Sonata on a Michigan Night
by Arthur Powers
followed by Q&A
Sapientia, Virtus, Amicitia
This is the story of two men. Not of right and wrong, not of good and evil. Simply of two men.
They had much in common—both born in the latter half of the 1880s, both raised on farms—Edmund McCloud here in Michigan, John Timbler in Ohio. Both had mothers who had been schoolteachers and instilled in their sons a love of literature. One would think the two men would have been friends.
Edmund McCloud came to the State Teachers College as a freshman. He was a bit raw, rugged, handsome in a boney way, with hay-colored hair. He stood erect and walked confidently, both through the physical campus and the world of studies. It was soon clear that he was among the brightest and most industrious students at the college. His senior thesis (“Not Simply Drifting With The River: Teaching Mark Twain To High School Students “) was one of the best the faculty had read. Professor Howard McCracken, dean of Literature and Humanistic Studies offered Edmund a teaching position, which he happily accepted.
His students—about two-thirds of them women—found young Professor McCloud’s classes reassuring. Most of the students intended to be school teachers, and they viewed literature as one of the subjects they would have to teach. Professor McCloud provided them with admirable structures—suited appropriately to elementary, junior high, or high school—for categorizing and presenting the major British, American, and (in the case of future high school teachers) European writers. His methods recognized the value of memorization—especially of portions of Shakespeare and the best known British and American poets—but also provided helpful information on historical periods, social influences, and various styles and schools.
Even as a student, Edmund McCloud had been a little stiff, a little formal. Although liked by his fellow male students and admired by the females, he had never been popular. With his professorship, his stiffness stiffened—as it were—a bit more. This might have been terminal had he not fallen in love with and married one of his students—warmhearted, pretty Emily Johnson. Emily humanized him. He would occasionally blush at her shows of affection, but one had only to see his eyes and face light up in her presence to know that here was love.
Nonetheless, his stiffness became a campus legend. Typical was an incident that occurred some years later. It was one of those bright autumn central Michigan afternoons when one isn’t quite sure whether it is hot or cool. That is to say, at one moment, the sun shining bright, one finds oneself sweating, then a moment later a passing cloud or breeze makes one wish one had on a light sweater. On such an afternoon, working in his office on the second floor of Warriner Hall—although his office window was opened—Professor McCloud felt uncomfortably warm. He stepped out of the office and up the adjoining staircase, opening the window on the landing. This created a cross-breeze, and Professor McCloud returned to his office to work in comfort.
It happened that three young men—students—were working on a project in the room above him. Feeling suddenly chilly, they went out and found the window open, closed it, and returned to their work. Professor McCloud, feeling warm again, went out to the hall, saw the window closed, went up to the landing, opened it, and returned to his work. The students… well so it went, until the fourth time that the students went to close the window. Professor McCloud, dignified, erect, and respectful, appeared at his office door.
“Gentlemen,” he said. “I believe we are working at cross purposes.”
The college was growing rapidly. Five years after Edmund McCloud joined the faculty, there was need for an additional literature professor. Professor McCracken interviewed a number of candidates, and hired John Timbler. Timbler had, as noted, grown up in Ohio, attended the State University there, then taught at a small college in Indiana for six years. He was a year older than Edmund McCloud, shorter, dark-haired, and slightly plump.
Students found Professor Timbler’s classes different from—and, for many, less reassuring than—Professor McCloud’s. The two men had many points in common. Both—in their way—loved Shakespeare and the great British poets. Both admired Twain and found Dreiser dreary. After the great cultural shift, when the moderns came into vogue, both preferred Scott Fitzgerald to Hemingway.
Like Professor McCloud, Professor Timbler valued memorization. He could quote extensively and at length and encouraged his students to do likewise. Indeed, every so often his class would degenerate—it would seem—into a fiesta of quotations, students and professor reciting passages back and forth in odd but somehow appropriate repartee—to the joy of everyone.
Professor Timbler delighted in the sounds of it all. He asked students to listen to those sounds. He had them delve into the text—sometimes students would read aloud at length. He encouraged them to express what those texts conjured up within them—feelings, ideas, associations, memories. Oddly, he would not comment on what they said, only nod encouragingly and turn to another student—“and you, Fred?” Although he was liked, and his classes were on the whole enjoyable, many students found them slightly disconcerting. They felt that, while they left Professor McCloud’s classes with answers, they seemed to leave Professor Timbler’s classes with only questions.
World War I came. Although a few of the male students enlisted, although the music professor J. Harold Powers (my grandfather) organized a patriotic marching band, the war itself did not much affect the campus.
But the aftermath of the War—the rapid destruction of the old order—affected the culture. Literature particularly. Professors and students found themselves reading Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, and—a bit later—Hemingway, and attempting to struggle through Eliot and Pound. Professor McCloud’s book, “Guide to Teaching Literature to High School Students,” first published in 1919, came out with a second edition in 1929 that contained a chapter on “Reading the New Writers,” and from then on required new editions every two years. (It had been followed in 1920 by “Guide to Teaching Literature to Junior High School Students” and in 1921 by the immensely popular “Guide to Teaching Literature to Elementary Students,” but Professor McCloud felt that these two groups of students had less need to engage with modern literature.)
Professor Timbler‘s first book, published in 1923, was different in nature. It was a series of essays, most dealing with individual authors. There was an essay, for instance, on Willa Cather which posed the question of how it was that her characters—at least in her Midwestern stories—are so vital, three dimensional, alive. The essay did not answer the question, but left the reader wondering why—or whether—the observations were true.
In faculty meetings, the two men were always civil, if not cordial. There was no animosity between them—neither was inclined toward animosity. But there also seemed to be little sympathy in the way they viewed the world—or its literature.
Edmund and Emily raised three daughters and two sons, attended the Presbyterian Church, and lived (from 1923—when it was built) in a big, square, comfortable stucco house three blocks from campus. John and his wife Paula (who was striking both in looks and intelligence) raised three sons and a daughter, attended the Methodist Church, and lived in a late Victorian clapboard, with a wrap-around front porch, five blocks to the south.
Both families often attended the excellent series of concerts (soloists, chamber music, small choral groups) organized by Professor J. Harold Powers. Edmund enjoyed the structure of classical music. John would sit contemplatively, absorbed in the sound.
So life progressed until 1937 when Professor McCracken decided to retire. There was a strong assumption that Edmund McCloud, as the senior professor, the most widely published and best known of the department’s faculty, would succeed to the chair. But a resistance began to stir within a certain sector of the faculty, and Professor Timbler’s name surfaced as a candidate. He did not withdraw his name.
This was the situation on a certain early June evening when Edmund McCloud took a walk. Final exams had been taken, grades handed in, and the campus was preparing for graduation ceremonies. It was a respite—a restful time—for teachers.
But Edmund’s mind was not entirely at rest. He was not thinking—at least consciously—about the chairmanship of the department. He was revising a chapter in his Guide to Teaching Junior High Students—the chapter that dealt with early American writers, James Fennimore Cooper among others. As a boy he had loved Cooper. Of course his tastes had since matured. In his late twenties, he had read Twain's essay on Cooper—it would be difficult after that to read Cooper with a grain of seriousness. But children, he thought, have a wonderful ability to overlook flaws in literature and to get into the heart of the story. If he could…and then he thought of the chairmanship.
It was a sudden thought, a pang. He was not sure how he felt about it—he was not an introspective man. It had not surprised him that another candidate had been put forward—he was aware of his stiffness, of the barrier standing between himself and most other people....
He looked up. When he left the house, the evening sky had still been light—in June, the Michigan sky remains light very late. Now it was dark—but a cloudless sky. Lost happily among his thoughts of how to restructure the chapter on Cooper, he had strolled out to the western edge of town, and he stood now at the end of the last tree-covered street, where the land opened to fields and sky. The air was pleasantly warm—with a hint of coolness now and then—and the cicadas were singing. The sky was sparkling with stars—rising up like a great glistening dome.
He looked up at it—into it—and then, for the first time since his boyhood, he was not looking at it or into it—he was of it—swept up and a part of it. He was inside the night, the sky, the field, the stars—and they in him. It would not have surprised him to see a choir of angels, to hear the harmony of the universe. Except for the cicadas, it was silent—and yet it seemed to him he was in it—"inside the music," he said to Emily later as he tried to describe it to her, "as though I were inside a sonata."
Emily smiled—she knew such moments. And it was true, she later noted, that after that evening, when they went to concerts or listened to classical music on the Victrola, Edmund seemed not only to enjoy the architecture of the music (as he had always done), but somehow to be inside it.
How long this rapt moment lasted Edmund never knew. Probably not more than a minute. Eternity is infinite, outside of time. But, as he returned to the tree-lined street around him, the simply seen sky and fields, a rush of knowledge accompanied him. With startling clarity, he knew things he didn't know, yet had always known.
First among these was that John Timbler had a deeper understanding of literature than he—Edmund—would ever have. Not a greater knowledge, but a greater understanding. Edmund knew about literature—John lived it. He saw this clearly, and knew that he had known it for years.
He was an honest man. He turned almost immediately and started walking toward John Timbler's house. It was late, almost eleven o'clock, but he knew Timbler often kept late hours—especially now with no early morning classes. And he was right—as he approached the gray Victorian house with its wrap-around porch, he saw a light on in the downstairs study. He climbed the porch steps and knocked lightly on the front door.
He was half afraid that Paula Timber—whom he admired but was a little frightened of—might answer the door, but it was John himself who did so.
"Edmund," he said, his voice slightly surprised. He stepped back, holding the door open. "Come in."
"I'm sorry..." Edmund started. It suddenly came to him how late it was. He and Timbler had been in each other's homes from time to time over the years, but they were by no means intimate or given to late night visits. "I saw your light...."
"Not at all," John answered. He led the way into his study. It was an untidy, comfortable room—a large wooden desk fronting the window, a leather sofa and arm chair, a small oriental rug, shelves of books to the ceiling on every wall. They sat down—Edmund on the sofa, John in the arm chair.
"I was out walking... thinking...." Edmund vaguely felt that he should have started with something more conversational, but what that something could possibly be escaped him. "John, I've come to say that I think you should be chairman of the department."
John Timbler sat speechless for a moment. It was clear to him that Edmund was absolutely sincere—the man was transparently honest.
"Because... because you love literature."
"I. I plan about it—understand it. I know how to tell teachers how to teach it. But you...you live it. You can lead this department to a better...."
His voice died out. He could envision what he wanted to say, but couldn't quite find words for it.
They were silent for a few moments. John was looking at Edmund, Edmund looking at the pattern on the oriental carpet.
"But Edmund," John said, "I don't want to be chairman. You'd be much better at it than I would. You’re much better at that kind of thing. The only reason I was nominated...."
Another silence. Edmund was looking at him.
"The only reason was that there was a feeling, a fear, that there wouldn't be room."
"Well, yes. That things would be so structured, so practical, so oriented to teaching techniques..."
"The faculty thought that?"
"I wasn’t sure."
"John. They don't understand. We... I... need you." Edmund made a vague motion with his hand. "I'm good at structures... at setting things in order... explaining. But when I really want to understand—understand from inside—I pick up your essays—some of the others' also, but especially yours. There has to be room, space, for you.... I, for one, could hardly do my work otherwise."
The room again lapsed into silence. What needed to be said had been said. Edmund rose awkwardly to his feet, and John also rose. They exchanged a few light phrases about the end of the year, graduation, the coming summer vacation. John walked Edmund to the door.
"I'm preparing a new chapter—the early Americans—Cooper and those. Would you be willing to look at the draft?"
John nodded. "Gladly."
"And if you have anything you're working on... I'd enjoy reading it."
John nodded again.
They said good night. Edmund walked out once again into the pleasant, now cooling, magical night. A week later he was elected unanimously chairman of the department, a position he filled honorably and capably for many years.
On an early September evening of that year, 1937, John Timbler finished reading the draft of the new, substantially re-edited edition of Edmund McCloud’s “Guide to Teaching Literature to Junior High School Students.” His carbon copy had red penciled comments—not many, but meaningful.
Paula Timbler, who read everything, seated lengthwise on the sofa in John’s office, her legs stretched out, set aside the last page of the draft.
“The man’s a literary engineer,” she said dryly.
John looked at her a moment, thoughtfully.
“Every field needs its engineers,” he said. “They build the structures in which the rest of us operate.”
She looked at her husband, and a gentle smile flitted across her intelligent face.
“You’re a good man, John Timbler,” she said.
Life continued. In 1959 the college became a university, but both men had retired earlier in the decade. Many retired faculty moved away, either to escape Michigan winters or to live nearer their children (J. Harold Powers, for instance, moved to East Lansing). But Edmund and John lived on in their old homes, the university and town gradually and not unpleasantly growing up around them. Edmund continued to bring out new editions of his respected Guides to Teaching, and served as editorial advisor to a well known line of textbooks. He continued to send his drafts to John for comment, and to request drafts of John’s forthcoming essays.
Two or three times a month, the men would meet by appointment or chance. They would discuss their work, news of old colleagues, events at the university. After a while they would sit in amiable silence, then one or the other would stand up and take his leave.
If asked, Edmund McCloud—who never wanted to presume—would have said: "Colleagues. We're good—excellent—colleagues." But John Timbler would have thought for a moment, then nodded his head and said, "Yes. We're friends."
Arthur Powers is from the Midwest, but has lived most of his adult life in Brazil. H received a Fellowship in Fiction from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, three annual awards for short fiction from the Catholic Press Association, and second place in the 2008 Tom Howard Fiction Contest. In 2011, two of his stories were nominated for Pushcart Prizes. In addition to Prime Number, his writing has appeared in America, Christianity & Literature, Dappled Things, Hiram Poetry Review, Kansas Quarterly, Roanoke Review, South Carolina Review, Southern Poetry Review, and many other magazines and anthologies.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: The story simply blossomed.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: At my age (64) it is difficult to say—a lifetime of reading has brought thousands of influences. Among those I count Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad, Joaquím Maria Machado de Assis, Flannery O’Connor, and Sean O’Faolain.
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: Any place. When working in the Amazon, I used to drive for hours in silence (relative silence, that is—if one discounts the bumping of the jeep over the dirt road, and the savannah and jungle sounds through the open car window). It was a great place to write stories—I would write them in my head, of course, and put them down later.
Q: Who plays you in the movie?
A: Nobody. My stories are not about me.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Raising our nine-year-old granddaughter.