One of the highlights of 2015 for me was having the opportunity to return to my alma mater, Oberlin College, to participate in a symposium to honor Professor Thomas Van Nortwick on his retirement from the college. This is what I said on that occasion.
In 1986, the year I graduated from Oberlin, Tom entered a new and important phase of his life as a classicist. That was the year he published “Travels with Odysseus” in North Dakota Quarterly. With that essay, he began a long and fruitful journey of self-examination using the classics as guides. He began to ask himself how the stories of the ancient heroes—Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneas, Oedipus—might illuminate his own life and relationships. How could reading the Aeneid help him work through his own sense of loss? What could reading Sophocles’ Oedipus plays tell him about the cycle of his own life?
Looking back twenty-five years after the publication of that first personal essay, Tom reflected on the effect this mode of engagement with the classics had on his teaching. In another essay for NDQ, he wrote: “The detachment I had cultivated as part of my academic persona gave way to a more direct engagement with the Greek and Latin poetry I was teaching. Once I began asking myself what these stories had to do with me and my life, it was natural to ask my students the same kind of question. I didn’t invite them to write autobiography, but to ask themselves why these works ought to matter to them.”
In an essay on the Aeneid published in 1990, Tom explored Aeneas’s ambivalence about this mission and the ways in which pursuing that mission requires him to confront feminine parts of himself. Fate has cast Aeneas in a role he isn’t suited for, and that he would rather not play. He’s fallen into a life different from the one he imagined for himself, and somehow has to figure out how to live it as if it were his own.
Tom’s reading of the Aeneid and the insights it gave him into his own life came at a particularly opportune time for me. After a graduating from Oberlin in 1986, earning a Ph.D. at Brown University, and teaching for a year at Gustavus Adolphus College, I spent most of the 1990s as a stay-at-home father. After writing a dissertation on the Aeneid, I spent my days changing diapers, feeding the babies bottles of expressed breast milk, trying to get them to take naps, and pushing them in a stroller all over town.
My role models at the time were the older women who had come to town as faculty wives in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. They had come to a small college town on the heroic journey of their husbands toward tenure, and in the process had found their own journeys. They had made homes and raised children, created art and written books, served in public office and founded important community organizations. They had adapted and thrived.
All of this began to give me a different perspective on the hero’s journey. As a stay-at-home father, as someone who spent his late twenties and most of his thirties engaged in what was still considered women’s work, and as someone who has now reached the age of fifty without what would generally be recognized as a career, my life hasn’t exactly conformed to the heroic ideal, which for my father’s generation—the generation that shaped my expectations—at least involved a regular paycheck and some measure of professional prestige. I found it difficult to go against such powerful expectations without an equally powerful counternarrative to give shape and meaning to the choices I made and the life that resulted from those choices.
One of the books I read early in my years as a stay-at-home father was Mary Catherine Bateson’s Composing a Life, about the improvisational nature of women’s lives. Bateson contrasts the traditional hero’s journey toward a single pre-ordained goal with the shifting commitments and constant adaptations of women as they navigate the competing demands of family and career. “Women’s lives offer valuable models,” Bateson writes, “because of the very pressures that make them seem more difficult. Women have not been permitted to focus on single goals, but have tended to live with ambiguity and multiplicity.” This was certainly true of the women who became my role models, who arrived in Northfield as trailing spouses and emerged as community leaders.
In 1998, I published my first personal essay in North Dakota Quarterly, the same journal that published most of Tom’s personal essays on the classics. I wrote about being a stay-at-home father and baking bread with my sons. I wrote about a male yearning for the nurturing experience of motherhood, and illustrated my point with a brief analysis of the story of the birth of Orion in Ovid’s Fasti: the story of a man who wants a child. I introduced the story with a quote from Louise Erdrich about the experience of breastfeeding her child. Erdrich wrote: “I realize that this is exactly the state of mind that so many male writers...describe with yearning—the mystery of an epiphany, the sense of oceanic oneness, the great yes, the wholeness.”
But as I tried to get my son to suck on a rubber nipple, I felt physically inadequate and out of harmony with my situation. I was a cisgender, heterosexual man with a longing for the experience of motherhood. I wasn’t able to do what a woman could do, and I wasn’t doing what a “real man” was “supposed” to do. This left me feeling, in Tom’s words, a “sense of alienation from traditional maleness.”
Those words come from the essay in North Dakota Quarterly in which Tom explored Aeneas’s ambivalence about his mission and his own uneasy relationship with his father. That 1990 essay was a milestone in Tom’s exploration of the meaning of a masculine life—both his own life and the lives of the heroes who populated Greek and Roman literature.
In Oedipus: The Meaning of a Masculine Life (1998), Tom reminds us that the heroic journey can be seen as a psychological quest that calls on the hero either to reject or reconcile with externalized aspects of himself, who appear in the form either of companions like Enkidu and Patroklos, or of adversaries like Hector and Turnus. The encounter with this second self is central to the hero’s own development. Tom also points out that the second self frequently offers a more “feminine” counterpart to the more masculine hero. Patroklos, for example, offers a “contrast to Achilles’ overbearing masculinity, honoring solicitude for his friends over his desire for honor, compassionate where his friend is solipsistic, defining himself through relationships rather than through the lonely competitive absolutes of Achilles.”
In his reading of the Oedipus plays, Tom writes about the hero’s journey from an assertion of autonomy to an acceptance of interdependence, from imposing his individual will on the world to recognizing his place in a universe of relationships. He writes about learning to “think less about what separates me from others and more about how I am connected to them.” He writes about outgrowing what R.W. Connell calls “hegemonic masculinity,” and embracing a masculinity that incorporates aspects of feminine experience. As Tom puts it: “The hero’s final evolution toward maturity and spiritual integration is marked by an acceptance within himself of those very ‘feminine’ qualities embodied by the second self.”
Once my own children started school, and I was no longer a full-time stay-at-home father, I started picking up part-time teaching jobs, including as a tutor of homeschool students. My favorite homeschool student, a young woman named Peytie, once told me that she didn’t learn as much from teachers who, as she put it, seemed to be reporting back from the end of the journey. She said she learned the most from teachers who were on the journey with her. She’s described exactly the kind of teacher Tom has been for me over the past thirty years. With his great sensitivity and insight, he’s been a model for me as a writer. He’s been a father figure, the kind of caring and generous man I would like to be. He’s made me think in new ways about what the classics mean to me, and in doing so has helped me find the heroic counternarrative to make sense of my life.
Last year, Peytie and I co-wrote an essay about mentorship. I’ve known her for eleven years now, since she was fifteen. She’s an off-the-charts extrovert, she talks a mile a minute, she’s an actress who appears on stage regularly in the Twin Cities, and she teaches classes in movement and body awareness. None of those things apply to me. But Peytie wrote something in the essay that made me think about teaching as an encounter with the second self. She wrote: “it was like my own mind had separated from itself and was teaching me.”
I often feel that way when I read Tom’s books and essays: like he’s making sense of my own thoughts. And Peytie wrote something else that made me think of Tom. She wrote: “The vision you have of me inspires me to be the person you see. You help me make her real.”
Robert Inchausti writes that “the real self is the moral self. And the moral self is a second self.” It isn’t the self we are born with, but “an ethical accomplishment,” the result of a journey. This self isn’t created in isolation, but through our relationships with other people. In Inchausti’s view, the second self isn’t someone else. It’s the person we become, the identity we create—and that others help us create—on our journey through life.
I think this expresses exactly what Tom’s importance has been for me: he has the ability to see what is best and most promising in me, to see my best self, and to inspire me to be the person he sees. He’s one of the people who has made me real.