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A note concerning my father, Jack Thompson
By Francis John Thompson, Jr. (John Thompson)
Father and son
My father was an English professor who, after retirement from the University of Tampa, particularly enjoyed teaching high school Shakespeare classes at Tampa Preparatory School. From then on he and my mother (who had retired from teaching at St. John's Parish Day School) would cycle around Tampa every day and in the summers take their bicycles on trips that combined cycling and literary activities.1
My father's original specialty was Irish literature (his Ph. D. dissertation was "Fenianism and the Celtic Renaissance"). After we moved to Florida he never taught that, but his rather extensive book collection remained particularly strong in Irish literature.
After his death in 1989 my mother donated his book collection and many of his personal papers to the special collections unit at the library of the University of South Florida in Tampa (details). The library plans gradually to add an online index of his book collection and writings, called the Francis J. Thompson Collection or the Anglo-Irish Collection).
In the 1950s, while teaching in the Department of Writing Speech and Drama (now the Writing Seminars) at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, dad wrote four and a half novels, only one of which has been published, Abraham's Wife.2 Shortly before his death I thought about seeing what I could do to get them published, and with this in mind asked him some questions about the characters in them (I thought some editing would be necessary), but dad didn't seem to be interested. What he said was that he was only interested in what he was working on at the present time (a journal of the bicycle trip he and mom had taken following the route of Boswell and Johnson from London to the Outer Hebrides).
The following is extracted from a letter sent to me by Louis Rubin 3 who had been a student of my father at Johns Hopkins University, sent to me in response to one I wrote him asking what he remembered of dad as a writer. Prof. Rubin had just retired from his position as professor in the English Department at the University of North Carolina.
Why did Jack write?
"Why did Jack write?" I suppose all the usual general reasons would apply -- to create, to express himself, to gain professional preference. I think basically he liked to express himself, which is not the same thing as to reveal oneself or even to know oneself. As for the particular, personal reasons unique to him, I certainly don't know. He had a vastly inquiring and curious mind, and he loved to read about and know about arcane and off-the-beaten-path things. Once he got on a subject he wanted to know all about it; the more recondite the information the more it fascinated him. He was a true scholar, of the purest sort -- by which I mean it was knowledge for its own sake, and not for its usefulness or usability that he was after. He liked to write about what he learned, to tell about it.
When I first knew Jack (in the late 1940s) he was writing about Irish literature, because at Johns Hopkins he knew he was under pressure to publish -- not from Elliott Coleman or the Department of Writing, Speech and Drama, but because the faculty there placed a great deal of emphasis on publishing, and his chances for promotion and tenure rested on the scholarly productivity, as they call it, he could demonstrate. It was a precarious academic situation, because the Department was by no means secure, and the English Department, which was legitimate, traditional, etc., felt threatened by its very existence. Eventually the Department's wings got clipped, and Elliott was allowed only to keep his particular creative writing operation and to have a couple of temporary, non-tenure-track instructors (which was how I stayed on for a couple of more years).
To be honest, Jack wasn't a good writer of scholarship. I tried to get several of his articles published, and did place a couple for him. But he didn't have a gift for putting things together on paper -- by which I mean that he wasn't able to shape his vast accumulation of facts into coherent and logical theses and arguments. He saw the connections, but couldn't develop the material so that others could see them -- couldn't, that is, see that he wasn't doing it. If I'd been a little older and wiser, I might have done what I've often since done with colleagues and students, and gone over his writings with him, asking questions, making him provide the connectives and show the arguments and relationships. But would it, after all, have been for the better?
Truth is he didn't really like that kind of writing, was doing it principally because it was expected of him. What he loved was teaching, sharing his love of literary information with others, talking about literature -- and he was worth 50 to 100 narrow little clerks who produce Scholarship by the linear yard as if they were dealing with soap chips or fiduciary data. He loved literature, the literary imagination, anything having to do with it. To codify and quantify it into little manageable theories was not what he cared to do. Once he got into a situation in which he could earn a living without having to Publish or Compete in that way, he was so much happier.
As for his fiction, well, what made (his first novel) Abraham's Wife go was the uniqueness and flavor of its material. Jack's relish for the subject matter -- he took a keen delight in things having to do with race, miscegenation, cultural interrelationships, etc. -- produced a "different" story made of different material. He was fortunate to find the right editor, who was interested in the material. Unfortunately the editor didn't stay, and the sequels that Jack wrote to the novel weren't accepted. The publisher did almost nothing to promote or sell his novel.
Again, to be honest, I can't say Jack was a `born' novelist, either. In part the reasons were the same as with the scholarly work -- he was fascinated with the material, but he couldn't bring out the underlying meanings. He saw them; he didn't develop them for others to see.
I am not surprised (Jack didn't) talk much about what he wrote in the past. In part he may have been so disappointed at its failure to catch on that he didn't want to think about it. But I am more inclined to believe that...it was what he was doing and thinking about now that concerned him. He had just about the greatest curiosity about and openness to new things, new ideas, etc., that I have ever known. No one lived less in the past, and no one lived more serenely with new experience.
Why did Jack write? I can only repeat, to express himself. The audience was secondary; he was as happy with a journal entry as with a newspaper review or anything else. To jot down the teeming and curious thoughts and experiences of that alert and lively mind: no further object was necessary.
(Jack) always seemed to me to be an intensely private person. He may have been reflective, introspective; I don't know. He didn't strike me that way. I felt -- perhaps from too little experience -- that Jack wasn't the sort who felt any great need to relate and connect all he read and experienced into a cohesive unit that became a whole and was fused with his inmost self. There was too much life and experience out there to be explored and enjoyed for him to arrange everything into neat, logical patterns and schemes. He distrusted all easy answers, neat formulations, oversimplified theories, anything that cheapened or impoverished the world. And he despised sham, cant, pretense, hypocrisy, cruelty, injustice.
What you can say, without fear of overstatement, is that he was a good man, a kind man, an honest man, who loved his family, liked to help other people, was loyal, modest, worked hard, did his chosen work faithfully and well. He had his faults, as who hasn't? But his virtues made them unimportant, insignificant in the scale of things. What you can say about him was akin to what Anna Livia said in a book that he taught me to love (and he taught me so many things): "I done me best when I was let." Can anyone say more?
Chapel Hill, N.C.
24 November l989
Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)
|1. Marjorie and Jack Thompson: Cyclists
|On the road
Abraham's Wife, by Jack Thompson (Vanguard Press, 1953)
In the novel, a parallel on the biblical story of Abraham and Sarah, Abraham is a black Cuban running a bar in Tampa during the 1890s; Sarah is his white wife, whom he calls his sister since mixed race marriages were not allowed in Florida at the time. The background is the Cuban independence struggle.
The other novels were:
Louis Rubin (1923-2013; NY Times obituary)
Professor Rubin also founded Algonquin Books. See this photo and his papers inventory. Our family moved to Florida in 1953, but after this we always looked forward to visits from "Uncle Louis", usually at the beach home we had in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.