ArticleAn Enlivening Heritage: Reintroducing Robert Coles
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: