Spring 1973: As an overachieving, overprotected, overweight college sophomore, I approached the end of the spring semester with the dread of impending loss. In addition to my accustomed success in school that year, I had incrementally begun the process—equally exhilarating and frightening—of breaking free that all university students experience at one time or another.
During my freshman year, as one of the first batch of voters between the ages of 18 and 20, I had defied my parents’ teachings and voted for Richard Nixon. I was a Mormon convert with the zeal of most converts. I had never been on a date, and neither alcohol nor the word fuck had passed through my lips. I suppose the tenor of my life is best revealed best by the fact that I chose to take a calculus class Monday through Friday at 7:40 a.m.
By the end of my sophomore year, although little had changed on the outside, everything was different inside. A class in history had made me ashamed of my conservative politics. A Mormon bishop who told me I had to “decide between a career in medicine and raising a family up to the Lord” had planted the seeds of doubt that he was speaking for God. A Spanish teacher had introduced me to all the dirty words for body parts and functions, and while I still hadn’t done so, I knew how to say fuck in two languages.
And I had fallen under the spell of John Hosmer, a wildly charming Adonis, a former all-American pitcher, the teaching assistant in my American history class. He had teased me throughout the semester whenever I expressed my views—to the extent that I once threw a textbook at him in frustration during class. He had said in front of a 250-seat lecture hall full of students on the last day of class, “Bozzola, you need to smoke a joint and get laid.” And he had written in the back of my final exam bluebook, “It is a shame to let all this talent go to waste. You will wake up one morning as a 40-year-old Mormon with ten kids and commit suicide.” How could I not be smitten?
I called him on the telephone and told him that I wanted to learn to think. To that end, I asked if he could recommend some books for me to read over the summer. In response, he cobbled together the list of five books that would change my life forever, both suddenly and gradually:
- Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha (1922)
- T. H. White, The Once and Future King (1958)
- Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America (1955)
- Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition (1948)
- Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel (1928)
The first two were favorite reads of this young man, nine years my senior, who came of age during the early 1960s, worshipped the Kennedys (and later named his twin sons Jack and Bobby), volunteered for and then protested against the Vietnam War, and gulped the Koolaid served on college campuses across the country. They charted in seductive narratives the journeys of spiritual self-discovery that were Mr. Hosmer’s—and then mine. The second two, historical works in the consensus camp of American historiography, had shaped the world view of his mentor—who soon became not only my mentor, but my Pygmalion, my Svengali, my ’Enry ’Iggins. The last, a book he had not even read, was a book that same mentor had recommended to him when they first crossed paths. That book entered my soul, gave me a vocabulary of youthful angst, and mapped the rest of my life’s journey.
In Part II, I will present a literacy narrative that traces my on-again/off-again relationship with the gargantuan Thomas Wolfe. In Part III, I will pay tribute to the most influential figure in my life, John V. Mering.