Elton Glaser, closing lines to “This Is Your,” from Winter Amnesties (Southern Illinois University Press, 2000)
The old man was very thin and stooped, and he emitted a mildewed smell, possibly because he had few clothes and refused to buy or accept anything new. Also his eyes were constantly watering. But he would sit in the parlor and tell the boy stories from Ovid. They were stories of people who became animals or trees or statues. They were stories of transformation. Women turned into sunflowers, spiders, bats, birds; men turned into snakes, pigs, stones and even air. The boy did not know he was hearing Ovid, and it would not have mattered if he had known. Grandfather’s stories proposed to him that the forms of life were volatile and that everything in the world could as easily be something else. The old man’s narrative would often drift from English to Latin without his being aware of it, as if he were reading to one of his classes of forty years before, so that it appeared nothing was immune to the principle of volatility, not even language.
The boy thought of his grandfather as a discarded treasure. He accepted the stories as images of truth, and therefore as propositions that could be tested. He found proof in his own experience of the instability of both things and people. He could look at the hairbrush on the bureau and it would sometimes slide off the edge and fall to the floor. If he raised the window in his room it might shut itself at the moment he thought the room was getting cold. He liked to go to the moving picture shows downtown at the New Rochelle Theater on Main Street. He knew all the principles of photography but saw also that moving pictures depended on the capacity of humans, animals or objects to forfeit portions of themselves, residues of shadow and light which they left behind. He listened with fascination to the Victrola and played the same record over and over, whatever it happened to be, as if to test the endurance of a duplicated event.
And then he took to studying himself in the mirror, perhaps expecting some change to take place before his eyes. He could not see that he was taller than he had been even a few months before, or that his hair was darkening. Mother noticed his attention to himself and understood it as the vanity of a boy beginning to think of himself as a man. Certainly he had passed the age of sailor suits. Always discreet, she said nothing. But she was very pleased. In fact he continued the practice not from vanity but because he discovered the mirror as a means of self-duplication. He would gaze at himself until there were two selves facing one another, neither of which could claim to be the real one. The sensation was of being disembodied. He had the dizzying feeling of separating from himself endlessly. He would entrance himself so deeply in this process that he would be unable to come out of it even though his mind was lucid. He would have to rely on some outside stimulus, a loud noise or a chance in the light coming through the window, to capture his attention and make him whole again.
— E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime
W.E.B. Du Bois to his 14-year old daughter, Yolande, while she was studying at the Bedales School in England.
New York, October 29, 1914
Dear Little Daughter:
I have waited for you to get well settled before writing. By this time I hope some of the strangeness has worn off and that my little girl is working hard and regularly.
Of course, everything is new and unusual. You miss the newness and smartness of America. Gradually, however, you are going to sense the beauty of the old world: its calm and eternity and you will grow to love it.
Above all remember, dear, that you have a great opportunity. You are in one of the world’s best schools, in one of the world’s greatest modern empires. Millions of boys and girls all over this world would give almost anything they possess to be where you are. You are there by no desert or merit of yours, but only by lucky chance.
Deserve it, then. Study, do your work. Be honest, frank and fearless and get some grasp of the real values of life. You will meet, of course, curious little annoyances. People will wonder at your dear brown and the sweet crinkley hair. But that simply is of no importance and will soon be forgotten. Remember that most folk laugh at anything unusual, whether it is beautiful, fine or not. You, however, must not laugh at yourself. You must know that brown is as pretty as white or prettier and crinkley hair as straight even though it is harder to comb. The main thing is the YOU beneath the clothes and skin—the ability to do, the will to conquer, the determination to understand and know this great, wonderful, curious world. Don’t shrink from new experiences and custom. Take the cold bath bravely. Enter into the spirit of your big bed-room. Enjoy what is and not pine for what is not. Read some good, heavy, serious books just for discipline: Take yourself in hand and master yourself. Make yourself do unpleasant things, so as to gain the upper hand of your soul.
Above all remember: your father loves you and believes in you and expects you to be a wonderful woman.
I shall write each week and expect a weekly letter from you.