Learning at the feet of the master
In furtherance of my naïve but exuberant efforts to learn how to think, my history T.A.-cum-guru John Hosmer suggested that I take a class with his Ph.D. advisor, John V. Mering. It was the fall of 1973. I was still a chemistry major looking forward to applying to medical schools, but I had room in my schedule for some humanities credits and eagerly signed up for History 207a: The Civil War. John hadn’t told me much about his mentor except for his rigorous insistence that students learn to evaluate an argument and argue a thesis of their own (i.e., to think). Professors had always been demigods to me, so I expected nothing less than inspiration from this highly recommend teacher and scholar. Nor was I mistaken in my hopes.
My first memory of the class has become part of my personal mythos, which I narrate as creation story to every freshman composition class I teach. We had to read and write a 1,000-word book review of The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron, which Dr. Mering viewed as the most accurate (albeit fictionalized) written portrayal of American slavery. When he returned my paper, the “A” emblazoned on the first page was belied by the quantity of red ink spilled on all the pages–as well as the closing remarks: “Miss Bozzola, you will need to redo this assignment. Please see me in my office.” When I met with him, he spent an hour or more telling me how to improve what I had written with a strong thesis, straightforward organization, specific evidence from the text–and clear, concise prose as recommended by Strunk and White. With that recommendation, The Elements of Style became (and remains) my writer’s bible. With that consultation began the most important, lasting, and influential relationship in my life.
Dr. Mering’s classes–I took five of them–were like none other. For starters, even in his upper-division classes, we had to sit in alphabetical order. In defense of this policy, he offered a possible consolation; he reported that he had met his future wife, whose last name was Merck, when he had to sit behind her in a class on Shakespeare’s early plays. I learned that the story was apocryphal only when I searched the library stacks for his book, The Whig Party in Missouri; the brief author’s biography on the flyleaf noted that he had married the former Ellen Westfall. But the white lie doesn’t faze me because on Olympus, facts are subservient to Truth. It is entirely possible that the memories I narrate hereafter are faulty; I might conflate events or even imagine conversations. What I seek is to narrate the tale that I only have survived to tell.
Our class met twice a week, and every session opened with a quiz on the day’s voluminous readings–usually something like “What is Oates’s thesis in To Purge This Land with Blood, and is he right or wrong?” Yep, that’s a hefty bi-weekly lesson in how to think. The major exams in the course were likewise unique–and uniquely difficult. Other history professors gave tests including identification and short answers and a choice of essay topics. Dr. Mering, by contrast, gave one take-home essay question whose answer presupposed mastery of all the factual material from the course–events and dates and names and laws and Supreme Court decisions–so we could use them to to support an interpretive argument. At the end of the Reconstruction class, for example, the final exam question was something like this: You are a well-educated black man in 1896. What is your advice for members of your race to achieve equality?
Under this exacting tutelage, I learned to analyze an argument, and I learned to make one. Dr. Mering taught me to use evidence, but more importantly, he taught me to use words–powerful nouns and active verbs. I learned not only to avoid the passive voice, but to avoid the verb to be entirely! I learned to consider every word carefully before I ever put it on paper, and I learned to follow the important dictum “make every word tell.”
Once I became the star of the class, it wasn’t enough that I write my insightful and articulate responses on quizzes and tests and papers. I also had to participate actively in class. In fact, Dr. Mering gave me firm instructions to become either his strongest ally or his most formidable opponent in class discussions. I chose the former and became expert at figuring out and repeating the “Mering line” on whatever topic came up on our wide-ranging syllabus. In so doing, I became well schooled in argument about the history and the historiography of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
When he wasn’t challenging us with the Socratic method, Dr. Mering was dazzling us with his lectures. His performances were legend. He paced back and forth across the podium. He raised and lowered his voice in rhythm with his ideas. He crossed his arms tightly over his chest and then unbuttoned his coat and gestured widely. The most memorable of these lectures occurred on the last day of the Reconstruction class. His view of Reconstruction and its aftermath–like his view of American history in general–was bleak. By the end of the course, we knew that the dreams of the radical Reconstructionists had failed. We knew Winthrop Jordan’s White over Black and Ulrich B. Phillips’s “Central Theme of History,” and we knew that white racism had not been mitigated by the idealistic visions of the Second Reconstruction and would not be mitigated by ongoing civil rights activism. We knew that Americans would never engage in real political debate because of the overwhelming agreement about the values of Lockean liberal capitalism–which depended on the existence of a subjugated race (or class). We knew that half a loaf could never be better than none.
Dr. Mering revisited those themes in his final lecture. He read a passage from Henry Adams’s History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson. In it, so far as I can recall after 42 years, Adams described the United States as an insect floating down a river on its back, scrabbling in vain to right itself. The lecture concluded with a lengthy reading from T. S. Eliot’s “Fragment of an Agon.” These hammering, chilling lines were the end punctuation of the semester:
Well, that’s life on a crocodile isle. . . .
Nothing at all but three things.
Birth and copulation and death.
That’s all, that’s all, that’s all, that’s all.
Birth and copulation and death. . . .
That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks:
Birth and copulation and death.
. . .
That’s not life, that’s no life
Why I’d just as soon be dead.
That’s what life is. Just is
What’s that life is?
……………………….Life is death.
It took little imagination for us to understand that we were that helpless insect or that we were Sweeney and Doris living on that cannibal isle. I was devastated–drained and defeated by the most powerful hour-long tour de force I have witnessed or can imagine.
And I hurried back for more.
My plan to portray in one post my discipleship of John V. Mering was ridiculously ambitious. I will continue my chronicle in future posts as I seek to do justice to our ongoing relationship outside the classroom, beyond the borders of Arizona, across more than three decades.