- Vocation, Vocation, Vocation: Lewis Simpson’s Lives
In the jacket photograph for Imagining Our Time, Lewis Simpson poses with a slightly arch smile, almost but not quite a smirk, and his tieless collar is open and spread. He looks less like a citizen of his beloved “republic of letters” than an Israeli general in civilian clothes. When he died in 2005, at the age of eighty-eight, he had written six books and edited several more on American and Southern literary culture (the upper-case “S” must be used for Simpson’s work), and edited the New Series of the Southern Review from its inception in 1965. Without heading up a cult or school, Lewis Simpson set a standard. Some of my own best work appeared in the Southern Review under his editorship; of all the elders in the field, Simpson was the one I most wanted to be.
If I had been consulted in the editing of this ensemble of Simpson’s late essays (most postdate his “retirement” in 1986), I would have suggested another subtitle: Essays in a Furtive Autobiography. I do not mean “furtive” to be pejorative, but rather to reflect Simpson’s habit of self-effacement. He was a modernist in temperament, after all, and clung to the modernist rule of the invisibility of the author. But autobiography nevertheless found a way. As Fred Hobson points out in his introduction, the typical Simpson essay begins with a modest personal anecdote, then dives into an intricate, sometimes Jamesian (as in Henry James in his “Master” phase) investigation of the writer whose work fascinated him. In the intellectuals and writers covered in Imagining Our Time Simpson finds [End Page 135] (sometimes imposes, it must be said) two qualities, echoed like themes in a late Romantic symphony: vocation rather than career, and the deeplyfelt rift in consciousness resulting from the displacement of the transcendent order by the ascendancy of the secular-historical humanism of the Enlightenment. These are not the familiar tropes of contemporary southern studies, not power or nationhood or gender or trauma. Nor will readers find, among “works cited,” exhaustive lists. Simpson engaged his topics in single combat; he seldom called on intermediaries.
By searching out the marks of vocation in each of the writers he studies, Simpson feels for the passion that pulsated in them as it did in himself. What Hobson takes to be an autobiographical gambit to launch each essay might also be the sign of a more intimate self-revelation; in each case the personal contact is much more fleeting and irregular than the intellectual. Simpson feels in each of his subjects the same passion that made him a searcher. The object of his search, his grail, is plainly revealed, for the essays as an ensemble form the plot of a quest. The long, personal, meticulous essay on Walker Percy with which the collection concludes makes the grail plain: maintaining both a belief in the intellectual/ spiritual realm (though fleeting or ironic—hence the arch smile of the author’s photograph) and an active fellowship in the worldly.
Imagining Our Time begins with a lengthy essay on one of Simpson’s colleagues at LSU, historian and philosopher of history Eric Voegelin. It begins like a mystery story. Simpson seeks a book in LSU’s library, Julien Benda’s The Betrayal of the Intellectuals (published in 1927 in French as La trahison des clercs). Back in the day, the card catalog could tell you who had the book if it were not on the shelf, and the card Simpson found bore Professor Voegelin’s name. Simpson assumed both he and Voegelin were on the same quest, a remedy for the vacuum in belief that opened when The Age of Faith surrendered to the Enlightenment and intellectuals (“the clerks”) quit depending on the divine authority of the text and substituted their (our) own. It turned out that Simpson could never be sure that Voegelin had read Benda’s book. But Simpson did, and...