Two months would pass before our next communication. A pattern was forming.
I didn’t write again till mid-October. I know now—as I knew then (didn’t I?)—that in any correspondence there’s generally one person who is (or ought to be) the one who initiates. I knew that Betty—the most noted Mary Shelley scholar in the world—would probably not be the one to play that role, although she did, from time to time, drop a note to (unconscionably) silent me to see what was going on. But for the most part it was I who initiated things—from the very beginning. A question. A comment. A request.
So, when our correspondence began to lag—as it did in the fall of 2001—there was only one person to blame, really. Yes, I was incredibly busy with my return to the classroom. I’d not taught in four years—and I had not taught American literature in a high school for more than twenty years. Also, Western Reserve Academy, a boarding school, requires all sorts of other activities of its faculty: dormitory duty (one long evening a week), committees, coaching (I taught an extra class instead), dining hall supervision, and on and on.
But was I busier than Betty Bennett in the fall of 2001? (This question does not even merit an answer.)
So, anyway, in mid-October I wrote, apologizing in this fashion: I’ve been more than dilatory about correspondence this fall—all due, I fear, to my racing ahead of the boulder that’s chasing me down the hill. I’m sure I had a good reason to return to teaching, but it escapes me right now.
That carries, as I see now, the aroma—no, the odor—of disingenuousness. Yes, I was busy, but I knew perfectly well why I’d returned to teaching: I loved it; I needed the money. (Should those two reasons be reversed?)
I told her, too, that I’d sent out a draft of my Shelley biography to a literary agent—but had no news.
Betty replied right away with a note much longer than mine—details of her various doings in various venues. Most notable? She’d been to New York City for some of the 9/11 memorials (the attack had occurred only a month before) and had been enormously affected.
She also told me about a new course she was planning (Literature and War). Which occasioned one of the most surprising things she ever wrote to me. I tell you all this, she said, because I would like to ask you for suggestions. You read widely, and this is going be a bear to pare down to a manageable, meaningful syllabus …
Betty Bennett … asking me for suggestions for her syllabus.
What did I think when I read that in October 2001? Was I flattered? Humbled? Or (surely not!) did I sigh and think, Oh, more work to do!
And, to my enduring shame, I did not reply, not for a month. And when I did, I began with this: Boy, have I been a lousy correspondent! To say the least. The rest of the note is almost entirely about me, how busy I am. Though I did ask her if she was finding time to work on her biography.
Not one word did I say in reply to her request for suggestions for her syllabus. Each letter of that previous sentence humiliates me. Was I truly so self-absorbed in 2001? I was fifty-seven years old.