perhaps fifty or sixty had come to this lounge in the student union; I was sitting at a table with some others, their faces now long forgotten, and in the corner of my eye I saw a figure approaching. I have no memory of myself except that I was dreamy-eyed, listening to the conversation at the table without joining in; I wouldn't glance around with a bright, hopeful, welcoming American-girl smile at whoever was coming near. In one of my own works of fiction such a figure, undefined and mysterious, might turn out to be Death—but this wasn't fiction, this was my life.
Still, I didn't glance around. Until, when a man asked if he might join us, and pulled out a chair to sit beside me, I did.