A Man of Letters

Author: Eric J. Sandeen

If my father, Ernest Sandeen, were alive today he would remind me that the symbols and epiphanies of meaning of the poetic world await even the most unwary. I am rolling through the Danish countryside en route to my job as a guest professor at Odense University. It is now dawn, a pastel experience in a green and gentle country that I have come to know well since my father took the family to Aarhus on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1957. Suddenly, Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat major has come through my earphones, in the definitive Arthur Rubinstein rendition, the selection he wanted to be played at his funeral. Landscapes, associations, music — so much of what I remember of my life with a poet deals in symbols that transcend language.

I grew up in a 24-hour-a-day household. My father worked all night — I later discovered that he had done this since college — and my mother, Eileen, got up early. If I awoke at 2 or 3 I could just open the door to his study and find my father at his desk. In the early years he was reading American literature and preparing his classes; later in his career I found him writing poetry. I grew up with respect for intellectual work and with a range of childhood, mid-1950s bedtime stories that were, I came to realize, my personal version of Notre Dame’s Great Books program, as retold by a father to his son. As a more mature grade-schooler I believed the prodigious output of James Fenimore Cooper was a remedy for insomnia (Dad would deploy The Prairie if I was particularly reluctant to return to bed). Only later did I discover that Cooper should actually be read.

My father shaped my life, leaving his imprint on me and giving me a strong impression of him. He brought me to Denmark, giving me an international outlook that, I have come to realize, changed my life and introduced me to a country that has become like a second home. He led me (reluctantly, proudly) to a profession that is now my own. He wrote about me; “On the Adoption of Sons” is still, I believe, one of his best poems. And he prepared his own legacy. At his funeral I thought I was giving him voice by inserting a Chopin CD into the repertoire. When his long-time colleague John Matthias rose to read Dad’s poetry I discovered what I had tried to suppress — that for years Dad had been writing his own resignation from life and anticipating that those he left would be in need of comfort. Never has the power of the poet been more apparent to me than in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame, in the presence of his earthly remains and the community that would, as it turned out, continue to know him through his creative work.

I am left, too, with a world of books — the tailings of a life as a physical inheritance, an expressive form of autobiography for anyone wishing to view my father’s creative life, as it were, from the inside out. This theme of library-as-autobiography has been addressed by others of the bookish sort: Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader I find particularly appealing. Here is what I learned through my private, two-week seminar in my father’s library last October.

His books separated themselves into three piles. Dad had a fine poetry library, for he was a writer who worked meticulously at his craft. I set those books aside for the special collections at Notre Dame. I had always known that I would receive his American literature collection and so had, in effect, bought around it, relying on the hundreds of titles in the second pile to become — eventually, sadly — the center of my own library. The third stack of books that emerged from the library, like an inhabitation buried in soft ground, surprised me: The result of this bibliophilic archeology was a fine collection of what we used to call “the great books.” I saw the volumes that he had annotated for teaching, both in classes at ND and in my boyhood bedroom at the end of the day. Clearly emerging were the two years he had spent at Oxford in the early 1930s — little British editions with microscopic type, now fragile with six decades of disuse but still plainly marked up for recitations with his tutor at Saint Catherine’s. My reading program was pretty clear. This would be more than the sentimental return to university that David Denby’s best-seller Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World chronicles to engage the Great Books in middle age. Confronting these texts would bring back an education now considered anachronistic but was in my father’s time regarded as the heart of the professor’s vocation. Since this was only a two-week seminar, I set this list aside, too.

I turned, instead to his underlining and marginalia, markings in lead and colored pencil that, combining what I saw as both my patents’ occupations, I had attempted to transcribe via typewriter when I was 8 or 9. I entered a world that would now be called a hypertext, where associations were tracked down, tangents explored, texts engaged not so much with the intellect as with the heart.

He was a fine teacher. There are awards to prove it, but I have something better — an extended note in a book by Hyatt Waggoner taking the author to task for his opinion of one of Dad’s favorite poets and fellow Swede from Galesburg, Illinois, Carl Sandburg: “Waggoner says that Sandburg at his best is like Whitman . . . . The elitist critics took as condescending an attitude to Whitman as to Sandburg. Do these lines look to you like Whitman? If so, you must be like Waggoner, almost totally tone deaf. What I hear is the sound and solid sense of vintage Sandburg. And in that sound I hear the middle American speech he learned in his boyhood years in Galesburg, Illinois, subtly interfused with the Swedish rhythms he heard in the language spoken among members of his family and their closest friends. [The] lone reason that Swedes in Galesburg and elsewhere in the U.S. melted so unobtrusively into the American melting pot was that their predominantly Swedish Lutheran values coincided almost precisely with the puritan values of the founding fathers.”

The lines of connection he followed among texts were biographical as well as literary, linking lives to his own and eventually to mine. Stuck in a copy of Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of The Odyssey (I had gone to prep school with Fitzgerald’s son, Ben) was a Post-it note with a phrase copied laboriously with the uncertain hand of age, “gate of ivory and horn.” He had found the passage in which Penelope speaks:

Two gates for ghostly dreams there are, one gateway
Of honest horn, and one of ivory.
Issuing by the ivory gate are dreams
Of glimmering illusion, fantasies,
But those that come through solid polished horn
May be borne out, if mortals only know them.

Another note flagged the appropriate page in Classical Myths in English Literature, so that I could follow his mapping of the phrases as it resonates in Chaucer and T.S. Eliot, two of his favorite writers whose works he would recite to me from memory. As you might expect, poets had received close attention, so much so that reading verse was a multicolored experience in red, blue, and sometimes green in addition to somber black. He was particularly attracted (or maybe I was, since knowing him through his poems was all that I had left) to poems that spoke directly, enigmatically to the reader. He had marked W. H. Auden’s “If I Could Tell You,” which begins: “Time will say nothing but I told you so,/Time only knows the price we have to pay;/If I could tell you I would let you know.” These lines could well serve as an epigram for a collection of the last 20 years of my father’s poetic life.

As his life began to fail, he sought solace in this community of writers. A note beckoned me to D.H. Lawrence (and I thought of the possibility that my parents had rejected of going to New Mexico, to the Ghost Ranch of Georgia O’Keeffe and Lawrence, instead of to graduate school at the University of Iowa in 1937): “Have you built your ship of death, oh have you?/Oh build your ship of death, for you will need it.” When Tony Kerrigan, his friend and fellow devotee of Albert’s Bar (an enthusiasm of the 1980s), died in 1991, Dad placed the obituary next to a portion of Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths that Kerrigan had translated, highlighting the sentence “In the seventeenth century, humanity was cowed by a feeling of senescence.”

Dad was not so much cowed as frustrated by senescence. His markings became more scattered, even frantic during his last years as his mobility and his attention span declined. The bookmark of choice was the Post-it note, but anything that came to hand — fliers, envelopes, Kleenex or toilet paper — would suffice. To the very end, he was fascinated with concepts — a dictionary of science guided the eye to explanations of relativity or infinity — and, most of all, with words. He would prepare a pad of notes for my coming, and then peel off lists of words that brought back memories to him, and, he hoped, to me. I found one such page in a book, a kind of cruel paring of his expansive love for language to its essence: “aardvark, montage, collage.” I know my father well enough to feel certain that he would have chuckled at the juxtaposition of these three, and their placement in the work of his friend and Great Books lover, Otto Bird.

Time is a cruel master, these books told me. As though they had to. In my youth I saw my father’s careful approach to the creative work that was at the center of his profession: Poems went through countless revisions and his knowledge of formal requirements was as extensive as his reading in the traditions that used them. At the end he was rendered mute. But his poems transcend and for that I am grateful.

Maybe the life I led was particularly shaped by the poet’s vocation that surrounded me in my father’s study. My first recognition of the inevitability of his passing received voice through Dylan Thomas’s poem to his father. Dad, too, had marked “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night,” more, I suspect, because it was a good poem with an unusual structure than because of its subject. Among the small blue volumes that he had brought back from England in 1933 I found a passage that, I think, brought him more solace. Milton reflecting on his blindness gave voice to sentiments that my father could read but not speak:

….God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed.

And post o’er land and ocean without rest
They also serve who only stand and wait.