“We will not sleep. / We / will be changed.” A framed copy of my late friend Franz Wright’s poem, “The Crawdad,” which concludes with this allusion to 1 Corinthians 15.51, hangs on a downstairs wall in my home, and the mystery of transformation is one on which I meditate frequently. It is, for me, a persistent source of wonder that so many unconsidered, haphazard, and entirely unplanned eventualities can become transformative moments in our lives: the chance meeting, the fortuitous reconnection, the sudden and seemingly random insight. In these moments, one seems to apprehend, beneath the apparently solid and sometimes even stolid appearance of material reality, that constantly fluorescing flux which Whitman conjured when he wrote “Urge and urge and urge, / Always the procreant urge of the world.”
Given the cultural climate of our time, it is important to remember that literary matters can transcend borders, both spatial and temporal. The literary imagination humanizes us to each other, and to ourselves, by leading us, however briefly and however imperfectly, beyond our everyday lives and into the lives of other people, people sometimes separated by thousands of miles or years, sometimes by only a few steps. My personal belief—one that need not be shared by others—is that serious study of the best literature, both of the past and of the present, teaches us quickly the radical insufficiency of our individual experiences, whatever they may be, and perpetually encourages us to be more humble, more open, more receptive, more courageously empathic, more merciful, and more loving. There is no end to learning these virtues.
Born and raised in Detroit, Brad Leithauser did his undergraduate work at Harvard before graduating Harvard Law in 1980. After working for three years at the Kyoto Comparative Law Center in Japan as a research fellow, he returned to the States and taught for two decades at Mount Holyoke College. He has taught at The Johns Hopkins University since 2008.