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  • Smoking with JohnJohn Bishop (1948-2020), Guide, Philosopher, and Friend1
  • Jonathan Goldman (bio)

Learn a lot teaching others. The personal note. (U 7.96-97)

John Bishop looked and listened for something to like about you, even when it took a while, because he preferred to see you as a person, not just a scholar. John believed that his teaching, like his reading and his criticism, became richer when bringing past experience—yours, his—to bear on the present text. In his classes, personal connections—even the much-derided identification with characters—were legitimate scholarly ingress. Literature could be applied to problems in imaginary and real life. For example: Ulysses will make more sense if you get married, he oracled, and more sense still if you get divorced. John was an inspiring, hilarious, instructor, a brilliant critic, an incisive reader–but so was Stephen Greenblatt; it was John's investment in the personal that made him the favorite for scores of University of California Berkeley English majors. He transformed generations of students' lives. Were it not for him, I doubt if I would be an academic.

I was a college senior, 7/15ths John's age, when we were introduced on the steps of Berkeley's Wheeler Hall by my friends, his advisees, with whom he was chatting and probably smoking rollies. I told him that I hoped to take his Joyce seminar the following semester—it was a popular course and not everyone was admitted by the registrar—and that I might be incorporating Joyce in my senior thesis. Face impassive, he listened in what I would later understand to be his customary jocoserious silence, and said we should talk in his office. So we did. I succeeded in registering for the class (which turned out not to matter, since John allowed everyone in who was on the waitlist), and soon, anxious to get more Joyce into my head, I started attending the fabled Tuesday night Finnegans Wake group.

John would invite all of his students to this group, though only the diehards selected themselves to come. The Berkeley Wake group was (still is) more civilian-Joyce-enthusiast than academic and included several of John's old friends; casual dinners followed each meeting. In other words, this was not only John inviting people to read the Wake with him; this was John inviting people to step into his world beyond the university, to see him as a person and not just a professor. I admired that world, noting John's passion for his professorial duties and also for challenging himself: teaching himself Greek, practicing the piano. At the time, I was on the alert for academic role models. In John, I saw a cultured allroundman to aspire to and desired to possess a [End Page 235] fraction of his science, the moiety. I also got to witness the humility and the vulnerability, even, with which he comported himself, a hero who treated everyone like a peer.

Between the Wake group and the senior seminar, I learned of a defining aspect of John's character: his proclivity for identifying a person's smartest self and then acting like it was their only self. I was a snob at 21 and assumed that a one-year head-start on Ulysses elevated me above my classmates. That changed when I heard John listen to their comments and repeat them back subtly reshaped, the intellectual stakes raised. Outside the classroom, my ears opened when John praised contributions I had disregarded and lauded papers about topics I had thought facile. My work necessitated John's benevolence, too. That senior thesis of mine wound up being a comparison of Joyce and Jonathan Swift, and John wound up being on its faculty committee. Lucky for me, because one of the other readers, the eighteenth-century-lit professor, never warmed to it or to me. At one point, when I had submitted a chapter leaning heavily on M. M. Bakhtin, the old tory looked at me across his desk and said, "I don't understand how you are using Bakhtin" and then dropped the hammer, "and neither do you." I walked out of his office...