It was not as if I hadn’t been warned. Often, in that terrible year I floundered in graduate school, I remembered the two cautions I had received, from two people I revered but whom I had chosen to ignore.
The first warning had come from Robert Fitzgerald—the poet and translator who for some years taught undergraduates at Harvard. I studied “versification” with him and also spent a term in a writing seminar in which six students met with him for three hours a week as he took us through complicated problems in literature—comparing translations of Flaubert or Dante; analyzing how exactly a story by William Maxwell or a poem by Richard Wilbur “ticked like a clock” but also “broke the heart”; and, once in a rare while, when something one of us had written seemed to him to “succeed,” treating an undergraduate story or poem to the same serious analysis of its virtues.
Discussion of our much more frequent failures, accompanied by Fitzgerald’s infinitely kind advice, solace, and reading suggestions, took place in our private weekly tutorials. Once, in that autumn of 1977, I arrived at his office to find him standing and holding out the gift of a small brown object: a copy of Elizabeth Bishop’s new Geography III. (She was a colleague of his at Harvard, and had also been a teacher of mine.) He had his own copy, and we spent the hour reading the poems to one another—his fine, dry voice almost singing the lines, occasionally stopping himself with his characteristic muttered exclamation of “umph” at a particular passage, like this: “‘ and evening commences.’ Umph!” followed by a sharp look to make sure I had registered the felicity.
Sometimes our meetings took place during lunch in a restaurant called Iruna, and it was over my first garlicky snails that I asked if he thought I should go to graduate school, specifically to an MFA program.
“No, no. You are too restless, and you would be bored. You need to get a job in New York, work, travel. If you are meant to write, you will write.”
At first, I did what he said. I found myself at The New York Review of Books, working as a kind of serf—making coffee, proofreading, making coffee, getting yelled at for my frequent mistakes, occasionally making the bosses laugh, making coffee—all the time afflicted by a kind of cultural vertigo at the heights to which I had climbed. For in those days, it was understood by everyone in the dumpy offices of The New York Review that we were at the pinnacle.
After a year or so, I told my wonderful, difficult boss, Barbara Epstein, that I would be applying to graduate schools for a Ph.D. program in literature.
“What on earth for?”
This was not the reaction I expected. After all, many of the Review’s cherished writers were distinguished academics.
“That’s an accident, toots. Anyway, no one needs a Ph.D. in English. Just read.”
I disregarded this—in retrospect, excellent—advice, even though it persisted through my application process, bolstered by Barbara’s citations of people she knew who had found graduate school “unspeakably dreary,” people we both knew who were “the most tired, pompous” academics, some of them “real stinkeroonies.” While I didn’t disagree, I couldn’t explain that I had decided I would never make it in the magazine business. Other assistants in the office, and friends elsewhere, had wangled actual editing work, had written for other publications, were maybe even being groomed to write a piece for the Review, while I kept brewing the coffee, reading the slush pile of poems, running errands, and cracking jokes. Vaguely, I imagined an academic career that involved long lazy days in a cafe writing poems.
Barbara was very kind to me—I took all sorts of hours away from the office, enrolled in a crash Latin course at CUNY—and she got teary when I left.
“I will miss you,” she said. “But I’m mostly crying for you. You’re like Jane Eyre going to Lowood. You’ll die in that miasma!”
She told me to call if I hated it.
I did hate it. And I was much too proud to call.