The letter below is primarily for seniors in my current classes. I invite others to listen in. Since I am asking these students to email me a letter, I am modeling what I request of them, as they approach April’s “Biography Project.”
Questions to address in your email to me: What three books are your current top choices? How would you rank them today? What distinguishes each book from the other two? How did you find these three books and what interest(s) do they represent? In the case of your current top choice, what aspect(s) do you want to watch most closely? Phrased another way, what one or two questions will pull you through the reading of this book? What question(s) will keep you meaningfully engaged? Organize your answers to these questions as you will. In my letter to you, I have tried to create a unified piece rather than a simple list of replies in the prescribed order.
My letter to you
For my own Biography Project I am considering three books, two about women and one about a man. One of the subjects is still living, while the other two have died. I came across these titles in three different ways, and each book feeds a distinct interest. My first title I discovered while browsing in our Malcolm Library. Propped up next to other books on the shelf near the library’s Quiet Room was Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir called My Beloved World (2013). After reading her introduction, I was struck by the personal tone and an overall generosity of spirit. As one of the few female United States Supreme Court Justices, she has reached a distinctive position of significant influence. I am interested in the details of how she persevered on her way to this appointment. For example, what was her early family life like and what kinds of support did others provide as she worked her way through various courts? What struggles did she face as a woman in these circles? And as an Hispanic woman? Where does she find inspiration and strength? Also, what does she enjoy about this kind of work?
The mention of enjoyment brings to mind Philip Levine’s book, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (2001). I learned about this title from Mr. Levine’s obituary in The New York Times. He died earlier this winter. The obituary named a number of Mr. Levine’s books, including this one. I was intrigued by the subtitle, “Toward an Autobiography.” The Times described the book as a series of essays, and I thought this approach would also work for our class’s Biography Project. I would like you students to consider creative approaches to this unit. Mr. Levine, who has won many prizes and appointments as a poet, fits my strong interest in poetry. I like his recognition that poetry can speak about anything, even Detroit auto factory work, which he knows firsthand. Lastly, this book interests me because Levine devotes each essay to someone who has mentored and nourished him as a writer, poet and person. I think I can learn a lot about him by what he values in his teachers.
Finally, another front runner is one I discovered in a “museum store” on St. Simons Island. My wife and I had just toured the remains of Frederica, an early colonial settlement off the Georgia coast. The plaque at one of the town’s house sites briefly describes Mary Musgrove. James Oglethorpe and other leaders of the emerging British colony depended on her skills as an interpreter. Her father was a British trader and her mother a Creek Indian. Given my strong interest in native cultures, I wondered about her story. As it happens, a recent biography about this woman appeared on the shelves in the gift/souvenir shop at the entrance to the Frederica National Monument: The Life and Times of Mary Musgrove (2012). The author, Steven Hahn, is a History Professor at St. Olaf College, and has written the most recent biography of this intriguing woman. At one point, she was among the most significant land owners in colonial Georgia. I am fascinated by what a bilingual, bicultural woman on the frontier can teach me about not only her ingenuity and “cultural acumen” (Hahn’s label), but also this period in early Georgia history, especially along the coast, which was the first place British colonial ships had to land.
From among these three books, I favor Levine’s book–largely because he writes about mentors and teachers who have shaped his life and his love of writing poetry. I said earlier that the idea of enjoyment reminded me of his book. In the introduction to The Bread of Time, he says that the most influential mentors have been those who helped him see what he enjoys. Simply put, he enjoys the writing of each sentence. He likes the work. I look forward to reading someone who takes such pleasure in writing.
Naturally, I have thought often about this project. Plus, I am older and have more experience from which to draw ideas. Therefore, this letter to you may seem too long or ambitious. I offer it, however, as a sincere picture of my current considerations. It also serves to illustrate what’s possible in your thinking. When you email me, I’d like to know what you are considering and why? Develop your letter with as many specifics as will clearly communicate your prospects.