I never even had a passport.
But I know the heather because I have walked the moonlit moors with Catherine and Heathcliff. I know the roiling sea because I sailed on the Pequod and clung to Queequeg’s coffin.
I walked the streets of Dublin and drank in Barney Kiernan’s tavern on June 16, 1904. I knew my first autumn in the mountains surrounding Altamont in October 1900 and breathed the thick Southern air in the green oven of Pulpit Hill in June 1920. I heard the stultifying conversation in the room where women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. I watched the birthing of Sutpen’s Hundred from the swampland of Yoknapatawpha County and stood on the bridge in Cambridge when Quentin Compson, who knew the story, threw himself into the Charles River.
I have thrilled with the magic of Arden Forest, watched with longing the green light across the bay from West Egg, run with the bulls in Pamplona. From the Tabard Inn, I walked to Canterbury with the reeve and the miller and the wife of Bath. I saw endless fields of golden poppies in the Salinas Valley and redder, sadder poppies in Flanders Fields. I have pondered the loss of faith on Dover Beach and the power of nature in human experience while strolling through the ruins of Tintern Abbey.
I have visited those chartless lands and seas not only–perhaps not even primarily–because I have found no more faithful companion in my life than a dog-eared book smelling of possibility. Most often, I earned my passage through the tutelage of a long line of teachers and professors who loved the sounds of words and the feel of books. Their goal was not to deconstruct, to rip apart, to scoff, to blame. They sought–and found–meaning in the pages they illuminated so reverently. Their names were Dennis Gundersen and Gordon Crawford, Fred Hobson and Joseph Wittig, Harold Bain and Weldon Thornton.
One of those names, Cecil Robinson, came with a voice that read aloud to us and eyes that conveyed his passion for the words he spoke. I swear that tears fell from those eyes when Dr. Robinson recited wistfully, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” I’m sure the eyes twinkled when he said The Country of the Pointed Firs “is set in rural Maine. Ah! That’s a tautology.” And I know they laughed with glee when he told us of a colleague who was (mis)translating Dickinson into Spanish: “Nunca he visto a un moro”–not that kind of Moor!
I never saw a moor;
I never saw the sea,
Yet know I how the heather looks
And what a billow be.
I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven.
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the checks were given.
For your reading pleasure:
Emily Dickinson, “I Never Saw a Moor”
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
James Joyce, Ulysses
Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel
T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
William Shakespeare, As You Like It
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
John Steinbeck, East of Eden
John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”
Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”
William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”
Robert Frost, “Birches”
Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs
I remember another great story from one of Dr. Robinson’s lectures as he was explicating women’s roles in early 20th-century American writing–probably Henry James; he loved James. He told a story of his mother, who had given large formal dinner party. As the guests mingled, the hostess began to hear catty whispers about a brazen female guest who was smoking a cigarette. His mother glided over to the offending party and asked for a cigarette–and then smoked it, her first. “Mother was like that,” Dr. Robinson mused, eyes twinkling.