Names of the Dead
Yesterday I spoke before a class of bright, articulate non-fiction students in the Hunter College MFA program. My nominal subject was the history and practices of The Threepenny Review, though we ranged (partially in response to their intelligent questions) into many other areas related to the composition, editing, and publication of good writing. As always when an older person visits a class of younger people, there were names I mentioned--names of the dead, in particular--that they didn't recognize. What surprised me was which names.
Almost all of them seemed to have heard of Roberto Bolaño and Gore Vidal, and most of them knew who Leonard Michaels was. To my surprise, some of them even knew of Paul Bowles. But not one recognized the name Mario Savio, and this shocked me.
Okay, granted, Mario Savio was not primarily a writer: his day job, for most of his life, was as a college-level teacher of remedial math, and his fame stemmed from the impromptu speeches he made during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964. Though his grasp of the English language was both immense and sensitive, he only published a few articles in his lifetime--one of them, I am proud to say, in The Threepenny Review. But if you said his name today in the Bay Area, I am pretty sure even young people would still recognize it. This is partly because the legacy is still alive there: the main snackbar on the UC Berkeley campus is called The Free Speech Café, and something called the Mario Savio Memorial Lecture is given by an eminently grey left-winger every year. But it is also because the effect he had on the world in which Berkeley found and still finds its place was so powerful then, and so memorable now.
I told the Hunter students they should look him up and try to see some of the speeches he gave--long, eloquent speeches containing whole sentences and paragraphs, with nary a jargon phrase among them, delivered with passion but also politeness by a curly-haired, angelic-faced young man who often wore a tie, and who took off his shoes before climbing up on a cop car in order to avoid damaging the car. You can find his most famous speech here, for instance; but though it brings back his words, it does not really evoke the man himself, with all his unusual presence. As he got older, he became softer and more saintly, but he never let go of the ideals of his youth. I hope, for their sakes, that there is someone like him among the young people coming of age now, so that they too will have a name to remember.