We each have that one professor — you know what I mean, the one who no matter what he teaches, you’re signing up for it. The one who you really really want to impress — or maybe impress is the wrong word, it smacks of falseness, of pulling something over on a person — with Wyatt it was that you wanted him to recognize perhaps not your intellect, his was so astonishing that to hope he’d think you were in anything like the same league was ridiculous, but what you hoped was that he’d recognize that you had potential, that you might have that spark inside you. When you wrote a paper for Wyatt, you wanted him to see how you’d tried to stretch yourself, how you were trying, with all of your abilities, to get to the one true point of what you thought about Tolstoy, or Dante, or Joyce, or Byzantine Civilization, or Erasmus’s On Copia of Words and Thoughts. For Wyatt, you wrote a paper analyzing one paragraph of Death Comes to the Archbishop according to Aquinas’s four levels of meaning: literal, analogical, moral and anagogical and saw the text open out into a nearly three-dimensional thing. Something you hadn’t seen before. Something that astonished you.
I spent three years with John Wyatt, at Beloit College in the late 1980s. I transferred to Beloit after a very upsetting year at the University of Illinois — a year in which I’d alternately flailed in some classes, and completely bullshitted my way through others. A year in which I’d been lost on an enormous campus and miserable in the midst of all those shiny suburban kids who were just thrilled to join fraternities and sororities and to vote for Ronald Reagan. I’d sneered at Beloit when they’d recruited me in high school, who wants to spend four years in Beloit Wisconsin, I’d joked. But after my year at the UofI, Beloit looked good, and so it was as a flinchy, frightened sophmore that I decided to try over again, see if this time college might work. And because there was a hole in my schedule, the professor who was assigned to help me figure out my schedule (there’s the difference a small school makes, they actually assigned someone to help each new student) said, “Well, Wyatt’s teaching Byzantine Civilization — just take it — everything he teaches is interesting.” And so I did, and it was, and I took every course he offered for the next three years (well, except for Latin and Greek) and for the first time in my life, in John Wyatt’s classes, I felt like I was in the right place.
It was in part because of Wyatt, who taught me to really read, who taught me that literature is not, as my people had implied, frivolous but can be the repository for great thoughts and feelings and a place of beauty that I went on to do graduate work in English and found myself, ten years later, at the University of Utah trying to figure out a way to organize my qualifying exams. That department was deeply invested in a form of PostModernism and Post Structuralism that I found absolutely at odds with what I was trying to do as an artist — since I was, essentially, still trying to live up to those standards that Wyatt had set all those years ago — that great art worked on multiple levels and was, in essence, about the great struggles: life and death, good and evil, virtue and the fall from virtue. And there I was, in a department that firmly believed that there was nothing that could not be deconstructed, turned inside out, that there was no truth or beauty only strings of signifiers pinging off one another like atomic particles. I was in despair. I didn’t know if I could finish the degree. And I didn’t have a faculty mentor to whom I could turn. So in desperation I wrote to Wyatt. It felt like throwing a bottle into the ocean, but I sent him a very long letter, outlining my crisis, and telling him that I didn’t know what to do or how to go on.
And he called me on the phone. On the phone! This was not a touchy-feely professor. We didn’t have his phone number as undergrads and the rumor was that he was plagued by former students, showing up years later, moaning that they’d wasted their lives and what should they do? So I’d hesitated even to write to him, because I felt like such a failure and such a cliche.
He was enormously kind. He called me up and he knew exactly who I was — it was as if I’d left Beloit a year ago, not ten years before. He talked me off the ledge while validating that I wasn’t wrong, that my instincts about theory were, as far as he was concerned, correct and valid. He told me there was no shame in quitting, that he’d had other very fine students quit graduate programs for exactly the same reason. And then he gave me a couple of strategies for getting around the currently fashionable dogmas. It was one of the kindest and most encouraging phone calls I ever received, and it’s largely because of John Wyatt that I managed to finish that program, pass my exams (unanimously) and complete the degree.
John used to talk to us a lot about the classical idea of virtue. He told us, often, and in many different contexts, that our true job on this planet was to live a virtuous life. “If you live a virtuous life you will be happy,” he’d say, looking up at the ceiling tiles, and then he’d turn on us, that funny twinkle in his eye and add. “of course, happiness will probably be nothing like you think it’s going to be. It won’t be,” he said, looking down at me in my little desk, all snotty after a semester in Ireland studying Joyce, “trips to Europe, where everything is so much more special than here, than Wisconisn. It will be something you don’t expect, but if, Miss Freeeeeman,” he’d always pick one of us, that day it was me, “If you live a life of virtue, if you live up to your duty and your intellect, then, to your surprise I am sure, you will find that you are happy.” I think of that all the time. I thought of that when I was cleaning up Patrick’s affairs after he died. I’ve been thinking of it lately as I have to take on a family responsibility I don’t want. I think of it when my job becomes tiresome and then I remember that perhaps happiness, this happiness I never expected, this happiness that at many times I thought I’d never arrive at, this surprising happiness is a little house in Montana, with a garden and two dogs and my dear friends and their kids and a little office in the basement where I can write my next book. It isn’t what I expected, but it is a good place.
So thank you John Wyatt — and rest in peace where ever you are — I hope it is with all the greats — Aristotle and Plato and Virgil and Sappho and Tolstoy blathering on in the corner and Dante — I hope you’re up there having some amazing heavenly warp speed conversation with them all about what is true, and beautiful, and real, and lasting.