Linda Patterson Miller, the 2011-12 Penn State laureate and professor of English at Penn State Abington, is sharing her thoughts and observations of her laureate experience as she journeys across the Commonwealth aiming to engage people in the beauty of the humanities; specifically early 20th-century American literature and art. “Literary Landings” is a travelogue scheduled to appear during the fall 2011 and spring 2012 semesters on Penn State Live and in Penn State Newswires. In the first entry titled “Coming Home,” read about Miller’s Pennsylvania roots and join her on her “personal and public quest for self and home.”
Literary Landings with the Penn State Laureate: Coming Home
By Linda Patterson Miller, 2011-12 Penn State laureate
August 22, 2011
As the first Penn State laureate from the humanities, for the coming year, I feel that I am coming home. I was born and came of age in the American Midwest, where I explored Ernest Hemingway’s Michigan lake country during magical summers, and otherwise lived in Park Ridge, Ill., not far from Hemingway's Chicago suburb of Oak Park. That Midwest of my youth captivated me then, and still does (as evidenced in my research and writing about all those early 20th-century American writers who, as Nick Carraway in "The Great Gatsby" describes it, were Midwesterners at heart even as they drifted east).
But even as I grew up in Michigan and Illinois, I felt the pull of "Penn's Woods." My father’s father repaired train engines in the Pennsylvania railroads, and my father and his two brothers came to know the plaintive whistles of locomotives as they marveled over the impossible arc of the Horseshoe Curve. On the many family trips to Juniata, Hollidaysburg, Liverpool and other Commonwealth places where my Scots-Irish and German forebears lived, I discovered why my father boasted that his native state was "The Garden Spot of the Universe." So when Penn State proposed hiring me as an assistant professor of English a while back, my interview visit to State College seemed almost like a homecoming to my father’s heartland.
The University, like the state, found a big place in my heart. As I drove west from Philadelphia, negotiating the tangle of highways through Harrisburg (with U.S. Route 322 West as my compass), I recall my sudden and unexpected confrontation just past Harrisburg with the Susquehanna River as it opened out flat and wide. Time seemed to shift, and there I was wading with my cousins in some shallow Pennsylvania river beyond the call to dinner. I saw the angle of the light glancing off the water and the way the trees filtered the clouds as I skidded stones across the slick surfaces that mirrored time. This mental landscape stayed with me as I drove north along the Susquehanna River, until I crossed over to pick up along the Juniata River where it forked westward as the countryside began to climb. Over the mountain was Happy Valley.
Years later, this country of my father's heart continues to tug at me. I think about how we are all, in one way or another, perpetually searching for home. Is home a place or a state of mind? Members of America’s so-called "Lost Generation" of the 1920s were accused of being lost. "You are all a generation perdue," Gertrude Stein told Hemingway, as he recalled it in his Paris memoir "A Moveable Feast." "That’s what you are. That’s what you all are ... All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation." Hemingway reflected on this as he walked back to his Paris apartment from Stein's salon and decided that "all generations were lost by something and always had been and always would be." The key, I suppose, is not to flounder in one's "lostness" but rather to go in search of self and "home." The American poet Archibald MacLeish disagreed with the description of himself and his colleagues as "lost" because he believed that they were not lost so much as the world was lost to them. One of the tenets of modernist art that grew out of this search for validity and truth proclaimed that people had embraced a willed blindness, seeing only what they might want to see. Art would lead the way to show them who they were -- and who we are.
I invite you to join me on my personal and public quest for self and home as I travel throughout the state this year so as to explore with you what it means to be human. Drawing on my research and writing on American literature and art, particularly of the 20th century, I will be inviting a variety of audiences throughout the state to consider the ways in which a study of the humanities helps to discover and document our lives, in a word to reveal ourselves to ourselves. Even as I talk about American diaries and the art of letters and literature during my year as laureate, I will be maintaining an ongoing journal of my travels and encounters in Pennsylvania. I hope you will come along for the ride.
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To comment or to ask the laureate a question, contact Linda Miller at [email protected].