Monday, March 12, 2007

Memory: Morse

The Garden of Eden Motel
Morse Hamilton
(Image from Amazon.com)

Once, I nearly had a mentor. He was about 30 years old, spoke several languages, had a moustache, and -- as I discovered after seeing Dr. Zhivago -- resembled the young Omar Sharif.

I was an 18-year-old Baylor University freshman in 1976, attending my second semester of English composition, a course that focused upon expository writing and aimed at teaching us how to write a thesis paper. Despite Morse's best efforts that semester, I didn't learn how to write a thesis statement, let alone a thesis paper -- and didn't really learn until I taught composition at U. C. Berkeley about a decade later -- but Morse did have us write several expository essays, which I performed well enough on.

What made Morse notice me, however, was the short story that I handed in for a creative writing assignment.

In fact, he liked my story so much that he insisted upon my signing up for his Honors Course in creative writing for the following fall semester. Despite being unsure of my abilities, I did as he had bade and wrote approximately eight short stories over the course of 16 weeks, each of which he liked, praised, and read aloud to the class.

I'd never had such attention before, and I discovered a talent previously hidden even to myself.

Morse encouraged me to continue writing, offering to guide me in writing a novel for my Honors thesis to be handed in my senior year. He also asked if I'd like to go with him to New York City in the summer after my sophomore year ... if he were to get tenure.

I said yes. I think that Morse was curious about how I -- a hillbilly from the Ozarks -- would react to the Big Apple.

Unfortunately, he didn't receive tenure, and I said good-bye to him and his family. A couple of years later, after finishing my B.A. in English literature -- and writing the Honors thesis that he'd encouraged me to write -- I found his New Hampshire phone number, called him from Palo Alto, California, and discovered that he was teaching at Phillips Exeter Academy. We chatted briefly, he sounded happy, and that was the last that I heard of him for a long time. Life and its vagaries got in the way -- even in the way of my writing -- and I didn't even think about Morse much, perhaps not at all.

Nearly twenty years later, in 2001, I was teaching at Hanshin University, and was learning how to search the internet for people I'd known at Baylor. I found his name, learned that he'd gotten a position at Tufts University, and I sent an email to its English Department chairman, expressing a desire to reach Morse and explaining the influence that he had exerted upon me.

Morse's influence, by the way, has extended to students far more illustrious than I. In 1982 -- only two years after my phoning him from California -- he was a teacher to Pauline W. Chen:

While [she was] attending SYA France in 1982, Chen's teacher and advisor, Morse Hamilton, laid the groundwork for her future endeavors when he commented that a short story she had written for their English class was of publishable quality.

Chen is the author of Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality, which has been published just this year (2007), to widespread acclaim.

But I've gotten both ahead of and back of my story. I was telling you about my attempt to reach Morse through the Tufts University English Department by sending its chairman an email explaining about Morse's influence upon me and asking if my message could be forewarded to Morse. I soon heard back from the chairman, who sent me a kind letter gently explaining that Morse would have been glad to hear of his influence upon me, that he had been a much-loved teacher at Tufts, that he had published some respectable fiction, that he had even had a special literary prize established in his honor -- The Morse Hamilton Fiction Prize -- but that he had died in 1998.

In a 1924 collection of short stories, Drei Frauen, Robert Musil expresses through the story "Tonka" the unexpected feelings of a man who suddenly recalls how important was the life of one who has passed on:

[D]a schrei die Erinnerung in ihm auf: Tonka! Tonka! Er fühlte sie von der Erde bis zum Kopf und ihr ganzes Leben. Alles, was er niemals gewußt hatte, stand in diesem Augenblick vor ihm, die Binde der Blindheit schien von seinen Augen gesunken zu sein; einen Augenblick lang, denn im nächsten schien ihm bloß schnell etwas eingefallen zu sein. (Robert Musil, "Tonka," Gesammelte Werke, Volume 6, Prosa und Stücke (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1978), 306)

Translated:

Then memory cried out in him: "Tonka! Tonka!" He felt her, from the ground under his feet to the crown of his head, and the whole of her life. All that he had never understood was there before him in this instant, the bandage that had blind-folded him seemed to have dropped from his eyes -- yet only for an instant, and the next instant it was merely as though something had flashed through his mind. ("Tonka," in Five Women, translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser (Delacorte Press, 1966))
And so is it: memory cries out in momentary epiphany, reverts us to our past, overwhelms us with epistemic remorse, even if only for an instant . . . yet, we remember.

Memory. Morse.

Labels:

12 Comments:

At 7:25 PM, Blogger highlandsgirl said...

Yes.

Chen described the emotional impact of giving readings: "Nearly every time I read aloud, the narratives of my past come alive once again in my mind."

Time, place and situation may construct barriers of detachment, which but a moment can overcome.

 
At 9:40 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The quote that you provided led me to Dr. Chen's blog. Did you find it there?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 
At 10:10 PM, Blogger highlandsgirl said...

It's in her Amazon blog under "The More Things Change"

http://www.amazon.com/gp/blog/id/A16M2ESKK6WRSQ/103-0309117-0271020

 
At 4:03 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting. Dr. Chen seems to have two sites for her one blog, the site at Amazon that you refer to and a Typepad site.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 
At 12:13 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

Lovely, Jeffery--thanks for this story.

 
At 1:42 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Jeff. I'm glad that you liked it.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 
At 6:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi

Morse was one of my teachers at Tufts, and I even had the great honor of baby sitting for his kids a couple of times.

I had much the same reaction as you on finding he had died. I guess that's why I google him every few years or so...

Ifeel very lucky to have known him.

Thanks for the post.

 
At 6:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, thanks for the comment. I'm glad that you Googled onto my post.

Do you happen to know what became of Morse's wife and children?

I remember him once telling me that he had known his wife so long, having ridden the same school bus with her in high school.

And when I knew him at Baylor, his two daughters were so young and cute -- perhaps only three or four years old.

I wish that I could have spoken to him again before he died.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 
At 5:11 AM, Anonymous okenney said...

Hi Jeffrey

His daughters were a bit older when I babysat-in their early teens... Sharon was still teaching Shakespeare last I heard.

I happened to call him when I got back from being abroad for a few years and when he told me he was sick, I'm afraid I had a bit of a breakdown on the phone. Probably wasn't too helful, but he was very kind to me about it...

I too, wish I cold have spoken to him again.

I can tell by the way you write about him that you really cared about him and I'm sure he felt that too, even if it had been awhile.

Take care-
Olya

 
At 5:30 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Olya, for visiting again and providing more details. From your name, I'm guessing that you know Russian (and thus had that in common with Morse).

I'm glad to hear that Sharon is teaching Shakespeare. When I met her so long ago, she was too busy with her two young children to do anything other than be a mother.

Maybe she or the daughters will Google here, too, someday.

Thanks again, for the visit, and you take care as well.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 
At 12:52 AM, Blogger Jonathan said...

I was a student of Morse Hamilton's at Tufts University in the spring of 1998. He was amazing. In fact, I was just doing a bit of research for a project I am working on. On the last day of class--it was a survey of short fiction--Morse distributed a document to the entire class with a book that he personally recommended for each student. I have since lost this document and am trying to recover a copy. Please let me know if anyone has any leads!

j12ms@earthlink.net

 
At 3:53 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jonathan, thanks for visiting and commenting.

Yes, Morse was amazing, something that I recognize more as I grow older.

I cannot help you with your search for the missing document, but perhaps a fellow Tufts studend from Morse's class will see your comment and contact you.

Good luck.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 

Post a Comment

<< Home