Report from the MLA

The day after Christmas, 1953, I broke out of the rippled aluminum siding of our Iowa house for three Chicago days of MLA.* City lights, city sights, old friends, old teachers, shop talk, and, first, a job to unlock the aluminum cage for good and all. On the Rock Island Rocket I sat beside the head of the Iowa Music Department, Philip Greeley Clapp, and remembered my friend Higgins, the pianist, stuck in Conway, Arkansas, at “the friendliest college in the south.” Mr. Clapp was off for his own convention, he must be “hiring.” By Moline, I was into Higgins’s talents and misfortunes, sure that I could see rising in Clapp’s gentle bulk the charter of Higgins’s liberation from amical Arkansas. I described Higgins’s encounter with the Englishman who told him that he could not give recitals with such a name, not in England, couldn’t even accompany a soloist, might, just might get work pushing a piano onstage. “Names don’t mean,” groaned Mr. Clapp, “that much.” But of course they did, and that was it for Higgins, and that was the sad omen for that MLA.

The job for which I’d come had been dangled before ninety-six other graduate students in the Midwest. We began assessing the choked stream that afternoon at the University Club where the doorman pointed to the Illinois Chairman’s cold ambassador, a bulletin board upon which our ninety-seven names were linked by dashes to fifteen-minute appointments in various Palmer House suites. Chicago’s wind had never bayonetted more fiercely through the overcoats, scarves, mittens, and fedoras which, like that bulletin board, buried us in featureless brotherhood. We saluted each other in the corridors, waiting for interrogation by the professorial squadrons (“How do you regard yourself, Mr. Stern?” “?” “Ultimately?” “?” “Writer or scholar?” “Mumble.”). Our wire service reported that the Chairman himself was talking in the Grand Ballroom with a man from Princeton, and later, that the search for the fortunate fish had ended in that Eastern mainstream. We moved on to other suites, topping each other with gentle suavity: “Of course I’ve always thought of the Odyssey as a picaresque.” More and more frequently, we met downstairs in the Polynesian Bar and Trader Vic’s or across Michigan at the Art Institute, in front of the antique peace of the Grande Jatte. The last day saw some of us on Clark Street where girls with even bleaker futures than our own waved coffee-colored hips over our watered booze. “At least they don’t wear badges.” The tall and myopic suffered neck pains after hours of MLA lapelgazing: “Excuse me, sir, I understand North…South Dakota’s looking for someone in the eighteenth century.”)

A dozen years later, most of us were back in the Palmer House, though germane proliferations (American Association of Teachers of Slavic, the Mark Twain Society, the Linguistic Atlas) overflowed blocks into the Hilton, the Blackstone, the LaSalle. The forlorn brothers of ’53 now were soliciting the ultimate self-estimations of others. In those same corridors,…

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