The Ways We Remain
A Review of the late Ned Stuckey-French's essays
By Bob Cowser, Jr.
The last book review I wrote was one my late friend Ned Stuckey-French assigned to me, in his capacity as reviews editor of Fourth Genre. But this is an assignment I have given myself. Or rather, I contacted the editors to volunteer my services, out of immense respect for Ned and his writing. His friends in the nonfiction world are legion and many could have done this job better than I, so let me first acknowledge the privilege and honor of the task.
Following Ned’s 2019 death from cancer, his wife, the novelist Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and his graduate school classmate John T. Price resolved to bring his published essays together as a collection (something the writer had planned to do himself but never got to finish). One approaches reviewing a posthumous work warily to begin with, fearing that he may mistake the occasion, lapse into an elegy for the man when what is called for is commentary on his work. This difficulty is compounded when the subject of the work happens to be the writer himself, as is essentially the case with these essays. “I myself am the matter of my work,” wrote Montaigne, the Renaissance French nobleman considered the fountainhead of the form (Stuckey-French and his mentor Carl Klaus co-edited an essay anthology identifying him as such).
Of course Ned would hasten to clarify that the self on the page is the subject of the essay only insofar as he or she is a representative human, able (as Montaigne maintained) to contain within herself the stamp of the entire human condition and to employ the pronoun “I” merely as a door, according to Scott Russell Sanders, “through which others may pass.” Ned Stuckey-French is uniquely able, in my view, proceeding without a shred of vanity, ever graceful and self-scrutinizing. The book is a delight, both for those meeting the writer for the first time between its covers and those who pick it up seeking to commune with a dear friend.
The persona resembles less the audacious Montaigne, determined to distinguish himself from systematic classical thinkers like Aristotle and Cicero, than he is like another of Stuckey-French’s heroes, life’s humble secretary E. B. White, chief in a line of particularly American essayists that might be said to include Edward Hoagland, Klaus, and Sanders. “I am middle-class and middlebrow,” Stuckey-French declares on page 160, “a product of middlebrow American culture. My family’s journey mirrors that of the country’s new middle class.”
The nine essays of Part 1 are largely an account of this journey, amounting to something of a coming-of-age memoir, albeit a brief one. The first six pieces recount his boyhood in West Lafayette, Indiana, where his father was a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue, and where young Ned wrestles with big questions like “Why is there anything? Why are there people? Why isn’t there just nothing?” (“Those are good questions,” his father tells him, “you should keep asking them.”) We might think of the last 3 essays in that section in terms of the classic mythic tropes of separation (“Rowing” takes up his graduation from Harvard and the end of his parents’ troubled marriage), initiation (“Mass General” is an account of his decade as a janitor and communist union organizer in Boston and his ultimate disillusionment with the movement), and return (in “Walking the Tracks,” he returns to his hometown to teach high school, and meets his wife, who has also come home to Indiana). Ned the disillusioned janitor of “Mass General” sounds not unlike the conflicted George Orwell stuck between his growing suspicion of empire and his petty grievances with the individual Burmese he is charged with policing in “Shooting an Elephant.” “I wanted to have the answers that Marxism-Leninism seemed to provide,” Ned writes, “I wanted to be part of the world’s turn toward its new future. But if all that sounds grandiose, I was also pissed off on the day to day level.”
The first essay in Part 2, “The Edsel Farm,” an account of a visit to Colgate University to see a West Lafayette friend, still has that distinct memoir feel, but then the remaining four are more of what Price calls in his introduction “cultural commentary,” essays in defense of Elvis and middlebrow cultural pursuits like encyclopedias and televised arts lessons. The editors disclose that the essays in Part 3 were not part of the author’s original plan for the work but that they decided to include them because of what they reveal about Ned as a scholar and activist. His oft-referenced “Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing: Toward a Definition of the Essay” draws heavily on the research he did for his study The American Essay in the American Century (University of Missouri Press 2011), leading readers through efforts scholars and practitioners have made to define the personal essay. “Hoagland called the thing a greased pig,” Ned quips in conclusion, “far be it from me to assume I’ve grabbed it.” The last essay is a similarly self-deprecating apology for his Facebook addiction, “My Name is Ned,” articulating his hope that the social media platform might be another form for the magpie essay to co-opt and a place where essayists could find community.
The editors make little effort to eliminate repeated passages in the separate essays, reprinting all in previously published form, but the effect is to add emphasis to the themes that bind the collection: family and place (specifically West Lafayette); politics and public life (Stuckey-French’s father worked in the Carter administration, and Ned himself had presidential aspirations as a young man); writers and writing. “Playing a role is a part of life,” Ned writes toward the end of the book, and we see him in many roles in its pages: son, jock, activist, student, teacher, writer, husband and father, friend (so often friend). More than anything, though, he serves as moderator: between his parents, groups of protesting Harvard classmates, bickering academics, Facebook friends on opposite sides of a political divide. That was his great gift. Or one of them.
His Hoosier modesty is another. Stuckey-French came of age as a writer during a memoir boom which privileged scandal and disclosure, yet his modesty and humility are the hallmarks here. He confronts difficult subjects directly: his liberal-minded parents’ latently racist attitudes, their divorce, his mother’s bipolar disorder. But always with an excess of tact, with empathy and respect. In a particular poignant scene in “Meeting Bobby Kennedy,” he describes his parents meeting his flight home after his first semester at Harvard, how his mother talked incessantly as his father drove. Ned senses his exhausted father turning the care of his wife over to his son. “I was being called on again to deal with her, to calm her down, to love her,” he writes. “It was a familiar role, and I didn’t like it.” Yet he endeavors to understand, years later. “Her nest was emptying,” Ned writes, “she was terrified.” A writer is always selling somebody out, Joan Didion wrote once. But not Ned. Never Ned. “There are things we don’t talk about,” he writes of a fishing trip with his father after the divorce, “and I may be wrong, but I think some things don’t need to be talked about.”
The author will never hold One by One, the Stars in his hands, his wife Elizabeth writes in the acknowledgments. In “Planet on the Table,” Wallace Stevens’s speaker acknowledges the pleasure the writer takes in merely regarding his poems, adding that “It was not important that they survive.” What matters, according to Stevens’s speaker, is that the writing captures in the “poverty” of its language some of the “affluence” of the world of which it is part. And while I grant Stevens the truth of this beautiful idea and can attest to the beauty and wonder Ned has managed to gather in his prose, and though I make it a policy never to disagree with Wallace Stevens, in this case I do take exception. It is important that we have these essays—if Montaigne is to be believed, they are one of the most important ways Ned remains with us. I commend his family, friends, and publisher for ensuring that this is the case. We are in their debt, and his.
Sixty-nine years is a long time, yet Ned Stuckey-French was a young man when he died. His curiosity and optimism (a couple more of his cardinal midwestern virtues) kept him so. You get the feeling reading these essays that the writer had long been building an extraordinary life, with great care and patience, but that much of it was yet to be lived. There would have been more books, more essays, should have been even more than the terrific ones Price and Elizabeth Stuckey-French bring together in this collection. Except first Ned had to give ten years to the cause of social justice as a janitor at Mass General, then another couple to save the university press in Missouri that had published his scholarly book. Decades in between to raising a family and teaching students. He’d get around to the writing. Then the damnable illness. He was interrupted. That someone so good at being human should have had so few years to show the rest of us how it’s done seems a cosmic injustice. “Shucks,” Ned would say, “now you’re just blowing smoke.”
These essays are so fine, I can almost hear him.
Bob Cowser, Jr.
Bob Cowser, Jr. is Professor of English at St. Lawrence University and co-editor of The Edinburgh Companion to the Essay (forthcoming in October 2022). His first book Dream Season earned an “Editor’s Choice” designation from The New York Times, and his most recent book Green Fields was named Best Memoir by The Adirondack Center for Writers. He serves as advisory editor to the online journal ASSAY: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.