Of clean streets and English papers

The association of ideas has a wonderful power.

Something I read recently used (ironically, of course, and slightly mangled) the snippet, “The ploughman homeward plods his weary way” from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Speeding along a highly personal synaptic route, this line oddly but instantly reminded me of a scene in The Sun Also Rises in which Jake Barnes emerges onto the street very early in the morning to see that the street cleaners are about their business wetting things down. From Gray to Hemingway—now there’s a stretch. But it’s an inevitable association of ideas for me.

When I was a college senior, I lived in a house on the southwest corner of Hanover’s main intersection. (Imaginatively, we usually referred to it as “The Corner.”) Most of us shared rooms on the ground and second floors, and used them as studies. We slept in a barracks-like space in the attic known as “The Tunnel,” which was reputed to be the coldest room on campus (the south gable-end window was never closed). I did most of my reading and studying in my room, but when it came time to write, I’d stake out space at a table in the rather grand, usually empty, main room on the ground floor.

My early college career was, let’s just say, undistinguished, but by my senior year I was a happy and ravenous English major, writing decent papers and getting good grades. For my final paper in a course on 17th and 18th Century British lit, I decided to tackle the transition from Augustan to Romantic by comparing the structures of a poem, Gray’s Elegy, and a building, Horace Walpole’s “little Gothic Castle,” Strawberry Hill. I began with a small pile of books and a notebook of lined pages early on a soft May evening, and finished banging away at the typescript as the sun came up the next morning. I knew this was essentially the last intellectual effort of my college career, and I knew I’d done good work and was finishing well. I felt just fine.

And when I wandered out the front door to see if the day deserved me, there were the street cleaning machines watering and brushing Hanover’s Main Street. In the dizzy fatigue of such moments, and stuffed to the gills with every book, play, and poem I’d inhaled over the past few years, my mind flashed immediately to Jake and the sprinkled streets of Pamplona, and with such force that I’ve never forgotten the moment. Inevitably, the memory now has come to remind me of youth and possibility and far horizons.

Of course, the same association means I’m the world’s only English major who, hearing “far from the madding crowd,” thinks Hemingway, not Hardy.

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