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)
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.
Labels: Morse Hamilton