R. W. B. Lewis: An Appreciation

Article excerpt

He had a voice like music, its inflections glistening like sunlight off a body of water, its sheer sound a pleasure, entirely apart from whatever he might be saying--in memory the singer unites with the song. And that is as it should be: for R. W. B. Lewis (1917-2002), the very foundation of civilized life was the interchange between human beings; as he postulated in his first book, The American Adam, culture itself can be envisioned as the conversation a society conducts with itself. He once wrote, "My own experience is that the greatest teachers I have known"--his list includes Francis Fergusson, F. O. Matthiessen, and Mark Van Doren--"reveal their capacities even more in conversation than in the classroom." So it was with Dick. In a seminar room, at the dinner table, over the telephone, his gift for talk was so subtle that one might not be aware of how nourishing it was. "I always wanted to be a teacher," he once said to me, and it is quite impossible to imagine him otherwise.

Even while conducting a class, he seemed less to be lecturing than conversing, inducing the duller minds before him to join in and achieve insights of which they were previously incapable. I saw this magic at work first hand. Thanks to Dick, I was teaching an undergraduate seminar in literary criticism at Yale University; the week we were to discuss "A Clean Well-Lighted Place," Dick, interested anew in Hemingway, asked to sit in. Dick's presence had the same ease as his speaking voice. He was a man of medium height, with gleamingly white hair and goatee (his inevitable nickname to a generation of Yale students was "Colonel Sanders"), and he wore old-fashioned black-rimmed glasses. He joined the seminar, in no sense domineering. His comments were casual in tone, but the discussion seemed to build to an intellectual intensity quite unlike any the class had had before--and, as I told him at the end of the term, quite unlike any we had again. How he did it I still cannot pinpoint; it was remarkable.

Perhaps it was due to the freshness of his own mind, his insatiable curiosity. As I mentioned, he was thinking about Hemingway, a writer never one of his central interests to that point; at the time he was eighty. Of the many lessons I realize that Dick taught me, one of the most important was the sheer gratification of mental exercise, how much fun thinking can be. (It seems so elementary: thinking is what thoughtful people do, it is their recreation.) One reason Dick was so outstanding a conversationalist is that he was a most intense listener. Like all those who are truly intelligent, he wanted to hear, not orate; he wanted something new to think about. As might be expected, his home in Connecticut featured crowded bookshelves in every room; what never failed to astonish me was the presence of newly published volumes, in fiction, poetry, history, cultural criticism--promptly read and digested, ready to be new subjects of conversation.

The renewal of the self--not merely the intellect but also the spirit--through the enriching experience seemed commonplace to Dick; he and his equally adventurous and warm-hearted wife, Nancy, gathered the interesting and unknown with what appeared to me to be effortless ease. It is no surprise (though it still strikes me as incredible) that, although they visited Dick's beloved Florence more than a dozen time since 1950, staying for anything from two months to a year, they roomed at the same place only twice. "There was nothing programmatic or principled about these constant trials of new locales," Dick wrote in The City of Florence, his love letter in the form of a cultural-political history cum memoir. "We simply consulted with Florentine associates and rental agents, and took what struck us as attractive. We now count ourselves exceedingly lucky." Lucky? As Branch Rickey said, luck is the residue of design. (Dick would have approved of that citation; he loved baseball, though, as with so many who have passed through Harvard, he was benighted with being a fan of the Boston Red Sox. …