Over half of my courses at Oberlin were in literature. One semester I read: all of Proust in translation; most of Henry James including two of the three late novels; a couple of things by Hawthorne, Moby Dick, and a load of Emerson and Thoreau; Ulysses as well as everything else Joyce wrote–and then I got mono. For two weeks all I could do was sleep. After taking Winter Term to write my final papers, I flew to London with David Young–so I could keep reading.
Fall Break of my sophomore year I didn’t leave the campus because my friend Bill and I had to write these papers about The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, which we couldn’t figure out no matter how hard we tried. For the entire break, we talked about The Magic Mountain from the moment we met for breakfast until we couldn’t talk any more. I remember lying on the floor of his room in Noah at 11:30 at night, answering his questions about the book with other questions.
This kind of intensity was just being an Obie. When people walked past Warner in the Spring evenings my senior year, voices screaming in pain and rage rang from within. Nothing to worry about–just Herbert Blau’s theater company working on a retelling of the story of the Donner Party. The production itself as I recall was a mess, mostly incomprehensible and full of itself, but it was an impressive mess. What they did with language and feeling was something new, and while we’d seen plenty of living artists on campus (everybody from a pregnant Twyla Tharp to a husky-voiced Galway Kinnell), this reminded us that there’s nothing stopping anyone from trying, that for all of us the page is blank and waiting to be filled.
What happened at Oberlin was that I was so deeply engaged and tangled up in writing as a living, morphing entity, that when I got to graduate school I couldn’t tolerate the aridness of what passed there at the time for intellectual discourse. I moved to New York, became a book editor, worked hard, and had real luck, worked with great writers. I worked with writers who were great, and became famous, and I worked with writers who were just as great, but didn’t get the break. Because of Oberlin I knew that it was all the same stuff, and it all started with hard work and risk. And that any writing that’s making the attempt is honorable.
Life took me other places, beyond that chapter, but writing has always been at the center of what I do. And my critical and creative chops were honed at Oberlin.