Dear friend and uber-connector Danny Postel commissioned me to write the piece and pushed me through the editing process to sharpen the point.
I am grateful for both.
In October 2010, I visited Coles at his home in Concord-a true life thrill as I had read his work for years.
On my way out to meet him, I called my former fourth grade and mentor teacher Paul Tamburello to let him know about my good fortune.
His voice crackled with excitement as he talked about how reading Coles’s work had been important for him as a teacher when I was a student in his class in the early 70s.
During the course of the interview, we also learned that the late Phipps Hallowell, a former colleague of my father’s and someone who taught my brother Jon about bird watching, was a cousin of Coles’ late wife Jane.
“You knew Phipps!” he kept exclaiming. “You knew Phipps!”
Here is the beginning to the article, which uses the review of his two latest books as an entree into his life:
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 onThe 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?”)