Dr. Robert Russell's high-pitched voice tells me the same thing it told me thirty-eight years ago: "Thomas Hardy is not a good writer." Knowing what comes next, I nod, though he can't see me. "But he is a great writer."
I have Dr. Russell on speakerphone so I can keep both hands free to take notes, and I feel myself transformed back into the college senior listening to his mentor. I smell his pipe. Ashes fleck his clothing, the papers scattered around his desk, the long keys and bars of his Braille typewriter. His hair flares wildly on the sides, where it's white, and rises to a neat black mound on top, like Egdon Heath in winter. Brows twitch, smile widens, hands settle after brief flight. Then he rocks back in his chair and folds his hands behind his head, elbows jutting and fluttering. Only his closed eyes seem still.
"It's Hardy's struggle to speak, that's what matters. To say what he's trying to say. Not the accomplishment, but the struggle."
As our conversation proceeds, I find it more and more difficult to call him Bob. We'd settled that matter a decade ago, during one of my return visits to the Franklin & Marshall College campus in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to deliver a reading. It's been Floyd and Bob ever since, but we're talking about Hardy now, and even as I sit in my room 2,350 miles away from him, in the fall of 2006, it feels very much like the fall of 1968.
That was when I began my senior honors project on the novels of Hardy, under Dr. Russell's supervision. Since my freshman year, I'd worked as his reader, assigned to him as part of my financial aid package. I read student papers aloud, personal correspondence, memos, magazine articles. I dictated passages from poems or articles as he typed them in Braille, pacing my words to match his strokes. In 1967, I read from the galleys of his own novel, An Act of Loving, and passages from The Man in the Glass Booth, a novel by his wife's brother, the actor Robert Shaw, which would soon open as a play on Broadway.
I also read books onto tape for him, in those days before audio books were widely available, differentiating voices for The Sound and the Fury, losing my way in the dreamland of Steppenwolf. A specialist in Victorian literature, Dr. Russell assigned me to record all 74 pages of Robert Browning's poems from the Major Authors edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, a task that took four weeks to get right. He then assigned me the hundred pages of Tennyson, and I imagine even now that I'm still recording them. I spent so much time in the English Department offices, being in close contact with him daily, that it wasn't surprising I became an English major. When I took "Major British Writers" or "Intro to Drama" from him while also working for him, we were sometimes together six hours a day.
As my junior year was ending, he'd said that, during the summer, I should think about a topic for my senior project. He'd be happy to supervise me. I wanted to work with him as well, though that narrowed my options primarily to Victorian writers.
So in the fall of 1968, having done little more about the matter than glance through an anthology of Victorian literature, I sat in his office just before classes began and said what I thought he wanted to hear: "Browning," thinking oh no, not 10 months of Browning! Dr. Russell's brows twitched, a language I knew how to read, so I said "or maybe Arnold." He rocked back and flapped his wings. "Not Tennyson," I said. "How about Thomas Hardy?"
I'd studied a few of Hardy's gloomy poems in Dr. Russell's class, and seen the massive volume of Collected Poems in the bookstore. "You mean all the poetry?"
"I was thinking of the novels. I have a feeling for Hardy, and I think you might too."
I recalled tolerating The Return of the Native in high school, and liking The Mayor of Casterbridge when I read it for extra credit. But that was four years ago, and I didn't remember much about either book except they both had a bunch of explosive, angry characters storming around the Dorset countryside. I'd seen the film of Far From the Madding Crowd the previous fall, though, and Julie Christie was a gorgeous Bathsheba.
Okay, since I already knew three Hardy novels, and had heard of two more (Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure) in my introduction to Hardy's poetry, I had a good headstart on the work. After all, how many novels could Hardy have written?
We agreed on Hardy. Dr. Russell told me to draw up a schedule for discussing each novel in sequence, and to return next week to get things rolling. I remember that day very clearly. I walked from the English Department office across campus to the library in a Pennsylvania version of Britishy mist. But passing the brick buildings of the campus core made me feel the familiar sense of being exactly where I belonged, in a setting I loved, doing what I loved. Nothing better than starting a new term, getting new books, plunging into new material.
As a 21-year-old who imagined himself a budding writer, I was getting a chance to immerse myself in the work of a master, someone who wrote both poetry and prose, as I hoped to do. My creative future felt very close.
Just a few minutes after clacking across the library's marble floor I'd found the shocking answer to my question. Thomas Hardy had written 14 novels.
As it turned out, for every Hardy triumph there was a failure. Seven of his novels are considered enduring successes, and seven range from interesting lesser achievements to outright disasters. There were stark lessons in this for a 21-year-old who thought he might want to be a writer. It told me the game must be very hard, if half the work of a great novelist were failures. That made writing even more difficult than baseball, the sport I played and loved, where 70 percent failure could still get a hitter into the Hall of Fame. It told me that even at the peak of talent, dedication and productivity, a writer could mess up. Each novel was a fresh start, with past performance as no guarantee of present accomplishment.
All this was helpful in my own 10-year effort to write a first novel, which wasn't published until I was 45. My first book of poems came out two years later and my first book of nonfiction two years after that. I'd written steadily since 1968, the year I read Hardy, and published in magazines, but book publication had to wait for 24 years.
Hardy was with me the whole time, though, particularly the Hardy who made mistakes, who struggled to say what he felt and knew because what he felt and knew were two different things. The Hardy whose work left me with such a deep feeling of knowing the author despite his efforts to conceal himself.
Bob Russell has told me several times that he was impressed by my Hardy project, that it was something he couldn't imagine himself doing at age 21. I believe I understand what he meant. I look back on my year of reading Hardy as a feat of organization, time management and industry, not an achievement of scholarship or imagination.
It was a job-of-work, but it was also an experience of real intimacy with the struggles of a major artist to learn his craft and to say what he needed to say. I'm glad to have done it, to have read Hardy with such focus then and to have reread him again now. I have a feeling for him that has never gone away, and that keeps me returning both to his work and to my own.
Reprinted from The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer's Life (University of Nebraska Press, 2008)