The Love of a Mentor

My friendship with Bill Owens began thirteen years before I met him. One spring night in 1963 my mother again lost her temper and began whipping me with a leather belt. I was only ten years old, but I knew that this night her whipping would stop. I yanked the belt from her, and she never tried to whip me again.

My friendship with Bill deepened six years later. My mother had been dead for a year. In a blizzard of mutual hatred my father and I fought over her memory and what she meant to us. I threw him against the kitchen wall, held him by the collar, and for the first time in my life saw fear in his eyes.

By the time I entered the University of Texas, I knew that I had failed both of my parents. I was Lyman Winstead Grant, Jr., and quite aware of what I should accomplish. I should major in business management and become a personnel director like my father; I should join the ROTC, and my father, a retired Lieutenant Colonel, could proudly pin his own second Lieutenant bars upon my shoulders. It was 1971 and I would do none of these things.

By the time I met Bill Owens in 1976 when he served as Writer-in-Residence at Texas A&M, where I had enrolled in graduate school without my father’s knowledge, I was a lost young man with fear in my eyes and a hole in my chest. From the time I was a junior in high school, I had been emotionally on my own. Without knowing it, I had no parents.

Because I was independent, rebellious, contemptuous, diffident, secretive of my talents, I attracted no adults who looked out for me, cared for me, listened to me, taught me. I needed desperately for an older man, a man with authority, to tell me that what I felt was understandable, that what I desired was good and possible, that what I had done in my family relationships was acceptable.

All I knew was what I had read in Shakespeare, Thoreau, and Plato, on the one hand, and Hemingway and Fitzgerald on the other. I identified with the men the latter wrote about, but hoped against hope that I could find the wisdom of the former. I had read Ronnie Dugger’s Three Men in Texas and Roy Bedichek’s Adventures with a Texas Naturalist, and I saw that there was some hope for me in the things of this earth, this Texas soil. God, I was lost. I could see lights in the distance, but I saw no path at my feet. If I believed my father, I would never find it. In one of our many arguments, my father shouted that I would never be a writer because he had not raised me to be one. Then I met Bill Owens, and my life changed.

I relate this personal history because I have come to understand my friendship with Bill Owens in terms of my initiation into manhood. Growing up, a young boy will bond with and separate from his mother, then bond with and separate from his father. As the man begins his career, if he is lucky, he will find or be found by a mentor, what the poet Robert Bly calls “the male-mother.”

I prefer the term “male-mother.” The word “mentor” connotes a purely professional relationship between master and apprentice. The mentor in the usual sense is someone in a position of authority, such as a vice-president in a business, a professor in a university, who takes an interest in the work of younger colleagues. Mentors will discuss with the young proteges problems of a strictly professional nature; sometimes mentors will serve at conduits to information or to other influential professionals. The male- mother performs all these, but he also nurtures the young man, cares for his entire being, his intellect and his spirit.

Ironically, by the time that Bill Owens assumed his role as Writer-in-Residence at Texas A&M, I thought I had already found the professor who would help me find a profession in English. He was a young and respected member of the department who was the expert in Walt Whitman. He was an ambitious professor, and had begun collecting a few graduate students whom he thought could produce respectable theses. Because of my failed relationship with my father, I was hungry for the approval of a man who was approved of by other men in the college. Under his direction during my first semester, I began editing and annotating a series of essays about Walt Whitman from a turn-of-the-century journal. The work was tedious, but being the son of a personnel director I thought success lay in boredom.

One of the first lessons Bill Owens taught me was that success need not be bought by bartering joy. Through his example and his candid conversations, I learned the difference between the academic mind and the creative mind. I knew which I wanted to develop in myself and in my students. I knew which Bill believed I had a talent for. When, a few months later, I read J. Frank Dobie’s statement about dissertations being the transference of bones from one grave to another, I understood.

And the lessons have continued as Bill tries move me beyond thinking like a writer to loving like a man. A few years ago, in editing The Letters of Roy Bedichek, Bill and I we reread much of Walt Whitman’s poetry to identify references that Bedichek had made. One day I received a tattered Modern Library edition of Poems by Walt Whitman, with an inscription from Bill. “Lyman, when I entered E. E. Leisy’s graduate course in Whitman I did not have enough money to buy the text. He lent me his copy. I marked it lightly so I could erase before returning. For my term paper I chose to write on Calamus . . . . Dr. Leisy, a product of the Menonite tradition, was too shocked to talk to me about any part of my paper. He ended up giving me a B on the course, the only one I received in the M.A. program. He also gave me the book with my underlinings intact. In the last ten days I have read the whole book, confident that my thesis still holds. It does. So what, except that it prepared me for understanding Bedichek and his embracing love for all and devotedly so to Whitman. I am now giving you the book because I want you to love it.”

Over the years Bill Owens taught equally important lesson to dozens, perhaps hundreds, of young men. His ability and willingness to help men like me is one of the wonders of this world, an example of how Nature compensates for loss. Soon after his birth, Bill Owens was orphaned by his father’s death and he grew up in a strong matriarchy. From his early loss, Bill discovered the importance of older men in the lives of younger men. This is, of course, a major theme in much Twentieth Century American literature, but Bill did not discover the theme through reading. He found it primarily through the encouragement he himself received from older men.

Throughout his life Bill Owens searched for and found a several men who recognized in him his own good heart and curious mind. Among the first was the tiehacker who loaned him books. When I first read This Stubborn Soil in 1976, it was this episode that most affected me. Later Bill studied with Henry Nash Smith, who though a year younger was Bill’s teacher at SMU.

Then, as readers of Three Friends know, Bill found and was befriended by Roy Bedichek, J. Frank Dobie, and Walter Webb. Bill grew closest to Roy Bedichek, who himself was befriended and encouraged by older men, most notably by John Lomax. Owens was later befriended by the painter Grant Wood. Finally, at Columbia University where Bill taught for two decades, he was encouraged by the historian and critic Jacques Barzun. One day several years ago, Bill and I were talking in his backyard in Nyack, discussing Barzun and others he knew at Columbia, and Bill muttered under his breath incredulously, “I don’t think I’ll ever know what Barzun saw in me.”   Of course, Barzun sees what we all see. He has written about Bill, “There are only a few places where one can go to get on the instant a direct and true statement of opinion. Bill Owens is such a place. He should be kept as a landmark, a General Integrity Center.”

It is a very impressive list of mentors: Henry Nash Smith, Roy Bedichek, Grant Wood, Jacques Barzun. In Bedichek and Wood, Bill had found what I call male-mothers. In Three Friends, Bill writes of a time when he turned to Bedichek, not for professional advice, but for nurturing, care, understanding. Bill had traveled to the prison at Sugar Land to collect Negro folksongs. Instead of finding song, Bill discovered institutionalized racism. He drove straight to Austin, woke Bedichek, and Bedichek met him for a long, personal talk. “I had never heard anyone so sympathetic to the Negro, or so concerned over the Negro question,” Bill has written. “He helped me understand a lesson I had begun to learn that day: to a collector, people must be more important than their folklore.” This was a lesson that would eventually lead Owens to become a writer instead of a folklorist.

And as a writer Bill has devoted much attention to the rites of passage necessary to become a man, to develop a strong sense of character, of values and integrity. In his three novels Owens explores this theme from three perspectives. In Walking on Borrowed Land, Mose, the leader, the wise man, loses two sons to a sick society. Mose illustrates Bill’s love and appreciation of strong mentors. In Fever in the Earth, Bo Carrington, is a good boy who grows bad, one reason being that he did not accept the aid of good men. As Bo loses his heart to greed, Preacher, his friend, tells him, “You’ve grown hard, Bo.” In Owens’ ethical system, death is the reward for this.

Bill’s third novel, Look to the River, is his most direct exploration of the mentor-protégé relationship. Although young Jed has found surrogate parents who will care for him, he has no chance to grow to his potential until he meets traveling John. Toward the end of the novel, Jed asks, “How come you done this for me, John?” John replies, almost as Bill might reply to my same question, “It ain’t easy, being a boy like you, so somebody’s got to help—somebody that’s been through it. I’m old now, but a long way back I went through it–not the same, but close enough.”

In one of my copies of Look to the River, Bill has written, “To Lyman Grant, a Jed of sorts.” I could of course reply, “To Bill, a John of sorts.” There are many ways that Bill has “done this for me,” but the most important are personal, not professional. He talked with me about women and sex. He recited poetry with me. He told me of times when he was frightened and hopeless about his writing. We walked through fields of wildflowers and he told me what Bedichek had to say about them. He complimented me by soliciting my opinion on his works in progress. He listened to me talk endlessly, pointlessly, until I had found myself.

In finding myself, I, of course, let go of my father. I was given a choice of what kind of man I wanted to be. Over the years, Bill and I had often discussed his experiences in World War II. Since his experiences and opinions were so dramatically different from my father’s, I listened carefully. When my father had been drafted, he was offended and outraged. He viewed being a private as a personal insult and struggled single mindedly to become an officer. He was proud he spent the war behind a desk in Nashville, Tennessee. Bill, on the other hand, volunteered and served most of the war as a sergeant, much of it in the Pacific war zone. My father and Bill even admired different generals. My father greatly admired Douglas MacArthur, while Owens praised Walter Krueger as the common soldier’s general and Bill’s new book, Eye Deep in Hell, is often critical of MacArthur’s pomposity.

The contrast between the two men–my father and my mentor-became primarily a contrast in values. One man was elitist, the other democratic; one selfish, the other dutiful; one timid and safe, the other brave and adventurous. I knew whose values I admired and could follow.

My friendship with Bill Owens, therefore, meant that one day I would recognize that by the age of seventeen I had overcome the hold my parents had on me. My will to know myself was stronger than theirs to confine me. It had only taken me ten years to understand and accept it.

A small but personally significant act finally cut the chains. Fully aware of the importance of his suggestion, when it came time to type the title page of the book we edited together, Bill suggested that I drop the Jr. after my name. In this seemingly trivial act, I claimed a name and an identity that had always been denied me. I was no longer Lyman Jr., pale reflection of my father. I stole my father’s name from him. I did not know who this new Lyman Grant was, but whoever he was, I was he and despite his raising he had his name on a book.

In one of the Calamus poems, Whitman writes “Your novitiate would even then be long and exhausting,/ The whole past theory of your life and all conformity to the lives around you would have to be abandon’d.” So it was with me. Although my father and I began to accept each other and understand each other’s differences–I was at his side when he died last year–we finally released each other to live our separate lives.

My father and I seldom spoke about my writing; only once did we speak about Bill Owens. I began talking about the process of getting books published and how grateful I was to Bill for asking me to work with him, and how much I learned from him because he included me in all stages of publication. I talked too much, and the next thing I noticed was that my seventy-five year old father had stepped into the adjoining room, slacked shouldered, head bent. Unmistakably he was crying and hiding his tears from me. I said no more, then or the few remaining years that my father lived.

At that moment my father realized he had lost me. Little did he know that he had lost me years and years before when he decided that since I would not emulate him he would not encourage me in anything else. It troubles me that my father would cry about the love another man gave me. I did not want to hurt him. But if it took my father’s tears for me to know Bill and appreciate what he has given to me, I would make my father cry and cry again.

The essay was first published in MAN! Magazine, then in The Best Man, then in Purpose, Pattern and Process for several editions.

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About lymangrant

Lyman Grant is a professor of creative writing and humanities at Austin Community College. He has work at ACC since 1978. He is the author or editor of two textbooks, two books relating to Texas literature, three volumes and a chapbook of poetry. Recently he traveled the United States for a year in a 34-foot RV 5th wheel trailer with his wife and two younger sons.