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Beacon blog: Thanks for the memories

This article first appeared in a St. Louis Beacon, May 19, 2011 - Today, gentle reader, I want to tell you what I think about thank-you notes. First, however, indulge me, and stick with a rather complicated thank-you note, addressed to the most important intellectual influence in my life, Naomi Gordon Lebowitz.

I've had spectacular teachers inside classrooms and out of them. My best, most exalted teacher ever, bar none, was Mrs. Lebowitz. Besides her being my undergraduate advisor at Washington University almost 50 years ago, Mrs. Lebowitz taught me, spoon fed me and illuminated me, and took me -- in classes conducted in Duncker Hall on the Brookings Quad, as well as in her books-everywhere house in University City -- from relative rube-dom to Parnassus.

In her house on Yale Avenue, she plugged me into a socket of her own devising and electrified me. Her kitchen table was the conduit. The kitchen was, is, a sacred place for me. There, she and her husband, the novelist-lawyer Albert Lebowitz, and a succession of good and naughty dachshunds, held forth on subjects that touched not only on what she considers a rather supernatural breed of dogs but also on Dostoyevsky, the Cardinals, on my landesman Bill Clinton, and from thence into darkness and into light, and on to good and evil, and thither to Thomas Hardy and Martin Andersen Nexo and, hallelujah, to Trieste and the spectacular Italo Svevo and from there, of course, humblingly, to the feeling of being observed always, by our sometimes brutal but nevertheless omnipresent and inspiring Dr. Sigmund Freud and his progeny.

Mrs. Lebowitz is a brilliant, generous, voluble woman, a proud, card-carrying intellectual, a twin sister of Ruth, and, importantly, the familial and intellectual scion of the erudite and legendary Rabbi Julius Gordon. She is a devoted mother, a good and kindly neighbor, a noblewoman of haskalah -- of enlightenment. She is desirous, when at table, in having you Eat.

Of all the lessons I learned at college, in time spent appreciatively at the feet of such men as David Hadas and Donald Finkel and Jarvis Thurston, and of Norris Smith, Nelson Wu and Mark Weil, she etched onto my brain, nay, in my soul, most indelibly this: The Truth, as well as we can know it, is to be found in novels.

That intention, passed on to me first almost a half a century ago in one of her profoundly affecting lectures on one thing or another, probably "The Brothers Karamazov," instilled in me the conviction that we learn about our world and about ourselves through the intricate, well-focused prism of this particular, complex, challenging, abundantly giving form.

(Just to stave off a lot of argument, I'll allow there is room for disagreement. Some find Truth in physical and biological sciences, others religion and other mythology; others in ruins and cairns; some affectingly in painting and sculpture and music; others in seashores and rocks, rills, or movies or the mewling and puking of infants and what have you.

(I respect them all, especially when the conversation turns to Courbet and Fred Sandback, or to Federico Fellini, and especially to Richard Wagner and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Gustav Mahler, and the utterances of infants.

(However, I personally have found fundamentally that the approach to Truth is discovered most affectingly in novels. )

Mrs. Lebowitz's directing me to books as affecting and as various as "The Brothers Karamazov" and "The Confessions of Zeno" and -- reflecting her taste and influence -- powerful discoveries on my own of Joseph Roth's "Radetzky March" and Peter Stephan Jungk's marvelous, fabulist novel, "Tigor," provided not only enrichment but also a sense that I was at least an acolyte kneeling reverently on the steps leading steeply to Truth's altar, and that I was possessed of at least a shot at being amongst the elect, and furthermore, the Knowing, in Lebowitzian terms anyway. I am humbled by this conviction rather than elevated by it.

The point of all this is confessional, not so much to you, gentle reader, but to my mentor and Beatrice, Naomi Lebowitz.

To her I confess I do indeed err and I stray like some poor lost sheep; there is no health in me. I am neither as discriminating as she, nor as intelligent; nor, sadly, as rigorous or committed. I succumb to and wallow in novels she'd consider second, third, even fourth rate; novels not worth the time of a serious reader, novels she'd not let through the door, novels not worth the paper they are printed upon.

These books I'm afraid to tell her about are not frivolous and indeed are conceived in the womb of the serious and seem, at least in the moment, to be worthwhile, but up against the ruler of Lebowitz they wither.

There is no Alyosha there, nor is the royal road to the unconscious to be mapped there. Nor will one find the hero of the battle of Solferino there; neither St. Paul.

No poor, doomed Tess falls supine on the stone there, and certainly no Dilsey opens the door to confound us. Nor in a work I long to present to her does my darling Tigor rise from the rafters of the theater in Paris where he works.

Now, patient reader, believe it or not, this circuitous path brings us back to the particular genre of the quotidian but nevertheless valued thank-you note.

Anne Tyler is a novelist for whom I have great respect. I have found in her novels the quality of the simpathetic -- that is to say, her stories ring authentic -- and are veined with irony and melancholy and a quicksilvery humor. They are satisfying.

I am a son of the American South. One of Tyler's characters I found fascinating and indelible and simpatico was Great Uncle Caleb, a deaf, dyspeptic old crotchet who felt compelled, honor bound, to write a bread-and-butter note to the giver within an hour of receiving some hospitality or another.

So compelled was he, he took a supply of fine notepaper, probably Crane's, maybe even something as estimable as Smythson's, with him when he travelled, the better to express his gratitude within the prescribed amount of time, whether he actually meant it or not.

This peculiar, particular dimension of Great Uncle Caleb's character appealed to me. My deeply Southern family is as nutty and dysfunctional and fascinating and crucifying as Caleb's family, the Pecks, and although on-the-spot note writing was not one of our pathological manifestations, a rather strong streak of propriety afflicted us, or elevated us, take your pick. So I write thank-you notes, on Crane's paper, as often as I can afford it, although not within the hour of having received hospitality.

I also apotheosize those who do, indeed, write their thank-you notes promptly, or at all, on nice paper, and certainly not via email.

Thus it came to pass that a protege of mine, of whom I am extraordinarily proud, bestowed upon my partner, Martin Kaplan, and me, a thank-you note that I will cherish.

He is Ben Westhoff, more properly, BENJAMIN REED WESTHOFF, as his handsome stationery proclaims him to be.

Ben was a student of mine at Washington University a decade or so ago. More than likely, I led him down the poorly remunerative path of journalism and away from something rich-making, like doctoring, which he could have followed. He is that smart.

Nevertheless, as he travelled through life -- from some housing office issue apartment through California and South America and New York and thither to Alabama and into Real Life, where he was hitched to the exquisite Anna McGiveren in an extraordinarily poetic and proper Book of Common Prayer Episcopal Church wedding, with a reception at the ever-so-social Mountain Brook Club, and back to New Jersey -- he kept with writing and we kept in touch.

Recently, my man Ben wrote a book called "Dirty South: Outkast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop," published by the Chicago Review Press. It probably is not the sort of book Mrs. Lebowitz would allow through the door. I, of course, am enormously proud of it and of Ben. So last month when he set out from his home in New Jersey with his book on the obligatory promotional tour, and was scheduled to read from it at our neighborhood book store, the estimable Left Bank Books, I asked him if there were something I could do for him.

He said, "Party?"

I said yes. My partner and I invited some of his old and cherished friends and colleagues for supper. Marty, chef d'estime, cooked up a marvelous repast -- macaroni and cheese, with and without bacon, the same dish we served to our last literary ho-down, given for David Sedaris. This time, tempus fugit, no smoking.

Just about everyone we invited showed up. They brought wine and flowers and ebullience. We spent a marvelous time around my great-grandparents' dining room table, in the blink-flash of a Howard Jones light painting, talking about all sorts of things great and small. It was the sort of mentor-protege evening one dreams of, and when it was bittersweetly done, Ben went off into the night of a promising future to continue the business of promoting his wares.

I was prepared for an email from him saying, Thanks, dude: Fun.

I was prepared for his pals to consider the wine and the tulips thanks enough.

I was not prepared for the notes addressed to Marty and me that began to roll in. These were serious notes, thoughtful, detailed, funny, appreciative and affectionate notes, comments on the macaroni and cheese and the cats and Howard Jones's illumination and so forth.

They gleamed not only with a sense of breeding and good manners but also of stuff that matters, stuff such as genuine expressions of gratitude.

I was elated and humbled.

All the notes were keepers. But of all of the bread and butters, Ben's is my favorite. He wrote not only of his gratitude but of his literary journey as well: "it was a grueling trip, composed of many gas station lunches. It was nice to kick it off with something scrumptious, available in a vegetarian option.

"Love to you as always, and I'm glad we've stayed in touch."

Me, too. Tomorrow morning, I'll get gussied up in tam and gown and academic hood and march into the Brookings Quad for commencement.

While I'm there with my colleagues, as well as some recent students who're graduating, and with my buddy John Biggs, who's to receive an honorary doctorate, I'll think of BENJAMIN REED WESTHOFF and Naomi Gordon Lebowitz with wonder, and recognize how incredibly fortunate I am to be held in suspension, in time and space and sentiment and affection, between the two of them.

I'll think of Great Uncle Caleb, too, and Anne Tyler, too, and I'll write on virtual vellum, in the midst of "Pomp and Circumstance," to all the exceptional friends and characters I've encountered in a passage through a quite exceptional life, sincere thank yous, my dears, thank you so very, very much.

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