Love, Culture, Death, and the Containment of Multitudes: an English Major Reflects

I was born an English Major and I’ll die an English Major.

I will be an old man at the hardware store whose ears perk up when he hears that young people are thinking about a Liberal Arts Major; I will be forever in love with the idea of being an English teacher although I will have suffered three or four decades from being one; I will be an old tinkerer in a tool shed writing in the corner because I still believe in the power of the essay.

I will forever be thinking of my top three main ideas for any postulate that could become a claim or thesis; I will always think that the most noble profession is that of an English teacher, and like many of my students who were in their mother’s wombs while having me as their teacher two decades (or less) earlier, I was also in my mother’s womb as she taught high school English for those 10 months, almost four decades ago.  

And when I think of culture, I think of the great arc of my life from a young age until now, spanning the libraries of my youth to the shelves of my classroom.

And although I am good at many things, and contain many roles—father, husband, son, gum-chewer, saunterer—I will always access my core where the task of reading a book never tires. To look at, feel, read, consume, and annotate a book; that is the start and finish of my personal culture, outside of the latitude and longitude of my limited American white “culture”.  Which is no culture at all unless you divide my tastebuds and categorize my likes and hobbies, putting me in the same societal predicament as every 37-year-old around the world: sitting around, discussing things, drinking tea or moonshine or lager.

I am large and contain multitudes of Walt Whitman, in lust and love with the smell of an old book and its binding, its penned and underlined weary pages and covers, which, after I have read and taught, need glue, tape, and clips to hold it together until I read it anew to a new class or new part of my day where I am alone in a crowded room, entering a narrative.

There is no greater citizen than a reader; there’s no greater Patriot than a writer; there is no greater thing to have done as a student and teacher than to have studied the narratives of humankind. And although I have studied politics, history, science, arts, language, and math, the  greatest of all of the Classical traditions— “English” —rather storytelling and analysis and argument —will always be the delivery room and funeral parlor of my personal culture, and its reincarnating realms.

The pen in my hand—0.5 mm precise, black, extra fine—on a fresh sheet of paper or a wilted receipt, some scrap fragment: these are the greatest parts of my world and personal culture. Like a cutting board full of the basic needs for a meal—a pen and paper, or a freshly sharpened pencil are all I need. A book, classroom, and students are just as well all I need to break into the classics and enter the worlds of every culture imaginable, from Genji and Sappho to Faulkner and Vonnegut. There is a story and storyteller and us, and that is all.

From the Roman plebeians to the Dickensian pickpockets—and from the Burning Bush to the Red Tent—I find all official modes and memes of life wrapped in and around time immemorial and the Spiritus Mundi in that bound paperweight.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of bullshit prose.

And on my deathbed, while I consider everything I have done, I will still wish to be English major; that being a Master or Doctor of literature, or an editor or ghostwriter wasn’t enough to satisfy my desire from age six to seventy-six. I will still be seeking the Muse who infected me years before, born inside the fingertips of a young boy yearning to tell a story—any story—and an original one at that.

My entire life will be a worn-out book with annotated, folded pages tucked somewhere next to the bedside table.

Beyond my cultured progenitors, I am a writer. I am a reader. I tell stories. That counts more than Irish, Slovak, or Native American “roots,” yes? I am a beard. I am a brain with a body. I am all heart and guts and copy editing. I am a gringo ordering from a world of take-out and avoiding spicy cuisine. I am the “he” who assumes and contains the enormity of Nick Carraways, and I also contain multitudes of essayists, personal narrators, failed poets, ruined novelists, and successful drinkers who happen to submit brilliant paragraphs.

My culture is caught, filleted, and presented inside the books of the world—beyond (and inside) creed, gender, supposed “race,” and page length—beyond epilogues, deadlines, and emptied batteries.

And one day, when my children are grown and my wife allows me to slip out to write, I will look back on my life and want the same thing that I’ve wanted since I knew that there were places where you could learn, read, borrow, or steal from Masters—to be in or about a book, and be called a major of such a thing.

Jeremy McKeen is a high school English teacher, coach, musician, and father of three. In addition to his writings on The Good Men Project, he is also a Lead Editor. He has been featured on and written for Huffington Post, Salon,Sammiches & Psych Meds, Ravishly, YourTango,  Scary Mommy, BLUNTMoms, Yahoo! Parenting, HuffPo Parents, The Motherish, MockMom, The Gloucester Clam, Take Magazine, and maintains his own site, Nerdy Dad Shirt. You can find him onFacebook and Twitter.