Eric Wilson's essays appear in New England Review, and one was selected for the 2016 Pushcart Prize. His work has also been published in Massachusetts Review, Epoch, Carolina Quarterly, Witness, O. Henry Prize Stories. He received a Fulbright Grant to Free University of Berlin and completed his PhD in German Literature at Stanford, after which he taught German at UCLA and Pomona College and subsequently fiction writing at UCLA Extension.
His essay "The Land Where Citrus Blossoms" will appear in the Winter 2018 issue of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, January 14, for special savings and discounts.
Note from the Nonfiction Editor:
The questions about profession, generation, and war raised in "The Land Where the Citrus Blossoms" resonate. In scope the story seems very small: a few early episodes from a career in teaching. But the implications of the story—for both the writer and the characters involved—are wide-reaching. I’m glad we had the opportunity to publish Eric’s story, as it illustrates the ethical questions that teachers sometimes confront and the consequences of how we write our histories.
The events in this story happened quite a while ago. How long did it take you to write about them, or what was the impetus to write about it now?
I wrote about this experience soon after it happened, back in 1965, but at that point I wanted to convey how shocked I was that a student felt empowered to use the F-word in front of me and my class. Stumbling upon the story recently (I’m retired now and have time to write again), I expanded it to include the turmoil on campus that was occasioned by the Vietnam War. I realized that this was the true focus of the story. It was a time when a poor grade could send a young man off into the jungles, and that if I lost my teaching position before I turned 35 I myself would be eligible for the draft.
In the piece, you describe trying to teach your students and getting very little back in return. I used to hear a lot of older teachers that I worked with complaining about how students aren’t as “good” as they used to be, but your story seems to challenge that notion somewhat. What were the constants throughout your years of teaching, and what were the changes that surprised you?
Actually, this class was an aberration. It was taught in English, not German, and it fulfilled a general studies requirement. Apparently the previous instructors didn’t take it all that seriously, and the course—which had grown to over 100 students—was considered to be a “Mickey.” I was new to the German Department and so I was given this class that no one wanted to teach. On balance my students, both at UCLA and later at Pomona College, were a dream to teach. Both schools had a high caliber of students, and this was certainly reflected in my classes. I knew even then that I was very fortunate.
As to my “getting very little back” from the students: Due to dwindling enrollments, after eight years I lost my position and was forced out of the profession. Subsequently I taught fiction writing workshops at UCLA Extension for 30 years, after having taken workshops there myself. This was a revelation to me on two counts. First of all, in teaching the German language, it was impossible for the students to give me much back other than good grammar and good pronunciation. I knew German and they didn’t, and so these classes held little in the way of surprises. But students in the Extension who were writing stories of their own were giving a great deal back. They weren’t reciting “in Ulm und um Ulm herum” to display their mastery of the glottal stop; in many cases they were revealing their innermost selves. Every week was something new and exciting.
Secondly, I remembered my graduate literature classes at Stanford. A few of the more venerable professors presented literature as something abstract, remote—handed down from on high. There were the “correct” interpretations of Minna von Barnhelm and these were to be absorbed and cherished. In contrast, the fiction-writing students were treating literature as something alive and breathing, something they themselves were creating. Literature wasn’t somewhere “up there”; it was all around us. There was a sense of immediacy as we ourselves were the story.
Since your story hinges on the cultural impact of Vietnam, I wonder about the many ways that war affects our future generations and views of American morality. In the essay, Vietnam opens the door to questions of professional ethics early in your career. Since we have been involved in several conflicts since then, has your view of American military intervention changed over time, or do you see continuing parallels today?
At UCLA I gave short weekly quizzes at the beginning of the term to see who simply couldn’t deal with the rigors of a declined language—one that has three genders and a multitude of irregular ways to form the plural. In German there’s a paradigm for the noun das Herz—“heart”— that declines differently from any other word in the entire language. I came to feel like the Grand Inquisitor. After the experience with Wesley Edwards, I would monitor closely to see who was in trouble. But then I’d follow up and consult with them, suggesting they drop the class before getting a poor final grade. I don’t remember the prospect of having to give any D’s or F’s for the rest of my teaching career.
My views regarding American military interventions post-World War II were then—and have remained—highly skeptical. I think that by now most people are aware of what a quagmire Vietnam devolved into. Increasingly, Iraq has come to be seen in the same light. After some seventeen years we’re still there! The main difference with these later wars, however, is that there’s no longer a draft by lottery. There’s no longer the shadow of compulsory military service and even combat abroad. If we were to re-instate a draft system and all Americans had a personal stake in these wars, perhaps they would come to a very quick end.