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Fall Convocation

Fall Convocation Archives: Edmunson Speech

Mr. Mark Edmundson, Daniels Family NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor of English
Convocation Address - University of Virginia
October 21, 2005

Thank you. I'm very pleased and very honored to be here and without false modesty, I really feel a certain amount of doubt that I would have anything new to say to so distinguished and successful a group of people, but thank you anyway for asking me.

I'm addressing, I know, some of the most successful students at the University and also their families, the parents, people who've had great success in one of the most difficult and indeed probably a truly impossible art, the raising of children. I myself have children and I think I can begin to understand what this day means to the parents and the grandparents and sisters and brothers and uncles who've made the trip to Charlottesville and from my heart, warmest congratulations for what you've achieved and what is likely to be achieved in the future.

This is, as I say, a remarkably successful group of people and what I'm going to being talking about is not success at all. What I'm going to be talking about over the next 20 minutes is failure and the necessary role that failure plays in anything that would qualify as success. I'm going to come out in favor of failure. I'm going to say some good things in behalf of it. I'm going to enjoin you before you leave here and maybe some time in the future to fail a little bit more.

But before I do that, I want to tell you something. Let me put it this way—it's a narrative and if you laugh, it's a joke and if you nod your head wisely, it's a story and if you get up and leave, it's really bad. Here it is. Once upon a time there was a man named Joseph. He was a good husband, a good father, a good provider. He lived well in the world. He was also a religious man. He prayed regularly, gave money to his church, upright, good and strong. He had everything he wanted in the world except for one thing. He wanted more than anything else to win the lottery, so he would pray regularly and he would say, "Oh Lord, I've been a good man. I've sacrificed, I've prayed. I've held up my end of the bargain. Please, I would like to win the lottery." Years went by. Still no lottery. Joseph became a little bit more insistent—"Lord, I've sacrificed, I've prayed, I've done your good works, I've done your bidding in every way. Now, what about the lottery?"

This goes on for more years still until Joseph begins to get a little bit irritated with the Lord. "Lord, when am I going to win the lottery?" Still nothing. Finally, one day Joseph begins to entreat the Lord again and a voice comes to him as from above. It says, "Joseph." "Hmmm, yes." "This is the Lord." "Finally. Lord I've sacrificed, I've prayed, I've been an upright and a good man. I've done all of your bidding. When am I going to win the lottery." "Joseph, be calm." "Lord, please, when?" "Joseph, I have one piece of advice for you." "Lord, what is it? I'll do anything." "Joseph, buy a ticket."

Buy a ticket. That's the subject indirectly of my talk. Well, it turned out to be a joke and I'm very glad about that. The last time I was here in U Hall I have to admit the joke was on me. I took my son who I'm very proud to have here today to a concert by a guy named Ludacris who's a rapper. I like Ludacris a lot. It turned out that none of the other parents were available to take their children to that show. I don't really know why. And I sat up there underneath no. 32 right up there and I was enjoying the show and then suddenly the person who was standing roughly where I am now—that was Ludacris—looked up and said something like this. "I want to send one out to the elderly dude jamming in the back."

And it was strange because I was up there by myself and I looked around for the elderly dude and I didn't see him and then 'Cris—I call him 'Cris because we're kind of friendly—helped me out by having somebody shine a big spotlight up there, so I could look for the elderly dude, but the problem was the light was really in my eyes and I couldn't see him for anything.

You know Oscar Wilde's great line? The tragedy of getting older is not that one is old, it's that one is young. I know that you thought I was going to say— I like Ludacris. I know you thought I was going to say something bad about your music, I know you did, but you know, from a boomer perspective, the way we sometimes look at it is this—you gave us Britney Spears and we gave you the Rolling Stones. It's hardly fair.

Well, that was a bittersweet introduction on Ludacris's part. You know who's clapping and who's not here. That was a bittersweet introduction on Ludacris's part, it really was, and I'm pleased to revisit that scene of trauma and fundamentally to have it healed by President Casteen's very very generous introduction, generous in its words and also coming from President Casteen who is— There's been no better university president in America in the last 15 years. We all know that.

But as he was talking about the list of my accomplishments of which I'm sort of duly proud, I flashed on something else that I often have occasion to think about. Those are things that come off my resume and, as I say, it's a good and fine resume and many of you who are out there today are compiling resumes that will be better and finer by far, but one of the things I think about when I hear that resume is another resume that I have and that resume I call my ghost resume. And what's on my ghost resume are all the things that went awry, the essays that didn't work, the book projects that fell apart, the writing that seemed like it was coming from the veritable pen of Samuel Johnson on Tuesday and turned out on Friday not to make any sense under the sun.

I think about my first book, Towards Reading Freud, Princeton University Press. The struggle to get that book published, the war to get that book published, is something that Napoleon would've admired—good strategy, Edmundson, nice move, but it doesn't say that on the resume. It just says all of the good stuff. There's a whole litany of failures there and they continue to happen. I continue to try things that don't work, try things that half work, try things that need to be revised five times before they're ever going to work. There's no doubt about it.

When I was young man I had a myth of my own. It's the myth of arrival and what that myth said was that at a certain point you get to a place in your career and everything goes well. I'm here to tell you that that point does not exist, at least until they write your biography, but I'm proud of those failures because they made possible what successes I was able to garner. I surprised myself occasionally and that felt pretty good.

I was a student of failure for a long time and I have been and I've watched people who are remarkable successes, the people I admired most, going through their lives compiling failure after failure. The first person I encountered in that regard and the one whose work really changed my life was Malcolm X. I remember reading Malcolm X's book. It was the first book that I ever bought with my own money, a book that I read all the way through without getting up, as I recall it. It just fascinated me. I remember Malcolm X as a street thug going to jail in Boston. He lived close to me. I remember him getting into jail and getting into arguments in the prison yard and feeling that he couldn't keep up with the arguers, though he was smart, he had a good mind, because he didn't know much. And he knew that the way to learn something was to read and he went to the prison library and he got out as many books as he could. He said I went down those pages and 15, 20 words were words I didn't know, so I went and I got the dictionary and I started reading the dictionary but I didn't remember the words, so I copied down the words and I copied down their definitions. I copied the whole dictionary. You can't believe what a world opened up to me at that point, Malcolm X said.

He had led a miserable failure of a life and suddenly he was an intellectual and a dynamic man. He went on from there to be a preacher among the black Muslims for the Reverend Elijah Muhammad, dramatic, not always right in my view, but surely provocative all the time. And then on to embrace a different kind of Islam in which he held out hope for the brotherhood of all women and all men regardless of color. Malcolm X was somebody who looked back repeatedly, looked back on failures as well as successes, and used those failures as an opportunity to do something else. He didn't have one life or two. He had three or four because of the resiliency that he showed.

Another one of my heroes in the art of failure is Walt Whitman. Walt Whitman at the age 32 was absolutely nothing, absolutely nothing. He was not good at anything. He taught school for a while and he was bad at that and for this reason: he refused to whip his students. He wrote temperance novels of an unreadable badness. He wrote newspaper pieces that really don't hold up anymore, but then suddenly reading Emerson and writing in his notebook, strange and wonderful lines started to come to pass. Suddenly Whitman was writing ecstatically outside himself and the result of that amazing faith in his own possibilities amidst failure was the best book of American poetry, from my point of view, ever written, Leaves of Grass. He sent it off to the most formidable literary figure in America at the time, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson, somebody who combined all the prestige of every single Nobel Prize winner alive today. Emerson took the volume, read it and said, "I find the finest piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed." And he told Whitman as much and Whitman printed it on the spine of the book and sent it out. Good for him.

Whitman went on to live the life that he imagined in Song of Myself and in Leaves of Grass. In the 1860s, he became a male nurse in the hospitals in Washington. He tended the men, the wounded, Union and Confederate both. He took their letters down. He gave them small presents. He made their last moments at least something like bearable. He'd walk in the street in the morning and exchange glances with Abraham Lincoln and I like to think that the two of them recognized each other as having something quite unusual because, boy, if you're going to look for failure in American literature and American history, how many elections did Abraham Lincoln win? Not many. Not many, but he came back every time. Came back every time.

There are other places to look for this kind of resiliency. I'm thinking of a book about football—I still love football—that I read by Tim Green. Tim Green says what ultimately do you learn from this game and he thinks hard and he says, "there's only one thing that really sticks with me and that's this—you've got to get up again. Sometimes it really hurts terribly terribly but you do learn from this game that you need to get up one more time." This is a lesson being taken to heart now in Tallahassee, Florida.

But I want to tell you— I'm going to raise my finger now while we're on the subject of football. No more of that "not gay" chant, all right? You would hurt Uncle Whitman's feelings, a gay man himself. You don't have to prove you're a guy by disparaging your gay brothers and sisters and while my finger's still in the air, have a look at Malcolm X, especially those last chapters about racial justice. I do all the time, and try, never quite adequately I'm afraid.

Failure is a big part of education it seems to me and we're lucky at the University of Virginia because our most exemplary figures are figures who were not successful all the time, not even close to it. I'm pleased and proud to be wearing my doctoral robes from Yale University, but Yale was a school where I often felt you had it or you didn't, you knew it or you didn't, whereas at Virginia I feel there are many, many chances.

Edgar Allan Poe's life was a disaster, right? Alcohol problems, health problems, gambling problems, every deficiency under the sun. For a while, one of the great scholarly debates in Poe studies was whether in fact he had died drunk and in the gutter or not, or whether he died that way or not, that was not unhabitual for Poe. Yet he turned out a spectacular amount of writing, not just the short stories but some absolutely amazing, in their breadth, anyway, critical studies. He was a reviewer like nobody else. He worked ferociously and he opened up a whole nightmare world in his art, the world of The House of Usher, the world of all those horrible tales. Introduced us to nightmares, made the art of psychoanalysis possible, and developed gothic art, which has its resonances in some of the best writing going on today—as well in Saw II, soon to be seen at the multiplex next Friday.

I think of Thomas Jefferson, a true cultural and political hero, author of the Declaration of Independence, Statutes of Religious Freedom, founder of the University of Virginia, and yet in many ways, a deeply flawed man which relations to his slaves, to Sally Hemings and the children he bore with her do not really merit, don't bear easy consideration, but I like to think of Jefferson as somebody who on some level acknowledging his flaws, helped in his way to make people [in posterity] free in ways that he himself couldn't make the people around him free all the time. When the revelations finally came out about Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the response that I heard from a number of black people, charitable in its response to failure, went like this—it's good finally to be able to welcome Thomas Jefferson into the family in an official way.

One problem with success is that people ask you to do it over and over and over again. We all know people who've written the same book, painted the same picture, sung the same song time and time and time again. It's a wonderful moment on a Joni Mitchell album when she says, after somebody asked her to do "Circle Game" one more time, "you know, nobody ever said to Van Gogh, 'paint "A Starry Night" again, man.' " But the wonderful thing about Joni Mitchell is that she has tried everything under the sun in music. She's worked with jazz musicians, she's done folk rock, she's composed on her own. Her originality is simply stunning. Her breadth is stunning. Most of us know her as [??] the '60s. Not true. She's a good painter, too. One time I saw Joni Mitchell, it was in New York City and she had a big band with her. That was the experiment of the day. It was simply awful, but I was pleased to pay my enormous sum. I felt like I'd given each member of the band about $5.00 in order to continue a career of tremendous failure and tremendous success. The tickets weren't as much as the Stones tickets, I have to say.

Is it F. Scott Fitzgerald who said there's no second acts in American life? It's possible that in an American life there's nothing but second acts. Hillary Rodham Clinton in many ways in disgrace for eight years; the remark about cookies was just the beginning of it; the failure of the health care plan with Ira Magaziner; thoughtless remarks; the embarrassment of living with Bill. As they say in Arkansas, a dog who won't always stay on the porch. But now she's re-invented herself and become one of the most respected, tough-minded, intelligent and hard working, however you think about her politics, people in the United States Senate, a second act in American life. And there surely must be second acts in American life when you can turn on the TV and see none other than Donald Trump standing out there in front of you.

One way to think about education and what we're trying to do here is a dramatic second chance for people. People come to us having been lovingly and hopefully socialized by their mothers and fathers, by their ministers and priests and by their families and as beautiful as that process of socialization is, sometimes it fails, sometimes it doesn't work. People need to find a new way to talk about themselves in their worlds. People need to find a new thing to be. People need, as it were, a rebirth, often of a secular sort. In my classes, they sometimes learn from Wordsworth how much nature truly means to them and how much guarding the natural world can do. They learn from Blake what it means to be an energized prophet for social change or they learn from Jane Austen what it can mean to be somebody who loves the world as it is and lives happily within it.

This need for second chance, this need for change, is no insult to the parents who've socialized our students the first time through. Parental love is like the sun—it's bright and endless and free and is often never thanked, but provides people with the confidence to take another chance, to do another thing, to start again.

I've talked about a lot of people here in my pantheon—Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and more seriously, Thomas Jefferson and Edgar Allan Poe, but I want to end with one particular hero of mine, Saul Bellow, who died this year. Bellow was a simply amazing writer with a huge achievement but what was the best moment of his life, he tells us, came in the midst of failure. He was in Paris in his 30s on a Guggenheim Fellowship. He had just finished publishing two novels, a little bit sterile, a little bit staid. "I wrote them," he said, "to satisfy the English professors," at which my heart quails a little bit. He was a halfway through another novel about two brothers living in a mental institution, as I remember—dismal stuff. "At a certain point," he said, "in the middle of Paris not hearing English any more, away from my own everyday language, the language became precious and rare and more intimate and immediate to me and I began to write something entirely new, something that was entirely a surprise to myself."

That surprise became a book called The Adventures of Augie Marsh and in it Bellow is successful in dramatizing a new voice, and also in thinking, as you'll see. I'll read you a couple of lines from it and then out, about America and its own resiliency and its own potential. Here's the beginning, "'I am an American,'" says Augie, "'Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.'" It's beautiful stuff. Then 1,500 manuscript pages later, Bellow, looking back through Augie's eyes, trying to figure out if he's made anything at all or if he's flopped again and maybe half-satisfied if he has, says, "'I may well be a flop in this line of endeavor. Columbus, too, thought he was a flop probably when they sent him back in chains, which didn't prove there was no America.'"

Let me close by asking you to succeed as much as you can, but in the process of succeeding, I hope that you'll generate a really remarkable ghost resume made of the failures that come from trying to do things that you need to do, that are hard to do, and that are demanding to do. Whether it seems in character or not, it's often the time to start the band, to write the poem, to begin the business, to initiate anything that's new and challenging and difficult.

I told you that story which turned out to be a joke about buying a ticket. Tickets are expensive. It's hard to draft that novel, hard to get the band together, hard to learn how to shoot a movie. Tickets are expensive, especially the risky ones, but there're infinitely worth buying, so buy a ticket, buy a ticket, buy one.

Thanks.