There is a beautiful town called Mapleville, just off the interstate. Drive too fast and you’ll miss the exit. It is a medium-size university town, in the exact middle of the Midwest, with a bustling downtown, patched together with restaurants and bars, to fill the gaps where the department stores, bakeries, hardware store, and theaters used to be.
The number of bars in Mapleville is ridiculous, since the drinking age has been raised from 18 to 21: this new Prohibition, in theory, bars budding alcoholic students from the premises. The adult alcies who patronize the bars tend to be middle-aged divorcees, head cases, or talented bohemians who stayed in town after finishing, or not finishing, their dissertations. There are thousands of underemployed people in Mapleville, but not enough to fill all these bars, surely. In the early fall and late spring, however, the students muscle their way in, flashing their fake IDs, and pouring outdoors to sit on rickety chairs at unsteady tables on the sidewalks.
Mapleville sounds simple, doesn’t it? A -ville of maple trees, with a university among them. But it might have been called Elmville, since every lawn once had an elm, though all (or most) elms had died of Dutch elm disease by the 1980s. The town might also have been called Ashville, but the ash trees are threatened by Emerald Ash Borers now. The maples continue to thrive, so Mapleville is auspicious.
Mapleville was many things to me. There was always something going on – a poetry reading (dull, but soothing, too), a Robert Altman movie, or a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was my introduction to the so-called intellectual life, or, more accurately, the place that zapped my “intellectual” curiosity. I was wildly excited by Greek tragedy, dead languages, Andrew Marvell, Milton’s Paradise Regained, which I preferred to Paradise Lost, and Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. I’m sure others were thrilled, too, but we midwesterners tended to keep a poker face.
One professor was so excited about The Lusiads (1572), a Portuguese epic poem by Luís de Camões, that we all longed to read it. After searching for a copy for years, he had finally found a translation in a hardcover edition published by a completely unknown press, and ordered the books for us. But the translation proved so unwieldy, such heavy going, that he canceled the assignment, apologizing wittily, telling us to get a refund, and waved us on to Rabelais’s bawdy Gargantuua and Pantagruel, which everybody enjoyed.
I was also an aficionado of Victorian literature, and sometimes signed up for classes whose syllabi I had already read: that freed up time for other pursuits. But to this day, I am haunted by John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, which I read for a class. John’s father began teaching him ancient Greek at the age of 3. (If you have studied Greek, you will be concerned: this isn’t quite the age to memorize complex irregular verbs and construe Aristotle.) Then John started Latin at age 7or 8, and was given the responsibility of teaching his sisters what he learned. He claims that his father’s intense curriculum and overly-ambitious syllabi did not damage him psychologically, but he writes about a “mental breakdown” he had in 1826, at age 20. Nothing gave him pleasure any more, not books, not music, not philosophy, not his debate clubs. He was in hell. And he was sure neither his father nor his intellectual friends could help.
For I now saw, or thought I saw, what I had always before received with incredulity: that the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings: as indeed it has when no other mental habit is cultivated, and the analysing spirit remains without complements and correctives.
He finally recovered, with the help of poetry, especially Coleridge and Wordsworth. Note that it wasn’t a case of being helped by Bentham’s treatises, or Plato’s Republic. No, there was no intellectual cure. He read poets who had suffered depression. He was able to cry over literature.
I would like to say John Stuart Mill’s disease was unknown in Mapleville. Alas, it afflicts people everywhere.
“Mapleville has always been a death trip for me,” a nervous, chain-smoking, skinny lesbian feminist activist told me over coffee.
A death trip! That rattled me.
I asked where she was going. “Home to Mama,” she said bitterly.
I was worried – I did not even know her name. A professor had introduced me to her at a lecture on Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy. I think she was a grad student in philosophy.
“Do you hate Mapleville so much?”
“I’m fed up and have to make a fresh start.”
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
She laughed. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill myself. I’m going to be as obnoxious as possible to all these fuckers here if I meet them again.”
I wrote my phone number on a scrap of paper. “If you need anything… Oh, and Wordsworth helped John Stuart Mill.”
“Wordsworth!” She sounded amused.
I have no suicide hot line skills, so am thankful she never called.
Would my husband and I have been happy if we had stayed in Mapleville? If we’d joined the ranks of the underemployed and become a clerk, a city inspector, or a hospital technician? No, we felt at the time we had to leave. We had to have professional jobs. But why? Should a job determine who we are and where we live?
Alea iacta est.
I will always be an elemental spirit who throve in Mapleville, whether I return or not.