Lewis P. Simpson: Memories and an Appreciation

Article excerpt

AS A MEMBER OF AN NEH SUMMER SEMINAR AT LOUISIANA STATE University in 1979, I had been directed to arrive at Allen Hall on what by Louisiana standards turned out to be delightfully cool morning in early June. Loitering in the hallway near the seminar room, Lewis Simpson was dressed in his signature seersucker suit and natty bowtie. In a quiet, friendly, though hardly effusive voice, he greeted each member of the seminar as he or she arrived. That act of standing and waiting in the hallway, and taking the time to speak with us as individuals, told me a lot about Lewis P. Simpson. It was clear that he had done his homework, for in most cases he knew more about us than we did about him. That scrupulous concern with detail was, of course, a reflection of a lifetime of disciplined work as a famed scholar and editor, but it was also evidence of something more fundamental in his character: quite simply, a concern with human beings and a commitment to making the world a better place, not in the self-important terms of the social reformer but in more immediate and pragmatic ways. As I got to know him during the course of the seminar, through future meetings and contacts, and by reading his works with more attention, the fundamental sense of Lewis Simpson as a modest, somewhat shy, yet fiercely committed human being stayed with me.

I was fortunate to have met Lewis P. Simpson, the foremost scholar of Southern studies, early in my career. There was an endless amount that one could learn from him and by studying his work, but there was far more to learn from Lewis the person. For me, he became a model not just of scholarship but of a way to live. He gently corrected some of the more mischievous errors of my intellectual outlook--a bit more about this later--drawing me back toward a more humanistic viewpoint that placed ethical and spiritual concerns at the center of literary scholarship. By his example of humble service and his passion for the truth, he opened a door on the meaning and purpose of life. On that unseasonably cool morning in 1979, unfortunately the last such temperate morning of the summer, my life was transformed. Not immediately, of course, but inexorably transformed from that of a callow and oblivious young man into a scholar of Southern letters who was at least committed to the study of something more than the less inspiring theories of literary structure and technique that had influenced my work in graduate school. For the first time, I believe, I was made aware of the real world of suffering and loss, of joy and triumph, that literature embodies and carries to the heart, if only we open our hearts.

Lewis Simpson was truly something special, but it was perhaps for this very reason that he was not always appreciated as he should have been. I have always felt that Lewis priced himself out of the market, so to speak, in terms of literary intelligence or, more precisely--to use a word not much in evidence today--in terms of wisdom. Unfortunately, among some his work was simply equated with an outdated school of criticism connected with those such as Tare, Warren, and Brooks who had been associated in various ways with The Southern Review and who, in fact, had exerted considerable influence on his criticism. What this view failed to take into account was the profound originality of Simpson's thought. In his reading of the "man of letters" in American literature, in studies not only of the literature of the South but of the North, in his complex relationship to a classical-Christian tradition that he felt had already suffered serious if not irreparable harm, and in his broader reading of the relationship of that tradition to modernity, Simpson exhibited a fierce intellectual independence. His critical positions were his own, not those of any school and certainly not slavishly indebted to any one critic, not even to Eric Voegelin, whom he much admired. To the charge that Simpson was simply irrelevant to what was taking place in the brave new world of poststructuralist theory, one can only throw up one's hands, for it was the majority of what was being done at that time that now seems irrelevant. …