Crossing to Safety

3 Jun

One year after a return trip to Georgetown for a reunion, a couple of excerpts from Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety:

Thinking about it now, I am struck by how modest my aims were. I didn’t expect to hit any jackpots. I had no definite goal. I merely wanted to do well what my inclinations and training led me to do, and I suppose I assumed that somehow, far off, some good might flow from it. I had no idea what. I respected literature and its vague addiction to truth at least as much as tycoons are supposed to respect money and power, but I never had time to sit down and consider why I respected it.

Ambition is a path, not a destination, and it is essentially the same path for everybody. No matter what the goal is, the path leads through Pilgrim’s Progress regions of motivation, hard work, persistence, stubbornness, and resilience under disappointment. Unconsidered, merely indulged, ambition becomes a vice; it can turn a man into a machine that knows nothing but how to run. Considered, it can be something else—a pathway to the stars, maybe.

*   *   *

Once, at a Cambridge dinner party, I had an imaginary debate with the sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, who was holding forth on upward mobility. He called it “vertical peristalsis in society.” Obviously he liked the phrase; he thought he had invented something pretty good.

Since he had been born nameless in a nameless Russian village and had risen to become a member of the Council of the Russian Republic and secretary to Prime Minister Kerensky, I granted that he knew more about upward mobility than I did. I had only my own limited experience to generalize from, and three martinis to make me skeptical of other evidence. But I didn’t like his metaphor, and muttered to the lady on my left that social scientists should stick to semantically aseptic language, and leave metaphor to people who understood it.

Peristalsis, I informed this lady or someone else, consists of rhythmic contractions in a tube, such as the gut, that force matter in the tube to move along. In Sorokin’s trope, society was the tube and the individual the matter to be moved, and the tube did the work of moving him. I thought the individual had something to do with moving himself, not necessarily rhythmically.

And why that word “vertical”? Man being an upright animal, at least in his posture, any peristalsis he had going was bound to be vertical, unless we conceived him to be lying down, which there was no reason to do.

Finally, I had the impression that normal peristalsis worked downward, not upward. Upward peristalsis was reverse peristalsis, whose name was emesis. Did Professor Sorokin mean to suggest that he had been vomited up into revolutionary prominence, and later into an international reputation and a distinguished position on the Harvard faculty? Probably he didn’t. But there was no way out of his metaphorical difficulty. He couldn’t extricate himself by reversing directions and accepting the normal alimentary flow, for that not only ruined his upward metaphor but left him looking even worse than if he had been vomited up.

Professor Sorokin never figured in my life. I had never seen him before that night and I never saw him afterward; and our argument never took place except in my head and out of the corner of my mouth. But we had just returned from a Guggenheim in Italy, and in Italy I had discovered, rather to my surprise, that I had myself been ferociously upward-mobile since my first day in school. In reducing my strenuous life to a social inevitability, and giving it that taint of routine communal digestion, Sorokin had insulted me where I lived.

Until Italy, I had been too busy to notice what I was. I was learning, and interested in the learning. Or I was diving into a hole and pulling the hole in after me. Or I was simply trying to survive. But even in our most oppressed times, I was a cork held under, and my impulse was always up.

According to Aunt Emily’s theories, I should probably have been led to walk in my father’s footsteps. I loved him, we got along, I worked off and on in the shop. There was no reason why I should not succeed him as proprietor and make a life out of transmissions, brake bands, ring jobs, lube jobs, yard chores, neighborhood barbecues, baseball, and beer. But I had no intention, ever, of doing that. It wasn’t snobbishness. I was never ashamed of him. Nothing in dusty Albuquerque led me to envious comparisons. I just expected more than Albuquerque offered. I took it for granted. And everybody important to me—my parents, my teachers, my professors in college, Sally when we met in Berkeley, and for that matter the Langs when we met in Madison—made the same assumption. I was headed somewhere.

Without knowing what I was after, I pursued it with the blind singlemindedness of a sperm hunting its target egg—now there is a metaphor I will accept. For a long time it was dark, and all I could do was swim for my life. Union and consummation finally took place in the fourth-floor front room of the Pensione Vespucci, an old palazzo on the Lugarno a little below the American consulate in Florence. There, one September morning, it hit me that things were altogether other than what they had been for a long time. Wherever it was that we were going, we had arrived, or at least come into the clear road.

*   *   *

Time to find the clear road.

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