Back in school after the MLA convention I resumed my grad student routine, working at home in the morning and then trudging to the library in the afternoon. Leafless New Haven was wrapped in what that old Connecticut Yankee Wallace Stevens had called a “wintry slime.” The days were short, the wait was long. Everything felt cheerless, dark, and deadly. By the end of January it became clear that I would not be interviewing on any campus. I had failed in the job search. How could this have happened, when always before I had gotten top grades and succeeded with every application? How was I going to live when my fellowship and GI bill ran out? What was I going to do next year?
Having never imagined any career other than teaching—having, indeed, considered teaching a vocation rather than a job—I had no idea, no Plan B. By early February I had become seriously and uncharacteristically depressed. I could not concentrate on reading; I could hardly write, not even notes or sketches. My guts hurt like a clenched fist. I slept lightly and woke in a sweat from anxious dreams. But by day I tried to keep up appearances, as if routine itself would somehow magically compensate for the disaster ahead.
One day as I walked in to campus past a row of stately mansions that the university had purchased for offices, a door opened and my friend Barbara came out of the anthro department. She had been working on a dissertation in Old Norse when her advisor had suddenly died, and no one else in the English department had been willing to take her on. Then her fellowship had expired. Now she was trading water as a secretary. She waved and smiled, “Hey JT, how’s it going?”
“Aw, Barb,” I said, “no interviews. I’m depressed.”
Her jaw dropped, “But you’re the blithe spirit!”
I shrugged, waved, and went on, thinking, “Shit, even my friends won’t let me be depressed. This is the worst!” But at the same time I realized the utter futility of it. The feelings were real—the worry, the anger, the sense of injured merit—but they weren’t getting me anywhere. Self-pity was not productive; there was no point in wallowing in it. The thing was somehow to salvage my career and make a living. I had to figure something out.
Barb’s comment, so kindly meant, was really a whack on the side of the head. I needed it. It was a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition for moving on. I would also need luck, and plenty of it.