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The Uses of Benjamin DeMott (Part 2)

By Benj DeMott

Benjamin DeMott’s enquiry into the 9/11 Commission’s groupthink amounted to a culmination of one persistent strain in his close imagining. He often felt compelled to act as a witness when America’s leadership class found themselves in cultural fire-fights. One defining moment here was his experience watching helplessly as the white gentility suppressed the film Seventeen, which was co-directed by his daughter Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines. The “forces of light” hated Seventeen, now widely regarded as the classic cinema verite account of American working class life, and they “hated Jo” as DeMott explained in the Afterword to The Imperial Middle:

They tried to take the movie away from her – aimed to prevent Jo and Jeff from hanging on their right to show it on their own. They put the knock on both filmmakers unrelentingly, leaking extremely harsh stuff to the media. People of power absolutely determined that their corporation, their medium, their federal agency not be associated with “offensive” truth.

The quashing of Seventeen – a movie in which working class lives weren’t marginalized but “instead were seen as enmeshed a self-deluding, middle-American class society lost in dogmas of classlessness, a society whose untruthfulness has destructive impact all across the social spectrum” – impelled DeMott to write The Imperial Middle. But his history of attentiveness to class-bound (though relatively autonomous) prevarications of the powerful goes further back to his experience during the national Student Strike of 1970. In his extended “Journal of a Campus Strike,” (Surviving the 70’s) he found himself trying to suss out the canny (but not plainly Machiavellian) moves of Amherst College’s President Calvin Plimpton whose way of being diffident in the world touched lightly on the power of his family inside America’s Establishment. (Plimpton’s brother was The Paris Review’s Paper Lion George and another relative was founding partner of a powerful law firm.) Calvin Plimpton was a natural deflector who aimed to defuse political passions. DeMott was struck by his College President’s aversion to debate – “My God, argument has to fight for the right to breathe!” When he spoke up for debaters everywhere, he surely knew he was testifying for himself. He came realize later that he was stepping up for democracy itself. His later efforts to expose what he called Junk Politics followed from his exhortation in his "Strike Journal": “Contend.”

The enemy, though, wasn’t always in Power (and sometimes it was within). In a later Journal-style essay on a (mildly) cathartic mid-70’s Conference on Educational Reform held in Southampton, Long Island, DeMott condemned himself for going with the flow of a cultural politics that failed to confront the structural basis of inequality and finessed his own contradictions as a rebel with “a house on a hill with a pool.” He mocked his own self-absorption – “I need to know why I don’t want what I say I want, why I can’t yet want what I say I have always wanted” – in part because he’d been shamed by a sense that 60’s utopianism, which once inspired him, had faded into a blind faith in “process’ promoted by the Conference’s small group facilitators. Figures who insinuated that “learning to abhor substance could be [his] most negotiable path to grace.” His portrait of one of those facilitators – a “vaguely furtive, vaguely reassuring, vaguely vague” Dr. Process – was the first of DeMott’s many attempts to hone in on human coolants who transmuted 60-ish sensibilities into New Age(s).

Picking up after Dr. Process, DeMott would keep tabs on celebrants of sensitive CEO’s, civility-mongers, spokesman for Character Education, heroes of Leadership Training, etc. Though sometimes there was nothing to do but laugh:

One of the nation’s first schools of leadership studies is at the University of Richmond, in Virginia, and it appears to be heavily endowed – financially. The school’s basic course, taught by a Dr. J. Thomas Wren and entitled Foundations of Leadership Studies includes as required reading Aristotle, Plato, Machiavelli, Tolstoy, and Marshall Sashkin, author of “Visionary Leadership: The Perspective from Education.” (Five pages of War and Peace, eleven pages of The Republic, seven pages of Aristotle, four pages of Machiavelli, a quantity of Marshall Sashkin.)

At a Character Counts Conference sponsored by the Clinton White House, DeMott found himself mired in a folder of curricular materials that included moral problems for “toddler cogitation,” illustrated ethical sayings for grade-schoolers – “Respect is like a boomerang. If you respect others they in turn will respect you.” – and exhibits of “personal dilemma writing” by high schoolers:

I read about Fred, who dropped a fly ball in a championship game; life was a torment of options for the student author of this piece: I could tease [Fred] like all the other kids, I could walk away from the situation, or I could stand up for Fred. If I joined in and started to ridicule him I would hurt his feelings and I probably wouldn’t feel good about myself. If I walked away from the situation I would be ignoring the whole thing and approving of what the other kids were doing. If I stood up for Fred I could stop the other kids from teasing him. I had a tough decision and I couldn’t decide what to do.

It was a giggle to read diaries of American youth struggling day by day, “possibly with devilment in its eye but obedient to Teacher’s Assignment” – to heed “one core ethical pillar/value.” But the joke wasn’t funny for long. Irritated by the Conference’s “Goodies” (“Emerson’s name for the self-congratulatingly high-minded”), DeMott just said No to their “proposition that the national decline of respect and discipline, having nothing to do with the mounting greed and egomania of the privileged, can be reversed by teaching upcoming generations how to Hamletize about pop flies.”

DeMott’s anger at “Goodies” helped get him going in the final decades of his life. Back in the mid-70’s, he allowed (in his piece on that Southampton Conference) that he felt stuck (like a sub-Beckett character):

I see that I’m waiting, have been waiting, will doubtless go on waiting for some indeterminate stretch for “things to open up” – and I grasp that this is both odd and wrong, since in fact I alone have the key – and I go on waiting.

He wasn’t the only one, of course, dealing with a diminished sense of possibility in the 70s. But his own sense of stasis must have been particularly acute because he’d been on a roll in the 60s. DeMott wasn’t about to wait for “things to open up” during that decade as the opening piece of Supergrow proves.


“But He’s a Homosexual…” began with a survey of then common indictments of homosexual artists. DeMott took names and no prisoners, nailing idiot-clinical exegetes of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, macho Ramparts writers, Philip Roth (who had attacked Albee’s “pansy prose” in NYRB). He argued that Stanley Kauffmann’s “humane” apology for “homosexual style” and Susan Sontag’s case for Camp were potentially even more pernicious. Like a range of other less-than-hostile takes on “homosexual art,” their positions reinforced “the dogma that the homosexual’s representation of life can only be a representation of homosexual truth – ‘his truth’ as opposed to ‘ours,’ as Kauffmann put it.” DeMott said Goodbye To All That:

You seem almost to imply that someone reading a poem or play dealing directly with homosexual experience could nevertheless achieve – through his encounter with this work of art – deeper understanding of aspects of strictly heterosexual relationships. Do you really mean this? Answer: Yes.

He amplified that wonderfully sane call and response with loving readings of W.H. Auden’s “Lullaby” and Tennessee Williams’ “Life Story.” But he wasn’t content to leave off with a discussion of these poems’ singular ways of evoking modern lovers’ conflicted experiences. After invoking Sartre – “to be free is to have one’s freedom perpetually on trial” and citing passages from Genet, he imagined particulars – “schoolchildren mincing behind his back as their elders have more or less instructed them to do, over-heartiness or dropped eyes among tradesmen, slyness and lubricity in the cleaning woman” – that might induce in homosexual artists “a heightened awareness of the feelings and assumptions of others – an immediate living consciousness of the fragility of the shields that hide human cruelty from general view.”

They are people forced to face up to the arbitrariness of cultural patterns – arbitrariness that we insist on regarding as altogether un-arbitrary, a logical bidding of nature, a sane, wholly explicable pattern, like the movement of the earth.

You can feel one of those 60s doors to perception opening when DeMott locates unobvious sources of Baldwin’s moral authority:

The fury that lifts James Baldwin’s prose to eloquence, when that writer has before him the cruelty of cultural arbitrariness, stems not alone from Baldwin’s experience as a Negro.

DeMott’s approach to the particulars and universals of gay experience was informed by his close friendship with the poet James Merrill (and Merrill’s longtime companion, David Jackson). Back in the 50s Jimmy Merrill became an avuncular presence in our family (though the connection there became less intense over the decades).(6) On one of our family visits to Merrill’s house in Stonington, CT, my pop smoked some of Jimmy’s hash – good stuff, no doubt. And the sight/sound of our Man Thinking reduced to stoner stupor was enough to keep me from smoking dope for years. (Which may have been my pop’s plan all along!)

DeMott’s 60’s essay “Rock Saves,” on the other hand, wasn’t embarrassing at all. While his music was jazz, he had a clue and more than a little bit of soul.(7) It’s not his (intermittent) good taste, though, that redeems “Rock Saves.” The piece is usable now – Forget that Times obit! – precisely because DeMott’s tastes (and self) had been formed in the pre-rock era; he wasn’t trying to be trendy. Nick Bromell – author of Tomorrow Never Knows, a meditation on 60’s music and psychedelics – notes DeMott’s grounded approach helped him lift off to explore how rock and drugs sustained (and shattered) middle class adolescents as they made themselves up during that decade.

DeMott experimented more with spirits than with drugs but the 60’s still stretched him. His experience teaching in a 1966 summer program in Mississippi led to one of his most audacious acts of presumption – the essay “Mississippi Learning.” (When it was published, Nat Hentoff wrote: “I didn’t think it was possible for a long time to come for any writer to say anything about black-and-white relations or lack of them that had freshness and pertinence. I was wrong.”) “Mississippi Learning” detailed DeMott’s silent struggles with a young, charismatic black tutor (C.J.) who was less than enthralled with white do-gooders (who were “always going to be leaving”). When DeMott taught a class the day after a student has been killed in a car accident that may have been caused by redneck tailgaters, C.J. sat in the back of the room, staring down at a comic book. DeMott talked through poems with his new students, trying out one by Langston Hughes.

Florida Road Workers

I’m making a road/For the cars to fly by on,/Makin’ a road/Through the palmetto thicket/For light and civilization/To travel on.

I’m makin’ a road/For the rich to sweep over/In their big cars/And leave me standin’ here.

Sure,/A road helps everybody!/Rich folks ride –/And I get to see ‘em ride./I ain’t never seen nobody/Ride so fine before/Hey, Buddy! Look!/I’m makin’ a road!

I asked for some readers, and all the readings were straight. The taunting ironic thing in the worker’s voice – “Hey buddy!” or “Sure” – wasn’t in the room. So I started on a lad in the front and asked if he means what he’s saying, this worker, when he says a road helps everybody…C.J.’s head was up, listening. I didn’t show I knew this. Yes, the youngster said, he means it. He does? I said incredulously. How so? Why? What do you mean? Well, the boy said, it’s just true, that’s all. The road is good for the white man to drive on, and it’s good for the Negro to look at him. I was stopped momentarily. Was the boy putting me on? No, clearly not. I looked up; C.J.’s eyes were down again, but I thought I’d touched some fury in him.

Now the class started, I tried to get somebody to feel that the man is not in love with his job or with the world. It took time and teacherly moves and hints and leads and lots of lousy stuff and some breaks, and I felt everybody holding his temper and patience, including me. We were all relieved as hell when at last a student said the worker is mad: It’s not the same to ride on as to watch; he’s making a mad joke; you could make “Sure” pretty fierce and sneering – “really hot” and be right. And when all this came, it came with a lovely breaking surge. When they saw, they saw. They turned around and looked at each other, absolutely delighted; they were in the game, impressed – very up. I felt exhilarated in their exhilaration. It mattered.

DeMott then brilliantly imagines C.J.’s complicated responses to the students’ joy – “to the spectacle of the white man ‘explaining' – to the Negro – the Negro’s helpless self-mocking rage.” “Mississippi Learning” might once have seemed a shade self-involved. (“[The teacher] feels himself being read as he reads.”) but, 40 years on, DeMott’s clarity about the “crowded quality” of his classroom captures the moment of its moment. “I needed the 60’s” DeMott once said. He knew he’d been gifted with the “infusion of certainty” that flowed out of (even relatively genteel forms of)struggle.

You understand for the first time – clearly if you’re like me – that there are some things on earth that must be changed…You see that revolution is not a word but a pointing toward what obviously, absolutely must happen, and you are lifted up by this sight, by the freshening awareness of how criminally wrong a wrong can be known to be by a mere human being – namely, yourself. And knowing all this, knowing the real ‘success” for the white teacher is to end up for a while on the receiving end of hate, you plan to work out a way to come back.

DeMott did go back often to inner city public schools (where for years he was involved in programs sponsored by foundations, state and local governments, the U.S. Department of Education). He eventually went South again to teach for semesters at Bethune-Cookman. But, even at Amherst, his teaching was informed by his determination to open up (what he called) “the School-Church-Never-Never land” to reality.


DeMott became widely known as an incomparable teacher of Shakespeare and the 19th century novel. But his classroom practice distanced him from English teaching as it was generally understood. He became, for a time, his profession’s most prominent American critic:

Consider for a minute what the teaching life of men in other fields would be, were they placed in relation to their subject comparable to that of many present-day English teachers. The professor of chemistry would be a professor of test tubes, the professor of fine arts would be a commentator on paint and brushes, the physicist would be an authority on bouncing balls.(8)

DeMott’s writing about pedagogy became more pared down over the years. And his just-the-facts (of feeling) approach to teaching in his later essays is masterful. But “Reading Writing, Reality, Unreality” - his 60’s protest against the sin of lifelessness in English classes is forever young. He came at his subject through (dozens of) negatives – “English is not centrally about the difference between good books and bad. It is not centrally about poetics, metrics, mysteries of versification, or the study of balance and antithesis in the Ciceronian sentence…It is not primarily about the history of literature…It is not primarily about the structure of a poem or about the logic of the octave and sestet, or about the relation between the speaker and mock-speaker and reader and mock-reader of the poem…It is not a finishing school, not a laugh riot with a ‘swinging prof,’ not an archaeological site.”

What it is? The place (“there is no other in most schools”) where what matters are “particulars of humanness – individual human feeling, human response, and human time.” Taking off from a text –Thomas Hardy’s poem, “The Man He Killed” - used in a seminar at the 1966 Dartmouth Conference on English (which is said to have been “seminal” for the development of English teaching over the next 20 years), DeMott detailed how he might go about orchestrating a class about “citizen feeling.” Hardy’s poem wasn’t lost in the conversation; it became the “third” and “best” voice in the room, though DeMott’s prime aim was not “to do justice” to the text:

The teacher is not merely the servant of the poem but the defender, interpreter, even perhaps celebrator of the life and world of feeling…Well and good if he wants to say to himself: How can I show the organization of this poem? But he should add other words in the line of self-exhortation. He should remind himself that most men don’t know what the feel, hence sometimes feel nothing; and the literature teacher and writing teacher are men whose gifts and sensitivities are means by which others can be awakened to contrarieties and puzzles of ordinary response. The map of human relations and feelings known to the young is all Sahara usually; few marks on it except what the culture (or the rebel-culture) scratches – love of parents or hatred, pride in nation, pride in self, ambition, dutifulness, loyalty, unfocused cynicism; Flat counters, simplicities, socializing abstractions. Again and again the work of imaginative literature populates the desert spaces, fills the blank tracks with probabilities of feeling.

DeMott touched on reasons why his profession left students wandering in the desert, but noted “it would take a book to tell the whole story.” He wrote at least one chapter of that story in a fine early essay on Kenneth Burke and his disciples, “The Little Red Discount House.”(9) Zeroing in on literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman’s accusation that Engels’ writing on sweated children “falls into sentimentality,” DeMott concluded “the literary perspectivist, for all his whirling, shifting agility, is finally a man who does hate being moved.”

DeMott wasn’t shocked when an earlier generation of formalist critics (and their false “historicist” opponents who agreed with their foes on a fundamental principle – “students should not be encouraged to study poems and novels as discoveries or clarifications of life itself”) gave way to deconstructionists and “post-post-modernists,” He wasn’t with those who wanted to sweep humanity out of English classes, but he remained open to genuine insights derived from approaches to culture that seemed removed from his own. (DeMott’s clever essay on the L.L. Bean Catalog, “The Wooing Air of Beanland,” translated Roland Barthes’ “The Fashion System” into an American context.(10)) He tried to take the advice he gave out at the end of his essay on Kenneth Burke’s ideas:

He must hear every word of the Burkemen: no perspective exempt from scrutiny, only multiplicity can be the The Rock, the comic view is essential. And then as he repeats the lesson to youth he must corrupt it with gentleness, by choosing a tone expressive of the possibility that some acts of Seeing Around are more painful to witness than other acts, by implying that if imperviousness is the means, sympathy is the end.

Dealing with impervs in his own discipline wore DeMott down a bit. But he kept trying to corrupt his profession with gentleness. His textbook, Close Imagining (and the accompanying Readers Guide) backed up the case made in “Reading, Writing, Reality, Unreality” and in his later essays on teaching.


Outside the classroom, DeMott found other ways to function as a public defender “of the life and world of feeling.” For decades, he reviewed novels regularly in the Times Books Review (among other journals). He also became an influential judge on Guggenheim Foundation “Fiction” panels.

DeMott took reviewing seriously. He made a point of placing any novel he was assigned in relation to an author’s previous work (which meant he read pretty much everything by any writer he was reviewing). As a reviewer (as opposed to a teacher), he had no compunctions about doing justice to a text. He was never afraid to call a stiff a stiff. (Though he once noted Susan Sontag’s novel Death Kit was “more dull than deadly.”) He wouldn’t repress his own sense of the ridiculous when he encountered characters in Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings who were “ludicrous blends of Mel Brooks and the Marquis de Sade.” But he wasn’t a Simon-izing type who lived to tell others off. A line from his review of Mark Helprin’s The Winter’s Tale is suggestive here: “I find myself nervous, to a degree I don't recall in my past as a reviewer, about failing the work, inadequately displaying its brilliance.”(11) DeMott was usually more than up to displaying the brilliance of fiction he’d take a shine to. Here he strikes up the band for Barry Hannah’s Ray:

Ray is the kind of fellow who, when watching a first-rate marching band, complete with “synchronized Chargettes throwing their legs around the whole affair,” understands effortlessly that spectacle is not merely asinine but magnificent. I cannot think of a magazine, Federal or state agency, foundation or academic department - oh, especially academic department - for which I have ever worked that wouldn't be functioning better today if management had had brains enough in earlier times to staff up heavily in top-level Rays.

His history as an enthusiast of the novel dates back to before he established himself as a reviewer. After DeMott’s death, An Amherst College graduate (class of 1957) recalled coming to class one day prepared to discuss Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” only to find out his teacher had decided instead to discuss Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, which had just been published. “The 18th century would have to wait,” as DeMott devoted the class to Bellow’s new work:

If I had to pick the high point of my Amherst days, that would be it because of DeMott’s riveting enthusiasm for the book, certainly, but even more for his spontaneity, his willingness to jettison the dusty assignment in favor of something that had just moved him, to seize the day.

He never lost his capacity to rise up for his book of the moment. I found in his papers a final reader's report to the Guggenheim Foundation on behalf of author Julie Hecht, which made her strange way into the way we live now seem as transparent as Trollope’s. DeMott didn’t let his pleasure in her work keep him from making a lucid case for it but he wasn’t pretending to be disinterested – “I’d give her my house and barn!”

DeMott didn’t despise a book with “entertainment’ value. But, as a reviewer, he was less a Consumer Guide than The Man of the House of Feeling. Here he walks readers into Alice Munro’s stories:

In The Moons of Jupiter moments of feeling are known as favorite rooms are known, undemonstratively but considerately. They're lived into as views and curtailments of view, as currents in which the warm and the unwelcome, sunlight and drafts, come mixed. A daughter seeks to acknowledge her husband's kindness to her mother by touching his arm, and the observing mother remarks: ''I knew that touch - an apology, an anxious reassurance. You touch a man that way to remind him that you are grateful, that you realize he is doing for your sake something that bores him or slightly endangers his dignity.'' Nice. But this is an Alice Munro story, so for the length of another instant we work in closer to the grain: ''It made me feel older than grandchildren would,'' the narrator adds, ''to see my daughter touch a man - a boy - this way. I felt her sad jitters, could predict her supple attentions.''

Here DeMott stays in the picture after a very different writer, James Baldwin, describes a classic moment of exclusion upon entering a small town southern restaurant through the “wrong door” in the 60s:

"'What you want, boy? What you want in here?' And then, a decontaminating gesture, 'Right around there, boy. Right around there.' I had no idea what [the waitress] was talking about. I backed out the door. 'Right around there, boy,' said a voice behind me. A white man appeared out of nowhere, on the sidewalk which had been empty not more than a second before. I stared at him blankly. He watched me steadily, with a kind of suspended menace…He had pointed to a door, and I knew immediately that he was pointing to the colored entrance. And this was a dreadful moment – as brief as lightning, and far more illuminating. I realized that this man thought he was being kind."

Amidst terror, James Baldwin takes a feeling from the inside. He registers an exact reading of the combined sense of power and inner, moral self-approval in the white who shows him “the right way.”

DeMott remained responsive to writers who could “take a feeling from the inside." He tried to comprehend the vogue for cypher-figures in American fiction after the 60s. And he flat-out rejected the latest manifestations of a diminshed literary “sensibility” – Joyce Carol Oates’ murderous fantasy, Zombie, deadly novels featuring transgressive heroines etc. He knew the emergence of such works in the 90s qualified as a “minor event” in the history of romanticism, but he didn’t consider this a “purely literary phenomenon.” In Killer Woman Blues, he placed such fictions in the context of a hugely expanded production of narratives focusing on women who were harder-than-the-rest. Killer Woman Blues resisted this “kickbutt culture” though DeMott understood “mechanical accounts of its impact can’t be trusted. Humans are not piano keys.”

DeMott may have been a public defender of feeling, but sentimentalists couldn’t play him. (He voted for historical sense over sensibility in Junk Politics and The Trouble with Friendship.) I’m reminded of a line from his largely favorable review of John Irving’s Cider House Rules: “Surely no other writer of literary reputation is as absurdly certain as Mr. Irving that the repetition of the words 'tears' and ‘kisses' unfailingly summons emotion.”


Reading and writing fiction are acts requiring sympathy but, as DeMott suggested in his elegant essay on the limits of New Journalism, “In and out of Universal City,”(12) “not an extravagant sympathy of the kind that chokes the sense of justice:”

Reading Anna Karenina, I’m not simply bewildered or amused that Oblonsky can at the same time be wretched about his faithlessness to Dolly and tickled by some wisp of recollection of the “bewitching” governess. I don’t simply take this response or conduct in a forgiving spirit, or regard it as a determined event, inescapable. I come at its inevitability from within. I feel the regrettable yet, for him, oddly pleasing limitlessness of what we cannot control. I understand that the conscience that pains Oblonsky also delights him by reminding him of his personal attractiveness. I am unremittingly aware of the reciprocities of what is called “virtue” and what is called “vice,” conscious of the hollowness of appeals to Integrity(13) as a separable entity in itself, alert to the complex process by which new vanities and new moral aspirations wake to life simultaneously within human beings. And yet none of this knowledge paralyzes me. I assess the relative significance of the characters’ conscience in my inward experience as I read; I understand that Oblonsky is a small man, less than a man can be and in the act of understanding, I rise for a while above the naif or gull within me, above my smallness and out of chichi self-contempt.

Explaining this process of elevation was not a “simple matter” for DeMott. Though the high notes he hit in what amount to passages of literary melisma were simply beautiful. DeMott treated “the story” as an “orchestration of sympathy and judgment, penetration and objectification.” And, as he admitted, he needed such scores. That need might have been particular to him (as may be from gathered the passage he chose from Tolstoy) but he shared his commitment to the bright book of life with his wife Peggy. Neither of them believed in belief. But they had faith in their favorite novels. The bible would never do for either of them. But Jane Austin’s light “saved” my Mother a few times. Novels allowed husband and wife to touch a higher idea of personhood and those experiences helped keep them from understanding themselves and each other too quickly.

DeMott’s perfect way “In and Out of Universal City” proves he didn’t require French theorists to explain the pleasures of the text. Written in the afterglow of finishing A Married Man – his novel about an adulterous affair, it’s a lovesome thing. Fiction, according to DeMott, enabled him “to spring out with the word toward the target and take the force of the impact from within.” His last word on the lift he got from reading novels looked back artfully and livingly on his own personal failings and comebacks:

I like the truth of the sort implicit in Thoreau’s lovely springy sentence: “When I am condemned and condemn myself utterly I think straightaway, but I rely on love for some things.” I like that is to say the truth of resiliency, a truth about how we spring out, spring back, aren’t by any means “indomitable” yet seldom are put down by sorrow or guilt, can cross over, can know from within.

That passage has taken on a new resonance since it was written – it will jump out at any reader aware of the major health crises and periods of recuperation that DeMott endured during the last decade of his life. It is written? Nothing is written would have been DeMott’s first response. But he might have allowed there was something mysterious about the way he became living proof of the truth of resiliency during his last dozen years. Anything but indomitable and often a less-than-inspired patient, he managed to keep springing back, recovering (again and again) from medical procedures that had him at death’s door. In his last years, life in this vale of soul-making offered him numberless chances to learn about loss and starting over…

And the truth of resiliency does seem to have been his all along. Fate may not equal character, but DeMott’s tales about himself often wound toward bounce-back endings. When he spun his story about running away from home as an adolescent, it ended not with the expected beating from his father (because cops were present), but with an unexpected offer of admission from the Headmaster of the prep school he’d visited in search of a pal who owed him a poker debt (which gave him hope there might be educational alternatives to hustling for a living). Another of his stories with an Up-ending placed him in the army in a panic, having lost a piece of his rifle – an offense for which he could have been court-martialed. DeMott proceeded to hide (what was left of his weapon) under a tarpaulin and lined up for inspection with the rest of his troop. When his name was called out he figured he was going down. The CO marched up to him and said – “DeMott, you’re going to college.” He’d taken (and forgotten) an army intelligence test months before and this was the unexpected upshot.

DeMott’s instinct for spring’y turnarounds led him to commend Randall Jarrell’s poem, “The Dailiness of Life,” to readers who were trying (like him)to find their way through the valley of the 60s.

Jarrell could write of ordinary life that it was a matter of errands generating each other, often a tiresome small round, the pumping of a rusty pump, water never seeming to want to rise – and he could then add that within the round, to alert heads, came a chance to act and perceive and receive, to arrive at an intensity of imaginative experience that itself constitutes an overflowing and a deep release

The wheel turns of its own
weight, the rusty
Pump pumps over your
Sweating face the clear
Water, cold, so cold! You cup
your hands
And gulp from them the
dailiness of life

His imagination springs to his favorite truth in this graceful squib inspired by Fellini:

At the end of Armacord comes an unforgettable moment – after the bride and groom have been dispatched from the wedding picnic. Wind blowing, dust rising, people shouting, and some uncle, half running, full of wine, stopping in the road to pull up a sock laughing… A voice seems to be saying. That’s how it was, he bent over, hopped sideways, lost his balance, laughed…I remember from youth. If you don’t hear the voice, the film probably comes across as nothing but ugly discontinuities. I think about this because, just now, watching three riders out the window trying to make it down the hill on the mud road by our fence – mother, and father and a youngster – I imagined I saw memory in the making. the wind is blowing wildly and there’s a washout below, and the three beasts turned spooky suddenly, moiling, rearing, blaring eyes, tail-chasing. Daddy calls out instructions. Mom exhorts, the little girl looks scared as hell. Then, zap! the father dismounts, and head down, hair streaming out behind him, strikes out into the mud leading all three horses caught at the bit. What I saw was the surprised happy, admiring look in the girl’s face just the second they went down out of sight. Excitement, suspense, fear, oddity of sensation – relief – mightn’t such an instant lodge a while in a child’s memory?

My father shared a love of horses with my younger sister, Megan, and with his own father. He once recalled, in a charming Times piece about his riding life, “Hanging Out with Horses,” how “nothing was flowing” when he visited his mother after his father’s death, until she brought out a bridle his dad had saved just for him. Then his tears came.


My father once defined the emotion he shared for all his children – “as for love, the constant – it remains ever-growing yet beyond change.” My own earliest memories of my dad, though, reflect a traumatic change in our home-world. When my mother got sick with cancer the same year my little sister was born, dad took over running our family’s domestic life for a time. And in my kiddie-consciousness I couldn’t quite fully fathom how my easy-going short and curvy Mom had ectomorphed into the tall, tense figure in the kitchen. My dad was learning to cook, nursing a baby, worrying about his wife, quitting smoking (because he’d dropped an ash on Megan) and, probably, dead-lining too. I developed a chip on my shoulder from looking up at him. A mark of resistance to his sudden imposition that I still bear today.

My dad once recalled (in his “Journal of a Campus Strike”) an instant when he wished I was looking up to him (not just at him). We were listening together outside on the Amherst College campus as another respected professor addressed a crowd of students: “The side of my face feels Benjy listening, eyes bright, lips apart. He’s holding his knees. The world at attention.” When my father’s colleague finished, we stood to applaud along with the rest of the audience, and my pop’s feelings sank:

Cambodia, Nixon, Kent State, reserved rights – they aren’t in my equation. No wide views, no seriousness. I’m merely “personal” – jealous, hurt…I wish my son was on his feet for me…

I didn’t always disappoint him on that score. And he didn’t let his ego keep him from listening intently to other voices that moved me. His responsiveness to my favorite pop singers, in particular, helped me hear my way past my own alienating personal postures. That listening/loving process began some time in the 60s. It may have gone back to early Beatles records. Or maybe it started in irony when my pop and me and my older brother Tom heard Jagger sing “Lady Jane” live in a tent in Salt Lake City. While I’m not sure about our primal moment of musicking, I’m anything but hazy about our later experiences of listening together. I could write pages about what I learned when my dad leaned in to hear my latest passions. (I’ve already written a few in a First of the Month piece on Don Pullen, which really should have been called “Fathers and Sons.”) But that’s more my story and this is (I hope) his so I’ll limit myself to one number.

My dad wasn’t feeling spring’y during his last spring. He was hurting physically and doomy about the state of the nation. I tried to cheer him up by playing Alan Jackson’s classic country song “Drive.” Beautifully written, sung and played – it’s about subjects that were important to my dad – class, “the dailiness of life”, education, gender, the South. Alan Jackson’s “I” in “Drive” recalls how he learned from his father to pilot a boat and drive a car (as a harmonica hums like a dream-engine). He switches gears from a recitative delivery to full-out singing that conveys physical sensation – “And I would turn her sharp/ And I’d make it whine” – The song seems to be headed in a familiar though undeniable country direction – “Just a little lake past the Alabama line but I was king of the ocean, when Daddy let me drive…Just a dirt road with trash on both sides but I was Mario Andretti, when Daddy let me drive.” Until Jackson’s voice opens up his life-study class to the women in his world…

I'm grown up now
3 daughters of my own
I let them drive my old jeep
Across the pasture at our home
Maybe one day they'll reach back in their file
And pull out that old memory
And think of me and smile
And say

It was just an old worn out jeep
Rusty old floor boards
Hot on my feet
A young girl two hands on the wheel
I can't replace the way it made me feel
And he'd say
Turn it left, and steer it right
Straighten up girl now, you're doing just fine
Just a little valley by the river where we'd ride
But I was high on a mountain

When Daddy let me drive

My dad recognized immediately the song’s momentum sound-tracked actual progress made in America over the past generation. He compared Jackson to Bruce Springsteen, suggesting the cultural politics implicit in the country singer’s song might be more promising than Springsteen’s achieved class consciousness and “progressive” partisanship. A few months later, searching for early Alan Jackson records, I came across a track that made the connection between the two populist icons more explicit. Back in 1991, Jackson recorded an ambivalent tribute to a “Working Class Hero.” (It was not a cover of the John Lennon song.)

The week before dad had his last heart operation, he watched (with my mother) a broadcast of a live show by Springsteen. It wasn’t their music, yet it still concentrated their attention. My father was awed by Springsteen’s effortful performance, by his Dickensian drive to connect. The show provided a late experience of confirmation to my dad who wasn’t always as sure of himself as he sometimes sounded. Shakespeare is Shakespeare. The novel will stand. But my pop sensed he wasn’t wrong to have gone pop too. The Springsteen show reminded him that’s where Great (as well as gross) American narratives are found.

I missed the Springsteen show. But my brother Tom saw it and shared it all with my Dad. Tom had his own history of musicking with my Dad. When pop died, a reporter at the local paper asked the family for comments about his works and days. I said something abstract about his democratic cultural impulses and my brother cut to the chase by recalling that Dad taught him in the 60s that Louis Armstrong was America’s greatest singer.

Looking through my dad’s papers recently, I came across a letter (in a folder marked “Praise that Still Matters”) underscoring that you didn’t have to be family (or an old friend) to appreciate my Dad’s elephant ears. (And they really were made for a grand caricature, just like his noble nose!) The letter was from a former student of my dad’s who became a small town lawyer. He compared his way of conducting his legal practice to my father’s way of teaching – “I see myself trying to teach my client, opposite number(s), the judge and, sometimes, the jury, to see things in a new way…this process is more like apprenticeship than it is like instruction.” He recalled that DeMott was a “helluva performer” (“my most vivid memory is of your reading something – from Dead Souls, I think – in a voice that disturbed me. Where did that intensity come from?”). But he emphasized: “You also, even then, listened well.” Let’s listen in one more time with Professor DeMott(14):

A young woman is explaining a moment in the opening scene of Lear in class, telling us what’s going on within Cordelia as the King her father bears down on her – Now our joy, Although our least and last…What can you say to draw/A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak. She, Cordelia, says the student, is in rebellion, yes, but that’s not her idea of herself. She won’t flatter her father – but think how much harder on him she could be than she’s being. Actually she’s not saying one half of what she could. Not telling him what everybody can see, that he’s vain and fatuous…Oh she’s rebelling but she has herself under wraps as she’s speaking. She’s pressing down. In spite of everything – being stoney and brusque – she knows she’s being good. She feels forbearing.

A sound of assent comes into the stillness…

In my office after a class that has gone well, I reflect on the substance. I jot a word or two in the crowded margins of Lear (I,i) “C. – forbearing,” with the young woman’s initials – and look out the window at the Octagon and down the hill. I try to examine the word forbearing, setting it on edge like a rare gold coin on my mental palm. I realize not simply that this is a good student who will have more and more to give but that it will be better not to think of teaching her. The point is to stay with her, being equal to what comes. I realize also that I’m trembling…What just happened in my classroom – Cordelia walking among us was to me intensely exciting. Not even the lad who asked the question up at the desk afterward (“This is the course?”) took the edge off it. We were together, nearly all of us. The student who gave us Cordelia spoke to us and for us. A murmur of approval – comprehension – went across the rows. There was more than one sound of assent: I decide that I’m certain of this. We shared a life-quickening experience of art and response-to-art. To this day such moments seem to me beyond price or valuing; they are the promise of happiness fulfilled.

Walter Benjamin once said your capacity for happiness can be measured by how far you go when you run away from home as a child. My dad got all the way across the state line. His parents had to put out an APB on him. They caught up with then but his spirit is still moving.

The night after I knew this piece would end near where Cordelia walked, my dad walked in my dreams. He was wearing a floppy blue sun hat like he was on vacation but he wasn’t taking it light. I couldn’t make out what he said, but he was directing me to a passage in a book by a woman writer, pressing me toward the next “life-quickening” moment. What book was it I wondered? – Might it have been one of the last novels he reviewed – Elizabeth Graver’s Unraveling, about a New Hampshire farm girl who lit out for Lowell factories only to end up shamed before she found her way in the world? Her story got under his skin because it was, in his reading, partly about “provisioning, survival, pride in self-sufficiency.” But he also praised it for “the slow cumulative registering, over years, of the weight and meaning of one's own misjudgments:”

The movement forward from unforgiving rancor is humanly erratic, never sanctimonious, and is interrupted time and again by re-engagement with loss…Yet there is movement…As its heroine battles bitterness, taking revenge on public cruelty by scouring her private self clean of meanness, Unraveling creates a home-on-the-margins beyond cant – a kind of exiles' utopia…

I can’t know if my dad has reached his own exiles’ utopia. But he truly tried to “scour his private self clean of meanness” before he crossed his borderline. The month before he went in for his last heart operation, he reached out of the blue to reconcile with an ex-friend and colleague, Leo Marx, whom he’d been estranged from for 30 years. And in his last act for the Ages, his essay “The Hard Man Cometh,” he tried to scrub off the grime of our time. Entering the land of Montaigne, he came clean about his own ugly addiction to “bad news” from Iraq while giving it good to all those who countenance “public cruelty.” He imagined the Hard Man within Bush but he knew there was one in him too. And he wasn’t going out like that.

Last month, I had lunch in a lousy diner with an elderly novelist (whom I got to be friends with originally because he respected my dad). Bush came to shove in our conversation and my friend said he’d happily shoot the President if he walked in on our turkey sandwiches. Happily?, I asked…

I mentioned to my friend I’d been reading Camus and he said he’d just reread The Stranger. A day or two later, the word came down Bush had read that book during his summer vacation (and debated its meaning with a White House staffer). The Stranger was a good choice, but Bush, my friend who hates him and every thinking American might be better off reading “The Hard Man Cometh.” It’s all up in our moment - intensely imagined, right-valued, usable.


1 See his unillusioned lines on an uninformed poem in praise of Ivy canvassers in “Meeting a Stranger: Journal of a Campus Strike.” p. 122. (Surviving the 70’s)

2 From Fredric Smoler's Nation review of The Imperial Middle

3 Supergrow Transaction Publishers, 2003

4 You Don’t Say Transaction Publishers, 2001

5 George Trow's essay, "Is Dan Mad?" is posted in the Culturewatch section of this website.

6 DeMott's and Merrill's writing lives pushed them apart. The author of the Thinking Straight books wasn't exactly on the same page as the poet who pursued an occult light at Sandover, though Merrill, son of the founder of Merrill-Lynch, spoke up for The Imperial Middle.

7 “Where or where in the schlock rock like Tommy James and the Shondells, is there even so much as a memory of Otis Redding singing

On a cold, rainy, windy night
She shut all the doors
She cut off the lights
She holds me and squeezes me tight
She tells Big O everything’s all right
Come on now
Bring my breakfast to the table
When I go to work she know’s I’m able
Do my job, I come back in
You oughta see my baby’s face

She just grins grins grins”

DeMott appreciated Beatles tunes but he also recognized an academic Beatles-monger like Professor Richard Poirier (Him again? It’s not personal!) was wrong to disrespect the Rolling Stones by lumping them together with “exceptionally good” bands like the Left Banke or the Bee Gees. (“A counterpart in the non-rock world would find Al Hirt and Liberace to be as interesting as Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.”)

8 Christopher Small’s critique of Music Education is, perhaps, the closest equivalent to DeMott’s intervention into debates over English teaching. See Small’s essay, “Whose Music Do We Teach, Anyway?” http://www.musekids.org/whose.html

9 This essay is reprinted in You Don’t Say.

10 This essay is reprinted in Junk Politics.

11 When Mark Helprin heard my DeMott had died, he called to say the author of his wonderful review in the Times was “magnificent.” Helprin not only acknowledged that DeMott’s review had given him legs as a novelist, but noted it clarified a dimension of his imagination that had been cloudy to him.

12 The last essay in Supergrow.

13 As per the advice John Kerry received from his mother: “Remember: integrity, integrity, integrity.”

14 "English and the Promise of Happiness," Teaching What We Do, Amherst College Press

From September, 2006


Thanks a lot. I might be in New York this fall. I had a great time in Iceland.

Posted by: Collier Hands at September 7, 2006 05:24 PM