(A Salute to Frank Cunningham)
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by Bruce Evans
In college I majored in English, then went on to teach it for 30 years. Here’s one reason why.
Cunningham was buttoned down and belted back. Above a macaw’s beak his eyes glinted like reflectors. He was from Harvard, and he knotted his own bow ties. Some laughed at his questions: What is the soul? What is fate? Many ignored them. Our noise and self-absorption were to him merely bad manners, tattling on our breeding. One day he threw a Bible in the wastebasket (lesson: don’t idolize the object itself; treasure its wisdom and poetry) and one of the girls called him a communist. I warmed to his mellow arrogance, his cool flamboyance. In his class, Cultural Heritage, ideas were discussed; thought, for the first time in my innocent life, mattered. There was only the one great goal of education: liberation through literacy.
Once he treated me to nearly an entire period of talk about the journalist Lincoln Steffens, whom I had been reading, while many in the class twittered. I was watching a mind at work. I saw that there was muck, that it could be, should be, raked. Another day, late in the semester, studying Laughing Boy, he asked the class what “hozoji” meant. I suddenly wasn’t content to point and guess. I wanted to know and wanted Cunningham to know that I knew. I struck off on a page-by-page search, tracking down all occurrences of the word, listing, classifying, categorizing, generalizing, and qualifying. Ultimately, to me at least, in beauty it was finished. It was a neophyte’s first deliberate act of literary criticism. I was 17, and I had found a calling.
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