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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Native Son, One Who Came and Stayed, One from a Spaceship

I want to quote directly from The History of the Michigan Agricultural College, published in 1915, to give additional information on two men who figured in my last posting. The material on Bailey in the History is largely copied, the editor admits, from Who's Who in America.

"Liberty Hyde Bailey, M.S., was born in South Haven, Michigan, March 15, 1858. He was the son of Liberty Hyde Bailey and Sarah (Harrison) Bailey; reared on a farm; B.S., Michigan Agricultural College, 1882; M.S., 1886. He married Annette Smith, of Lansing, Michigan, June 6, 1883. Has given particular attention to botany and horticultural subjects, and to economics of agriculture, agricultural education, and general rural questions; assistant to Asa Gray, Harvard, 1882-83; professor of horticulture and landscape gardening, Michigan Agricultural College, 1885-88; professor of horticulture at Cornell, 1888-1903; director of the college of agriculture since 1903, an LL.D. from Wisconsin University." A long list of publications and edited series follows. The entry ends: "Brought up COngregationalist. Democrat by preference."

William S. Holdsworth, as it turns out, was not a Michigan native. "He was born in London, England, February 28, 1856," son of cabinet maker and bookkkeeper William S. Holdsworth and Mary (Saunders) Holdsworth. "At an early age [unspecified] he came with his parents to the shores of Grand Traverse Bay, Michigan. His fondness for this beautiful, invigorating region never waned; here he built his summer home and while resting, he gratified his artisti taste with brush and palette." Holdsworth apparently earned his bachelor of arts degree from M.A.C., "graduated with the class of '78, supplementing his work with a course in art at Boston, Massachusetts." There he met Adeline Smith, a teacher, who would become his wife. "In 1881 he began teaching at M.A.C.; from 1883 to 1887 he was designer and draftsman for Bond & Chandler, Chicago, Illinois. From there he returned to this College to take charge of the department of drawing, first as instructor, then as assistant and then as full professor from 1904 to September, 1907." Ill health led Holdsworth to try warmer climates (California, Florida), but in 1907 he died of tuberculosis "at his home just north of College Campus."

Bailey's portrait shows a clean-shaven man in wire-rimmed glasses, while Holdsworth wears a shy man's long, dark beard.

The third passage I want to quote today has nothing to do with Bailey or Holdsworth. It comes from Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them, by Francine Prose. During a time in her life when she had a long commute between home and her teaching job, a time made horrifyingly memorable by the Challenger explosion, which replayed endlessly on the bus station TV, Prose tells how she made the daily transition from anxiety to peace and hope. The experience she recounts is very familiar and meaningful to me, and I hope it will be to others:

"As soon as I was settled [on the bus] and had finished my soda and cookie and magazine, I began reading the short stories of Anton Chekhov. It was my ritual, and my reward." She begins to relax. "A sense of comfort came over me, as if in those thirty minutes I myself had been taken up in a spaceship and shown the whole world, a world full of sorrows, both different and very much like my own, and also a world of promise. It was as if I had been permitted to share an intelligence large enough to embrace bus drivers and bus station junkies, a vision so piercing it would have kept seeing those astronauts long after that fiery plume disappeared from the screen. I began to think nothing was wasted, that someday I could do something with what was happening to me, to use even the New Rochelle bus station in some way in my work.

"Reading Chekhov, I felt not happy, exactly, but as close to happiness as I knew I was likely to come. And it occurred to me that this was the pleasure and mystery of reading, as well as the answer to those who say that books will disappear. For now, books are still the best way of taking great art and its consolations along with us on a bus."

That feeling of comfort, of sharing another's large intelligence, of no part of life being a waste--one enters the world of another mind and, in so doing, sees the entire world from an almost detached and distant vantage point. Annie Dillard described seeing the earth from outer space, something she could only do in her imagination. When we see it from there, in all its beauty and wholeness, petty irritations and worries fall away.

Of course, receiving this gift depends on the book one chooses to read.

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