Perhaps because I was so engaged in the world of ink and broadsides, I developed an early and passionate appetite for learning and was sent off to Dartmouth College at the age of sixteen. I can still remember the exquisite joy of discovering that I should have a room to myself, for I had always had to share a room with at least three of my siblings. The college has an estimable reputation and is widely known, so I shall not linger upon it here, except to say that it was there that I briefly entertained the ministry, later abandoning it for want of piety.
After obtaining my degree, by which time I was twenty, I traveled abroad for two years and then was offered and accepted the post of Associate Professor of English Literature and Rhetoric at Thrupp College, which is located some thirty-five miles southeast of my alma mater. I took this post with the idea that in a smaller and less well known institution I might rise more quickly and perhaps one day secure for myself the post of a Senior Professor or even of Dean of the Faculty, positions that might not have been open to me had I remained at Dartmouth. I had not thought of taking a post outside of New England, though there were opportunities to do so, the reason being that I had adopted the manners and customs of a New Englander so thoroughly that I no longer considered myself a New Yorker. Indeed, I had occasionally taken great pains to present myself as a New Englander, once even, I am a bit chagrined to admit, falsifying my history during my early months at Dartmouth, a pretense that was difficult in the extreme to maintain and hence was abandoned before I had completed my first year. (It was at Dartmouth that I dropped the second a from Nicholaas.)
Because my father was, by the time I had returned from Europe, modestly well off, I could easily have afforded to have my own house in the village of Thrupp. I chose instead, however, to take rooms in Woram Hall, a Greek Revival structure affectionately known as Worms, for the reason that I did not particularly wish to live entirely alone. I had as well a somewhat misguided idea that boarding nearer to the students would allow me to come to know them intimately, and that this would, in turn, make me a better teacher. In fact, I rather think the reverse was true: more often than not, I discovered, close proximity gave birth to a thinly veiled antagonism that sometimes baffled me. My rooms consisted of a library, a bedroom, and a sitting room in which to receive guests and preside over tutorials. In adopting New England ways, born two centuries earlier in Calvinistic discipline, I had furnished these rooms with sturdy yet unadorned pieces five ladder-back chairs, a four-poster bed, a dresser, a cedar chest, a tall stool, and a writing desk in which I kept my papers eschewing the more ornate and oversized furnishings of the era that were so fashionable and so much in abundance elsewhere. (I think now of Moxons rooms: one could hardly move for the settees and hassocks and English desks and velvet drapes and ornate marble clocks and fire screens and mahogany side tables.) And as form may dictate content, I fit my daily habits to suit my austere surroundings, rising early, taking exercise, arriving promptly to class, disciplining when necessary with a firm hand, and requiring much of my students in the way of intellectual progress. Though I should not like to think I was regarded as severe by my students and colleagues, I am quite certain I was considered stern. I think now, with the forgiveness that comes with reflection in later years, that I often tried too hard to show myself the spiritual if not the physical progeny of my adopted forebears, even though what I imagined to be the license of my New York heritage, as evidenced in my fathers excessive procreativity, would occasionally cause me to stray from this narrow and spartan path, albeit seldom in public and never at Thrupp. For my parenthetical pleasure, I traveled down to Springfield, Massachusetts, as did many of my unmarried, and not a few married, colleagues. I remember well those furtive weekends, boarding the train at White River Junction and hoping one would not encounter a colleague in the dining car, either coming or going, but always ready with a fabricated excuse should an encounter present itself. Over time, as a result of such encounters, perhaps five or seven or ten, I had to develop a "sister" in Springfield whom I had twice monthly to visit, even though said "sister" actually resided in Virginia, prior to moving to Florida, and wrote to me upon occasion, the envelopes with the return address a source of some anxiety to me. I shall not here set forth in detail my activities while in Springfield, though I can say that even in that city I proved to be, during my visits to its less savory neighborhoods, as much a man of loyalty and habit as within the brick and granite halls of Thrupp.
From All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve. Copyright 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher, Little, Brown & Company.
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No Man's Land
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