Writers who joined the Peace Corps to “burn with a hard, gemlike flame”

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Cupple House, St. Louis University

This is an article I wrote for my college alumni magazine at Saint Louis University about a writing professor of mine who also was the teacher of several other PCVs in the early years of the agency. This professor was the mentor of dozens of future poets and writers and shows, I hope, how one professor can influence and encourage students to write, whether they join the Peace Corps or not.

“To Burn With A Hard, Gemlike Flame”

Let me tell you what it was like to be in the English Department in the ’50s during the Silent Generation, at the time of the Beat Poets, when Gas Light Square was in its infancy, and everyone was on the road.

I came to Saint Louis University in 1955 because of the Writers’ Institute founded by Dr. James Cronin. Dr. Cronin was the first person to tell me I could write. Now when you are seventeen that’s a very important question to have answered. It is because of Jim Cronin that I am a novelist today.

They closed down the Writers’ Institute after Dr. Cronin left Saint Louis in the ’60s. They closed it down just as colleges and universities all over America were opening similar creative writing programs, attracting students, making names for themselves in academia. That’s what is called Jesuit Logic.

One of the first English professors I met on campus was a wise old Jesuit, Father Francis Yealy. I never took an English course from this Jesuit; our sole contact was informal and by chance. In the first week of my freshmen year we met on the quadrangle and he asked me about myself. Then he asked if I knew what Walter Pater had written. Well, not only did I not know what Walter Pater had written, I didn’t know who Walter Pater was.

Father Yealy quoted this line from British writer Walter Pater: “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” And then he nodded — he had this great mass of white hair — and return to his prayers, to his patrol of the quadrangle. But Father Yealy would see me from time to time, stop me in the quadrangle or the hallway of DeSmet, and ask, “Coyne, are you burning with a hard gemlike flame?” I told him I was trying.

The college — in those last years of the 1950s — was getting a whole set of new professors in the English Department. Father Ong had just arrived. Not having met him, we all thought, judging from his name, that he must be Chinese. Clarence Miller returned to Saint Louis, not as a student, but to teach. I had Clarence for Chaucer. And Clarence soon proved that I wasn’t marked out to be a Chaucer scholar, or any kind of scholar.

But all was not lost, because I met a writing professor, Dr. Albert Montesi, and thereby hangs a tale.

I was one member of the first generation of Montesi students. There were others: Jim Doughterty, who went onto earn his PhD in English and spent his teaching career at Norte Dame, and to publish The Five-Square City, which would go onto win the Catholic Book Award. The poet Phil Dacey (Nigeria 1964–66) was a student of Al’s, and then published a half dozen collections of his poetry. The McDonough twins, Peter and Tom, came from New York to the Writer’s Institute. Peter (East Pakistan/Bangladesh 1961–63) later taught political sciences at the University of Michigan and the University of Arizona and to write a number of books, including Men Astutely Trained about the Jesuits. Tom became a cinematographer who designed and photographed Best Boy, a documentary that won an Academy Award in 1979. His first novel, Virgin with Child, was published in 1981. Denny O’Neil, another student, is an authority on pop culture, a novelist, and comic book writer. He’s the one who had Spiderman quoting Norman Mailer. A few years after all of us, novelist Richard Dooling, author of White Man’s Grave, a novel about a Peace Corps Volunteer, and other novels, studied with Al. Montesi was also a mentor to Paul Hendrickson who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, and is author of  Hemingway’s Boat, the most recent of his many award winning non-fiction books.

All of Montesi’s students, however, did not become writers. Here’s a true story.

In 1966 I was driving a Land Rover north towards Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia. I was half a day up the escarpment, traveling across the Great Rift Valley, and I spotted a hitchhiker standing by a cluster of baobab trees outside a market town called Shashamane. I picked up the hitchhiker, of course, and it turned out he was a Peace Corps Volunteer and a Saint Louis University graduate— a math major. We stared to talk about the teachers we had had in common, and I asked him if he had ever taken a course from Al Montesi.

He told me he had freshmen English with Al, and went on to talk in detail about what he had written for him and what novels they read. We were really down in the flat, hard belly of Africa, as far away as you can image from Grand and Lindell. He fell silent at one point, and then he turned to me and said over the roar of the Land Rover engine, “You know, that bastard gave me a D.”

All of us, however far away from his classroom, were always trying to get an “A” from Al Montesi.

When Al Montesi judged our work, he brought to it the same critical sense he brought to a book by Henry James or the poetry of Yeats. From the very beginning of our lives as writers and artists, with our first awkward efforts at creativity, Al Montesi was saying to us: Okay! This is the big time. You are up against the world of literature. And if you can’t make it out of a Montesi class, you can’t make it at all. And while he encouraged us, he had not lost sight of what was truly great, what was truly worthy.

He made me, all of us, feel and think that we, too, were part of this long process called literature. He did what all great teachers do: implant the subject matter into our hearts, into our bloodstreams; we were literature.

Al brought back to life the Fleur De Lis, the University’s literary magazine, and he organized Jazz Poetry Night. This was in 1957. Jack Kerouac had just published On the Road, and the Crystal Palace was having jazz poetry reading in nearby Gas Light Square. On campus we had the first of a half dozen poetry nights, all organized by Doctor Montesi. We were, to use Al’s expression, at the tip top of the world. We were, to quote Pater, burning with a hard, gemlike flame.

What mattered to Doctor Montesi, what mattered to Father Yealy, what mattered to Ong and Miller and Rogers, Sullivan and Jim Cronin, and all the members of the English Department was not our future fame or fortune. What mattered was that we would learn to love literature as they loved literature.

Now I did not say this myself, but I could have. A graduate of Saint Louis University, an English major who did all three of his degrees here, came to Al on obtaining his Ph.D. and said, “Doctor Montesi, you have taught me everything I know, but I can’t remember one thing you’ve taught me.”

That is, in my view, a true sign of a great teacher.

 

 

 

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  • Before the March Ides , let me add: Truck n’ trudge: No matter how canny we are something else annoying’s coming. [Just sayin’ as the current phrasing goes.] As used to be said and still has a good ring to it: keep on truckin’. Doesn’t ‘keep’ seem a funny-looking word. One meaning is maybe a dungeon. Or just a place to keep things, even a secret hiding place, an abditory. Keep on anyway. Keep on TRUCKIN’. Whoops! That’s where my life went. It sure is lucky I was so plucky dumb because here am out of some gloaming the sun insists the fog will lift and send me the gift of some other day perhaps in some other way. But ‘how’ I can know is the daddy of all fails. It’s late now. Trudge. ©Edward Mycue March 10, 2016

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