Imagine my surprise midway through George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss to discover this extraordinary passage:
O Aristotle! if you had had the advantage of being “the freshest modern” instead of the greatest ancient, would you not have mingled your praise of metaphorical speech, as a sign of high intelligence, with a lamentation that intelligence so rarely shows itself in speech without metaphor,–that we can so seldom declare what a thing is, except by saying it is something else?
The very essence of deconstruction right there in print, formulated not by Derrida or de Man, but by a nineteenth-century lady novelist. The novel, as with all of Eliot’s novels, delights and surprises with such hidden gems that burst forth like unexpected intellectual fireworks.
So rereading Mill on the Floss has indeed delighted me. Even more so, it gave me glimpses of the girl long ago lost at college who found her way with the help of two Maggies: Maggie Tulliver (protagonist of the novel) and Maggie Mahar (protagonist of the classroom). I went to a big public high school, did well, and blithely and blindly headed off to Yale–where I ran smack into the wall of my own inabilities. Writing–no good; thinking–questionable; scholarship–lame.
I floundered, even wondered if I had turned up at the wrong place. But everything changed junior year, when at the advice of a good friend, Rick Snape, I signed up for a Morse College seminar on George Eliot. Now, at Yale, the academic departments offered an astounding array of course selections (the all-time best title for a college course in the 70’s: What is Reality?). In addition, the residential colleges also offered seminars in subjects not offered in the departments. The two most influential courses I took at Yale, in fact, were college seminars–the one on George Eliot and a philosophy class in Trumbull called Ways of Knowing taught by Robert Fogelin.
About the Eliot seminar, I cannot remember any other student in the class, nor can I remember the room we met in, other than a vague impression of its darkness and perhaps lack of any real windows to speak of–but then, I think it met in the evenings, so maybe I just remember nightness. What I remember is Maggie Mahar and what Maggie Mahar taught me.
The first thing to notice about Maggie was her massive halo of dark, curly hair. Second, her voice, somehow husky and low and impossibly cool, with a wondrous laugh that made you want to make her laugh more. And third, of course, her ability to roll her own cigarettes one-handed in the middle of making some pithy comment about George Eliot’s mastery. Maggie lead us grandly through great works. I suspect we all fell a bit in love with her, happily following her into the arcana of nineteenth century England.
We began with The Mill on the Floss with its own dark-haired Maggie. Next came Middlemarch with its beautifully rendered Dorothea Brooke, and we ended with Daniel Deronda, Eliot’s paean to Judaism. Three long, long novels, but all gladly read. There were two assessments: a five-page mid-term paper, and a final ten-page rewrite of that first essay. Maggie said students never spent much time revising, thereby missing a key step in the writing process, so she would enforce it. And through it, I learned how to write.
By junior year, I had hobbled my way through a series of essays with, as one professor put it, singularly “undistinguished” writing. Lots of “vague’s” and “awkward’s” littered the margins. I felt disheartened, but also a bit irritated by the vagueness of “vague.” I figured my ideas sucked. Until the Maggies. I wrote my mid-term essay on The Mill on the Floss, something about the world of the novel already contained in the opening pages. Ms. Mahar tore the paper apart–not mean-spiritedly, not cruelly, just line by line. She wrote in every margin, between lines of the double-spaced text, and then she rolled a sheet of legal paper into her typewriter (hey, no computers, we lived in a different century), and she typed a long note, single-spaced, on both sides of that page. She dissected the flaws in my writing in the most encouraging way. I remember most the last line: “You have a great idea here, and it deserves clear expression.” At last, someone making clear that I could think, I just couldn’t write very well. Better yet, she took me by the hand and showed me step by step what I needed to do. First off, get rid of all the passive voice–already into my third year in college, and no one had ever mentioned that to me! And by getting rid of passive voice, Maggie also taught me to boldly declare what I want to say. It made writing papers much more fun as I asserted daringly. As my students now know, I have gone even further, banishing to be verbs almost entirely whenever possible.
As a result of that course, my time at Yale transformed. I started earning better grades. I enjoyed writing so much more. I even began writing for the Yale Daily News–sports articles about gymnastics. I went on to take Maggie’s senior seminar on Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams, and I still hold their poems dear: “Lapis Lazuli,” The Waste Land, and “The Idea of Order at Key West,” to name a few. And many years later, inspired by Middlemarch, I named my second child Dorothea.
More importantly, Maggie became my model as a teacher. She had all the traits to enrapture a class and to stretch the mind of each student in a key way. Maggie listened to each of us carefully. She recognized and encouraged both the fully-formed and the fledging ideas spun out around the conference table. She took time to correct and then to explain. As a result, I flourished. And now, when I grade essays, I try to do the same.
Since those days, Maggie Mahar has gone into a highly regarded career in journalism. She still has the mass of curly, dark hair, and she still writes with vigor and clarity, two skills she passed on to her many students.
By late mid-life, we have all stumbled around life, tripped up by traumas, bad decisions, and unpleasant people. But I can happily say I chose well in 1975 when I listened to my friend Rick Snape (who, sadly, died too young in 2007), who brought me to the amazing Maggie Mahar. Here’s to good friends and great teachers!