Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Life before Goethe

Clearly no one is born to be a Goethe scholar, and there was little in my background to suggest that would be the case with me. My path toward studying German was the most accidental in the world, though I would also say serendipitous. In my final year of high school I was fortunate to have one of those teachers who are celebrated in fiction, Ruth Braeutigam. Much later, after I had become a teacher myself, what constantly struck me was the effect of small, seemingly inconsequential things on a student's intellectual growth, for it was not the subject of U.S. history for which she was my teacher that Ruth Braeutigam had an effect on me. From the start, what intrigued me about her class was the arrangement of the room, one that was already more adult than any I had encountered in school. Miss Braeutigam sat on a stool before a podium on which her notes were spread and to which she would occasionally refer, while the students' desk were set out in rows of half-circles around her. Obviously, unlike in other high school classes, the slow students could not hide in the back of the room.

Miss Braeutigam herself was the first spinster, aside from my maiden aunts, I knew close up. The Catholic sisters, strictly speaking, could not be counted among the spinsters: they, like the married, had a special calling. Though I had loved the sisters who had taught me as a child, I had not been attracted to joining a religious order.

Miss B. must have already been in her fifties when I was her student, and in terms of outward appearance she had probably never been the attractive feminine type of teacher who turns adolescent schoolgirls into acolytes. There was indeed something masculine about her, though, again, after I had become a teacher myself, I better understood her manner: one that gave a student room, that did not seek to ingratiate, that revealed enough of an individual personality -- what a booming laugh she had! -- without false or inappropriate confidences. After three years of being sunk in adolescent narcissism, I seemed to be jolted awake by her clear-eyed way of relating to the world and to the unencumbered life that she radiated.

One day I asked her about her name and learned of her German ancestry. "Braeutigam," as she informed me, meant "bridegroom." Not long afterward she gave me a copy of my first German grammar, a thin book in which all the German words appeared in the funny script known as "Fraktur." As a sign of my own eccentricity, I desired to known things that no one else in my milieu knew or even cared about. So it was that I spent more time deciphering those strange German letters and memorizing German words than on anything I had done in the previous three years of high school.

Such small influences, principally the use of my brain on something besides boys, prompted me to think about my future. My female role models (this was the early 1960s), mostly products of Hollywood, had "careers": Doris Day or Edith Head, dresser to the stars. With no one in my milieu offering guidance, I would have needed a lot more self-direction to chart such a remarkable course, and it was absolutely for lack of any alternative that I began to consider college, where, after all, I could study German. As I said, could there have been anything more accidental and more exotic -- considering my white bread background -- in my becoming a German scholar?

I was thinking of these things yesterday. I am spending the holidays with my sister and brother-in-law in Louisville. Until I went to college, my life had moved back and forth across the Ohio River, whether we lived in Louisville or in southern Indiana. The most memorable thing about the river for me was the huge Colgate-Palmolive clock that stood on the Indiana side of the river. Though I had crossed the Ohio back and forth for years, such was the lack of my parents' resources that I had never ridden a boat on the river. My appreciation for natural beauty was still in nuce, and my sense of the history of the region was undeveloped. I knew that Indian tries had once populated these shores -- Algonquian, Shawnee, and Cherokee -- because the Louisville city parks carried their resonant names.

Well, yesterday I learned more about this local history, especially of the Ohio River, than from living here for years. We went on an outing to Falls of the Ohio State Park. The exhibits at the park tell of the important role of the Falls area. For instance, George Rogers Clark established the first permanent English-speaking settlement in the Northwest Territory on Corn Island and then founded the town of Clarksville, a town in which I had once lived (again, without taking note of this illustrious history). John James Audubon was a storekeeper in Louisville and began his career as an artist with his sketch of bird species in the Falls area.

A more interesting discovery, however, because of my later work on Goethe and geology, was that the Falls area had been covered by a shallow tropical sea about 387 million years ago. It turns out that the fossil record goes back to the Devonian (i.e., pre-Cambrian) period. (That's me standing in front of a re-creation of the ancient sea.) The impulse for this work was not purely scientific on my part. It seemed to me that Goethe's writing on scientific subjects sounded a lot like his writing on literary subjects. Thus, my theory was that Goethe's aesthetics influenced his approach to science. My work was enriched by the assistance of by my dear husband, who was a physics teacher for several decades. We used to take long walks along the Hudson River, where I would pick up stones. He would then explain what they were.

Well, that's the long and short of my life pre- and post-Goethe.

The historical postcard of the Falls and the link to Clarksville above are from the wonderful blog of Frances Hunter. Another blog, Louisville Fossils, describes fossil tours of the Falls park. The picture of Edith Head is from Robert J. Avrech's blog.

No comments: