Now that COVID has brought a temporary end to my local teaching and national lecturing profession of fifty years, I realize both how fortunate my choice of profession was and how odd this career would have seemed to me during my undergraduate days. For when I was a college senior in 1970 and selecting a future profession, professing as a professor was not an option I had seriously considered.
Actually, during that year I had been accepted to law school at the University of Virginia and had assumed that I would become a lawyer. My father had won a scholarship to law school when he graduated from college in 1933, but because of the depression the funding was cancelled; he went into the hosiery and sportswear business “temporarily” for the next forty years. He made a fine living by owning the Midwestern Hosiery Company, but it was his son who was going to be the belated law school graduate.
All this changed, however, when I won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship during my senior year. It was a fantastic opportunity since it would pay everything for all five years of my graduate career at UCLA. The only stipulation was that the recipient had to be in a graduate program directed toward eventual college teaching.
My undergraduate major had been — of course — English, and suddenly it was no longer Pre-Law English but, rather, English All By Its Lonesome Self! This abrupt career change took some getting used to in my family. On both my mother’s and father’s side, I descended from a long line of owners of what used to be called "dry-goods" stores. As one of my relatives aptly phrased it: “Our family has been in dry goods ever since the first good was dried.” Somehow, deciding on a career in English Literature seemed exotic and rather bizarre. “But, Elliot,” my Aunt Anna reminded me, “You know you can’t open up an English store.”
My experience working at my father’s hosiery store during the summer vacations in high school and college had convinced me that I would not regret choosing a different path. Not that I had had a typical retail-sales experience. You can’t expect professional behavior when you call the boss ‘Dad.’ My father was a most lenient employer of his son. My summer hours at work were basically from when I felt like coming in (9:30 always seemed congenial) until I either grew seriously bored or Dad ran out of energy thinking up busy work for me to do.
But I do believe that my love of literature, which is based on the love for vocabulary, character, and imagination, was shaped during those few hours a day that I spent at my father’s business. My grandmother was a woman who had come to America from Russia when she was in her teens and who had helped run a very successful dry-goods business without the benefit of a high school education, let alone an M.B.A. She had always said, “You stand behind a counter, you learn life.” The flow of humanity that came through the doors of Midwestern Hosiery Company was my own version of the Canterbury pilgrims, each with a unique Tale to tell me. And I listened.
Although I’ve chosen a career which is seemingly quite different from sales, I’ve discovered that in reality my teacher’s apple has not fallen far from my family tree. Many years ago, I was sharing my upbringing with some students I taught in a seminar on the novels of Dickens. I had just mentioned to the class that my teaching career had broken a family tradition of dry-goods sales. Mary, a very witty student in the back of the room, raised her hand to disagree.
“Wouldn’t you say,” she began, “that you’ve devoted your career to selling your students on the virtues of Charles Dickens?” I admitted that this was true.
“Well,” she added, “Some of the Dickens novels we’re studying are about as dry as anything I’ve ever read. So it looks to me like you’ve become the ultimate dry-goods salesman.”
I need to tell Aunt Anna that my English store has been open for business ever since.