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Notes JOHN R. MILTON 1924-1995 My first encounter withJohn Milton was in the fall of 1970.1was twentythree years old and it was my first day of graduate school at the University of South Dakota. John was in his office, which was also the office of the South Dakota Review, and though I didn’t actually see him that day, I heard him growling as I crept past the door. I didn’t usually creep down hallways. But I had come to USD to learn all I could about writing in general and writing about the Great Plains in particu­ lar. I didn’t know much, but I knew whatwent on inside the office of the South Dakota Reviewwas important. I also knew, because it was one of the reasons I chose USD, thatJohn Milton was important too. In time, I met the legend. He wore glasses and sports coats with open necked shirts. His hair was short even when everyone else’swas covering their ears. He was always brisk and busy, a file folder under one arm. He guided me through a poetry seminar and a course in western literature, and I gained an enormous amount ofrespect for what the man knew. He was the first person to talk seriously to me about the importance of place in literature. He impressed me in a hundred ways, but we didn’t become close. He was a professional and famous for his irascibility. Few students could approach him, and I think he held aspiring writers, especially, at arm’s length. He made us work for everything, including his respect. It was that combination of great knowledge about and love for western literature, coupled with high standards and demands, that made us love him. You could count on John to tell it the way he saw it. If he didn’t like a short story or a novel, he’d tell you. If he liked it, he’d grunt. But after I left USD I began to notice a smile whenJohn’s path would cross with mine. On occasion, as he came to see that I understood his passion, there was a real live twinkle in his eyes. I came to crave that smile and twinkle. In the early days, when I’d get stuck on a story or a character, Iwould try to imagine whatJohn would say. For years he was something of a grumpy muse for me, sitting on my shoulder, dropping terse comments, occasionally letting that devilish smile show. His influence was in all my earlywriting, but last year, in the twenty-fifth year of our association, I felt the mentor-student relation­ ship had run its course. Ihad been invited to awriter’s reunion at USD. Among the participants were Linda Hasselstrom, Fred Manfred, Peter Dexter, and 92 Western American Literature John. I was scheduled to read and chose a narrative chapter from my upcom­ ing novel. Reading is not traumatic for me and Iwas not concerned about my performance until I passedJohn in the lobby. “A little short on dialogue,”he said and walked on. I usually don’t give comments like that a seconcfthought. But coming fromJohn, even though I am hardly a student anymore, it hurt my feelings. In fact, it made me slightly mad. I dismissed it. Who did he think he was? Well, he wasJohn Milton. The next time I read at USD he had been dead for a month. The editorship of the South Dakota Review had been passed into the able hands of the next generation, there was an empty professorship in the English Depart­ ment that would be hard to fill. As I leafed through a novel manuscript for something to read I felt for the first time that John would not be in the audience. Ifelt a little alone—finally on myown atforty-seven years old. Orwas I? I pulled a chapter from the middle of the manuscript to read. It was loaded with dialogue. Pages and pages of it. I was feeling his influence from the grave. DAN O’BRIEN Rapid City, South Dakota Notes 93 Association for the Study of Literature and Environment The Association for...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 91-94
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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