Having not yet seen the portrait of colleague Gerald Early, Wayne Fields said he approached the Sept. 5 unveiling with a “friend’s anxiety, no — more an older brother’s concern.”
Ultimately, Fields, Ph.D., the Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Chair in English and director of the American Culture Studies program in Arts & Sciences, said he was won over by the depiction.
A large turnout of admirers gathered for the unveiling in Holmes Lounge, Ridgley Hall. Early’s portrait now hangs in the John M. Olin Library in the Current Journals Reading Room (main level, southwest corner).
Early, Ph.D., the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters and director of the Center for the Humanities in Arts & Sciences, is an essayist and American culture critic who joined the WUSTL faculty in 1982. Writing on topics as divergent as boxing, baseball, jazz, literature and the Miss America pageant, he is the author and editor of more than a dozen books and winner of numerous prestigious literary prizes.
With this portrait, he now holds company among other legendary WUSTL writers who received this recognition — Howard Nemerov, William Gass, Jarvis Thurston, Mona Van Duyn, James Merrill, Donald Finkel, Stanley Elkin and John Morris.
“In 1991, then-Chancellor William H. Danforth decided that we should honor the distinguished writers who themselves have brought so much honor to Washington University,” said Shirley K. Baker, vice chancellor for scholarly resources and dean of University Libraries.
The result was a series of commissioned writers’ portraits that now hang in Olin Library.
Early’s portrait was painted by Jamie Adams, assistant professor of art and director of the Core Program in the College of Art in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. Adams’ works have been commissioned and collected across the world.
No matter — Fields still worried … worried that his longtime friend and former officemate would not be adequately portrayed. Fields — who said he has introduced Early more times than anyone save Early’s wife, Ida Early — was charged with introducing him again at this special event.
In the weeks leading up to the unveiling, Fields said he mulled over how thoroughly his words have failed Early in the past, and how impossible it is to capture the true measure of the man.
“I dutifully survey the titles of his books, make reference to all the awards and honors, catalogue the offices he has held — you know the drill, the standard great man stuff,” Fields said.
“What they don’t provide is an adequate picture of a man who manages to be at the same time the most complicated and uncomplicated person I know, the most opaque and the most transparent, a writer of unfailing clarity and yet of the most intricate subtlety, a tough-minded critic who is remarkably generous and kind. He has the gentlest of souls and yet is fearless,” he said.
In his fearlessness, Early has published book reviews critical of writers considered by others too important and too vindictive to provoke — and has introduced incendiary Republican writer Ann Coulter to a “house packed with true believers, respectfully providing her audience with a concise lecture on the history of conservatism, a lecture they neither expected nor apparently appreciated,” Fields said.
In a world in which “posturing hucksters interrupt one another on political talk shows and make small fortunes by authoring books filled with hateful bombast and empty cant, he (Early) is the most intelligent and trustworthy interpreter we have, tirelessly showing us who — for good and for ill — we are and how we got this way,” Fields said.
True to form — Early proved contradictory on the night of his portrait unveiling. With colleagues, administrators, family and friends gathered to honor him for his contributions to literature, Early instead shifted the focus to his wife, Ida, thanking her for an “unshakable faith.” And with it, he shared the trajectory of his career — from when he began writing as a college student displaying tremendous confidence to a time when he had no confidence at all.
Ida, secretary to the University’s Board of Trustees, also is a longtime fixture at the University. Early said he met Ida Haynes at a time in his life when he was totally absorbed in himself, “when the motto nailed above my door was ‘I’m my Everything.'”
Both were graduates of the University of Pennsylvania. Gerald was in his first year of law school there; Ida worked in the vice provost’s office.
She commented that his name sounded familiar. “I told her that perhaps she had heard of me because I had written for the school newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian. I told her grandly that I was a writer by trade and she felt a bit embarrassed that she had not read anything I had written.”
Gerald recalled telling her, “I’m going to be one of the most important essayists in America. I’m going to win literary prizes, college kids are going to study my essays in English classes. Before I’m done, libraries are going to build monuments to me. One day when I walk down the street, people are going to say, ‘There goes Gerald Early, the best that ever played this game.’
“I’m not sure how she took this loopy bit of bragging,” Early said, “this living on the street of dreams.”
By the end of the spring semester in 1975, a miserable Gerald decided to leave law school.
“The decision to leave nearly wrecked me: relatives and friends asked me how could I turn my back on such a great opportunity to advance myself, as I was not failing academically. I told them that I went to law school because I didn’t have anything better to do and that was a stupid reason to go.”
He tried writing, but everything he submitted was rejected. “Some editors even went out of their way to tell me how terrible a writer I was.”
Two years had passed since he was the “boy wonder of the Daily Pennsylvanian.” Lacking a journalism or writing degree, he now had lost his “gleam and sense of promise that had make him so attractive before.”
Ida invited the struggling writer to her office to show him a surprise. After telling him to sit down and close his eyes, she placed a binder on his lap. “Inside, neatly clipped and pasted on thick paper and slipped in plastic, one by one, were my articles from the Daily Pennsylvanian, all of them, in chronological order, pages of them, carefully dated,” he said.
Olin Library has produced a guide to the artwork, providing information about the persons depicted in all the portraits, the artists and locations for each piece. A print version of the guide is available in the library or it may be viewed online at library.wustl.edu/artwork/.
“I thought you needed to remember who you are and why you’re here,” she told him. “I know one day you’re going to be a great essayist and that when you walk down the street people are going to say, ‘There goes Gerald Early, the best that ever played this game.'”
“So,” Gerald said, “there comes a moment in the life of a young person when suddenly you look at someone else and realize that, after all, ‘I’m not my Everything.’ You look at another person and say quietly, ‘You’re my Everything.’
“It comes not as something violent or shocking, not as something dramatic or romantic even, but as something of a serene revelation, simple as a Shaker hymn, plain as daily bread on the table, clear as clean cool water in a glass, or sunlight in an empty room that uncovers finally what you had not seen before.”
Early said “he had no choice, but to acknowledge this faith, so unsupported by evidence yet so unshakable, with a renewed faith in myself.”