Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Roger and Me: A Middlebury Story

I met Roger Lewis in the autumn of 1963, our paths crossing and recrossing in the confusing rush and clatter of becoming Middlebury College freshmen. We were not in any of the same classes, except for R.O.T.C., which was then a two-year requirement for male students, but we were both assigned rooms in Hepburn Hall as all four floors of us, some eagerly, some warily, were getting to know each other.

My first impression of Roger was of a bespectacled scholarly type, shy but also intense. From glancing encounters in Hepburn corridors, adjacency at Proctor Hall dining tables, and checking our mail together downstairs, he seemed interested in getting to know me. He wanted especially to know what I liked to read, which was not something my other new acquaintances had thought to ask about. It so happened that at the time my first great non-school related reading passion had recently crested: a deep immersion, beginning my junior year in high school, with the work of J.D. Salinger. Something like immersion was possible for me because Salinger’s published output was slight. There was the enormously popular Catcher in the Rye, a slender story collection, Nine Stories, and some novella-length stories about Glass family siblings published as Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. Like millions of my fellow adolescents, I felt that Catcher in the Rye had somehow found me out and in doing so had set free a more feeling and honest self. The appeal of the other stories would have been harder for me to name, but it too was intense and even at their most perplexing, the stories managed to convey some of the allure of Catcher in the Rye-- a feeling that this writer, Salinger, was letting me in on important secrets.

I don’t know exactly what I said to Roger in response to his question, but not a week later he stopped me in the Proctor Hall mail room and handed me a manila envelope thick with documents. He seemed almost embarrassed to be handing it over to me. He told me I might be interested in the material: uncollected, previously published Salinger stories, since disowned. I did not know what to say, but I hope some kind of thanks, before he hurried off. Back in my room I took the blotchy photocopies out of the envelope and read them straight through. I remember feeling the stories were pretty obvious in their intent and not very compelling, but in one or two of them there was a hint of the Salinger secret-sharing. I also remember a feeling of unearned pride that I had now become something of a Salinger scholar—not that I had at that point the slightest notion of what a scholar or scholarship was. Though even then, I think Roger did.

I did not deepen my relationship with Roger after that. We formed different friendships and moved in different circles, circles unlikely to intersect after I joined an athletic-leaning fraternity. I became preoccupied learning to play the guitar. I was increasingly engaged in campus publications, editing both a slapdash literary magazine called Stimulus and the college newspaper, The Campus. For a few months of our sophomore year Roger and I were fellow English majors before, in a fit of despondency, I abruptly switched to political science. Truth be told, Middlebury English courses had discouraged me by their--altogether appropriate--  stress on analysis: how the elements of a text combined to produce their effects. I did not want to think about “imagery” as a strategy. I did not want to step back and consider how the particular voice of this or that “speaker” bore on the impact of a poem. I wanted only to enter into the story and to be carried away. Roger must have felt otherwise, for he became an accomplished English major in a very demanding program in an era when English was by far the most sought after major at Middlebury.

After graduation from the college Roger and I would not meet face to face for a half century, but our life trajectories would intersect again in consequential ways.

After Middlebury I went on to graduate study at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, then a year at Cambridge University, before completing a doctorate in political philosophy. To support myself in these studies and, not incidentally, in order to get married, I took a job teaching, coaching, and counseling at Cleveland’s University School, an independent boys’ school. I would remain at the school until my retirement in 2005, by which time I had become its headmaster. I mostly enjoyed the challenges of keeping a rigorous school. I was also beyond lucky that school life enabled me to find myself as a writer. In my mid-thirties I had some luck with a novel, The Headmaster’s Papers, set in the prep school world, and thereafter books of all kinds—more novels, a memoir, some poetry, books about child development and learning—came along in a satisfying succession. My retirement “plan” was to write all of the time, which so far I have been able to manage.

Though I was unaware of it until late in life, Roger’s career path after Middlebury was not dissimilar to mine. After completing graduate studies in literature at Indiana University, he began a productive forty-year professorship at George Mason University, from which he has recently retired. Along the way, he too emerged as a writer, producing a novel, a book of poems, and a number of scholarly studies in American literature. Scholar and bibliophile in equal measure, he established in 1983 a belles lettres publishing house, Orchises Press, which now includes an impressive inventory of literary fiction, contemporary poetry, and memoir, as well as facsimile editions of classic works, including James Joyce’s Ulysses and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Along the way, Roger has also managed to meet, know, edit, and sometimes befriend an array our era’s of literary luminaries. Along the way also, Roger Lewis, for personal reasons, has become Roger Lathbury.

Though he is honorably qualified to drop distinguished literary names, Roger does not. For example, it took my rambling on at length about why I found the late Christopher Hitchens’ argument for atheism faulty, for Roger to reveal that he actually knew Hitchens and had lifted more than a few glasses of wine in his company, though not nearly as many as Hitchens’ glasses of scotch. Moreover, you might be long and agreeably acquainted with Roger without being aware, unless you read about it elsewhere, that he had forged a cordial relationship as well as a business relationship with the famously elusive and reclusive J.D. Salinger.

In 1988, on a whim as he tells it, Roger wrote to Salinger in Cornish, New Hampshire, to propose that Orchises Press publish his last short story, the novella- length “Hapworth 16, 1924,” as a book. The story originally appeared in The New Yorker in July, 1965, an extended letter home from summer camp written by the seven-year-old mystic, Seymour Glass. To Roger’s delight, Salinger answered the inquiry, saying he would “consider it,” though Roger was not at all surprised when he heard nothing further.

But then he did. Eight years later, Salinger’s agent contacted Roger asking to see the Orchises catalog and some representative books. Orchises Press having passed this vetting, Salinger himself contacted Roger by phone, and together they proceeded to schedule a meeting in Washington, D.C., where plans to produce the book were finalized. In the months that followed, Roger and Salinger communicated cordially without a trace of Salinger’s legendary refusal to be heard or seen.

As final page proofs were due back from Salinger prior to printing, Roger believes he made a misstep. Among Salinger’s strict conditions for allowing Roger to publish was that there would be no promotion or publicity, terms to which Roger readily agreed. An alert reporter for a business journal, noticing that the Library of Congress listings of coming titles included a new book by none other than J.D. Salinger, telephoned Roger to find out more. Roger answered her questions, unaware that doing so would constitute “publicity.” He was mistaken. A reporter from The Washington Post saw the article in the business journal, and the story quickly became national and international news: after decades of silence, a new book by J.D. Salinger!

The new book never appeared. Salinger did not return final proofs to Roger, nor would he take Roger’s calls or answer his letters. “I blew it,” Roger told reporters and researchers eager to learn the story of the almost publishing coup.

By the time I read about the “almost” in a British newspaper, I had already learned that Roger, now Roger Lathbury, had become a professor and a publisher. A Middlebury classmate and friend who worked at Deerfield Academy told me about bumping into Roger as he was showing his daughter around the campus in the course of an admissions visit. “He’s Roger Lathbury now,” my friend said, “and he’s an interesting guy.”

I was not surprised to learn that the Roger Lewis I had known at Middlebury had become an interesting guy. I had not forgotten that generous deliverance of the disowned Salinger stories. For that matter I had not forgotten the impact Salinger had made on me as a boy, a conviction that if a writer could create what Catcher in the Rye did to me, maybe that was something I could do. Whether I succeeded or not, the idea of trying has held me in thrall.

I decided to reestablish contact with Roger. I found his email address through his university’s website. Then he appeared in a Facebook succession of potential “friends.” I was, after all, a writer, and he was, after all, a publisher. As we became reacquainted through a lively exchange of emails, I did not have in mind something I hoped he would publish, but I had a strong, inarticulate desire for him to see my work. I sent him some books, and his considered responses let me know he had read in them exactly what I thought I had conveyed.

Our correspondence has grown now to what are now almost daily exchanges, including an occasional exchange of artifacts. The inexplicable generosity that impelled him to reproduce and give me those lost Salinger stories a half century ago is still at work in him. Two years ago on my birthday he sent me a remarkably pristine copy of the first ever The New Yorker, which was published February 21 (my birthday) in 1925. A little research revealed that the magazine was valuable, so I wrote back thanking him and pledging to send it back when I had looked it over. He said not to bother; he believed he had others. On another birthday, he sent me a copy of a mock formal invitation to a cocktail party W.H. Auden had sent to his New York friends—this because Auden, like the inaugural New Yorker, shared my February 21 birthday.

As our fiftieth Middlebury reunion loomed, I was tapped to put together a memorial service for the sixty or so classmates who had died. Roger seemed an obvious choice to present an appropriate literary tribute in memoriam, and in the event did so gracefully. It was very good to see him in the flesh. Like the rest of us, his undergraduate frame had filled out a bit. There was a faintly tweedy, professorial air about him, which I found becoming. His assessments of the people we met and of the events we attended together were considered, also at times mordantly funny.

All three days of the reunion were satisfying, but the highlight for me was a surprise, haphazardly arranged get-together in a Forrest Hall parlor after one of the class dinners. A dozen or so of us managed to forage a suitable supply of wine and spirits to extend what had already been a fairly bibulous evening. To my delight there was an unlocked, in-tune Steinway piano at one end of the room, and various clusters of us managed to exhaust what turned out to be an impressive repertoire of show tunes before proceeding into the history of rock and roll. We sang and played on in the highest of spirits into the small hours. Roger, who seemed to know every song in both genres, appeared to be in a sustained state of elation, though no longer professorial.

A few years prior to our reunion, I had set out, at first tentatively and then with mounting conviction, on what I am sure is my most ambitious—and last—literary project. I wanted to document through regular, sometimes daily journal entries the late life experience of passing from full sentience to less to none. Because the experiences I chronicled were unfolding as I was writing about them, they could not be shaped by any authorial plan or prior assumptions. I knew I would in time be recounting declining physical and perhaps mental function, diminished social interaction and impact, and all manner of loss. I also hoped to capture whatever surprises and new perspectives might arrive in consequence of the liberation granted by those losses.

A year into the project and now lost in it, I knew the person most likely to tell me what I was doing was Roger. What I wanted from him most immediately was for him to tell me if I was doing anything beyond keeping a diary. When he responded warmly to some excerpts I sent him, I resolved to send him the whole thing to date, fully aware that it was an imposition, as the manuscript had grown to about a thousand manuscript pages, and the thing was still alive and growing.

To my astonishment, Roger got back to me three days later. He had read all of it and in fact told me—every writer’s fondest wish—that he couldn’t stop reading. He seemed especially interested in entries I feared would be tediously mundane. His response was full of praises and interesting questions, which gave rise to an intense correspondence back and forth, resulting in a decision to publish. Whether there would be a single, probably brick-ish volume or a succession of volumes was decided in favor of the latter, given the fact that the project was still in progress.

For a number of good reasons, we agreed to discard my working title, An End Game, in favor of On My Way Out, and Roger got on with the business of technical editing and book design. The finished book appeared in the fall of 2019.

The ease and pleasure of working with Roger bore little resemblance to my relationship to my prior publishers. Beginning in the early 1980s I began producing books for publication at a rate of almost one per year. My publishers ranged from large commercial houses to small independents, some, like Roger’s Orchises, operating almost single-handedly. Over those writing years, my experience of editors fell into three general categories: imperiously domineering, timidly respectful, and doggedly proceeding through established protocols. Common to all three was the editors’ terror of the book failing to please imagined markets.

With Roger there was none of that. Questions, requests for clarification, cautions about potential repercussions that might arise when recounting events involving living people were posed directly in a spirit of what did I think? From Roger’s initial, unexpected response to the manuscript through final edits, I became aware of something I had not experienced before as a writer: that my editor/publisher had taken in and affirmed everything I had intended in my manuscript. In consequence it had become neither mine, nor his, but ours. It was like finally drawing a full, deep breath after a lifetime of shallow ones.

As I write this, Volume Two of On My Way Out is scheduled to appear in the fall of 2020. By my estimation, Volume Three and then some is hovering in some dark recess of my Mac. I have more to say than anyone needs to hear about responses to the book so far. My purpose in this reflection is hold up to the light something too often overlooked in reckoning the value of a “college education.”

In 2013 Columbia University historian Andrew Delbanco wrote a provocative book on the subject, College, What it was, Is, and Should Be. In laying out the past-to-present trajectory of American higher education, he raises serious concerns about the social contribution and viability of even the most well-established colleges and universities. He of course addresses the phenomenal cost of selective private colleges, the dominant trend toward job and professional training and away from traditional liberal arts. He also addresses what he believes to be the hollow scholastic value of schools’ being “highly selective.”

The challenge to established colleges and universities, Delbanco argues, is to articulate and demonstrate as never before the sine qua non that justifies a young man or woman’s four-year removal from the business of getting on with their material lives. Just what, he asks, is the “value added?”

At seventy-five, I do not have to guess at the answer; nor, I believe, does Roger. My great good fortune is to be doing daily exactly what I feel I was born to do. That I am able to do it is due to the generosity and discernment of a college classmate who seems to me also doing what he was born to do.

And the sine qua non: the potent serendipity of small residential college life.

No comments: