Sam Pickering (born 1941) recently retired from professing English—mostly, it would appear, creative writing.  Oh!  “Beware!  Beware! . . . Weave a circle round him thrice / . . . / For he on honey-dew hath fed / and drunk the milk of paradise.”  If Coleridge had not crafted his magical lines for a figure who seems to be the visionary poet himself, he might have believed them suited to any fortunate professor who has spent most of his life working with shining youth and the beauties of the English language.  Ah, but not all such men are so worthy of awe as may be supposed.  Pickering, a native of Tennessee and a graduate of the University of the South (as well as St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and Prince­ton), carried on his pedagogical and research activities at various seats of learning, chiefly Dartmouth College and the University of Connecticut (Storrs), but also in Australia, at a so-called university in Syria, and elsewhere.  He is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.  He has not taught at colleges in the South, to my knowledge, except in the Sewanee School of Letters in the summertime.  He has adopted certain attitudes characteristic of the Northeast intelligentsia.

He began his teaching career, however, at the Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, which he had attended as a youth.  In his teaching role there, he became known for his eccentricities in and out of the classroom.  He stood on chairs and sometimes spoke to his class from outside, through the window.  (There is something wrong with this picture.)  Much of the time he probably was mentally transported elsewhere, as was the case, he confesses, in more recent classrooms.  Among his students was one Tom Schulman, the scriptwriter of Dead Poets’ Society.  (He won the Oscar for Best Screenplay in 1989.)  The character of Kea­ting, a teacher, was loosely based on Pickering.  The celebrity of the movie reflected onto him, not necessarily to his entire satisfaction, and he has tried to distance himself from it, eschewing the publicity.  He views the unorthodoxy of his classroom behavior as “more goalless than depicted.”

In addition to teaching, Pickering published articles and scholarly books, and, starting in 1973, familiar essays.  A Continuing Education (1985), his first collection, was furnished with anecdotes drawn from teaching—small doses of experience, with little reflection on the philosophy of education or process of learning.  He has since become well known as an essayist.  The Splendour Falls (the title of which comes from Tennyson’s “The Princess”) is the latest of 16 or so collections.  This does not count travel literature and his memoir, A Comfortable Boy.  He also reviews others’ essays, as in a recent Sewanee Review, where he was rather hard on an eminent practitioner of the genre.

George Core has asserted that “we are living in the age of the essay and should relish good essays of every variety.”  Pickering’s essays appeal to readers doubtless for their absence of pretension and down-to-earth quality, expressing almost literally the persona of “the man-next-door,” unexceptionable, if somewhat eccentric.  Neighbors, students, other associates (usually under pseudonyms, I believe—“Sarah,” “Tom,” “Emilia”) may see themselves in gentle, if whimsical, portraits.  When a bit of acid or a few sharp-edged words are required to finish off a topic or a character, the author often attributes the substance of his assessments to “Josh,” a recurring Doppelgänger.

The present book includes pages on a sea voyage Pickering and his wife took through the Caribbean and their shore adventures.  In addition, he ruminates on the domestic scene; his grown children occasionally make appearances.  Countless readers will recognize the sort of small quotidian dramas he sketches, set in houses in Connecticut and Nova Scotia, where he and his wife have a summer property.  Throughout the collection, he “parses his character” and relates peculiar incidents and behavior on his part or others’.  He draws frequently on his wide reading, especially from centuries well before ours.  The effect is sometimes that of name-dropping.  “Reading maketh a full man,” wrote Francis Bacon, and Pickering has grazed abundantly in the pastures of earlier prose writers and versifiers, including odd ones, a few almost unknown, such as Andrew Barton, a Scottish privateer beheaded in 1511.

Pickering also evokes elements of 19th-century small-town life—Carthage, Tennessee, with one set of ancestors; Virginia, with the other.  As a collector of memorabilia and leftovers in attics, he has a range of dusty treasures to describe and quaint old documents to cite—letters, newspaper headlines—which give remarkable presence to moments and figures of the past.  What he tells is occasionally “hokey,” as he puts it; he confesses to invention and hyperbole and the use of “time-worn” stories.

To judge from his numerous evocations of classroom years, Pickering had his university writing students do mostly free composition, perhaps essays like his, for which he encouraged them doubtless to express their true selves, think creatively, and be spontaneous.  University students need no encouragement to be fanciful or “off the wall”; their thinking is free, certainly, if that means unrestrained; they already read too little, and too little of value (though Pickering gave extra credit for reading beyond the syllabus, including books that had little to do with the course), and they express themselves far too much.

In addition, the author seems to have shown quite startling tolerance for nonconformity (absenteeism, for instance) and just plain failings in thinking.  One girl wrote to him by email to say that she was “confused” (oh, oh!—an ominous word); she could not find in the book the story she was to read for the morrow.  He told her to look at the table of contents, where she’d find the title and a page number.  Another student, raising her hand in class, inquired whether he liked rum-raisin ice cream, informing everyone that it was her boyfriend’s favorite.  Many of Pickering’s charges seem to have prospered under his tutelage, if prospering means to a humanities undergraduate what I think it means usually: persuading the instructor that a cockeyed composition dashed off at the last minute is good and thus deserves, and will get, an A.  “Art,” wrote André Gide, “lives on constraint and dies from freedom.”  Excessive discipline is not today’s failing.

Nor, I regret to say, is it Pickering’s.  While the pieces in his 1985 volume are not excessively rambling, the paragraphing not too loose, he has become more flexible along that line.  A walker (wherever he is) and a sometime runner in road races (though always finishing, by design, in the second half), he cultivates a meandering exposition, with digressive sentences, not quite worthy of Marcel Proust.  “Tarrying fosters digression.”  The transitions are not always crisp.  One wonders where he is going . . . occasionally even after he has gotten there.  Is such subtlety an added beauty?  Similarly, he does not mind repeating anecdotes and scattered bits of information.  Yet, as one specialist in composition has written recently, paragraph construction and “sustained argumentation” remain important in English prose.  The principle assumes, to be sure, that some sort of argument be present, even if poetic or otherwise subjective.

In 1985 Pickering boasted of rarely using a complex sentence.  But such sentences express complex thoughts better than do running accumulations linked together with and and but.  He admitted then, however, that he did not want to deal with complexity, either in life or, it is implied, in writing.  There you have it.  “I have only one style,” he wrote.  Furthermore, he has explicitly renounced grammarians and their rules.  Earlier, he confessed to having given up trying to teach his students the difference between its and it’s, or enforcing their adherence to the convention.  Now, those were people aged 20 or so, at a state university, supported by taxes; the well-informed public might reasonably expect them to know the difference already or, if not, to be obliged to learn it and respect it.  (The uninformed public has no say in the matter.)  Pickering has not changed his position on grammar in this recent book, I think.  Whether he’s forgotten it, or chooses to violate it to avoid appearing pretentious, or simply doesn’t look closely, he doesn’t apply the rule concerning personal pronouns after than.  There are times, we know, to use the vernacular.  “Throw the bums out.”  It can help a man make himself understood, say, in a gas station.  Better, too, to say, “I ain’t got no money,” the meaning of which is plain enough, than to speak the Theorese of today’s highly paid literature professors, denying there is such a thing as meaning; at least Pickering has avoided that.

Perhaps that is why, as he reports with well-founded vexation, he was never selected, despite hundreds of articles and ultimately some 25 books to his credit, for the yearly panel in his department concerning publishing.  Or perhaps it was his Southern accent.  To someone thus treated much must be forgiven.  Read Pickering, but be prepared to wander; you may enjoy the detours.


[The Splendour Falls: Essays, by Sam Pickering (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press) 203 pp., $20.00]