Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Stroll Down Memory Lane

I spent a lot of time at the McKeldin Library, my old stomping grounds on the campus of the University of Maryland at College Park, between 1976 and 1984.  I was enrolled as a graduate student completing my doctorate in Germanic Studies, and the library was situated just a short distance from my campus office.  Since completing my degree thirty years ago I have had little opportunity or reason to return to the campus and I had forgotten just how many strong and pleasant memories I have of the place.

Since my retirement four years ago I have renewed my membership in the alumni association which offers me inter alia borrowing privileges at all of the campus libraries (there are eight at last count).  I have been taking advantage of this by re-familiarizing myself with the stacks and the layout of this old book barn and using the peace and quiet it affords to work on a number of new projects with all the materials I need close at hand.  Most recently I have worked on a novel-in-progress in a quiet corner.

The place has changed quite a bit since I last worked there.  Gone are the banks of wooden cabinets housing the thousands upon thousands of dog-eared bibliographic data cards needed to locate books and other publications in the stacks.  They have been replaced with computers which allow for a different type of fingertip search.

As I searched the library’s holdings on Halifax during World War II, I have been  overcome by curiosity (and not a small measure of hubris) as I typed my own name into the computer catalog’s search box.  And there it was - an entry for my doctoral dissertation completed back in November 1984.  A few minutes later I made my way  into the stacks where I located that 344-page monstrosity, now hardbound in two volumes, one of the signed copies I had to submit to the Graduate School faculty as partial fulfillment of the requirements for the PhD degree.  I could not help myself.  I carried the volumes back to my work table in the reading room and spent the next hour or so perusing the product of long days and nights spent in this library those many, many years ago.

The title is not something that rolls right off the tongue, but typical for a dissertation, I guess - Spatial Behavioral Patterns in Selected Short Prose of the German Democratic Republic [East] and the Federal Republic of Germany [West] as Evidence of Developing Cultural Diversification.  Despite its long-winded title, the study itself is a rather straight forward (remarkable for me) examination of postwar German fiction literature as a means of tracking and evaluating how Germans in the two German states handled space differently and how these modalities served as benchmarks to measure the development of two distinct German cultures over the course of almost four decades. The conclusions drawn by my study demonstrated (at least my examination committee believed I was successful in my approach) how and why literary historians and critics must look at the sociological and anthropological sub-texts of literary works in order to properly understand their meaning and importance within the cultures that produced them. Pretty heady stuff, to be sure, or so it seemed at the time.

There are two (at least) recurring nightmares that every graduate student experiences; that the only copy of a thesis or dissertation is lost or stolen and one must go back to the beginning and start over, or one’s advisor dies or disappears under mysterious circumstances and one is left alone without any clear guidance as to how to carry on. I was lucky to avoid both of these as well as a third somewhat unique to my circumstances.  Almost five years to the day after I successfully defended my dissertation, the Berlin Wall, much to almost everyone’s surprise, fell and a year later the two German states reunified.  I still shudder to think what would have happened had I been called to defend my conclusions - that the two postwar German states were gradually, but steadily, giving rise to two distinct German cultures - faced with the reality of one of the more momentous and unexpected events of the late 20th Century.  I am still confident, as I was then, that my ultimate conclusions are sound, and despite the political and economic reunification of Germany, there are still two distinct cultures, in the sociological and anthropological meaning of that word, in evidence in the reunified Federal Republic of Germany.  That said, I am glad I was not put to the unnecessary test of my wits and my wherewithal.

So it was a treat, to say the least, to discover these bound volumes of this hard fought study just a short distance from where many of the outlines and early drafts took shape. They awaken many fond, old memories.  But past is past, and my visits to McKeldin are now focused on new projects.

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