09 January 2008

Remembering Art Saltzman

Yesterday I learned in a phone call that Arthur Saltzman, Professor of English at Missouri Southern State University, had passed away due to a brain aneurysm at the age of 54. This statement was met with ten full seconds of silence as the full impact descended upon my consciousness. One might think me an unlikely person to write a tribute to Dr. Saltzman, as I did not know him particularly well on a personal level. However, I find myself impacted greatly by his loss, and besides, what else is a blog for than to express my feelings.

Art Saltzman was my colleague as an instructor at Southern. But before that, he was my teacher. I respected him greatly, though I would never have considered him my friend. As a student, I felt him perhaps to be above my station, and I knew for a fact that I had not lived up to his expectations. As a colleague, I could never really get past the teacher-student hierarchy, though this did not pose a problem with the colleagues I work closely with who were also once my professors. I think this is because Art never would have seen as much of my professional work as he did of my student work some 20 years ago.

Of all my college professors, I have found myself over the years thinking of Dr. Saltzman probably more than any other. Even yesterday morning, before I received the phone call, I was listening to a story on NPR about the notable American author Raymond Carver. The last time--who am I kidding, the only time--I read Carver was in Dr. Saltzman's course in college. In fact, I can say the same about Cheever, O'Connor, Salinger. I never would have chosen to read these on my own; I prefer other genres of fiction. But I value having read them, being able to participate in conversations about them, even if the only thing I can recall about Flannery O'Connor is that she wrote from a Roman Catholic perspective. And naturally, upon hearing a story about Carver, I thought of Art Saltzman, and his course, and I felt even a bit smug with the knowledge that I could understand the reasons and content of the interview with Carver's widow.

One of my favorite remembrances of Dr. Saltzman's wit in the classroom was a lighthearted ideology that he espoused on more than one occasion. Upon bemoaning the continual prevalence of crime against others in society (such as thievery or murder), Dr. Saltzman suggested that everyone in the world should be named "Bob." Since many crimes are committed against people that are unknown to the perpetrator, Dr. Saltzman theorized that his proposal would reduce the crime rate. After all, he would say, a potential murderer would think twice before pulling the trigger because he would know that the potential victim was Bob. "I can't shoot Bob," he would think!

I was a bit disappointed in myself, as I found my thoughts turning to what I have lost with Art's passing. I had intended to go to his book signing last month, to buy his latest collection of essays, have him sign it, and perhaps open a dialogue that might begin to resolve the conflict of my professional adolescence. And going would have shown the respect that I felt for Art that I was too immature to show as a student and too sheepish to express as a coworker. But I left another event that evening, with my wife and young kids, and it was easier to just skip the signing. Now, I thought, I'll never get that chance, nor will I get my book signed. How selfish and shallow of me. But how natural, to think first of oneself.

I did go straight to Hastings yesterday and buy the book. I've only read a page or two, but I know it will be great. The humor and wit will be especially poignant, like what I imagine a newly-married bride's last moments with her war-bound husband might have been.

I had Dr. Saltzman for two courses. The second was an American Literature course. I actually remember little of the class, except that I was supposed to keep a regular journal (perhaps of my readings, thoughts and experiences, but I really don't recall) and that I received a poor grade. The poorest ever for me, in fact. At any level. By two letters. I recall sitting in the library on the day after classes ended, beginning to attempt to try to recreate some semblance of a journal that I had not kept. In the end, I couldn't bring myself to do it. I attached a note to what little work I had actually done over the previous four months. In the note, I apologized for the lack of effort put into the journal, and the course, and asked Dr. Saltzman to give me the grade I deserved. Then I dropped it off in his mailbox, or with the secretary. Or perhaps I handed it to him. That part I don't recall. But I know there was no discussion, and I know that Dr. Saltzman honored my request.

Not able to face him again after that, I retook that course from another instructor (who did not require keeping journals) and made an A. But I knew I had taken the low road. I did learn from the experience that I don't really have the dedication to keep a regular journal. I am more of a deadline-oriented worker. This blog (or lack thereof) is evidence of that fact. But I regret not taking the course again and forcing myself to do the work despite my disinclination to do so. I made an A, but I know I could have done better. I know for a fact that a letter grade does not indicate the magnitude of the lessons learned, because I learned more from that D than from any course I ever "aced." It just wasn't about American Literature.

I always wondered if Dr. Saltzman/Art thought of that incident whenever we encountered each other in recent years. I know I did. But he never would have said anything. I had hoped to bring it up with him someday, kind of a confessional. Perhaps he could have given me some penance, or a scholar's pardon.

And now I am the Director of the Honors Program from which I graduated 18 years ago. Art was with the program from its very beginning in 1984 until yesterday. We have lost undoubtedly the most prolific, most respected author and sharpest-witted wordsmith in the history of the university. To say that he will be missed is, well, honestly all anyone can say--but no words are sufficient to describe how he will be missed, or how much . I grieve for those students who will never have the chance to be in one of his classes. I grieve for those who have had the chance, but will not have it again. I grieve for his companion, Joy, his children, and all those close to him. I grieve for the English department, and indeed, for Missouri Southern. I grieve for myself, though I can't put into words exactly why I am so affected. Perhaps it is because he opened my mind to new and strange ideas in my so-called formative years. And he did so for, literally, generations of college students--all at a small school in Joplin, Missouri. He dedicated his entire career to doing so, in fact. How amazing, that something like that could happen. And how wonderful.

Arthur Saltzman... you will be missed.

8 comments:

Rodney said...

What a wonderful remembrance of your colleague, Dr. Saltzman. Thank you for sharing these memories with us.

theresia said...

Thank you for the beautiful remembrance to Dr Saltzmsn. As you, I also feel fortunate to have known him and share the feeling of loss to all.

Jeff said...

My name is Jeff Saltzman, and I am Art's younger brother, the Chicago attorney. Joy forwarded your "blog" to me and I want to thank you for your kind words. I will share them with my mother. We have all suffered a tremendous loss. Art was such a special person and a fantastic teacher. I highly recommend you take the time to read SOLVE FOR X, as it contains some of his best essays. Of course, they are especially near and dear to my heart because many of them describe our lives together.

Douglas S. Johnson said...

Damn, ditto. Nearly every word. We had nearly the same experience. Except I teach in the state of WA.

JDG said...

I moved to the east coast after finishing the honors program at MSSC. I took several of Dr. Saltzman's classes, and my recollection and impressions of him were the same. I just saw the news today, but I had the same "ten second pause".

To this day, I can't write anything without imagining his critique of it.

Dan said...

Wow. I was browsing Rate My Profs.com, checking up on profs I haven't seen since at least '94 and saw a mention of his death, and googling got me here. I'm kind of in shock. I only took one class from Prof. Saltzman but it was one of the best I had at MSSC/U. Little pithy comments from him still stick with me more than a dozen years later ("If you can not write, by all means do so," has probably mutated a bit in my memory from what he really said, but that was one) I know I'm late on this, but it's truly sad news.

Ned said...

Thanks for your beautiful remembrance. I did not know Arthur Saltzman, but reviewed one of his books years ago and admired immensely what he had to tell us about the work of William H. Gass.

Philip Nel said...

Thanks for this remembrance. I knew Art Saltzman through our mutual interest in Don DeLillo. Art was at the 1998 DeLillo conference (of which I was a co-organizer), and was one of the founding members of the Don DeLillo Society (for which I was and remain webmaster). I reviewed his book This Mad Instead, and wrote one of my best essays under its influence -- an essay on DeLillo's The Body Artist. Art did formalist criticism extremely well, which is saying something -- formalist criticism is very, very hard to do well. I learned a lot from him. And I was sad to learn of his passing... somewhat belatedly. I found out only last month.