Thursday, July 16, 2015
My Bathroom Photographs, 4
Another in a series of posts about the framed objects I have hanging on the walls of the little bathroom adjoining my study.
I read a lot of Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), back in the day. Although he was an evolutionary theorist at Harvard University, I appreciated his ability to make clear to me--well, usually--the concepts he was writing about. I bought and read each of his essay collections when I saw them appear in the bookstore, and although I can't claim I understood everything he was writing about (my grades in science in public school were not ... impressive), I was always--because of his skill, his clarity of prose--able to get at least some of it. Also, he was an essayist who alluded to lots of things out in the popular culture--from music to baseball to literature.
As I said, I collected most of his books--and I have one signed one, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin (1996). I have no memory--or record--of how I acquired a signed one. But there it is. I do have a note that I read it in March 1997, so I just checked my journal for that year (the first year I started keeping one every day). No luck. Just that I paid $25 for it--the cover price. Oh well.
And then there's the letter, the one I've framed and hung in my bathroom. It's a reply to a sort of fan letter I wrote to him on May 20, 1999. In it I also reported to him, among other things, about how the editors of the literature anthology I'd used at Harmon Middle School had eliminated in The Call of the Wild those passages about the "ancestral memories" of the dog Buck. Readers may remember that Buck lies by the fire (in a couple of places) and "remembers" his ancestors lying by the fires of cavemen.
I did not really expect an answer, but I got one, postmarked July 13, 1999. He said that he agreed with my assessment of London's caveman novel, Before Adam (1906)--not a good novel. And, if you can't read from the image, he added: I read it to see if I could find enough material to base one of my columns upon--but to no avail.)
He also had high praise for my older brother, Richard (whom I'd mentioned in the letter; at the time, Richard, now retired, was still the classical music critic for the Boston Globe): He is the best in the business, said Gould. Not bad ... not bad at all.
I was sad to learn that Gould was dying, and although I bought his massive final book about evolutionary theory, I have not read it. It still sags one of our shelves, though. (Link to obituary in the New York Times.) He was sixty years old--far, far too young.
There was a time when pretty much everyone knew who Gould was. He was a true public intellectual. But I'm not so sure anymore. Fame fades fast these days.
But I still remember him as a fine writer--one with wide-ranging interests, a generous mind. And I miss seeing his books on the bookstore table, waiting for me to buy them.