Earlier this week Our Fearless Leader posted his entry in the New York Times “America Is” series and encouraged the rest of us First Drafters to try it too. I’ve been thinking about it for a few days now, and here’s my answer.
I had never been west of the Mississippi River until my senior year of college, when I got accepted to the University of Minnesota for grad school, and the history department offered to fly me out to Minneapolis for a visit. I stayed with a college classmate and her family and one of the first things they did was to bring me to the river where I went down to the water’s edge and tasted it. It had been part of my personal mythology and yet here it was, completely accessible.
After I decided to attend the U of M I crossed the Mississippi many times, mainly because I lived in graduate housing right on the east bank of the river and my department was housed in the part of campus on the other side of the river. The cover photo for this piece is essentially the view I had, although I was on the top floor of the building and had an incredible view of the downtown skyline. I used that pedestrian bridge and got to see and hear the river every day, especially the melancholy sound of the fog horns. I liked the symbolism of living on the east side of the Mississippi and going into my future on the west side.
A few months after I had arrived, I moved to an apartment with one of my colleagues, and I crossed the river to live in the west. My experience with my advisor wasn’t great—he wasn’t teaching any graduate classes that first year, and he was going on sabbatical the following year, when I was supposed to take my exams for the M.A. and move into the next phase. I was pretty angry that he had lied to me, especially as I hated Minneapolis. Don’t get me wrong—I fully took advantage of everything the city had to offer, but I hated Minneapolis.
I approached one of the professors I had TA’d for about becoming my advisor. On paper it was a big shift in subject matter, but since I would have zero coursework in that field during the first part of the program, in reality it didn’t matter. My new advisor was an original thinker and when it came to write one of the major papers that had replaced the traditional thesis, he immediately green lit my idea to write about the historians and novelists of the 1950s and how they approached post-war America.
I was interested in The Beat poets and writers because on a whim I had picked up Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and had proceeded to read a bunch of stuff about their lives and their work. And I wanted to write about them because I got a chill when I read this part of the novel:
I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was—I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future.
I recognized that moment of doubt and wonderment because I knew what it was like to be right on that mythic American demarcation line and being unsure of why I was there and of who I really was. And in that moment I knew I had the chance to set a new course and to try something else.
And so I did, and if I reached a dead end, I thought about that moment and that mythic place on the riverbank and went off to do something else. It’s why one of my favorite lines in poetry comes from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
And in keeping with the theme, Eliot himself credited living in St. Louis, on that same Mississippi, as a formative experience in his life:
It is self-evident that St. Louis affected me more deeply than any other environment has ever done. I feel that there is something in having passed one’s childhood beside the big river, which is incommunicable to those people who have not. I consider myself fortunate to have been born here, rather than in Boston, or New York, or London.
Like Sal Paradise, I had set out west to see what my future would bring, only in my case, it wasn’t the place for me. But the fact that Sal and I both had realizations about the arc of our lives as we stood at the dividing line of the Mississippi River has stayed with me for nearly 40 years.
Rounding out the trio who have lived close to the big river, here’s Bob Dylan: