A Peak Experience

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If literary critics are to be believed, understanding literature requires an analytical approach. We all know, however, that our experience of a particular book or author is often bound up with where we happen to be in life. In that sense, reading is as much about self-discovery as discovery of what the author meant. Perhaps the great books are those which can accommodate the widest possible range of reader experiences of whatever time and place. Certainly the circumstances in which I read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924) bore little relation to those of its first German readers in the era of the Weimar Republic. Yet connections emerged in the most surprising ways.

In late August 1969 I arrived in St Louis, Missouri, from the UK to embark upon a postgraduate degree in literature. Washington University had a fine pedigree – its founder was T. S. Eliot’s grandfather – and a reputation as the ‘Harvard of the Midwest’. Among recent appointments to the teaching staff was the eminent poet Howard Nemerov. Knowing the name but little else about him, I signed up for a course of ‘independent study’ which meant meeting him once a week to discuss a mutually agreed selection of books. Since my chief interest was American poetry, and Nemerov was among the leading living poets, our syllabus chose itself: we would start with the early twentieth- century greats – Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams – and work down to the present.

After a few weeks it became apparent that Nemerov was bored with these poets, and perhaps with me too. I confronted him: ‘You don’t seem very interested in these people. Perhaps we should read something else.’ ‘What do you suggest?’ he asked. I proposed Thomas Mann. I had read some of the shorter works such as Tonio Kröger and Death in Venice and also his late masterpiece Dr Faustus, a work probably better left till later in life but which, d

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About the contributor

This article was the joint winner of the 2018 Slightly Foxed writers’ competition. After the experiences described above Richard Crockatt spent several years working in bookshops and as an English teacher but eventually returned to academic life, retiring in 2011 as Professor of American History at the University of East Anglia.

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