Learning to Read and Write: Memories of Marion Montgomery
As a freshman in the fall of 1979, my first class at the University of Georgia was an honors English seminar. For fifty minutes every day, eight or nine of us gathered around a conference table to make our way through Wordsworth and Eliot, Keats and Flannery O’Connor. Our teacher was a lean, sharp-faced man who gently but firmly corrected any of us who addressed him as “Doctor.” We were to call him Mr. Montgomery.
We were a rather serious little group, pleased with ourselves for having exempted the plebeian ENG 101 but on our best behavior within the close confines of ENG 105H. At first we were lulled by Mr. Montgomery’s mellow drawl and flattered by his courtesy, but soon we learned we couldn’t escape his tendency to follow questions with yet more questions, made worse by the fact that he gave so few signals about what answers he might want to hear. When he returned our first set of papers, we knew we had our hands full. I seem to recall that he had drawn a line through the first page and a half of my four-page essay, noting that my paper actually began below the excision. This was my first exposure to his scrawled marginal notes, invariably written with a fine-point red felt-tip pen, tiny but profuse. For a precocious writer, proud of my high school prizes and a small publication or two, the shock was painful but salutary. I became convinced he had something to teach me.
I don’t recall him mentioning his friendship with O’Connor as we made our way through Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, but soon the word was out among us that Mr. Montgomery wrote novels and poetry. I checked the library and sure enough, there the books stood. I could recognize the firm stamp of Faulkner on his first novel, The Wandering of Desire. Later, when I read The Habit of Being, I was startled and proud to find the letter O’Conner had written him about it: “The Southern writer can outwrite anybody in the country because he has the Bible and a little history. You have more than your share of both and a splendid gift besides.”
The dust jacket of his most recent novel, Fugitive, showed him just as we saw him in Park Hall, with his familiar military haircut and unlit cigar, gazing into the middle distance. That was the stuff for me, that apotheosis into black and white print; at that moment, I wanted badly to see myself like that, the detail of having to write a publishable novel registering mainly as a condition for appearing in such a photograph. It puzzled me a little to open the novel and encounter on the first page this request:
For this present, suppose only that by miracle you have this creature of words. The dust jacket is smeared or torn, so that you cannot see my face. (Any squib about the “author,” even if legible, is remote and always a lie.) Confess that you had rather have me speak this way to you, garrulous and too personal and in the very pages themselves, than to find yourself suddenly in a world of my shadow with my shadows detached from me. Allow me some presence. Why be more lonely than is necessary?
This seemed a long way from the kind of writing I was doing and from the impulses that prompted it, yet I liked the difficulty and playfulness of the invitation. I pressed on and found Fugitive dense, deliberate, so lacking in conventional scenes of action as to be almost a series of tableaux. Not yet having read the Fugitive-Agrarians, I received its ideas about modernity and tradition directly through the querulous conflicts of its characters. Their small town and the countryside around it were not much different from places I’d lived, so I was prepared to watch and listen to them. Their stories were woven together by several variations of that familiar voice, sometimes addressing the reader with ironic omniscience, sometimes modulating itself through a series of successively less recognizable surrogates. I had already read some difficult novels and knew enough to take what I could and leave the rest for another time. What was most apparent then was the assurance of the work; whatever Fugitive was or meant, it seemed to be exactly the novel its author had intended to write.
I gathered the courage to visit him in his narrow, book-packed office and gave him a copy of one of my stories. He seemed pleased that I had. A few days later he returned it with profuse red notes and a few scrawled pages of additional observations. After studying his tactful but pointed comments for a few days, I regained enough arrogance to rewrite the story and take it back to him. This time he suggested I send it out.
Over the next six years, I carried many hundreds of pages to Mr. Montgomery, and he read and wrote on them all. As a sophomore, at his instigation, I worked with him in a graduate-level creative writing workshop, but most of our work took place outside of my enrollment in his classes. I knew how generous this was and repaid the time he gave me by bringing him more and more to read. He supervised my work on a novel that served as an undergraduate honors thesis, then guided me through another creative thesis for a masters degree.
It did not appear to matter to him that what I was writing could not have been more remote from either his fiction or theoretical work. My novel mixed scenes of violence and madness with fragments of ill-digested popular culture, but under its surface of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, he helped me find and work with what was most true to my own emotions and experiences. Some of my short stories were more focused and eventually took enough polish to get into print; one, with his help, appeared in The Southern Review, which felt like a life-changing coup. By the time I finished my studies, I knew he had given me everything he could.
Months and years passed. I wrote, working at one thing and another to pay the bills. Over time, the prospect of making a living as a novelist became increasingly remote. A dust jacket photo, however flattering the pose might be, no longer seemed relevant to the problem of how to live my life. In that regard, it was more instructive to think of Mr. Montgomery at his home in Crawford, where on occasion my friends and I had glimpsed how he lived his own life: simply, not expecting or requiring any sort of recognition, writing and working exactly as he chose.
What I learned from Mr. Montgomery has stayed with me, as it seems to have stayed with many of his students. When I edit a manuscript, I can imagine his felt-tip scrawl in the margins and between the lines, and my own scribbling takes its place as I cut imprecise words and aimless sentences. The kind of language he taught us to read and write reminds me of the kind of person he helped us want to be: disciplined and thoughtful; able to wait as well as to act; aware of history, but lovingly attentive to the present moment.