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    An Enlivening Heritage: Reintroducing Robert Coles

    By  Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

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    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.

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    Tristan, 12-02-12 20:43:
    I really enjoyed reading this post. Very well written!
    David, 17-02-12 04:44:
    This article brings a nostalgic smile to my face. I was raised on "Children of Crisis" and Erik Erikson by my favorite writing professor at Michigan State, so it is pleasing to know that Dr. Coles is still going strong and his papers reside at my alma mater. His insightful portraits of human ambiguity made for great reading, and great writing.
    Phil, 17-02-12 11:58:
    Such lovely writing on so many perfectly-interconnected souls.

    I'd not known of Coles with Chaney, Schwerzer, Goodman -- and Moses -- that night. But with Williams, Percy, Springsteen, and the others -- wonderful, such a heritage, such decency, it almost redeems America for what it's otherwise become to itself and to the world.
    Ronald, 18-02-12 16:07:
    Robert Coles has been one of a very small group of intellectual heroes for me ever since I read a piece in Daedalus in 1965-6. His humanity, intelligence, compassion shine through the scope of his life. Mr. Kelly has captured his spirit in an interesting and beautiful way. Great job.
    Marc, 18-02-12 22:37:
    thanks. I audited Coles' Literature class and it was, in fact, all that. I wish I could take it again, and am grateful you have drawn my attention to these books. thank again.
    Sean, 24-02-12 14:24:
    Thanks for your article about Robert Coles, one of my favorite writers. I've read many of his books and you inspired me to get and read his two new books

    After reading Children of Crisis, I went on a two week bicycle trip through Mississippi and Louisiana and wrote to Dr. Coles about that trip -- a trip that changed my life. And was gracious enough to write a lengthy note back to me. Later I had the opportunity to meet him when I was working for Gail Sheehy when she was writing Pathfinders.

    Robert Coles is an inspiration and has made and is still making the world a better place by his presence and his untiring commitment to helping us understand and be better human beings.
    Nan, 07-03-12 13:30:
    I haven't thought about Robert Coles for years. Thank you for bringing him into my life at such a crucial time for me and for America. I cannot wait to read these two newest of his books. This is an inspired bio. Thank you, Jeff.
    Angy, 29-03-12 03:20:
    I thought finding this would be so arduous but it's a bzreee!
    Yoga, 31-03-12 19:23:
    in an : What I've had to do is leave the realm of social scinece, which strives for predictability, consistency, and theoretical amplification . Anyone who has gone through the years that I went through of psychiatry, child psychiatry and psychoanalysis develops a theoretic mind. While I've had to hold on to some of those virtues, I've also had to leave behind much of that way of thinking in order to turn toward what I think stories offer us — an appreciation of complexity, irony, ambiguity, inconsistency, fate, luck, chance, circumstance.
    Dewi, 08-04-12 21:34:
    Frankly I think that's abosltuely good stuff.