Never trust a writer on the size of his audience or the sum of his royalty cheques, and so when I say that I estimate the crowd attending my lecture on Willa Cather at Roosevelt University at seventy-five, I suppose it was probably closer to forty. Whether the lecture went over or not, I am the last person to say, for all my energies went into the delivery of it, with not much left over for judging its reception. During the question and answer session afterwards, no one had any questions to offer, probably not a good sign, but that was fine with me. The $2,500 fee was decent, and my love for Willa Cather's fiction — my subject —genuine, and so, all in all, I thought it wasn't a bad evening's work.
Standing at the lectern, putting my lecture notes back in my briefcase, I note a pudgy guy with a round face, rimless glasses, bald, alone, who had not left his seat in the second row.
"Excuse me, Ed, but do you have a moment?" he asks.
Ed? Do I know him? "Of course," I reply. "What can I do for you?"
He gets to his feet and comes up to the lectern. He is short, looks to be in his middle fifties, is wearing jeans and gym shoes, and a heavy blue crew-neck sweater. He, too, has a briefcase.
"Irwin Isaac Meiselman," he says, extending his hand. He says the name with authority, as if he had expected me to know it.
"I'm writing a book about immigration to America," he says, "which is why I attended your lecture on Willa Cather this evening. She is, as you mentioned in your talk, one of the great chroniclers of immigration, and she figures heavily in the chapter of my book on the Scandinavian migration. My chapter's still in draft form, but I thought you might like to read it."
Were this a world in which candour was allowed, I should have said, "Of course I don't want to read your chapter. Why the hell would I want to do that?" Instead I hear myself saying, "Sounds interesting. I'd very much like to read it."
He has already fished out of his briefcase what looks like a manuscript of fifty or so pages. I glimpse at it only long enough to note that it is typed single-spaced.
I have been sand-bagged by experts in this line. People write me flattering emails. My answer occasions further flattering emails, which eventually lead to a request that I read a seven-hundred-page historical novel my correspondent has written, set in fifth-century AD Byzantium. "This correspondence," as the old Times Literary Supplement used to note of exchanges in its letters columns that had gone on too long, "is hereby ended."
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