Then one of my graduate students, Ludvig, e-mails me and other faculty inviting us for drinks at a pub. Of course I go, though I’m the only
faculty member there except for an instructor barely older than the students. Perhaps my respectability is about to be dented. I hope so.
We drink beer and make awkward small talk. Clearly, my presence is
making everyone nervous. But after a couple of beers, I decide to take a
risk. I have seen Adriana’s covert eye roll in my literary journalism class,
and now I ask her, “Why don’t you like the Stephen Crane piece?” She
looks startled and appears to be speechless.
“I don’t like it,” I say of Crane’s report on a homeless men’s hostel in
New York City, late nineteenth century. “It’s mean. To him these men
are just fodder for his literary stylings. He doesn’t seem to see them as
I use the piece to begin the literary journalism course, I explain, be-
cause it shows the ethical dangers of reporting on those different from
yourself, especially people you may, at least in a part of yourself, consider
to be inferior.
Adriana frowns. “We have to appreciate the great authors,” she finally says.
“You may have to study them. But you don’t have to like them. At
least that’s how we would see it.”
It’s not clear she approves. Nobody says anything.
In my role as an ambassador of American democracy I’ve already
expressed my concern for the present assault on our own democratic
institutions. And I have been more than willing to admit that we are not
and have never been perfect; the pieces I’ve selected to teach are far from
triumphalist, highlighting such social problems in America as poverty,
racism, crime, the immoral war in Vietnam, the dropping of the first
atomic bomb in Hiroshima.
Now, though, I’m afraid I’ve just come across as a show-off: We are
bold and free Americans who only like what we like! What’s wrong with
you cringing, pathetic people?
I’m afraid I won’t get invited for another drink and that I will have
to confront a stone-faced, silent, if entirely respectful classroom for the
next four months.
We return to small talk. We drink more beer. Dagmar brings up
smoking. She wants to quit, but she can’t. She’s about my daughter’s age.
I can’t help myself.