He Was on to Something

Educator James O. Freedman ’57, L ’60, who died in March of last year, was president emeritus of Dartmouth College and of the University of Iowa. In his retirement in Cambridge, he was president of Harvard Magazine Inc. One learns in the just-published memoir of his early years, Finding the Words: The Education of James O. Freedman (Princeton University Press, $29.95), that when a student he competed to be this magazine’s “Undergraduate” columnist, but the editors passed him over. In a book-jacket blurb, Stanley N. Katz ’55, Ph.D. ’61, of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, characterizes the Freedman of those days as “a bright and ambitious young Jew trying self-consciously to break out of small-town New England to achieve greatness.” Of this memoir, Katz writes: “This is really a book about books—how beautiful they are, and how the examined life cannot be lived without them, since they have been the mirror in which Freedman learned to see himself.”

From the Book
Freedman, in his high-school yearbook

And so, driven by ambition and a compulsive intensity, frightened by conflict, tormented by self-doubt, hindered by a sense of inferiority, afflicted by depression, imprisoned by inhibitions, shadowed by shame, longing for praise and approval, I entered Harvard hoping to find my place in the world, with each of these characteristics forever shifting as it bumped against another, at once hurtling me forward and holding me back, in confusing, contradictory states of satisfaction and pain.

I was, however, sustained by my sense of destiny. To have a sense of destiny is to have a conviction about the purpose of life. Confronting that sense, forming that conviction is a part of what a liberal education is about. When in later life I told V.S. Naipaul that I wished I had known at 20 what I knew at 60, he replied, “But then life would not be a quest. That is the very meaning of life.” Naipaul’s statement is similar to an observation made by my friend James Alan McPherson, who, in a seriously intended play on words, once wrote, “The purpose of life is to search for the purpose of life.” For Naipaul and McPherson, life is a question answering a question.

Does that imply, I wondered as a freshman, that although life may have a purpose, we may not be able to discover it? In his novel Let Me Count the Ways (1965), Peter De Vries has a character say, “The universe is like a safe to which there is a combination. But the combination is locked up in the safe.” Others believe, however, that life has the purpose with which we endow it by our actions—by the work we do and the love we express, by the values we follow and the dignity we confer upon others. For these people, life flowers into purpose when we achieve the fullest realization of what Milton called “that one talent which is death to hide.” I believed from the start that Harvard was about searching for the purpose of life. “To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be on to something,” I later read in The Moviegoer (1960) by Walker Percy. “Not to be on to something is to be in despair.” I did not appreciate, however, just how long that search would take and how consuming it would be.

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