By Jacob Ewing, class of 2013, Creative Writing and English major
Robert Atwan is the series editor of the wonderful Best American Essays series, a yearly anthology from Houghton-Mifflin that collects the best essays published in a given year and publishes them in a single volume. Atwan scours publications throughout the year, chooses roughly 100 notable essays, then asks that year’s guest editor to select the best 25 to be published in full.
I was fortunate enough to meet Bob at the 2012 River Teeth Non-Fiction Conference, held annually here at Ashland University, where we both had very prominent duties to fulfill—he the keynote speaker, I the student intern for the conference. My dear friend Paul (the other student intern) and I picked Bob up at the airport the night before the conference and soon discovered how open and engaging he was, despite an immense level of fame within the literary non-fiction community. We felt honored to hear his stories and thoughts and opinions. The work of the conference was worth it just to get to talk to him.
But by the end of the conference, Paul and I had spent so much time with Bob that he actually asked us for a favor. He’d soon be leaving his large house just outside of Boston and moving to an apartment in Manhattan. After a literary career spanning decades, he had accrued a great number of books—far more than would fit in his less sizable new place. He told us that we could come for a weekend visit and take any books that we wanted as he tried to downsize his collection. Like any book lovers would, Paul and I immediately accepted his invitation. We spent the weekend in Milton, Massachusetts, got to see the beautiful city of Boston, spend more time with Bob, and left back to Ohio with our car weighed down by about 250 books that Bob had gifted us.
But Bob’s generosity did not stop with his hosting us at his home. He also gave me my first opportunity to see my name in print when he asked me to write a piece for America Now, 10th edition. This is a textbook meant to be used in undergraduate English composition courses. It collects the best short form writing from national publications, as well as undergraduate students writing on similar topics.
My assignment was to write in response to an article that Steven Pinker wrote for the Wall Street Journal entitled "Violence Vanquished," originally published in September 2011. In this article, Pinker argues that despite the fact that most people think of our society as incredibly violent, modern human beings are much less likely to die violently—that is, at the hands of another human being-- today than ever before in human history. In response, I argued that while Pinker is correct statistically, our society has the greatest potential for violent death and that really, at any moment, Pinker's point could be nullified in a number of ways—most notably in some sort of nuclear attack and retaliation. So while it’s true that we kill one another less frequently now than ever before, that fact could be rendered incorrect with absolutely unfathomable speed.
I feel an incredible debt of gratitude to Bob for his kindness, his openness, and the opportunity he gave me to be published. I am lucky to have met him, and I am lucky to still remain in touch. And I am finally lucky for the community of writers found at Ashland University and that the English Department is home to people who care deeply about creative writing, people who would bring someone like Bob to Ashland in the first place.