Written by: Mary Norris
Once upon a time, long, long ago—two weeks ago, in fact, before the Inauguration—a poet welcomed a writer to a small liberal-arts college in Hiram, Ohio. The road to Hiram is long and straight, climbing a gradual hill from the top of which you can see down the slope and up the next long hill, like a roller coaster for people who don’t like roller coasters. Along the road there is a sign for the town of Mantua, pronounced Mannaway.
Hiram College is home to the Lindsay-Crane Center for Writing and Literature, which is named for two poets, Vachel Lindsay and Hart Crane. Lindsay attended Hiram, and Crane was born in nearby Garrettsville. Both poets killed themselves. Hiram’s most famous son is James A. Garfield, the twentieth President of the United States. A statue of him on campus was once beheaded. The head was found and reattached, in a ceremonial reheading, but there is something unnatural about the set of the head, as if Garfield had lost a vertebra.
Hiram himself was the Biblical king of Tyre who supplied materials and manpower to Solomon to build the temple. The college on the hilltop was originally called the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute. Writers and poets and English professors held classes around long rectangular wooden tables in former inns: clapboard houses with full baths and small kitchens. The poet who invited the writer had a Canada goose, which had been shot and stuffed by her grandfather, flying out of the wall over her desk.
The students were mostly local, from Cleveland, Kent, Ravenna, Youngstown; a few were from Alexandria, Virginia; one from Los Angeles; one from Croatia. Their football team was called the Terriers. They had questions for the visiting writer: Is it all right to use the same word twice in a row, like “had had,” “that that,” “do do”? (Yes. Sometimes it’s unavoidable.) How useful are those grammar apps that underline sentences in academic papers? (Not very.) When will magazines start using contemporary language, like “tanking super hard”? (When they are tanking super hard.)
Later, in Garrettsville, members of a book club convened in the Portage County library for a potluck dinner. Library copies of the writer’s book, with its Dewey Decimal number on the spine—428.2—lay on the table next to paper plates heaped with pasta and three variations on a local specialty: broccoli salad, which contains bacon, raisins, cheese, and mayonnaise. (The grammar app questions these ingredients.) Someone asked the writer, “How do you get to work?” Subway. If you dive underground at Twenty-second and Park, it is possible to get all the way to the thirty-eighth floor of the World Trade Center without going back outside.
In the evening, a hundred-odd people of all ages came to the college library to hear the writer talk about her book on English grammar. It had recently been published in Taiwan, in a Chinese translation. Hiram has a foreign-language requirement, from which only students of nursing and education are exempt. Students in those two disciplines are no doubt already aware of the benefits of learning any foreign language.
Afterward, people in the audience asked questions that were mostly friendly, except for one old woman, who scolded the writer: “You said ‘Where your career is at’—the ‘at’ is unnecessary.” The writer felt the need to release a little steam. She considered telling the joke about the country bumpkin on the Ivy League campus who asks a professor, “Can you please tell me where the English department is at?” and the professor says, “Around here, we don’t end sentences with a preposition,” so the bumpkin says, “All right, I’ll rephrase my question: Can you please tell me where the English department is at, asshole?” But two small girls were sitting in the front row, so the writer suppressed the urge, and said that if she were writing instead of speaking she would omit the “at.”
Later, the writer sat at a table where copies of her book were for sale. One of the little girls handed her a copy to inscribe and lisped her name. It sounded like Katherine. The writer began, in ink, and had already written “For Kath” on the title page when the girl’s mother spoke up: “It’s Kasper—like the ghost but with a ‘K.’ ” It was the girl’s surname; the book was for the family. The writer plucked a fresh copy of the book from the pile and started over—this was not the first time she had botched and bought a copy of her own book.
Then it was the old woman’s turn. She grasped the writer’s hands in her own, which were surprisingly warm, and whispered, “You didn’t pronounce the ‘S’ at the end of ‘asterisks.’ I wouldn’t sleep tonight if hadn’t told you.”
When it was over, the writer asked her hosts if anyone could use a book partially inscribed to Katherine with a “K.” An English professor who was gathering her things for the drive home to Cleveland Heights—she mentioned that she had bought a container of worms for her neighbors’ chickens—asked, “How far did you get?” The writer spelled out K-A-T-H. “I’ll take it for my mother-in-law,” the professor said. “Her name is Kathe—just add an ‘E.’ ”
So the old woman with strong opinions went home and got a good night’s sleep, the chickens got the worms, and the writer felt blessed to have spent a day in Hiram.