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Jewish World Review August 9, 2001 / 18 Menachem-Av, 5761

Paul Campos

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Saying thanks while it matters -- LAST week's edition of the New Yorker featured an obituary for Eudora Welty, the novelist and short story writer from Mississippi, who died last month at the age of 92. My own first encounter with Welty's writing came as a junior in college, when I was assigned to read her novel Delta Wedding. Twenty years later, I can still recall the peculiar scent of that book's prose, wafting across the years like the memory of a rain soaked breeze running across a field of new-mown grass.

The obituary itself was the work of Roger Angell, who for many years was the New Yorker's chief fiction editor. Angell, whose own prose has always displayed a keen appreciation for the possibilities of language, quotes the following passage from Welty's essay One Writer's Beginnings. "In my sensory education, I include my physical awareness of the word. Of a certain word, that is; the connection it has with what it stands for. At around age six, perhaps, I was standing by myself in our front yard waiting for supper, just at that hour in a late summer day when the sun is already below the horizon and the risen full moon in the visible sky stops being chalky and begins to take on light. There comes a moment, and I saw it then, when the moon goes from flat to round. For the first time, it met my eyes as a globe. The word 'moon' came into my mouth as though fed to me out of a silver spoon."

Most writers, I suppose, can remember a similar moment; although few of us can ever hope to recreate it with such elegance. While reading Angell's tribute it struck me that people tend to say the nicest things about those whose work or acts have been important to them when the subject of their encomia are no longer alive. Obituaries are merely the most obvious examples of this; and writing and politics are just two of the professions in which practitioners are generally judged by their worst work while they are alive, and remembered for their best work only after they are dead.

This is surely unfortunate. Unless we somehow manage to emulate Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and show up at our own funerals, it seems a waste to save our greatest compliments for those now residing in negative space time or plus soul time, where, whatever conditions may obtain, it seems safe to guess such bouquets are no longer of any particular value to their subjects.

All of which reminds me that I owe Roger Angell a considerable favor. At about the same time I read Delta Wedding, I sent Angell a short story I had written about -- I think -- Shoeless Joe Jackson of the infamous Chicago Black Sox, along with a note telling him, rather absurdly, why he would appreciate this particular submission. At the time, the entirety of my published oeuvre consisted of a letter to the Kalamazoo Gazette, predicting the demise of the Detroit Tigers, if that team's management continued to fail to adjust to the new economic realities of major league baseball (modesty forbids me from pointing out that this prediction has proven precisely correct).

At that moment, Angell was the most important fiction editor in America. I, of course, was nobody. He must have gotten hundreds, if not thousands, of similar stories and letters every year. Yet he took the time to send me a generous note, indicating that he had read the story and (what seems more astounding at this remove) had actually found something in it he liked. At the time, this gesture meant a great deal to a barely fledged writer. In fact, it still does.

Thanks, Mr. Angell.

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Paul Campos