Monday, January 23, 2012

Happy Birthday To...

I may not have the power Google does to commemorate random, posthumous birthdays, but January 23 is a day that can't, for me, pass unmarked: today is the 229th birthday of Marie-Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal.

Because of Stendhal and the debt I owe to his ideas and works, January 23 is fixed as firmly in my mind as if he were a sibling or parent.  And since the day is already flagged, I've tacked on another note of personal significance: it is the birthday, too, of Alan Cheuse, the writing teacher who has most directly influenced me.  

With these concordances, it would be impossible not to reflect on the way literature unites disparate people from disparate times.  In a way, I know both 229 year-old Stendhal and the so-young-by-comparison Alan Cheuse.  Stendhal is unique in how strongly his personality leaps from the page in any of his nonfiction works; after reading him, it's difficult not to feel like you know him.  Of course, a writer's fingerprint always lingers in his works, but rarely have I encountered a personality as unmistakable as Stendhal's--by turns certain and insecure, visionary and mundane.  When I read works by Alan Cheuse, whom I know personally, I have the opposite pleasure of finding in a sentence or an idea something that seems to me unmistakably Alan, something I can practically hear him saying in my mind's ear.

Because I will be wandering around the annual U.S. Army Band Tuba and Euphonium Workshop later this week, tubas are also on my mind today.  I have noticed that most, if not all, serious tuba players are happy to tell you their tuba lineage, tracing their teacher and their teacher's teacher back to a great tuba father like William Bell or Harvey Phillips.  In the same way, I have fun knowing that Alan Cheuse's teacher was John Ciardi, and whenever I read a Ciardi poem, I feel proud of my "family tie."  Still, as with any reader, the greatest ties a writer can have are with the writers we will never meet, nor even can--the ones whose ideas or style or subject speak directly to us, nevermind that they have been dead some years or decades or centuries and are a nationality not our own.  So, if you're reading this, I invite you to post a comment telling which writer or writers you trace in your lineage, whether real or felt.