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Man of Letters

ISSUE:  Winter 1985

Occasionally I write familiar essays. When I send them to editors, I usually explain that I am trying to write my way to a new car, adding that I have done well recently and have earned the front half of a station wagon, the automatic transmission, power brakes, and a luggage rack. Of course, that’s not true. My essays will never earn me a new car. Besides I am happy with my 1973 Pontiac. Although it is rusting around the edges and the sun has so bleached it that it looks like a tired, old dachshund, it is comfortable and suits me. Other people, though, want to see me in “better circumstances,” as a friend put it. After I was towed for the second time last year, he advised me to look at Toyotas, saying they were “splendidly efficient.”

Efficiency, however, is not something I think much about. If anything, I am afraid of it. The second time my car broke down was on the Interstate at 7:30 Labor Day morning. I was headed for a road race in New Haven and wore blue sneakers without socks, jeans that should have been in the ragbag months before, and an orange T-shirt. On the front in brown was a picture of four runners and the inscription “Woodstock 10 K” ; on the back “Linemaster America’s Foot Switch Leader” stood out in bold letters three inches high. Some years ago when I broke down on the road with my wife, I had to wait two hours before someone stopped. Although I looked like an escapee from Danbury prison, things were different this time. I got out of the car and, climbing onto the roof, held up my running shoes. The first car along pulled over, and a girl rolled down the window and said, “Going to the race?” “Yes,” I answered, “my car stopped.” “Nothing to that,” she said. “Hop in, John, here,” she continued, gesturing to the driver, “is an engineer at Pratt and Whitney; he can fix anything, and after the race will get you going again.” In I hopped, and after the race and lunch and some lies about running, John repaired my car, and I drove home feeling good about life and the people who live it.

No, efficiency is not for me. If it were, I would not write personal essays. Certainly they will never bring me acclaim or money. Years ago when I started, I was naïve and, hoping to make a “big hit,” sent The New Yorker a familiar essay on my athletic doings. “A bit too familiar” the rejection said. The flip tone hurt, and for a while I gave up personal essays and concentrated on scholarly writing. Since I teach at the University of Connecticut, I feel obligated to research subjects and write a fair amount about them. Actually research and academic writing are enjoyable. In fact, they are so seductive that months frequently pass without my writing a personal essay. Becoming an expert in a narrow area is not difficult. I know a lot, for example, about early children’s books, and when scholars have questions about Giles Gingerbread or Goody Two-Shoes, they write me. These inquiries appeal to my vanity and make me want to write more. I dream of my little reputation growing so large that graduate students at the best universities will know my name and the Modern Language Association will solicit my opinions on things academic. Because it tempts me to become efficient and concentrate my energy and life, the dream bothers me and I struggle against it. Sometimes the struggle is difficult.

This past winter I went to New York to be interviewed for a post at a big state university. The interview was held in the New York Hilton, one of the hotels hosting the Modern Language Association Convention. Academics bustled about in the hotel lobby, and after the interview as I made my way to the street, a young woman pushed through the crowd and throwing her arms over my shoulders said, “You are the most wonderful scholar; keep up your good work.” Before I could think of a witty answer, she kissed me on the cheek and melted back into the crowd. “You bet your sweet article in PMLA I’ll keep it up,” I mumbled while I stood on the curb looking for a taxi. New York makes me nervous, though, and I am not very efficient at catching taxis. By the time one stopped for me, I concluded the woman had made a mistake. Since I had not come to New York to attend the convention, I was not wearing a name tag, and although my last book had received some good reviews, my picture did not appear on the jacket. “A case of mistaken identity,” I muttered, and beating down the temptation to covet and pursue reputation as a scholar, I decided that the kiss foreshadowed the familiarity into which academic writing would thrust me. How much better to write personal essays and remain unknown, I thought, as I rode the bus back to Connecticut and planned an essay on picking up sticks.

I write about the little things of life like starlings or dandelions or picking up sticks. I do so because the little things are about all most people have. None of my friends live romantic lives vibrant with excitement; instead they jog through the quiet byways of ordinary existence, with its leaves and laundry, unread newspapers, diapers and matchbox cars, and Masterpiece Theater on Sunday night. I also write about small things because they bring me letters. I live in a rambling, old-fashioned house; since I will never earn enough from my essays to redecorate it, I have let it decorate me. Big bundles of faded pink roses cover the wallpaper in my study, and on my desk is an old chamber pot, covered like the walls with roses. In it I keep my correspondence, and whenever one of my essays appears in print it overflows with wondrous mail. These letters are not part of the academic world and its momentary intellectual conflicts; they never bring those feelings of cagey rivalry that come over me when I learn that a younger, and perhaps better, critic has published a study of children’s books. The letters come from a cleaner place. The wallpaper suits them, and they are redolent of simpler lives in a simpler time.

My wife’s family owns a farm in Nova Scotia. The farm is in Beaver River, a little town north of Yarmouth on the Bay of Fundy. Vicki and I spend summers there and almost every day take walks with our children through fields or along the shore. The letters come from that world, and as I read them, I drift from words to goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace, salt marshes and peatbogs and patches of blue and green and white as the coast juts out around Black Point before sweeping into Cape St. Mary’s. At night Vicki and I sleep upstairs in a dark Victorian bed with a headboard that towers solidly above us. Through the window blows the sea and the wash of stones down the beach. Sleep comes simply and naturally; I don’t dream, and early in the morning I wake fresh and thankful for life. Like those nights, the letters I receive renew me; and although they do not offer hope for the world in which I work my way for most of the year, they bring happiness and moments in which I forget self and want to give more to life than I receive.

Last spring Yankee magazine printed an essay I wrote on the box turtle. In the essay I appeared as a slow-moving, gentle bachelor, a turtle of a man, alone and out of step with the age. The first hint that the essay was a success occurred when an elder neighbor who had taken little notice of my wife and me when we moved into our house and who I thought resented our children’s breaking the morning’s quiet, brought us a caramel cake. We invited her in for tea and cookies, and conversation meandered pleasantly along until she said, “I read your article in Yankee and I have a question.” “What’s that,” I answered. “Well, I really liked the article,” she said, “but I want to know if it has any deeper meaning.” “No,” I replied. “Oh,” she said smiling, “I am so glad” ; and with that she turned to Vicki who sat beside her on the couch and taking her hands into hers said, “I must get to know you and those adorable little boys of yours better.” That day letters began to trickle in about the essay. In September, Reader’s Digest reprinted it, and the trickle became a flood.

Many of my correspondents described their love for, as one called them, “my slow moving hinged friends.” Most of the writers were old, and turtles often reminded them of the past. The owner of Timmy, a woman with grandchildren aged 21 and 23, wrote that her husband had “been a turtle lover since early childhood when he roamed the mountains near his home at Delaware Water Gap.” Exercising in a “private plastic bathtub” and dining on lean hamburger, bananas, and strawberries, Timmy led an idyllic life. From October to the first of April, he stayed close to a warm radiator and slept in a tunnel made from pillows. His favorite occupations were basking in the sun and listening to relaxing music.

In my essay I said that on the road outside my house I had put up signs reading “Box Turtle Crossing. Slow Down.” And actually, whenever I see a turtle on or near a highway, I stop, jump out of my car, pick up the turtle, and after guessing which way he or she is going, I carry it across the highway and turn it loose as far from the road as I can. I have done this ever since I was a child. Perched high on my knees in the front seat of our Ford, I would scan the roadside while my parents drove. Sometimes eight turtle stops would break the six mile drive from my grandfather’s farm in Hanover, Virginia, to the grocery store in Ashland. Last year, I showed up with stickers on my socks and trousers and slightly late for a talk in Farmington because I had rescued a turtle. I felt guilty, but after I explained what delayed me, the audience clapped and the talk was a success. Still, I sometimes feel foolish when I stop for turtles, or at least I did until my article appeared. Now I know that hundreds of people behave like me.

“I was traveling down a rural highway,” Peggy wrote, “when Golda came into my life. She was sitting on the middle line with a paw over her head. She’d been clipped by cars and had several small holes in her shell.” Fortunately Golda’s shell rejuvenated, and she now lives safely with Cynthia and Helmet, both of whom Peggy saved from callous owners. Peggy discovered Helmet in a pet store. When she asked why there was no food or water in Helmet’s aquarium, the owner answered that box turtles only needed water and food “a couple of times during their lives,” Infuriated by the man’s ignorance, Peggy bought Helmet. Cynthia led a better if more sheltered existence than Helmet. For five years she had been a child’s pet, so much so, Peggy explained, “she has no idea about turtle life. On seeing an earthworm, she dived into her shell and wouldn’t come out until she smelled hamburger.” Such a creature was not fit for the wild, and when Cynthia’s owner became more interested in petting boys than turtles, the girl’s parents decided to abandon Cynthia in the park. Peggy did not think Cynthia could survive and took her home as a companion for Golda and Helmet. Cynthia was so pleased by the change that this past year she laid an egg. Peggy promised to write me if it hatched.

Like Peggy, people that save turtles usually have more than one, and I received many letters describing “turtlariums.” “Since about 1978,” Jane wrote from Alabama, “I have been picking up Box Turtles from roads and placing them in my fenced back yard.” Although her backyard was only half an acre, Jane said, it contained 35 to 40 pine trees and supported “a substantial turtle population.” During winter the turtles hibernated under the trees and on hot summer days they “spend a good bit of time burrowed down in pine needles.” Although turtles themselves are sluggish particularly in the heat, “turtle owners” are lively. “My normal day,” Jane recounted, “begins around 6:30 at which time I make Turtle Rounds. I usually see three or four at this time. Some are in concrete blocks (the foundation of one end of the fence). Others are munching away at tomato peels or cantaloupes rotting on the compost heap.” Compared to some owners’ yards, Jane’s was large. In Virginia, George’s yard was only 20 by 30 feet and included a four-by-eight foot fishpond. Happily for the turtles, though, pines and shrubs filled the yard, and worms, snails, and crickets abounded. Around the yard ran a board fence under which George had sunk concrete blocks to prevent the turtles from digging their way out. At one time George owned four adults, but one drowned in the pond and another came out of hibernation too early and died. Now he reckoned he had the two remaining adults and two to four babies born in September 1981.

People who have, as George put it, “a love affair with Box Turtles” are slow and patient, like the turtle itself, and generally seem apart from the bustle of modern living. I imagine the women sitting in rocking chairs on small screened-in porches drinking iced tea and talking about things past, “memories of Pensacola” or “barefoot days on Missouri country roads where I would paddle along in the dust.” The men I see coming around to the front porch after digging in their gardens. Wiping their hands on their trousers, they sit down, and like George, they laugh and delight in breaking the slow rocking and nostalgia. “Have you ever witnessed their mating,” George asked me. “I can tell you,” he continued, warming to the subject, “that the act is not exactly earthshaking—nor does it call for athletics, but for endurance it must be tops. I have seen one pair mate for over two hours. And later that same day they were at it again! The female was one of those that died. Did not bother the male at all.”

Universities are rarely communities. Both students and faculty are migrants. Even if faculty members spend their entire careers at one school, they, if they resemble me at least, spend much time thinking about going elsewhere. Such thoughts inhibit the growth of those rich sentimental ties that bind a person like ivy to people and place. Research and academic writings undermine the community and contribute to an individual’s isolation. Because the very nature of a specialty is particularity, the expert usually can share little of his research with others. Moreover, publication and reputation make thinking about taking a “better” post at another institution not merely a dream but a possibility to be considered and forever reconsidered. In contrast, writing familiar essays enlarges the sense of community as the writer is touched by the hopes and fears of all kinds and ages of people. Not long ago, a member of my department died unexpectedly. At the funeral we sang “Abide with Me,” and as I walked out of the church, I felt loss and was convinced that I was a part of something. The next week a search began for a replacement, and as I thought about the kind of person we could hire, I became upset—not at the department for looking for “new blood” but at myself for being so alone that death would diminish me so little and that I could forget the dead so quickly. In another job, I wondered, would things, even heartache, last longer? Wouldn’t other people, then, I almost pleaded with myself, be a greater part of my life?

I could not answer my questions. I did know, though, that many of the letters written in response to my article on the box turtle stirred feelings which lasted comparatively long. For months I carried around tears evoked by a letter from Boston, written by “a country girl lost in the city.” “I can really understand how you feel about turtles,” she began, “as I had a baby turtle left with me while a friend of my son’s went into the army but he didn’t want him back and after 5 years Squeaky has grown to be 121/2 pounds and has gone from a deep ashtray to a punch bowl then to a ten gallon tank to a 50-gallon tank and now has taken over my tub.” The country girl had long since become old, and being feeble and living in a bad neighborhood, rarely left her house. Squeaky was one of the last pleasures of her life. “He is very smart,” she wrote, “and lets the water out by flipping over the plug and then stands up and really is fun to watch. He has thrived on cat food and gets a spoon each morning and again at night. He and Princess the cat, the only cat I know that has a pet, she sits on the toilet and watches him and gets very excited if he starts climbing. But he has to go,” she continued; “he needs his own kind of life but I’ve been wondering if he could hibernate and live in water. Please tell me and I’m curious about what you call a box turtle.”

A picture accompanied the letter and showed Squeaky pushing a brick about in the tub. Clearly, Squeaky was not a box turtle. He was a snapping turtle, the kind my grandfather said would bite and not let go until there was a thunderstorm. Unfortunately, although the country girl had tamed an aggressive turtle, she could not tame time or circumstance. “Being handicapped,” she told me, “I’ve got to find a home for Squeaky. My son can’t help me as he passed away last New Year’s eve. I’d like to find a place where I wouldn’t have to worry about sick-minded teenagers catching him and being cruel as they were near here.” The teenagers, she said, had caught a turtle and tying a shoelace around its neck hanged it from a fence and used it for target practice, throwing rocks and bottles at it. A policeman discovered the boys and made them cut the turtle down, bury it, and even say a prayer. After describing the incident, the old woman said, “I couldn’t take it, knowing Squeaky went through this,” and she asked me to “find a turtle farm for Squeaky.” A farm in the country, she suggested, would be better than one near Boston because fish and ducks were dying in nearby rivers, and she wanted “Squeaky kept healthful.”

She gave me her address and telephone number, and although I wrote her I did not do as I should have done: gone to Boston and brought Squeaky back to Storrs and turned him loose in a horse pond. I told myself that I did not go because her letter arrived in1 the middle of the semester when I was busy grading mounds of undergraduate papers. Of course, my car was also old and liable, I thought, to break down on a long trip. Furthermore, cities made me nervous, and I wondered what would happen if I broke down in Boston. My journey to New York in December was out of character. Until then I had not been to New York during the six years I lived in eastern Connecticut. For that matter I have never been to Boston or Providence and only been in Hartford twice. Like the country girl, I decided, I would be lost in Boston and so I stayed home. Now I feel guilty and suspect that I am lost in a way the country girl is not.

I received many letters from people who were more at home in the past and the country than they were in the city and the present. “I envy anyone the ability to write,” a woman wrote from Chicago; “I am just a music teacher and that’s all I can do. But I had the most wonderful, talented mother I’d love to tell everyone about. She played piano, was the best cook in seven counties, made hats, ran a switchboard, could mend fences like a trooper. People came from miles around to see her beautiful flowers. Once she walked back in the woods, found a rocky hillside where she planted flowers and small evergreens among the trees, looking down on a big sycamore and a babbling brook. Every time she had the weight of the world on her shoulders, she’d walk back and sit on a rock. Soon her problems disappeared. She could shoot—oh how she could shoot a gun. She’d have me walk up the road behind the fence row hedge, beating the bushes as I went. She walked down the road slightly to my rear—the gun pointed. Any rabbit I scared out of the hedge—ping—she got him on the run. Well, you can see, I could go on and on.”

In writing me the woman had herself walked back into a woods, and when she felt better, had come out hesitatingly and sheepishly, wanting to write more yet aware that she had revealed her heart. I was sorry when she stopped describing her mother, and when the letter ended I thought about my own mother who had also been a good shot. When I was growing up in Nashville, Nelson Leasor worked in our yard occasionally. Mr. Leasor was from east Tennessee and was as angular as the Clinch Mountains. He worked only when he felt like it, and my father wanted to get rid of him, telling mother he would never be reliable. Mother disagreed and said, “Just you wait.” And wait we did until one day when Mr. Leasor knocked on the door and said, “Mrs. Pickering, I’m going home. There is no sense in raking these leaves. The squirrels chew up so many hickory nuts that every load I carry out back is mostly nuts.” “That bothers you does it, Mr. Leasor,” mother said. “Yes, ma’am,” he answered in as contrary a tone as he could. “Well, I’ll take care of that,” mother said and went to the bedroom and got her shotgun out of that closet. “Mrs. Pickering, what are you going to do,” Mr. Leasor asked when he saw the gun. “I am going to get you a little meat for Brunswick stew,” mother replied. “You can’t shoot that gun in the city,” he said. “And who is going to stop me,” mother said going out the door, “not you—come along.” Mr. Leasor followed quietly and that evening after he finished raking the yard, he carried home 14 squirrels. He was not late for work again, and whenever I saw him in later years, even on his deathbed, he would say, “Sammy, I have never seen a woman shoot like Mrs. Pickering. Right in the city—14 shots and 14 squirrels and some of them in Mr. Knox’s yard.”

Maybe in writing about turtles I was unconsciously escaping from my sandy present and searching for solid rock on which I could sit and renew myself. Turtles had once been very important to me. Every summer in Virginia, the children who lived on grandfather’s farm and I spent our days catching things in order to win four contests: the lizard, the frog, the locust (cicada), and the turtle. I didn’t have fast hands, and I never won the frog or locust contests, but I was observant and always found the most turtles. After grandfather died, grand-mother sold the farm and moved to a smaller house near the post office and the train station. Although the contests ended, I still searched for turtles. Almost every day I walked north along the tracks toward Fredericksburg. About a mile and a half up the tracks at the edge of a pine woods near a swamp was a real turtle crossing. Attempting to go from one side of the track to the other, turtles would scrape gravel from under the rails and burrow through. Long, slow freights did not bother them, but fast passenger trains often flipped them onto their backs, and before they could right themselves, many were killed by the sun. The sight of dead turtles upset me, and so I saved as many as I could, righting those on their backs and carrying others across the roadbed and into the swamp. Those that were dead I took home and let rot. Then I cleaned and shellacked them and put them on a bookcase in my room. I still have one shell. Since 1958, I have kept it in the glove compartment of every car I have owned. Occasionally Vicki suggests taking it out, saying we need more room for maps. I usually answer that since we don’t travel anywhere we don’t need to carry maps in the glove compartment. In any case I don’t want to remove the shell. It is itself, I suppose, a kind of map, a map of my past reminding me where I came from.

Academic readers learn not to take any writing, even the personal essay, as completely autobiographical. In contrast, many of the people that wrote me about turtles accepted my essay as entirely true. In the essay I reflected on the turtle’s courtship ritual and depicting myself as an aging bachelor, lamented that I had never met an old-fashioned girl like Miss Box Turtle, who responded shyly to her suitor’s ardor by retreating into her shell and peeking out “the front door” demurely. Several people took my lovelorn state to heart and tried to cheer me up. “Samuel,” one person wrote, “you just keep studying the box shell and learn from his widsom, and one day the Lord will send you an old-fashioned girl and you will live happily every after.” The study of “God’s creatures,” a man wrote from Iowa, could make up for not having a wife. “I spend happy hours,” he said, “watching the birds come to the feeders and in summer love to watch the antics of the many raccoons that pay nightly visits to the patio to get corn, stale bread, and sometimes marshmellows.” “Hope your life will be filled with peace and love,” another man concluded; “stay in good spirits. I am sure that someday soon you will meet an old-fashioned girl like Miss Box Turtle. God bless you.”

I answered every letter I received and tried to write something which would appeal to the reader. I began by describing catching turtles when I was young. Then I became philosophical. The person who moves slow enough to see beauty in the ordinary, who was “a lover of life in all its endless variety,” I wrote, would be happier than one who rushed quickly through days in pursuit of wealth or position. Usually I ended by talking about my plans for future essays and said I wanted to write next about the daddy-longlegs. “Where,” I wrote, “were Mommy and Baby and grandma and grandpa longlegs?” It was time, I said, that somebody wrote about the whole family. Not all the letters I received, though, were easy to answer. Unlike scholarly writing, which is often abstract and which entails little responsibility because it appeals primarily to readers’ minds and moves them only to intellectual play, the familiar essay is particular. Because it frequently appeals to and so moves emotions that people act, it forces responsibility upon the writer. In contrast to the footnotes generated by my academic writings, the essay on the box turtle brought me notes from the heart. “Sometimes it takes me a long time to get around to things,” a woman wrote, “and sometimes I am shy about approaching people I do not know. However, I firmly believe that it’s never too late to express appreciation, and I wanted you to know how very much I enjoyed your ruminations about the box turtle.” “I have never known any,” she went on, “but I am sure that is my loss. I think of myself as a quiet woman; I don’t go along with rushing around or being assertive. In those respects, I suppose I am like a box turtle too.” “I’m frequently late to work in the spring and early summer,” a woman wrote from Georgia, “because I’m helping turtles across the road. Leaving earlier doesn’t work because then I see more turtles and my boss doesn’t understand. My dream is to have a box turtle sanctuary and to have turtle crossings under every U.S. highway. People think I’m weird, but I figure you’ll understand.” “”the Very Thought of Turtles,”” she concluded, “was delightful and next spring I plan to put up some turtle crossing signs. The only problem with your not marrying is that you need to produce offspring that will be turtle lovers too.”

As letters like this and that from the “quiet woman” began to stream in, I thought I understood, but initially I was not sure how to respond. It “sounds like you are in my fantasy island,” a woman from Minnesota wrote; “you kind of reveal yourself as being old-fashioned and shy. I personally don’t think that being an old-fashioned person is a bit dull at all. Maybe it is true to the outgoing persons, but I simply believe that old-fashioned people are the most reliable persons that one can trust. They also are the types of persons who can be very interesting, affectate, romatic and the best companion one can find—after you get to truly know them. I myself is very old-fashioned person too. I did overcome my shyness in last couple of years, but I always prefer my old ways. I treasure every thing I own such as my thoughts, my old friends.”

In writing familiar essays I suppose I have built a personal fantasy island, far from the main currents of life, a place where everyday, as one man put it, seems “one of those wonderfully lazy Sunday afternoons.” In answering the letters of those people whose loneliness led them to respond warmly and nakedly to my narrator’s isolation, I tried not to break the gentle peace of a Sunday afternoon. The lies which lead to disappointment with our world are everywhere, and if the life described in my essay had not actually been led, I now wanted my correspondents to believe that the emotions behind the essay were true. Initially, I told curious friends in the university that I wrote the essay as an exercise in gilding the mundane. Now I hoped my motivation ran deeper and richer. Whatever the case, though, I knew the feelings revealed in the letters were good, and if I could not prolong my correspondents’ fantasy of a bittersweet bachelor dreaming of the right wife, I thought that I might be able to substitute another but still decent picture for it. And so in responding to letters like that written by the very old-fashioned person, I talked about the pleasures writing brought me and then described the real loves of my life, my family, Vicki and my two little boys, Francis and Edward.

Writing about my family made me happy, but I worried about the effect the transformation of a turtle-loving bachelor into a husband and father would have on my correspondents. I underestimated the letter-writers, and I soon learned there was no reason for anxiety. “Hello Samuel Pickering,” one wrote back, “how are you today. I enjoyed your letter and am so glad you have your Miss Box Turtle and the two little boys. I am making items at present for a craft bazaar. I have never made any box turtles, but thought you might like a Teddy bear decoration to hang in your little boys’ bedroom. If they are in separate rooms, let me know and I’ll send you another one. Take good care of Miss Box Turtle and the precious little ones. Please write more articles. God Bless.”

This letter invigorated me. And in truth almost all the people who answered my letters said they were eager to read more of my essays. “Where may I find additional pearls of Pickering ponderings,” a woman asked lightly, while a man urged me, “don’t ever stop writing. I hope your daddy longlegs article will be in Reader’s Digest.” So did I, and off I rushed to the library and checked out a dozen books. At first all went well, and I was sure I had found the subject for a pearl of an essay. Some 3,200 species of daddy longlegs lived in the world, I learned; and they were known by a wealth of names: haymakers, harvestmen, and grandfather greybears. Three and a half centuries ago in England they were called shepherd spiders. In his Theater of Insects (1634) Thomas Muffett explained the name, writing “the English call it Shepherd either because it is pleased with the Company of Sheep or because Shepherds think those fields that are full of them to be good wholesome Sheep-pasture.” When I realized that this Muffett was the famous entomologist and the father of Patience, most certainly the heroine of the nursery rhyme “Little Miss Muffet,” I thought my essay was as good as sold. I even told Vicki that we could afford a radio in our new car and suggested that we visit a few junk shops to see if we could find a second chamber pot to accommodate all the letters that would arrive after the essay appeared. “One with daffodils or violets on it would be nice,” I said. Alas, I spoke without knowing enough about the daddy longlegs. I soon learned, though. The spider, I reluctantly concluded, that disrupted Miss Muffet’s snack of curds and whey must have been a shepherd spider. The legs are not the only long thing on the daddy longlegs. If a person gently squeezes the sides of the male harvestman, down from an internal sack will drop its penis, an organ, I read, “remarkable for its great size, often exceeding the creature’s body in length.” Although I had not read Freud for 20 years, he came suddenly to mind, and not eager to be accused of “daddy longlegs envy,” I closed the book I was reading. Then I got up from the desk and, taking the notecards for the essay into the kitchen, dropped them into the trash can. That night I began an “academic article” on “Liars and Tattle-Tales in 18th-Century Children’s Books.”


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