Master, Mentor, Friend

John Hosmer, Vicki Bozzola, and John V. Mering at El Minuto in Tucson, August 20, 1993

This is the last installment of my reminiscences about my decades-long and life-altering relationship with Professor John V. Mering, 1931-2009.

I spent hours during the summer of ’74 in the office of the history graduate students. We discussed history as interpretation and medicine as art or science, and before the beginning of my senior year, I had changed my major to history. I didn’t have any classes with Dr. Mering the first semester, but we continued to meet several times per week. He advised me which classes to take, including a freshman survey of Western Civilization with his good friend, James Donohoe, the Philosophy of Science with the renowned Wesley Salmon, and classes in Fortran and Spanish literature. Yes, it was quite an eclectic mix, but he didn’t mean to train only a historian; he was Pygmalion, and he wanted to create Galatea.

He even changed my name. He made numerous references to the excessive informality of Vicki as the name of a serious scholar and said, “Vicki Bozzola is a belly dancer, not the first woman president of the American Historical Association.” In the spring, when the Daily Wildcat published the list of 1975 inductees into Phi Beta Kappa, he told me he had seen the article but continued with unadulterated scorn, “Miss Bozzola, you don’t seem to understand. This is Phi Beta Kappa, not 31 Flavors.” I went straight to the registrar’s office and changed my name to Victoria. And I remained Victoria for the rest of his life–and beyond.

That spring semester, my last at the University of Arizona, Dr. Mering was teaching a graduate colloquium on American historiography, and he invited me to take the course despite my undergraduate status. It was in that class, in addition to extracurricular recommendations for reading, that I became familiar with the wide-ranging books that formed the core of the Mering Weltanschauung, including Democracy in America (both the blue and the red volumes) by Alexis de Tocqueville, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (both hefty volumes) by Gunnar Myrdal, and Moral Man and Immoral Society by Reinhold Niebuhr. I had already digested two of his other must-reads, by Richard Hofstadter and Louis Hartz, when John Hosmer recommended them in the summer of 1973. I learned about Frederick Jackson Turner and Vernon Louis Parrington, Charles and Mary Beard and W. E. B. DuBois. I gained from this course an unparalleled exposure to American intellectual history.

Dr. Mering and his wife, Ellie, invited me to their home during that semester, and I met his two youngest children, Margaret and Sallie. He and I realized that evening that both our birthdays were coming up, just two days apart, his on February 21 and mine two days before. That year, he was 44, and I was 22; to my giddy form of hero-worship, it seemed like a magical confluence of the cosmos.

Twice, we also went to church together. Despite my efforts to understand every nuance of his personality, Dr. Mering’s position on religion is a slippery topic I never quite grasped. I knew that he attended the Episcopal Church and that his children went to an Episcopal parochial school. He knew about my fundamentalist protestant upbringing, as well as my flirtation with Mormonism, which had ended only earlier that year, when I was excommunicated because of my “repeated requests and conduct unbecoming a Christian.” However, in our mutual efforts to to preserve the fiction of professorial distance, we never discussed religion. I knew he believed that the lack of institutions such as an established church to curb its excesses had allowed slavery in the United States to be the most cruel and dehumanizing in the Americas (a corollary of the thesis of Stanley M. Elkins’s Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life). John Hosmer, who had had much longer to study our mutual mentor, told me a little more. He said that John V (that’s what we called him, always out of earshot) was an atheist as a young man and that he later became a Unitarian. John posited that it was that belief in the need for institutions that had caused him to convert to the Episcopal Church, as much of small-c catholicism as he could stomach.

A conversation we had many years later shed more light on this topic. By then, I had become an Episcopalian myself–an ardent one–probably in no small part because I had first learned about this branch of the Anglican Communion at the feet of my mentor. He was telling me about a Sunday school class he had been attending, in which the teacher mentioned the virgin birth. Dr. Mering asked him incredulously, “We’re not expected to believe this, are we?” The teacher replied, “John, this is the Episcopal Church. You’re not expected to believe anything.” He liked the ritual of high-church parishes with crucifixes, called the 1979 Book of Common Prayer the book of “or this,” and went to the 8:00 service because those early-rising parishioners shook hands when they exchanged the Peace; his wife preferred hugs and went to the 11:00 service. These later conversations gave me a much more complex picture of a non-believer who attended church faithfully every Sunday, who loved the haunting hymns of Advent, and who took me to my first Episcopal worship service.

That was Maundy Thursday, a liturgical observance I had never even heard of in my two decades of Protestant worship. He warned in advance that there would be a lot of kneeling and standing and sitting, so I was prepared to follow his lead. I was dazzled by the accouterments in the church, even during Lent, moved by the foot-washing ceremony, and awed to be in the presence of the fellow worshipers, obviously superior to the unwashed proletarians at the Church of Christ.

We went to church again–in a far different setting. We kept in touch with one of the students in our Reconstruction class, Samuel Washington, a preacher at a small church in Tucson. He had invited us to his church, so we decided to go one Sunday morning, and we received hearty greetings of welcome from everyone in the all-black congregation. Despite the small number of worshippers, the singing was an inspiration–the rousing anthems of true believers. However, although we were somewhat prepared for a novel experience, apparently neither of us was comfortable with the enthusiastic AY-mens and Hallelujahs that echoed in the small storefront church–a different world, indeed, from the tight-lipped (and -assed?) AH-mens we had strained to hear on Maundy Thursday. I am fairly certain that we were silent on our drive back to the campus and that we never spoke of the experience again. After the ardent radicalism of his lectures on slavery and Jim Crow laws and Mississippi: The Closed Society, we felt broken by the hypocrisy of our reactions during the service.

Never (quite) say good-bye
We talked, inevitably, about the next step. Continuing at the University of Arizona as a protégée of John V. Mering seemed logical and right. We both knew that he had not finished with me. I had taken all the classes and read all the books. He had suggested the topic for and shepherded me through my research and writing of my honors thesis, “The Twin Relics of Barbarism: Utah and the Anti-Slavery Controversy, 1850-1896.” And he had much more to teach me about history and historiography, about research and methodology, about language and writing. But he was creating Victoria Bozzola, and while he knew that I would receive the best education from him, he wanted me to have the name of a major university on my Ph.D.

We sat for hours making a list of scholars and universities: C. Vann Woodward at Yale, Carl Degler at Stanford, Willie Lee Rose at Johns Hopkins, ? at Duke, and George B. Tindall at Chapel Hill. He read and critiqued my letters of application. He delighted when I received acceptance letters from all but Johns Hopkins. He exulted when the Danforth Foundation and the Morehead Foundation flew me around the country to interview for fellowships. I can’t remember whether he voiced disappointment when I refused Yale and Stanford in favor of Thomas Wolfe’s alma mater, but he managed to find me a dissertation topic before I left: black maids in the South since Reconstruction. What a prescient choice that was–and what a sad fact that I never wrote the study that would have made my reputation in the halls of academe.

It was 1975, and skipping graduation was de rigueur, but Dr. Mering convinced me to attend the ceremony by his own willingness to dress up in academic regalia and do so as well–and to treat my parents and me to dinner afterwards. I remember nothing about the ceremony except that Morris Udall was the speaker. About the dinner at the Refectory, I remember only a little more: a few snippets of conversation and the fact that Dr. Mering and I ordered the chateaubriand for two, cooked medium, a compromise all in this favor. Despite his accomplished management of the conversation about “Victoria’s future,” my parents, I am sure, were not impressed. I do remember clearly and still own the gift he presented to me as we left the restaurant: Fowler’s Modern English Usage, inscribed “To Victoria Bozzolla, A.B., _____, _____.” He liked the symmetry of the two z’s and the two l’s.

I still was not ready to go. I stayed around Tucson and took a beginning French class (for the GSFLT, of course) and an American literature course with Cecil Robinson. Dr. Mering took me to lunch at the Green Dragon one afternoon and offered to pay for my meal as long as it was not over five dollars. When he learned of my plans for finding a place to stay in Chapel Hill, he said, “Good Lord, Miss Bozzola, you’re a babe in the woods!”–and I promptly signed up for the graduate school dormitory.

I have few other memories of the summer. So I cannot narrate with moving urgency a tearful departure with hugs and promises to write. That story, however, had already been written and so required no staging:

 Eugene looked with passionate devotion at the grand old head, calm, wise and comforting. In a moment of vision, he saw that, for him, here was the last of the heroes, the last of those giants to whom we give the faith of our youth, believing like children that the riddle of our lives may be solved by their quiet judgment. He believed, and no experience, he knew, would ever make him disbelieve, that one of the great lives of his time had unfolded itself quietly in the little college town.

Oh, my old Sophist, he thought. What were all the old philosophies that you borrowed and pranked up to your fancy, to you, who were greater than all? What was the Science of Thinking, to you, who were Thought? What if all your ancient game of metaphysics never touched the dark jungle of my soul? Do you think you have replaced my childhood’s God with your Absolute? No, you have only replaced his beard with a mustache, and a glint of demon hawk-eyes. To me, you were above good, above truth, above righteousness. To me, you were the sufficient negation to all your teachings. Whatever you did was, by its doing, right. And now I leave you throned in memory. You will see my dark face burning on your bench no more; the memory of me will grow mixed and broken; new boys will come to win your favor and your praise. But you? Forever fixed, unfading, bright, my lord.

                                                                                      —Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel

In many ways, of course, I never left my position at the feet of my mentor. Despite his suggestion that I call him John, he remained Dr. Mering to me. We kept in close touch for the next 35 years. In 1977, we met at the Southern Historical Convention in New Orleans and spent a few days afterward touring Cajun country together. In 1980, he and a former graduate student, Phil Avillo, visited my husband and me in Raleigh. As they were leaving, I gave Dr. Mering a copy of Mary Gordon’s Final Payments, a recent must-read, prompting one of his most memorable parting lines: “Victoria, only you would have the panache to keep copies of favorite books lying around to present to departing guests!” In 1992, he read my master’s thesis in English, and I belatedly added A.M. to the list of degrees in my copy of Fowler’s. In 2006, along with my sister, my aunt, and a close friend who made the trip from North Carolina with me, we saw The Lion King on stage. In January 2009, the last time we spoke, I called to let him know that my husband, Phillip, whom he had met several times, had died of multiple myeloma.

We exchanged frequent letters–mine voluminous, his, brief. He finally told me that he didn’t write much because he was always afraid I would critique his style. He sent a strange piece of pottery as a gift to celebrate my wedding to another of his former students–not exactly in celebration, I suspect. We met frequently over the years, usually in Tucson. One summer, he and John Hosmer made the hundred-mile drive to Globe to have lunch at my favorite restaurant, La Casita. He entertained me at his home with two different husbands; after the second marriage, he suggested I had been on a lifelong quest to replace Bozzola with the most WASP-ish name I could find–first Lewis and then Jones. We visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Saguaro National Monument and San Xavier del Bac; we ate at Tucson’s famous Mexican restaurants, El Minuto and El Chaparral. He charmed and entertained the friends and family members I dragged along with me to meet the famous Dr. Mering–sometimes with so much flair that I felt left out completely. After he left his wife and moved into a retirement home, he showed me off to the other residents at dinner as one of his success stories–successful mostly, I suppose, because we had maintained our relationship over more than three decades.

In October 1992, I read The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, and I wrote inside the back cover, “479-80: It would be worth the $23 I spent for the book just to read these two pages.” These are the two pages in which the narrator, Richard Papen, reminisces with reverence about the Classics professor who inspired his coterie of students to Dionysian excesses and then kept silent when they murdered one of their number in a bacchanalian frenzy. “It has always been hard for me to talk about Julian without romanticizing him,” Richard begins. (Sound familiar?). He continues about “one of the reasons I loved him: for that flattering light in which he saw me, for the person I was when I was with him, for what it was he allowed me to be.” (Sound familiar?) He presents Julian as a man always reinventing those around him, one who could be cold under a veneer of warmth, one who never succeeded as a scholar, one who made a “bewitching offer to make all [our] dreams come true.” And he concludes: “I know I said earlier that he was perfect but he wasn’t perfect, far from it; he could be silly and vain and remote and often cruel and still we loved him, in spite of, because.” Oh my God, does this indeed sound familiar? Two friends who know my history with Dr. Mering read The Secret History and were able to pick out from the 524-page novel the two pages I proclaimed worth $23. Notably, although this was one of the long list of recommended books I shared with Dr. Mering, I did not tell him that he was on pp. 479-80.

In the waning days of summer 2009, Ellen Mering found my telephone number among her father’s things and called to let me know he had died on August 3. She asked for my address so she could send me an envelope stuffed with a selection of my letters he had saved when he moved into his tiny apartment. In December, I started reading My Father’s Tears, a book I would have avidly shared and discussed with Dr. Mering; we both loved reading Updike. Inside the front cover, I wrote, “Victoria Bozzola, Winter 2009.” Underneath, I scribbled, “The whole year was winter.”

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