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Communications and Marketing
Jane Hamilton Commencement Address
Jane Hamilton, Author and Ragdale Foundation Residency Program alumni was awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters and spoke at the 2018 Lake Forest College Commencement held on May 12.
Here is a transcript of her speech:
“It’s wonderful to be here, congratulations all around and most especially to you gradates for arriving at this moment! Hallelujah! And thank you to the College for honoring me, among the stunning cohort of honorees. It’s truly humbling to hear of their achievements and it’s wonderful to be a part of Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, which has long been one of my homes because of the Ragdale Foundation, a place for writers and artists to work.
“I’ve been thinking lately about tyrants. I use that word both lightly and not lightly. They’ve been on my mind because of this glorious little book by Stephen Greenblatt about tyrants—and Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare, it turns out, had already seen precisely into our time. And also, there’s the Handmaid’s tale on Hulu, I have the Handmaid’s hangover, and therefore I’ve been thinking about the fact that we’ve all had tyrants in some order in our lives and perhaps you have one or two in your present, and you’ll have them again. You can’t opt out of the experience or avoid the type. You may someday find that a two-year-old is your personal dictator.
My story is frothy, it’s not a harrowing tale of sexual abuse or harassment, nothing dramatic or distressing in the way that so many of the Me Too stories are. This isn’t just a women’s story, fear not you men! In light of that movement though, my petty tyrant story has become disconcerting to me in a new way, because the world is actually changing and so my telling of the story necessarily has to change. I am not sure now how to tell it or what it means, the story can either be more nuanced or it can be simplified. You may well say upon hearing it, your tyrant was just a jerk. A creep. Why even consider him? And you Jane Hamilton, you were merely behaving as a woman of your time does: being nice, retreating, maintaining a silence. In the play Angels and America, the angel says to the character named Prior, who is dying of aids, says: “silence and hesitation equals death.”
The students in the Never Again Movement have so strainly taken that admonition to heart, but, I maintain that there are situations when slow time and silence can have power too. Silence, slow time, things that you might not have experienced as fulsomely as all the previous generations of human kind have done. My petty tyrant stage was minuscule, his audience 25 people at a time. I had an approach to him but didn’t know that the approach I took to survive him was an approach at all. I was merely trying to get through the class. Is “tyrant” too strong a word for a professor of English literature? A man who would never be hired in 2018, but this is 1975 I’m talking about. The dark ages of your parents’ youth because there’s no internet, no smartphones…we were free in a way that is no longer possible.
I’m a freshman at Carlton College, a place quite like this one. I’m taking the required survey class for the English major, this is what I know of professor Jenkins, what I can see, what’s on the surface: he has hair the color of sand, a large, fleshy face that burns when he is irritated by us, which is often, and also in the rare moments that we delight him. His gods are the 18th century British writers and satirists: Johnathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson and a bit later, Jane Austin. It’s often hard for me to listen in his lectures because I am deeply frightened about being called on, about his inevitable scalding response to my panicked answer. My papers are spackled in red ink: Miss Hamilton, should you need a job in the future I noticed an ad for grade school custodian in the paper. Judging by your essay this is currently what you are fit to do.
This is, of course, offensive on so many levels, and in the current day would be fodder for his termination. But, again, for better or for worse, ours was a time of freedom of speech. In 1975 no one will challenge the curriculum, the dead white males. Nothing will be said about colonialism, gendered readings, cultural appropriation. All of that illumination is in the future. We are reading to witness and grapple with the finest minds that centuries of western culture have produced. And we are called upon to stand in awe. Rule number one with the tyrant: think carefully what he loves. What interests him most? Is it money? Power? His own self? Maybe it’s baseball. Is it Samuel Johnson and Jane Austin? is it clarity, truth and beauty? Did you consider your tyrant’s enthusiasms worthwhile? If you do you might contemplate him in time in silence.
When Professor Jenkins calls on me, he says things like “Miss Hamilton, the “Ode on The Grecian Urn” by John Keats, as you know miss Hamilton, it begins, ‘thou still unravished bride of quietness’ what did you discover about the word ‘still’ Miss Hamilton? ‘Thou still unravished bride of quietness’ when you looked it up, as I’m sure you did, Miss Hamilton, in the oxford English Dictionary, in the “Ode” is it being used as an adverb or an adjective?”
Oh…the light and heat of the powerful and the dark world of the meek, I don’t know! I can’t even tell you what an adverb or adjective is, that’s how panic works! The mind is emptied out, nothing there, a smooth blankness, an eternity of unknowing. What I can’t know then is this: never underestimate the lack of confidence in another person. That is rule number two as you approach your tyrant. Professor Jenkins, the scholar, a vulnerable man, that would never have occurred to me. I also don’t know that he loves arousing arguments, the sharpening of wits, his pedagogical approach does not enliven me to battle, rather it silences me, through my college career I hardly make a peep. What would it have been like to stand up to him? I can’t imagine it. Here’s though, what his teaching style does for me, my fear and consequent retreat allows me, requires me, to cultivate a space and quiet that is essential not only for the building of the self, but for the life of a writer.
Professor Jenkins doesn’t magically turn me into a writer by his tyranny, but my response to his oppression, “oppression-light” let’s call it, allows me the privacy and freedom to create a voice and a self. It is from that space that I write. Whether or not you’ve experienced being shut down, or whether you’ve been encouraged all the way along to express yourself. There’s great value to being in communion with yourself. To ask various questions in a sacred privacy, what is the self? What do I know? What is the texture, the music, the language, the stuffiness that makes up the quality of my mind? There is great mystery in your own personality and there is always the possibility of creating a more resilient, beautiful mind.
One of your occupations while you’ve been in this community, what I don’t know in my college years, I am lying in wait. Even as Professor Jenkins recites the droll poetry of writers who have their fingers on the pulse of mankind’s folly, I am lying in wait. Time passes, in 1996 I go back to Carlton College to teach for a term, 17 years after my graduation. I’ve never taught before. As usual, at Carlton College, I am terrified. The office they give me is right next door to Professor Jenkins’ office, the beast is still teaching! Owen, I call him now. Owen quotes my work to me. He’s read my novels with the attention a writer dreams of. My years of silence has brought me Owen’s approval, his approbation, Jane Austin would say. I don’t tell him that he is in my presence with every sentence I write as I aim for clarity. But here’s the sad truth, I can see now that he’s somewhat crippled. He never published much of anything, and certainly nothing of note. That failure, I realized, dogs him. I can see other little failures too, see the wellspring of his bitter mirth. How the melancholy man must find his humor in the writers who point out the absurdity of our social structures. He calls me into his office, he pulls an essay from his file cabinet. Ah, Miss Hamilton! Look at this perfect argument that Miss McCullin wrote, class of 1980. He remembers everyone. He saved the great essays!
What I couldn’t see when I was a student was the incontrovertible fact that he loved us. Maybe he figured being hard on us was an honest preparation for the shipwreck of life? Are sympathy and tenderness particularly female traits or in any way socially constructed straits that have stuck? I leave it to you graduates, to you men and women to figure out the gender situation. To reconfigure it, if you will, the great archetypes of mother and father. How you’re gonna manage work and love, childrearing, caring for your parents. It turns out, really, that all of life can be boiled down to the simplest question. In your family, locally, and globally too, how do we best care for each other?
How much tenderness do I really have is the question I face when back in 1996 I give a public reading at the college. Owen is in the back of the great hall. I read a coming of age story, the heroine, as she must in such a story, growing older, wiser, sadder. There’s an Emmylou Harris song in my story which I sing, “but I cried a river, a river for him, that’s deeper and wider than I’ll ever swim”. When I finished reading the story I ask if there are any questions. There’s always a hush, a startled, fearful silence. With no malice of forethought, I look out to the audience. What do I see? His shiny pate, the blonde hair having receded, his glowing, cranium, I say, “Professor Jenkins, what do you have to say about this story? Is the word ‘still’ in the penultimate paragraph and adverb or an adjective?” There’s that rush of blood to his face, to his skull, and in the audience, a ripple of laughter. Glee, nothing short of malicious glee from all the good students of Carlton, who have suffered at his hand. he begins to stutter, “oh, uh, well, uh, Miss, Miss Hamilton, uh, how do you know so much about young Ladies?” Because I was one! Next Question! When I get home, my husband, who has left ahead of me greets me at the door. He opens it, but not enough to let me in. “That was so terrible,” he says, “what you did was cruel.” I know, I know, I know. I didn’t even know the words that were coming out of my mouth. And yet didn’t he deserve it? My tyrant, wasn’t it the best fun I just about ever had?
After a sleepless night I go to my office intending to write him a letter of apology. There, under my door is a note. Miss Hamilton, leave the literary life, let’s go to Nashville, I’ll be your agent. We’ll make megabucks, love Owen. Sometimes, rule number three, your tyrant shows you yourself in unexpected ways. Is there always a positive in the negative? What do you do with the approval of your tyrant? That in its own way is very frightening. Do you want to actually play the same game? Is there a better way to come to terms with the oppressor? What, in other words, does each battle require from us? How much nuance and empathy does the tyrant of the moment deserve? What do you gain from looking into the mind of your tyrant? And what does each person need and want from a place they call home? With luck, this place, Lake Forest College, will continue to be a home and shelter for you. And the physical plant when you return, and all the friendships that you made and friendships that you perhaps have yet to resolve. Home, a place where people forgive you and you forgive them too. For the consequential and irrepressible fact of their own personalities.
What did professor Jenkins ask of his students? Here’s what I finally realized. He wanted us to carry forward from the past what is novel and beautiful, knowing and wise. The spirituality, you might call it, that the writers of the ages possess. He wanted us to carry those goods forward as we in our brief moment have the charge to reinvent the world. That is what your professors wish for you. Take what you’ve learned here forward. Keep the great minds alive. Minds that are now a part of the plinth of yourself, use that wealth and pass it on. I leave you with Samuel Johnson, one sentence from his essay “the rambler number 203 on spring” I can hear Owen not reading but reciting this sentence. The word “vernal” is used by the way, vernal, which means of or pertaining to springtime. Listen carefully to this bit, that speaks about spring and how it paves the way for autumn. The music, the intricacy of the sentence, the perfection of the punctuation, all of which cannot be boiled down to 164 characters deserves our awe. Here’s the sentence: “he that enlarges his curiosity after the works of nature, demonstrably multiplies the inlets to happiness; and, therefore, the younger part of my readers, to whom I dedicate this vernal speculation, must excuse me for calling upon them, to make use at once of the spring of the year, and the spring of life; to acquire, while their minds may be yet impressed with new images, a love of innocent pleasures, and an ardor for useful knowledge; and to remember, that a blighted spring makes a barren year, and that the vernal flowers, however beautiful and gay, are only intended by nature as preparatives to autumnal fruits.” Here’s to you to the springtime of your life. Thank you.