Four years before he died, Isaac Bashevis Singer visited Carbondale, Illinois, at the invitation of the Southern Illinois University English Department, and on money mostly from the Honors College. It must have been some visit. Both times I’ve visited SIUC for their Devil’s Kitchen Literary Festival, there was no after-reading bar talk that was entirely Singerless. In the introduction to the new Best American Short Stories, Richard Russo, who taught there at the time, relates Singer’s formulation of the purpose of literature (First, to entertain; Second, to instruct; and in that order, and that order only.) My favorite account of Singer’s visit is recorded by Rodney Jones, in his estimable poetry collection Elegy for the Southern Drawl:
The Limousine Bringing Isaac Bashevis Singer to Carbondale
A town is the size of a language.
In four more years he would be dead, but now,
A rare hot day in late April,
The middle of St. Louis
And the air conditioner didn’t work,
The great black sedan
That Kenny had rented from Mr. D’s
Quit, so they had to sit there for more than an hour
Before the tow truck and another car arrived,
Also black, two more hours to Carbondale:
The great man with the great drops
Of sweat registering on his brow.
Perhaps because the faculty
Of every backwater university
Endures by the prescient myth
That even to invite a venerable precence
To read in Starkville or Athens
Inevitably causes grave illness
And to have the person actually show up
Sets the leaves rattling above tombs,
Kenny asked, in that modest
And considerate way he has,
“Have you ever been in a car this long?”
“Oh yes, once in Sweden,
They kept me in a car for weeks.”
He got here a little before dark.
He read slowly, deliberately,
A story called “The Missing Line.”
When he had finished enunciating
Every word on a page, with a noise
Like a needle ripping the grooves
Of a warped 78, he would ratchet
The page from the staple
And lay it to the side and pause
To take an amplified sip of water
While everyone in the auditorium
Hushed to see if the great old man
Would push through the next hyphen —
Though, of course, the thing was,
The print was small. In the end
He would apologize, though all he did
Was to rush understandably from the elite
Of “The Missing Line” to the pica
Of “The Beard,” omitting the last page
Of “The Missing Line.” Though
All he did was to pretend to read
What now he began to improvise,
Mating the details of the two stories;
But then, suddenly, knew; was devastated, abashed;
And so had to backtrack and search
Awkwardly before three hundred people
For the missing closure, and so
Would write later, being an honorable
Man, and insist on returning the check.
He was a tiny man with big ears
And palms moist as opened pears.
At the session just after the reading,
When the professors of this and that
Were trotting out those tumors
Of erudition and septic ego
They like to pose as questions,
One of the more sensitive ones asked,
As everyone always asked,
“Why do you write in a dead language?”
And he answered without guile, “Luck.”
The next morning one of the students
Asked him what advice he had for young writers.
“I wish someone would write about love.”
He had the courage to be simple and precise,
And this would be the last of him.
He would not do it again, no matter the money.
A town is the size of a language.
It is not a language that you would have
Any reason to visit though it is not dead yet.
Nothing survives that has not been scarred
Lovingly in the brain
And dented by human voice.