NOTE: I wrote this essay for The Common Review in 2012. Dear friend Danny Postel commissioned and edited the piece.
Books by Robert Coles discussed in this essay:
Handing One Another Along: Literature and Social Reflection, edited by Trevor Hall and Vicki Kennedy, Random House, 304 pages
Lives We Carry with Us: Profiles of Moral Courage, edited by David D. Cooper, The New Press, 240 pages
To understand Robert Coles’s two latest books, it helps to have seen his writing chair.
Comfortable and unassuming, it sits with a blanket draped over it in the study of the three-story house in Concord, Massachusetts, where he and his late wife, Jane, raised their three boys.
The wall opposite the chair features a gallery of framed black-and-white photographs of his personal heroes, many of whom appear in his books—here is William Carlos Williams, there is Walker Percy, and there, in the bottom row, is a smiling Bruce Springsteen, his arm around Coles’s shoulder, like a brother. The chair is where Coles has sat and written, on long sheets of yellow lined paper, dozens of books, including volumes of poetry, a novel, and books for children and adults, as well as thousands of scholarly articles and reviews.
It was in that chair that Coles wrote the books that made him a major public intellectual in the 1960s and 1970s, before the term was in use. Children of Crisis, a five-volume series, remains perhaps his most famous work. The series examines the moral and spiritual lives of children across the country with a poignancy that struck a deep chord in the culture (in 1973 Coles received the Pulitzer Prize for volumes two and three).
During those years Coles also worked as a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy, crafting the senator’s final speech before his assassination in 1968. But he by no means operated exclusively behind the scenes: his writings appeared in the pages of Harper’s, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic Monthly; he could be seen on The Dick Cavett Show; and his name and reputation were familiar to a wide swath of Americans.
Coles remained in the chair in the 1980s, when he maintained a prominent public profile. During that decade he received a MacArthur “genius grant,” appeared often as a guest on The PBS NewsHour (then known simply as The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour), and delivered an address at Harvard’s 350th anniversary.
And he has written in the chair over the past two decades, when, despite continuing to garner some of the nation’s highest civilian honors (the National Humanities Medal, among others) and launching and editing the short-lived but critically acclaimed national magazine Double Take, his public profile began to fade. (Coles received the National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush in 2001, the same year Johnny Cash won the National Medal of Arts. When I spoke with him, Coles recalled an incredulous Cash asking him before the ceremony at which the president and first lady presented their medals, “What the hell are the two of us doin’ here?”)
It is precisely because of this relative decline in influence that the publication of Coles’s newest books, Handing One Another Along and Lives We Carry with Us, is so welcome. A distillation of his life’s essential themes and relationships, these works represent an opportunity to reintroduce one of America’s most significant public intellectuals of recent decades to the public.
Spry and trim, Coles looks much younger in person than his eighty-two years. His face is lined and the stubble underneath his left cheek is gray, but his full crest of hair still has healthy portions of its original black color, and his piercing eyes underneath his thick eyebrows retain plenty of vitality. The day I went to visit Coles at his Concord home, I had to wait for him to return from a spontaneous bike ride he took because he could not resist the glorious New England fall weather. Nevertheless, he knows that he is heading toward the end of his life, and he is starting to reflect on and share what he has learned from his many decades of engagement with the world.
At an initial glance, Coles’s two most recent works are very different. Edited by David Cooper, Lives We Carry with Us draws on Coles’s writing for a variety of books and journals to assemble thirteen profiles of lives of moral courage. Coles and Cooper, who worked together to choose the book’s selections, divide the work into four sections. The first is about teachers and mentors who had a major impact on Coles’s life, while the following sections cover artists, people of great moral conviction, and people at the beginning and end of the life cycle. The primary focus in the work is on the subjects’ lives, and, to a lesser degree, Coles’s relationships with them.
Handing One Another Along, on the other hand, is the book version of a series of lectures about literature and art that Coles gave in his legendary Literature of Social Reflection course at Harvard, which he taught for more than twenty-five years, and which he hoped would be an “enlivening heritage.” “I hope that the stories, in sum, told through words and pictures, studied through a lens of our own personal and social reflections, can prompt you to stop and consider the way in which you perceive and interact with the world around you, and how you choose to participate in this one life given to you, to us,” he writes in the introduction.
Handing One Another Along is also symphonic in nature, introducing ideas that are later developed and expanded. Readers meet the poet and doctor William Carlos Williams in the book’s opening section and then hear his words resonate throughout the work’s later parts.
Although the difference in form and format of these two works highlights Coles’s considerable versatility, together they constitute a single meditation on the people, themes, method of living, and understanding of life’s rhythms that have been most central to him. Many of the people in the picture gallery in Coles’s study appear in both books.
Far from making a single point in these books, Coles simultaneously advocates multiple specific messages—be kind, be open, be humble, be adventurous, be reflective, be engaged. Both works also contain a similar insistence on decency, an openness to learning from all different types of people and different forms of creative expression, and Coles’s guarding against excessive pride and self-promotion. Both works demonstrate an awareness of the possibilities and limitations of each intellectual discipline or form of communication. And both share a bedrock insistence on the importance of questing for truth, of living with soulful authenticity, and of striving for moral courage.
New England Roots
It all started in the lively Coles household in Boston. His parents read selections from their favorite works of literature aloud. The young Coles witnessed spirited discussions between his mother, Sandra, a Tolstoy devotee (in Handing One Another Along he describes his mother reading the Russian novelist on her deathbed), and his father, Philip, who told him, “Bobby, if you’ve got Middlemarch, you don’t need anything else.” “My father revered Eliot,” Coles told me.
His parents’ differences went beyond literary taste. His mother was from Sioux City, Iowa, an artist and art collector. On one of the walls in Coles’s home hang original works by Monet, Picasso, and Munch that she purchased. A stark presence is the art of Käthe Kollwitz, which portrays the desperate poverty that wracked post–World War I Germany. “I met the poor through Kollwitz,” Coles told me.
An exacting woman, Coles’s mother instilled in him an almost instinctive guarding against excessive self-glorification and pride. At times this tendency of his mother’s took extreme forms. He told me a story about bringing home a straight-A report card from Boston Latin School. His mother looked at it and said, “At moments like this, Bobby, we have to humble ourselves, and be grateful for the gifts the Lord has given us, but also be aware that there are flaws.”
“Your mother’s right, but she should give you a break,” responded his father, who was in the room and had been listening.
Philip Coles was an MIT-trained engineer of Jewish ancestry who, while an agnostic, derived spiritual pleasure and sustenance from the work of George Eliot and fellow literary rebel Thomas Hardy. Coles’s mother came from Episcopalian and Catholic stock. This mixture led Coles away from decisive belief in a single tradition or even in the existence of God. It also made him open to and sympathetic toward people from each of those religions, though he has never fully subscribed to any of them. “I have always felt between various worlds,” he said, a wry smile creasing his face. “Maybe it’s motivated me to understand the complexities of other people.”
The quest to live with and understand ambiguities through art and writing, the belief that apparent opposites needn’t be so, the emphasis on accomplishment and humility, the passion for creative expression, and the need to act with moral courage against poverty and for social justice—all were guiding themes in Coles’s childhood experiences and in his mature work.
Coles graduated from Boston Latin and enrolled in Harvard in 1946. Like his brother William, he aspired to a career teaching English and, perhaps, writing (William taught English literature for many years at the University of Michigan before retiring to Arizona).
Enter Dr. Williams
William Carlos Williams, the bard of New Jersey, the doctor who made house calls among ordinary citizens for a half-century, writing all the while, was to play a formative role in Coles’s life. Williams’s footprints are all over Lives We Carry with Us, which takes its title from a Williams injunction: “Their story, yours and mine—it’s what we all carry with us on this trip we take, and we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them.” Coles’s incorporation and adaptation of these words is just one of the ways he honors his mentor. Williams is also a key figure in the first section of Lives We Carry with Us, in which Coles focuses on five people who exerted a life-altering influence on him.
Williams may stand atop that select list. Coles was introduced to his writing—then mostly ignored by the literary professoriate—by Perry Miller, Coles’s undergraduate advisor. Under Miller’s guidance, Coles wrote a paper about Williams, but Miller pushed his student to meet the literary master. Coles describes the scene in Handing One Another Along:
Professor Miller said to me, “Why don’t you send what you’ve written to Dr. Williams.” I said, “What?” He said, “That, what you wrote.” I said, “I can’t do that.” He said, “You don’t have the postage? No, you’re either shy or embarrassed.” I said nothing. He continued: “It might mean something to him.”
Coles sent the paper and received a reply from New Jersey about a week later:
I opened it up and there was a piece of paper from a doctor’s small, square prescription pad: William C. Williams, M.D., 9 Ridge Road, Rutherford, New Jersey. The prescription said, “Dear Mr. Coles, thank you very much for sending your thesis to me. It’s not bad for a Harvard student.” In a new paragraph, he added, “If you are ever in the neighborhood, please come see Flossie and me. Bill.”
A week later, Coles writes, he went to New York to be “in the neighborhood.” He met Williams and that was it. In Lives We Carry with Us, Coles describes Williams’s influence: “For me, to know Dr. Williams, to hear him talk about his writing and his life of medical work among the poor and working people of northern New Jersey, was to change direction markedly. Once headed for teaching, I set my sights for medical school.”
Application and admission to Columbia Medical School followed. While there, Coles met another mentor, this one courtesy of his mother: Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement.
Coles’s mother had carried on a correspondence with Day, and she shared the connection with her son in typically crisp fashion. During a lecture at Phillips Brooks House, home to a Harvard student organization dedicated to social justice, Coles explained that his mother responded to a description of his academic struggles by saying, “Maybe if you met Dorothy and the people she’s working with, you’d stop feeling so sorry for yourself.”
The student heeded his mother’s advice, and, through meeting Day, started to discover a way that he could be a doctor without neglecting his desire to work for social justice. Like Williams, Day receives a full chapter in Lives We Carry with Us, appears in Handing One Another Along, and has a portrait in the pantheon on the wall in Coles’s study.
In Lives We Carry with Us, Coles writes that Day helped him with his struggle to “connect a strong interest in moral philosophy to the work I was learning as a member of a particular profession.”
The connection took time. A lot of it. In fact, Coles explained during that same lecture that he spent so much time with Williams and Day that he was summoned to the dean’s office. Failing to concentrate more fully on his medical studies, they said, could jeopardize his completion of them.
Coles buckled down sufficiently to graduate, and, in part because of his encounters with Anna Freud (Sigmund’s daughter) and her work, the subject of another chapter in Lives We Carry with Us, he decided to specialize in child psychiatry.
Williams and Miller both urged Coles not to stay in academia, but to get outside its gates and see the world. Recently married to the former Jane Hallowell, Coles was fortunate that his bride not only acquiesced, but supported the exploration. Their travels took them south to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, where Coles served as a military psychiatrist.
While in Mississippi, Coles traveled to New Orleans and witnessed what he calls in Handing One Another Along “an incident that transformed my life, my work, my perspective, the trajectory of my career.” The incident was a riot outside William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Having grown up in the North, Coles had not had direct contact with segregation and the venomous hatred that could be stirred when its order was threatened. (The brutal response in South Boston to Judge Arthur Garrity’s court-ordered school desegregation of Boston’s public schools by busing took place close to fifteen years after the upheaval Coles witnessed.)
Coles describes the scene in Handing One Another Along:
Once I got within sight of the school, I saw, as well as heard, a large group of people, and all kinds of shouting and screaming. Then, almost suddenly, I saw some cars drive up, and if you have ever heard a noisy, foulmouthed mob suddenly fall silent, you will know the noise of silence, the presence of silence.
Men got out of the first car, all dressed alike in gray flannel suits, sunglasses, and carrying guns. A couple of men got out of the second car, but they didn’t have guns at the ready—rather, they were holding on to a little girl, who was about four feet tall and had on a white dress, white shoes, a white bow in her hair and was carrying a lunch pail.
After the silence came the noise again, the screams, the shouts, the threats: “We are going to kill you, you blankety-blankety-blank.”
The girl was six-year-old Ruby Bridges, a black girl who was integrating the previously all-white school. The protestors’ rage shocked the sheltered Coles, who had slowly begun “to figure out that this had to do with race,” and sparked in him the curiosity to learn more and a determination to find out what was happening. After meeting with NAACP Legal Defense Fund chief Thurgood Marshall, Coles gained permission to meet and work with Bridges.
A chapter in each of the two books is devoted to his relationship with Bridges. In Handing One Another Along, Coles says that he asked what she was doing when she moved her lips each morning. She was praying, the girl told him. Coles then asked,
“Who are you praying for?” She replied, “I was praying for the people in the street.” I was surprised and unwilling to drop the matter. I said, “Why would you want to pray for those people in the street?” She looked at me and answered, “Well, don’t you think they need praying for? I always say the same thing. I always say, ‘Please God, try to forgive these people because they don’t know what they are doing.’ ”
The hatred he witnessed in the South confused Coles, and made him feel lonely and adrift. A partial antidote came in the form of Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer. Coles writes in Lives We Carry with Us that he had read Percy’s essays for years, adding that when The Moviegoer came out in 1961, he read it so many times he lost count. The book “gave hope to me, helped me feel stronger at a critical time, when I was somewhat lost, confused, vulnerable, and, it seemed, drifting badly.”
The exchange with Bridges and the reliance on Percy’s work illustrate the spiritual and religious understanding that took shape during Coles’s childhood and which he ultimately made his own. Coles believes we live in a moral universe in which right and wrong do exist and matter. Striving for moral courage is desirable and honorable, if not imperative. Like his father, Coles drew strength from literature rather than organized religion or personal belief.
While he is deeply respectful of others’ faith in God, Coles himself does not have that same certainty. “I just don’t know,” he said, after I asked him about the topic for the third time in his study. “I’m an agnostic.”
Bolstered by Percy’s work and by his relationship with Williams, Coles stayed with his family in the South for more than a decade, becoming heavily involved in the burgeoning civil rights struggle that eventually toppled legal segregation.
It was dangerous work.
Coles told me that he was in the same car as civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman in Mississippi the evening of Sunday, June 21, 1964. The men were going to investigate the burning of Mount Zion Union Methodist Church, fifty miles away in Neshoba County.
Coles was planning to ride with the three men, but the legendary organizer Bob Moses, who was staying to attend a meeting in the area, intervened.
“Bob Moses came over and put his hand on my shoulder and he said, ‘You’re a white American Harvard doctor. They’ll listen to you, they won’t listen to me.’”
Coles got out of the car and went with Moses.
Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman disappeared that night. The next day their burned-out station wagon was found in the Bogue Chitto swamp. The bodies of the three civil rights workers were found forty-four days later, buried fifteen feet in an earthen dam.
Philip Coles was furious at his son for staying in such perilous conditions, especially with his wife pregnant with their first child, but Coles and Jane did not leave for several more years. Their next stop was a return to Cambridge and his alma mater, where the psychologist Erik Erikson, yet another towering figure in both books, had invited him to teach.
Coles’s years in the South did more than expand his racial horizons, lay the groundwork for the monumental Children of Crisis, and give him a visceral awareness of life’s fragility. It also inculcated in Coles a deep desire to travel to new places and learn what he could from children’s and adults’ struggles to act bravely in an often harsh and unfair world. He, his wife, and his three sons ventured to Alaska, where he worked with native people, to apartheid-era South Africa, and to the former Rhodesia, among other places.
Out in the World
The Coles family also traveled to the Southwest to work with migrant workers, during which time Coles befriended the legendary farmworker organizer César Chávez. Coles also met an elderly Mexican couple in New Mexico who had been married for more than sixty years. He writes about the pair in “Una Anciana,” a chapter in Lives We Carry With Us and his favorite piece of writing ever. The book’s longest chapter, “Una Anciana” is the only piece in the book to appear in its original version.
Whereas other chapters in Lives We Carry with Us feature more standard profile elements—the subjects’ backgrounds, formative influences, and biographical milestones—“Una Anciana” transports the reader into the couple’s home and gives the woman and her husband much more space to speak for themselves.
“Una Anciana” ends with the husband’s tribute to the woman with whom he has shared his life:
She is not just an old woman, you know. She wears old age like a bunch of fresh-cut flowers. She is old, advanced in years, vieja, but in Spanish we have another word for her, a word which tells you that she has grown with all those years. I think that is something one ought hope for and pray for and work for all during life: to grow, to become not only older but a bigger person. She is old, all right, vieja, but I will dare say this in front of her—she is una anciana; with that I declare my respect and have to hurry back to the barn.
The praise could easily have been Coles’s words about his own wife, who died in 1993. The excerpt is just one of many passages throughout Lives We Carry with Us and Handing One Another Along in which Coles, although writing about other people, is speaking about himself. In Lives We Carry with Us, for instance, he describes Erik Erikson’s search for human understanding as “an unashamedly moral one”—a characterization that could just as easily apply to Coles’s own quest. When he writes in Handing One Another Along that through the people we meet in William Carlos Williams’s work and the “questions that he brings up for us about them, we learn of a nation, its people,” we hear echoes of Coles’s own intention.
There is a certain irony in this, since Coles scrupulously avoids writing positively about himself in both works. When he does appear, he is usually being lovingly corrected by his wife, being educated by the people he meets, or, when he uses psychological terminology, cutting himself down for doing so, often with parenthetical phrases. In one particularly striking example of the latter, he uses three sets of parentheses in the same paragraph! It’s a deliberate technique, he told me, to avoid using his authority as a psychologist and doctor to intimidate others. There is also his adherence to his mother’s childhood injunction against what George Eliot called “unreflecting egoism.”
These tactics notwithstanding, throughout both books Coles sends clear messages about his understanding of life: living incrementally and by the moment, learning as you go, and never acting with utter certainty. Books and literature and art can be guides for action and sources of strength, but one must live life on the ground.
Coles has received multiple honors for his work and methods, ranging from a MacArthur “genius grant” in 1981 to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s top honor for civilians, in 1998. But the acclaim has not been unanimous, as Coles and his work have come under criticism on a number of grounds. Some have noted that the statements his subjects make are precisely those that a liberal Northern psychiatrist would want to hear. Others have taken direct aim at Coles’s credibility and veracity. In a 2003 New Republic review of his book about Bruce Springsteen (the subject of one of the profiles in Lives We Carry with Us), author David Hajdu wrote the following:
The fact that William Carlos Williams and Walker Percy had such extensive conversations with Robert Coles on the subjects of the New Jersey pop singers Frank Sinatra and Bruce Springsteen, and that those discussions yielded insights so parallel and neatly suited to Coles’s own take on Springsteen is incredible—utterly incredible. I was not there to overhear them, of course, and it is impossible to check with Williams and Percy, or with the late Erikson and Shawn, whom Coles’s other deceased sources quote in his book’s opening sections. But I did ask Will Percy about the comments on Springsteen that Coles attributes to his uncle, and he called them “outrageous.” Walker Percy “definitely didn’t talk like that,” according to his nephew.
Coles, who had a book dedicated to him by Percy, has never commented publicly on the nephew’s allegation. He declined to break his silence for this article other than to say that his complete correspondence with Percy and Springsteen is at Michigan State.
On the other hand, he did plead guilty to a criticism, leveled in the mid-1980s by Northwestern professor and social commentator Joseph Epstein, that he is too easy on others’ books when he reviews them. “Generosity, like humility, can be carried too far,” Epstein wrote in Plausible Prejudices. “Doris Grumbach, Robert Coles, and Robert Towers are three people who review too generously. Their liking a book carries no weight—they like so many.”
“I have never been able to write negative, nasty reviews,” Coles told me, explaining that he instead declines invitations to review books about which he does not have much positive to say. “[Joseph Epstein] is onto something.”
Grappling with Life’s Mysteries
When it comes to his books, Coles writes with urgency because he knows that his remaining days are limited. He writes poignantly in Lives We Carry with Us that a failing Dorothy Day tried, but was unable, to “write what mattered most” to her. In his latest work, Coles does exactly that type of taking stock. In “Una Anciana,” when Domingo the husband says, “These days one never knows when the end will come. I know our time is soon up. But when I look at that mother horse and her child in the barn, or at my children and their children, I feel lucky to have been permitted for a while to be part of all this life here on earth,” one feels Coles’s awareness of his own mortality.
Coles develops this theme of gratitude more explicitly in Handing One Another Along, with writing from and about authors who faced their deaths with serenity and grace. In a lecture early in that book, he includes Raymond Carver’s poem “Gravy,” which, according to Coles, describes in many ways “his [Carver’s] last decade, a decade of blessedness and love that became possible for him” when Carver quit drinking and began his relationship with writer Tess Gallagher in 1978:
No other word will do. For that’s what it was. Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that, it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.”
Building on the theme of gratitude touched on by Domingo and Carver, the final chapter of Handing One Another Along contains Jane Kenyon’s poem “Otherwise,” which she wrote shortly before she died of leukemia at age forty-eight:
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
“How does one live with such knowledge?” Coles asks. “How to pick up each day with enthusiasm and insistence and pride and yet know, remember what that poem tells us?”
Coles’s answer, it seems, lies in the words of a letter Henry James wrote to his nephew, William, that Coles includes in the final chapter of Handing One Another Along, and in the values by which Coles has oriented his personal and professional life: Be kind. Be brave. Be open. Be respectful. Be hard working. Be humble. Be honest. Be true.
It might be reasonable to expect that, having shared his life’s wisdom, Coles has no plans for more books. But that is not the case. Next on the docket: a return to the beginning of his career in medicine, when he cared for children with polio and other fatal conditions (Handing One Another Along contains a reference to the same period in Coles’s life). During the October lecture at Phillips Brooks House, he recounted how one of the children told him, “You look tired, Dr. Coles.” The suffering child’s compassionate gesture lives within the psychiatrist still and is prodding him to explore that territory.
Before that, though, there are bike rides to take, letters to write, and family members to visit. He said he considers his relationship with his wife and family his greatest accomplishment.
But when he has rested and readied himself, Robert Coles will sit back in his trusty chair. He will take out another pad of yellow lined paper. And, in the shadows of the people who have meant most to him and inspired these two books, he will begin to carry out the next, and what we hope is not the final, project of his extraordinarily rich, varied, and productive life.