St. John's nibbles on literary diversion

Faculty, friends take lunch break from the classics


On the table this week at the St. John's College American Fiction study group was the story of a mother of seven dying of cancer who revisits the bitter struggles that salted her life.

The college president, Christopher Nelson, not only chose Tillie Olsen's short story "Tell Me a Riddle" for the lunchtime discussion, but he led it, too.

The group, composed of a dozen tutors, faculty spouses and staff members, meets several times a year. Undergraduate students, who usually wrestle with the curriculum's ancient Greek, philosophy and geometry classes, are welcome and occasionally a handful drop by. The warm spring weather and impending exams kept them away this time.

No grades or credits are given in this community free-for-all, true to the three-century-old college's tradition of learning for its own sake.

In the new seminar-like class on the verdant campus, the thoughtful trading of insights seemed to prompt participants to step out of their everyday roles.

"This is an opportunity for staff and others to participate in the life of the college," Nelson said. "In the [Great Books] program, we don't have many American novels."

"But we read stories because they're shorter," he added with a laugh.

Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Herman Melville and Richard Wright are also on the group's list of "peculiarly American" authors taken up in their first year, Nelson said.

Olsen, however, posed more puzzles than most, including the intriguing title to her story, written from 1956 to 1960. Patricia Dempsey, the college's assistant communications director, suggested the story was intended to be the answer to a life's riddle.

After a 47-year marriage that spans the Soviet Stalinist regime, two world wars and the Depression, the nameless female protagonist declares she has seen too much tragedy in her times.

Her musings chronicle frustration at a seemingly sterile existence in the late 1950s - under threat of being shuttered in a seniors' community named "The Haven," a move favored by her husband.

The two tease and taunt each other with nicknames that harden their "stubborn, gnarled roots."

Whether there is any love lost between them, ravaged by time, is a question that the group grappled with. In the twilight of her life, the woman Olsen created seems to seek solitude, to be alone with her thoughts even as her large family gathers around her.

She poses a riddle of sorts in one passage: "Vinegar he poured on me all my life; I am well marinated; how can I be honey now?"

Nelson asked the group whether the theme of betrayal, laced throughout, was simply the "composite of little betrayals, fragments of both his and her experience."

Or, as he suggested, was it a larger betrayal of a shared American dream that never quite came true?

"How to be happy under ordinary circumstances of American normalcy," remarked Eva Brann, a tutor at the private liberal arts college since 1957. "This is a story about how hard that is."

Brann, who grew up in Brooklyn among European refugees from Germany, noted that the close camaraderie of life during wartime is something that many she knew looked back on fondly.

The American immigrant experience, especially those of Russian Jews a century ago, is familiar to Olsen, born in 1912, and is a vein running through her work.

The story's main character remembers a steerage ship and an Old World village, Olshana - and sings a Russian love song stored away for 50 years.

After they were done discussing the tale, slightly sweetened in the end, members of the study group said collective readings and talks enhanced their understanding of literature.

Especially welcome, they said, was the diversion of comparing notes and comments with people they don't usually see.

Frank Rowsome, married to a tutor, said he found the study of short stories yielded "fascinating" glimpses into the country's collective psyche.

"We faculty spouses love to connect with the life of the college," he said. "This enlarges my horizons and teaches me to be a better reader."

Eileen Petrich, a faculty spouse who came with her husband and baby, said she welcomed the immersion in "wonderful, stimulating, intellectual discussion."

She added with a laugh, "I'm the one she [Olsen] was speaking about."

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