Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Wednesday, April 16, 1969.
Elizabeth Sewell’s novel “Now Bless Thyself” is aptly described on its first par by the narrator-protagonist who says “This I think of as a report merely.” The novel is a report, told boldly and without fancy flourishes, about the experiences of a well-known English poet while she is a poet-in-resident at an American university.
As the narrator, the poet speaks from the pages with a clear, unpretentious voice, relating incidents with sane objectivity. She speaks with an European voice to other Europeans about America. At times the American reader feels he is eavesdropping when the narrator explains with wonder and amusement what we take as a commonplace. For instance a restaurant syrup dispenser is described in detail, and milked shares are defined as “sweet mud” of ice cream and milk. American slang occasionally requires explanatory comments for her European audience, as when she tells how the American greeting “Hi” is different from the European “hi” used to get someone’s attention. Other times, the American reader is embarrassed and ashamed at what he overhears when the arrestor describes ghetto life, gang beatings, and police brutality, all of which are as typically American as milk shakes and slang.
Through the skill of the author, the role of the poet as narrator is never confused with the role of the poet as the main character of the novel. An intelligent, sensitive woman, she comes to America hoping that in a strange country with new people she can make some sense out of the tragic irrationality of life. America, she finds, is seething with violence and controversy, but, as a scholar she is able to relate the current controversies to those discussed by earlier poets, and so impose some system of order on the chaos. Moreover, a woman who has felt a deep love and a tragic loss, she seeks refuge in America with the poignant plea “lend me your loves lest I founder in this emptiness.” She finds love, in the community of mankind.
The novel is arranged in four sections. Each section focuses on the poet’s relationship with a man who influences her life. There is Kay, her husband, who makes the greatest possible sacrifice for love of her. Rinaldo, an aging ex-communist professor, helps her to better understand the place of European in today’s world. The son of a scheming politician. Joe assures her that the young people of America will not perpetuate the crimes of their fathers. And finally, there is Antonelli, the slum kid fighting to free himself and other kids from the ghetto, who teaches the poet the ultimate lesson in brotherly love by giving his life for those ghetto children.
There are other characters, warm and real, who connect the sections, like Pet Kava, the quiet rebel, and his wife Sara, who fears that her great love for him will somehow prevent his success. The diplomatic, scholarly Dr. Templer, the gently, understanding Father clavery, and the wavy, inspiring Father John Baptist are some of the other people who help the poet to better understand herself and America.
Miss Sewell’s novel relates closely to the situation of the student at Washburn. The action of the novel takes place on two neighboring campuses in a middle-sized town in the heartland of America. One is a municipal-state university with an enrollment of about twenty thousand and the other is a Catholic college of about four thousand students. Miss Sewell touches on every major program for students today, those that effect the student directly or indirectly. She examines the power struggle within a department for the chairmanship as closely as the controversy caused by the local businessmen trying the stifle the academic freedom of a professor. She presents the pros and cons of student revolt aimed at both the campus and the country. Whether she is discussing love, politics, or religion, she deftly presents every side of the argument, never imposing an answer, but allowing the reader to weigh each side and make his own decision.
While telling the touching story of a poet’s sojourn in a strange country, Miss Sewell has captured the vitality and complexity of America. I feel compelled to borrow from another poet to thank Miss Sewell for the rare privilege of allowing Americans to see ourselves as others see us.