Delivered April 2, 2006 by Darden Asbury Pyron.
I am an historian but my field of scholarship is biography. I not only write about individual lives but I teach a course in biography, autobiography, and memoir and I am as interested in the theories, history, and ideas of biography as in the scholarship of researching individual lives. Of the various issues involved in biography, an epistemological problem concerns me especially, summarized in the question: What is a biographical fact? A written life uses two kinds of facts, public ones and private/domestic ones, even as biography considers two kinds of folks, public ones—the famous, like presidents and generals—on the one hand, and private ones on the other—our neighbors, our parents, for example—people who affect the ones around us and few others.
The facts of public record—elections won, battles lost, offices held, triumphs celebrated—are matters of literally written note. Such data would encompass the inauguration of our inductees into Phi Beta Kappa this afternoon. Your membership has become a matter of permanent, official record.
But there is another category of biographical data, softer facts, we might call them, information that lives less in the material world of achievement and writing than in the human heart and memory. Thus if your initiation into this organization today is one sort of fact, your family’s pride in your achievement will most likely never be expressed in writing. It will live instead only in their hearts and memories—and, of course, in your own recollections of their pride. It is not less a fact for its ineffability. This category of facts involves affections and manners, it includes the way we carry ourselves, the way others perceive us. It is about memory and recall, even nostalgia, as much as actual action or even physical reality itself.
All these assumptions come into play as I consider the life of my old, dear friend Peggy Endel. There are facts of record of her life: her birth in Montgomery, Alabama—she was a true daughter of the South, a major source of our affection for each other—there was her graduation from Smith in 1964 where she, like you today, was tapped into Phi Beta Kappa; her graduate work in English literature, her PhD; her 25-year teaching career here at FIU; her presence at the creation of this chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and her term as its president.
These are facts, but they do not differ very much from the lives of many people on this very platform and in this room. Thus, you might well ask after this short catalogue: “So what?” or “What of it?” or grosser still, “Who cares?” My answer to such questions moves us away from physical facts and accomplishments into that softer realm of impressions and affections. And I begin with an assertion of affection: I loved Peggy and I delighted in her company. I claim, however, that my affection and delight arises from more than mere subjective pleasure. These softer facts not only illuminate who she was, but further, suggest the larger meaning of her life.
Years ago, Peggy and her husband Barney Guttenberg attended a fancy dinner party I threw for a very distinguished visiting professor from the University of Florida. Bertram Wyatt-Brown sat next to Peggy. As the party broke up, he shared his enthusiasm for Peggy as a dinner companion. “How I wish I had such intellectual companionship in Gainesville!” he told me. He was talking about her intelligence and grace as much as conversational skills.
I also recall my last conversation with her, just outside the D.M. where she was soaking up the sun on a perfect South Florida afternoon. Oh, yes! We ranged over a huge variety of topics beginning with our children—she liked my three almost as much, perhaps, as I did her two girls. There were issues of in-laws, too, dogs, grandchildren, and international geopolitics. We also discussed pedagogy, classroom performance, and curriculum. At one point, she cocked her head, peered into the ether (after her wont!) and said, in her highly imitatable Alabama accent, “Darden, do you think someone should be able to graduate with a degree in English without a required course in Shakespeare?” Her department was debating this very matter at the moment, and she quoted one of her colleagues declaiming against this motion with the explanation that it would “privilege” Shakespeare—using that horrid neologism that turns a noun into a transitive verb. Ouch. I began a diatribe that dropping a Shakespeare requirement was tantamount to the collapse of Western Civilization, not to mention the disintegration of academic values in our university. I raged. Peggy remained calm and contemplative. For all her passionate commitment to Shakespeare in particular and to the traditional canon in general, she possessed a breadth and generosity of spirit that allowed legitimacy even for a position she abhorred.
Then there was the conversation just before that one, when I went to her for advice about Shakespearean comedy in a course I was teaching on laughter and humor (yes, the Honors College actually offers such a course). What of Shakespearean comedy, I asked, if I am doing Plautus? “Yes,” she began (again in that lovely, lilting voice) “Twelfth Night, certainly, and then Midsummer Night’s Dream and wind up with Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare in Love.” How neat, I still think to myself, how she knows instinctively how permeable are the lines between comedy and tragedy, the ridiculous and the sublime, or even the sublimely ridiculous, and how splendidly Shakespeare captured such subtleties: Pyramus and Thisbe; Bottom and Flute; Romeo and Juliet; Dromio and Dromio; Sebastian and Olivia. My syllabus, three years later, still follows the outline Endel recommended.
She could be sharp and critical, too, if never mean. And sometimes we disagreed—once at least. A decade ago we both attended one of the best opera productions I have ever experienced, Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. I loved it. She hated it. She was completely dead wrong. Period. But she did come up with a delicious phrase which I still love when she called the production, “Ariadne Obnoxious.”
There are other manifestations of the softer facts that defined her life. At a party last year, I mentioned her death to a long-ago former English major who had been her student. He hardly recalled her name, but he remembered the style. “What a great teacher she was,” he began, “She could read Shakespeare and still weep in class.” Reflect on that: after teaching the same material for decade in, decade out, still seeing it as fresh and moving. And being moved, she moved her students.
And softer still: my recollections of her mother’s fruitcake shared every year with me as long as her mother lived, and then the recipe shared—still in her grandmother’s scritchy hand—after that. This Christmas, not even knowing of Peggy’s battle with cancer, I made my fruitcakes from her “Granny’s” recipe and thought about Endel, her clan, and the pleasures of tradition.
So what still? So what of the life of my friend? So what of the life of an old-timey teacher, of the life of a member of this chapter?
She was, indeed, an old-fashioned sort of person and teacher. She took a traditional approach to learning and knowledge—no less than to recipes and fruitcake. Indeed, it crosses my mind she was even born out of time and place—maybe she should have been teaching at a small college forty years ago and not at a great urban university in a big, not very Southern city. But she saw neither FIU nor our crazily multi-ethnic student body as foreign or even alien. She shared what she knew as if our students were no better nor worse than ones at Vanderbilt, Furman, or Smith. If very smart and critical, she was—I repeat—never mean. She was also devoted, sympathetic, gentle and appreciative of the complexity of life and of what it means to be alive and conscious of the peculiarities of the human condition. She was humane in the grandest sense of that term—as in “the humanities” which also represents the sine qua non of this organization. She was also my friend. Her company elevated me and those she touched, but she was also the friend of arts and letters. I miss her. The University misses her, and each of you could look no further than her life for a model of honor, decency, grace and intelligence.
For all these reasons, then, it is particularly appropriate that this chapter of Phi Beta Kappa has agreed to a prize in her name. If she might have winced (same as she did at the term “to privilege”) at a “mentoring” award (I am sure she would have preferred a plain old teaching award), the ideal of the universal teacher, intellectual companion, and trusting guide is not far at all from her ideal.
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