Article Index

 

Leon - Mentor and Friend 

ROXANA PREDA
______________
U. of EDINBURGH

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I met Leon at the Brunnenburg conference in 1997. It was my first EPIC and the date was momentous because it was the first time I had felt confident enough to present a paper to a community of scholars, and Pound specialists to boot. I had just finished my thesis on Pound and postmodernism and had picked up a chapter from it that looked to me the best. It went well, people had interesting things to comment – as a corollary, my paper was accepted for publication in the conference volume, something that boosted my confidence a great deal.

I happened to sit opposite Leon at the dinner table and enjoyed the conversation, which was lively, interesting and happy. I told Leon how much I had enjoyed his Eleusis book; then I must have mentioned how I regretted that I had left a discussion of economics and postmodernity out of my dissertation. Leon had just finished Purgatory at the time - that was a happy coincidence because the next day we sat at the long table on the terrace at Brunnenburg discussing Pound’s economics. Or rather… Leon talked, but I kept up – I must have said something interesting enough to keep him going.

Some time after that I wrote to him renewing contact and we started a correspondence. Later, I mustered the courage to ask him if he would read my dissertation. In Germany, doctoral supervisors believe in leaving students to fend for themselves: I felt neglected and was looking for someone who would give me an honest professional assessment. Besides, I was pushing for publication and worried that my readers had been too uninvolved.

Leon did read it – when the emails with his comments started pouring into my inbox I tried to keep the panic away from my chest saying to myself that this was what I wanted: This was the real thing, finally my work was getting an authentic, careful critical reading. To all people who kindly wrote to me last year saying they admired my energy, I will now respond: you should have seen Leon in 2001 – a scholar near retirement, but at the height of his powers: Purgatory was foundational in Pound and economics studies, yet Leon would write three more books after that: The Modern Dilemma: Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot and Humanism (2008), Dreams of a Totalitarian Utopia (2011) and Art in the Age of the Machine (2013).

What I did not know at the time was the degree to which Leon believed in intellectual jousting: he hit me HARD. I can’t now recall the number of times I fell off my horse, shaking and bleeding. I gripped the saddle and hoisted myself back up, wiping the sweat and the tears off my face. I told myself that if I let pride and self-love intervene, I would lose, not only the game, but something very valuable that was happening to me. NO ONE, not my professors in my undergraduate days, not my doctoral supervisor, not my academically very successful husband had cared enough about my work to read it that carefully and to respond to it with that degree of expertise. Somewhere through my pain I intuited that Leon hit me because he cared. He was absolutely dedicated to the profession and wanted me to exercise it with dignity.

After I finished my doctorate in 1997 I fell into a dark pit. As long as the thesis was there to give a sort of meaning to time, everything was kept in a balance. But after the rigorosum, I floundered. In the German system, the PhD is not considered enough for a professorship – one has to go through a second stage, the Habilitation, before one is allowed to “arrive.” I was angling for a topic, wanted away from Pound studies and away from post-structuralism, yet I could not commit and was shaken by doubt.

Leon saved me, again through an email. He proposed that I do an edition of Pound’s economic correspondence – it was a doable project, he said, I could order the letters from Beinecke on microfilm and process them at home. I responded enthusiastically the next day – yes, that was it, that was what I was going to do. I started organizing at once, looking for German universities where I could do the research and making application for grants. The idea worked, probably also ignited by my own enthusiasm for it. I found the university (the Kennedy Institute in Berlin, affiliated to the Freie Universität) and I got four grants in all, to work in the institute for two years and to do my research in the States, mostly at Beinecke and the Harry Ransom Center. I often wondered at that email - how was it possible that Leon should know me better than I knew myself and go straight to the knot of my interest?

Throughout our acquaintance, the conversation on projects never stopped. Research and its progress, articles being written, book chapters, all of them were shared and subjected to each other’s scrutiny. But it was always Leon who led. I sometimes resented it that he was still treating me as a retarded postgrad so long after I had graduated, but by then I was not bleeding any more and defended my ideas better. I tried to give back as much as I could, feeling that Leon wanted an intelligent discussion, not someone who always told him, “yes, you are right.”

Then, finally, the moment came sometime in late 2006. The edition was ready, Florida was going to publish it. It had gone through peer review and I had made changes to the introduction, to make it clearer and better organized. It was time for Leon to read it and tell me what he thought of it. Sure enough, the lance thrusts came, but this time, I remained firm in the saddle, unhurt. It was not that I had somehow got Captain America’s shield. I just had the confidence of my research and my conclusions. I defended easily and did not budge. I had become, or rather he had made me, a scholar.