ArticleAn Enlivening Heritage: Reintroducing Robert Coles
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.