The Education of Myself, from When Found, Make a Verse Of, by Helen Bevington (1961)

"Bad books are the fontain of Vice," pages from "Manuscript commonplace book, largely taken up with rules for constructing sundials," ca. 1745 by James Blake
“Bad books are the fontain of Vice,” pages from “Manuscript commonplace book, largely taken up with rules for constructing sundials,” ca. 1745
by James Blake

The education of myself began one day in March at the University of Chicago. It happened suddenly during the spring term of my junior year. I was eighteen years old and I saw a blinding light. That day I went into the university bookstore and bought two notebooks, one of them to hold a list of books that was beginning to gather in my head. Yesterday a professor had murmured a lovely title, The Golden Treasury, which became my first entry, page 1. The second entry was Bernard Hart’s The Psychology of Insanity, though I have forgotten now why I wanted to read it.

For the second notebook I had no clear plan except to put it to immediate use. When I returned to my room, I thought for a while and then wrote on the inside cover, “Chiefly about Life.” The book, secret and indispensable, became a major part of my education. Thereafter, anything I read, in a book, magazine, or newspaper, was a possible source of material. It might contain powerful and enlightened words that I could copy into my notebook.

Heaven pardon my taste, but at least it was catholic. From Carl Van Vechten’s current popular novel Peter Whiffle, I wrote, “A man with a broad taste in food is inclined to be tolerant in regard to everything,” and believing tolerance to be a good thing, I stopped disliking any food. Out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s silliest volume, Flappers and Philosophers, I took this: “All life is just a progression toward and then a regression from one phrase, ‘I love you.'” From Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, I noted and learned by heart what happiness is: “Happiness therefore is that estate whereby we attain, so far as possibly may be attained, the full possession of that which simply for itself is to be desired, and containeth in it, after an eminent sort, the contentation of our desires, the highest degree of all our perfection.”

I set down Miltons prayer to the heavenly muse: “What in me is dark/Illumine,” and wrote in large letters from Peer Gynt, “Troll, to thyself be enough.” Occasionally, I even quoted my professors if, like Professor Percy Boynton, they were given to aphorisms: “I dissent from the rather fatuous dictum that all the world loves a lover. Most of us are bored and embarrassed by him.”

It was the first of my notebooks, all chiefly about life. Since that spring I have always kept one to catch the powerful words, wherever they are. When found, I have a note of. Sometimes lately I am aware that time has brought real changes to my mind and to the tone of my selections, which tend to lack there former earnestness and sobriety. Only yesterday, I came across a useful quotation from Max Beerbohm, another definition of what happiness is. He called it “a four-post bed in a field of poppies and mandragora.”

From When Found, Make a Verse of, by Helen Bevington
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961

Presented here to introduce Exertos.com, an off-shoot of this site, that is my own electronic equivalent to Helen Bevington’s notebooks: an Internet common-place book whose entries have in common only that I found them interesting and that they can usually be read in a minute or two.

Cousin Georgia who was beautiful …, from Along Came a Witch, by Helen Bevington (1976)

movieaudience

As we left the theater, I was thinking of a cousin of mine, Cousin Georgia, who had been not deaf or mute but desperate. The particular memory had to do with her going to a movie one Saturday afternoon. I never knew her story, more than that Cousin Georgia who was beautiful was unhappy, and she lost her mind as if she had mislaid her purse while watching a picture in a movie house. This occurred after her divorce, after the loss of her child, after she had returned alone to her parents’ house. Some plot unfolded on the screen recounting her own tragedy. Raising her fists she stood up in the theater, screamed out “You can’t do this to me!” and was frantic, from that moment insane. She lives on in an asylum.

from Along Came the Witch: A Journal in the 1960s, by Helen Bevington

Along Came the Witch: A Journal in the 1960s, by Helen Bevington

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Along Came the Witch'The works of Helen Bevington–poet, memoirist, and long-time professor of English at Duke University–remain one of the most delightful discoveries of my years of exploring in the realm of neglected books. I started out 2013 with her trilogy of memoirs–Charley Smith’s Girl (1965); A Book and a Love Affair (1968); and The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm (1971)–and since then, have added most of her other books to my collection. So I thought a dip into her oeuvre would be a nice start to this year of reading the works of women writers.

Bevington, whose comic verse was often featured in The New Yorker and New York Times Book Review, began writing a memoir in the early 1960s. The book, which became Charley Smith’s Girl, was as much a portrait of her parents, Charley and Lizzie, whose divorce, when Helen was still a very young girl, was considered quite scandalous at the time. Not long before it was published, Bevington’s husband, Merle, also an English professor at Duke, died suddenly of a brain tumor at the age of 64.

To honor Merle’s memory, she wrote A Book and a Love Affair, which recounted their meeting while students at Columbia University in the 1920s and the early years of their marriage. She followed this with The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm, which covered their move to North Carolina and the experience of raising their two sons, Phillip and David, both of whom became distinguished professors–Phillip of physics and David of English. This book concluded with Phillip’s recovery from a near-fatal car accident that left him a paraplegic.

Along Came the Witch: A Journal in the 1960’s, published five years later, contains excerpts from the journal she had been keeping for many years. Most entries are less than a page long and undated aside from being collected by month and year. Often she reprints the poems she had written at the time, many of them inspired by her reading or the passing seasons.

The title of Along Came the Witch is taken from one of her poems:

Lost in the night, my love,
Are those who could never tell
The perishable world from the imperishable.

So they lived everafter, rich
In fairytales and in general–
Till along came the witch.

The inevitable, though always unexpected, appearance of evil and pain is a recurrent theme throughout this journal. In the first few years, she lost her mother and husband, both to diseases that were long-diagnosed but late, abrupt, and harsh in their effects. And throughout the decade, she saw violence and conflict erupting in the world: the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King; the start of the Vietnam War; civil rights protests and political and race riots; demonstrations and even tear gas on her own campus. For Bevington, the 1960s were her anni horribili.

Yet these pages are also filled with beauty, comedy, and love. She was as quick to take note of a new bird around her house or the quirks of her neighbors as the headlines on the TV news. She delighted in observing her young grandchildren coming to their individual perceptions of the world and ways of expressing themselves. She relished a good anecdote, like her hairdresser’s flipping and wrecking a brand new car just to avoid running over a grey squirrel, and the unique language of her house cleaner: “When things go wrong in Rosa’s life and her head is blouzed up with trouble (as when her car was stolen last Saturday night), she takes some jolt medicine.” “Rosa has a got-rights cat. It has got rights the same as everybody.”

Each semester, she approaches each new class and group of students with a mix of trepidation, dismay, and wonder. While she notes petulance and hair lengths increase over the years, she still manages to find a remarkable appetite for learning to love and understand poetry. Bevington was one of the most beloved and respected teachers at Duke, and her joy in this work belies her anxiety about being up to the task. As one of the few faculty members without a PhD, she felt a certain amount of inferiority to her peers, and one of the bright spots in the decade was her acceptance as a full professor in 1970.

Her love of poetry and literature lights up these pages as well. A voracious reader, she is constantly reflecting on what she’s reading, and the depth and richness of her memory of what she’s read is remarkable. Like Isabel Paterson, she seems to have read everything and remembered everything, especially snatches of poetry and conversations. I dog-eared a couple dozen pages just to remind myself to check out the books she mentions.

The central theme of the book, however, is her struggle with learning to live alone. She was in her late fifties when Merle died, and she would live over 35 years as a widow, almost a long as the two were married. In writing of her parents, she concluded that neither offered her a way of living that she could accept for herself: “My mother and my father–one was strong and brave and indomitable, and one withdrew in utter despair. Neither of them ever discovered how to be happy. There must be a third way. I am not sure, but I think there must be a third way.”

She struggled to come to an understanding of this third way throughout the rest of her life. Her last book, in fact, was titled, The Third and Only Way: Reflections on Staying Alive (1996). About a year after Merle’s death, she did come to realize something about how she would have to move forward:

As I drove to the University this morning, thinking about Richard Wilbur whose poetry we would read in class, saying over a line of his, “It is by words and the defeat of words–” I made a sudden resolution, at the stoplight of Broad and Club Boulevard, to unlearn my words.

I will stop using the word lonely. I will change it to independent or alone. Aloneness is not the same thing as loneliness. I will live an independent life, fraught with freedom. I will stop explaining my plight to myself, using charged words like fear, like grief. It is not only cowardly but Byronic. (Byron: “I learned to love despair”). By the defeat of words I grieve. It is myself I mourn for.

Bevington went on to publish two more books of from her journals: The Journey is Everything: A Journal of the Seventies and The World and the Bo Tree, based her travels in the 1980s. I look forward to spending these decades with her.


Along Came a Witch: A Journal in the 1960s, by Helen Bevington
New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1976