Shaping Identity: Literature that Lives in Me

by Laura Bloxham

I have always loved reading.  When I was a child I gravitated toward Nancy Drew, who solved mysteries, had a supportive father, although largely in the background, a best friend, a boyfriend, Ned, and a car.  She was independent. I avoided animal stories, which almost always ended with the animal dying. I cherished Little Women, which I reread every summer, hoping Jo would choose Laurie this time.  I was always disappointed. Other than Ned and Laurie, my other romantic interest was the Scarlet Pimpernel.  I imagined I would marry him. Many years later, when I was teaching a seminar on the English novel, one of my students walked into the classroom, slammed Jane Eyre down on the table and said, “I don’t want to hear a single critical comment about Jane Eyre.  I’m in love with her.” Later that semester, another student leaned over to talk to a student during the break in class and said, “I’m in love with Will Ladislaw.”  The other student said, “You realize Will Ladislaw is a fictional character, don’t you?”

I’ve never been much bothered by the line between life and fiction.  But it was not until college that I began to realize that what I read could alter my actions or govern my life.  A professor recommended that I read Joyce Cary’s A Horse’s Mouth.  Gulley Jimson is an artist who misquotes William Blake and who leads an imaginative life much like Blake’s.  I loved that book so much that I could not finish it. I quit forty pages before the end. Something there grabbed me and would not let go.  A few years later, but not directly as a consequence of reading Cary’s book, I wrote my dissertation on Blake.

Some years after that, I was standing in a classroom at the University of Georgia. I was teaching John Keats’ “Ode to Psyche.”  I reached the last stanza where Keats dedicates “an untrodden region” of his mind to the worship of Psyche. The idea of those “branched thoughts,” growing because of “pleasant pain,” so overwhelmed me that I fell in love with John Keats right there in Athens, Georgia.

Reading has given me many loves, but it has also haunted me.  Many of those haunts have been short term. This year three books possessed me, Tara Westover’s Educated, Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists, and Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow.  Each of those books lived in me and my dreams for weeks.  John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, a notable read, has haunted me for almost three decades.  Haunting is not something that can be explained, although I have tried to teach some of these books I care most about and perhaps demystify some of the magic by subjecting it to analysis.  But mostly I cherish what lives in me, and I share those books with others.

I’m not sure when I first read Frank O’Connor’s short story, “Guests of the Nation.”  I know it was in college. I also know that when I began teaching Introduction to Literature classes in graduate school and for at least my first couple of decades as a professor, I chose anthologies for my classes based on whether they included this story.  I wanted to share the story with my students, but I also wanted to figure out why the short story moved me.

The story is set during the 1920-22 Anglo-Irish conflict.  I am going to stop writing at this point and reread the story, which I have not done in many years.  I am going to check to see if it still haunts me and to refresh the details I want to present here. If you do not want the story spoiled for you, you should also stop reading here, read the story, and then come back for my comments.

The story is not about war, although war is the context and provides the catalyst for the personal conflict and actions.  Point of view is the most important part of the story from an analysis standpoint. Within a page, the narrator tries to justify the situation of guarding two prisoners of war (some of his own countrymen are also prisoners). I began seizing up inside by this time in my rereading: my reading muscle memory recreating all my former experiences reading this story.  The narrator presents these “decent chaps,” “our guests” and the “unpleasant” duty which he is commanded to perform. I knew what was coming, just as the narrator does, and his “chums” know as well. This story is a retrospective piece, for the narrator is haunted too, as he tells us: “I was somehow very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow.  And anything that happened me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.”

And I have never felt the same again either.

Laura Bloxham was born in Seattle, grew up in the public library, and taught literature at Whitworth University for over forty years.

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