I WAS BORN IN MUSKRAT CITY.
THAT'S WHAT THE NATIVES called it, a settlement of French and
Belgian truck farmers and general laborers, located on the northeast
edge of the city of Green Bay, Wisconsin, bounded by the Fox
and East River and the marshy shores of the bay. The natives
also trapped muskrats by the hundreds, practically in their back
yards, and stretched the hides on the graying clapboards of their
simple frame houses to dry. Hence the nickname. My world started
on September 4, 1903, on Day Street.
My father was a merchant tailor
and my mother a gardener's daughter. As a result, I can do a
neat job of pressing my pants (though I seldom bother), and my
friends insist that I have a green thumb with a plant. Much more
important is the fact that I received at my good parents' insistence
not only a university education but a sound Catholic one.
My first spoken sentences were
French, but old grandpa Pie died when I was four, and no one
else seemed to want to talk French to little fellows, although
the oldsters used it among themselves. It was a kind of Walloon
Belgian-French dialect which my ear can still detect when I go
back, although I have little understanding now of what they are
saying. I have always regretted that I did not learn even this
patois, and consider young ones very fortunate who pick up German,
Polish, or any foreign language, along with their English, right
in their own homes.
In those days we did not call
out Catholic schools 'parochial'; they were 'Sister Schools,'
and we were taught there, often sternly, sometimes in a very
kindly way, but we were taught. I honestly believe I had a better
education when I left the eighth grade than when I was graduated
from the public high school, where things were easygoing and
sociable but not very much devoted to the development of the
mind or spirit. The nun who taught our eighth grade has just
been elected Mother-General of the School Sisters of Notre Dame,
Sister Mary Ambrosia, S.S.N.D.; and I want to acknowledge that
she was one of the finest teachers any boy could have had.
And then in 1922 I went to
Notre Dame, helping to pay for my education by playing with a
hotel orchestra during the dinner hour. I remember entering as
a very green freshman my first class at the university. The teacher
had asked us to write briefly our experience with and attitude
toward literature. Remembering high school, I scribbled hurriedly,
"I think most writers are nuts," and left. Mea culpa!
Of course, I was not thinking of myself as a writer-to-be and
still do not in relation to that august term 'literature'; I
was probably concerned with my empty stomach and figured my callow
opinion to be a quick way of getting over to the cafeteria for
a chocolate milk-shake and a package of coconut cookies.
But I had already started in
a small way to write. There were, successively, a war poem rhymed
in the ninth grade; an ode to an old-maid history teacher who
had threatened to flunk me, but then reconsidered; a music review
of the university orchestra concert which got me called up on
the carpet,; acrostic love poems which the other lads in the
dormitory (Walsh Hall ) requested, to send to their girl friends;
popular songs with words and orchestrations; and many other miscellaneous
bits. Nothing special about any of them, but I suppose in a small
way they could be regarded as early symptoms of the writer's
disease, for indeed it seems to be a form of disease with me
if only because I feel restless when I am not writing.
Yet, I am not a moody writer,
one who must wait for the right idea, the right disposition,
and the right time all to mesh neatly together. Neither am I
the 'quota' type, who relentlessly works it out from eight to
twelve, or one to four, faithfully every day, for better or worse.
I always have a-bunch of ideas germinating in the back of my
mind. My teaching comes first, however, with its attendant student
conferences, committee meetings, and piles of student papers
to read and annotate critically.
During the course of one academic
year I read well over a half-a-million words of student writing,
and often rise from my desk too benumbed to write even a single
sentence of my own, no longer sure of the purpose of writing,
and even unwilling to bet that the word is not spelled 'writting.'
I do not mean to suggest that my students are unusual problems;
they are good students, most of them, and are here at Notre Dame
to learn. Often I feel that I learn as much from them, through
their questions and comments, as they do from me.
But every once in a while a
break comes and my typewriter then chatters along easily and
productively. So the big thing with me is the problem of time
and energy, seldom mood or idea.
When I was a senior at Notre
Dame I met Eleanore Perry, of Hillsdale, Michigan, who was a
junior at St. Mary's College, just across the highway. That was
on February 22, 1926; a most agreeable day to recall. She was
a writer, too, and has continued to be, through the years of
being a good wife and mother. We were married on June 19, 1929,
and have three fine children: John, who has an A.B. from Note
Dame, and who served three years as an officer in the U. S. Navy,
and who is now doing graduate work in Fine Arts at the University
of Iowa; David, who is also a graduate of Notre Dame, in chemical
engineering, and now a Navy flyer; and Julie, who is a student
nurse and will soon receive her R.N.
Meanwhile, my wife and I have
kept on writing. For several years she wrote the young people's
column for St. Joseph Magazine, and has recently been included
in a fine and important work, Valiant Woman (Grail, 1956),
edited by Peg Boland. Now that our own children are grown up
and gone away, she teaches at St. Mary's Academy, South Bend,
in English literature and religion.
We never write an essay or
poem without having the other read it over critically. Naturally,
we do not always agree, but I feel that there has always been
respect for each other's plan, ability, and integrity.
My book, Man Around the
House (Prentice-Hall, 1949), is a collection of familiar
essays about our family life, especially the things we have done
together and built in our basement workshop. Doing these things
helped to build our family together, besides giving us things
for the house and garden we might not have been able to buy:
twin beds turned out of solid maple posts, grandfather clocks
made of black walnut bought at a used-lumber yard, tables from
odds and ends of teakwood and mahogany gleaned from a friend's
shipyard, pergolas, picket fences, boats, additional rooms, and
even a north-woods cottage where we spend our summers.
My leaflet of poems is not
so much as pages go, but it does sincerely represent my own meditations
on the meaning of the various parts of the Mass. It is called
Thon Art My Strength, and was published by St. Meinrad
Abbey Press in 1947.
Outside of these and numerous
anthologies, most of my writing so far has been printed in magazines,
but there are right now two more books in the making. My essays,
stories and poems have appeared in most of the national Catholic
magazines, as well as in Science and Mechanics, Popular Science,
Popular Mechanics, American Home, Woman's Day, and the Saturday
I have often been asked about
the diversity of my writing interests and publications, and can
only answer that I am interested in everything, and feel I want
to know everything there is about it. During World War II, I
was teaching Shakespeare as usual, but also engineering drawing
in the Navy Training Program at Notre Dame. One day I realized
I was explaining a problem in sectioning by using an example
from Macbeth to show that the external housing of an engine,
like that of a person, may not always indicate what it is like
inside; and next hour illustrating on the blackboard the meeting
of two opposing forces in Othello by drawing the intersecting
lines of two large cylinders of different dimensions.
May I also confess that I have
a degree in music, but hurriedly add that this was little reason
to 'hack-out' a magazine news story on atomic energy or to ghostwrite
several articles on astronomy for American Weekly?
This insatiable curiosity is
possibly one reason I have not concentrated more on writing so-called
learned articles, although I have rewritten and edited any number
of them for others. A second reason, which may be more valid,
is that I prefer the creative and constructive kinds of composition;
and a third, that the results of my literary and historical research
have been intended for and devoted to my students rather than
I feel that a wide range of
interests is valuable to one who teaches in a liberal arts college,
such as I do, especially when it has its focus set on a central
unity, a catholic curiosity revolving around a Catholic nucleus.
The same wide range is invaluable for a Catholic writer.
Writing this brief autobiographical
sketch, I became more and more aware of the fact that a man's
opinions as well as his statistical figures are an essential
part of his personality, and therefore of his life.