In Memory of Arthur Cash

He was already a distinguished professor, both in title and in fact, when I was his student for the first time, in the early 1990s. Dr. Arthur H. Cash had earned the rare title of “Distinguished Professor” from the State University of New York system in 1989, and I do not know if that title is what gave him the clout to hold classes in his dining room and kitchen rather than in whichever campus building the pesky registrar had located the class, or if I am getting it all backwards and his clout, with or without a title, brought us to his kitchen.

I learned this morning that Dr. Cash died Thursday, December 29, at the age of 94. His obituary appeared in he New York Times on December 30 but only today did it start to make the rounds of social media among his students. He retired in 1997 (a memorable party that I actually remember) but his retirement was an active one: his most recent book, John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty, was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.
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A Sentimental Journey Through …

Laurence Sterne was dying of consumption, the polite yet dramatic term that people used to employ for pulmonary diseases, especially tuberculosis. He had contracted it by 1740, when he was still in his 20s, and he fought for his every breath for his remaining three decades of life.

In 1765, he left England in search of better breathing, and he traveled abroad to France and Italy. He was a surprise best-selling author by this point, a clergyman who had decided on a whim to start telling the life story of a character but by not telling it in a straightforward manner, to comically digress his way through “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” One of the earliest novels in English or any language, “Shandy” was an instant success when its first two volumes started appearing in 1759.

The genre we call “travel writing” was not as common in the 1760s as it is now, and most works in that genre at that time were quite unsentimental: verbal pictures of natural phenomena and wonders of the man-made world and warnings-slash-complaints about the foreignness of foreigners on their strange home turf. In his 1765 journey, Sterne encountered fellow novelist Tobias Smollett, and the stern, dry Smollett left such an impression on the always amused Sterne that in his book, “A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy,” he based a character named “Smelfungus” on Smollett. Nice revenge.
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A Straight Story

Most copies of “Tristram Shandy” by Laurence Sterne are about 600 pages long. (It is in public domain, so this varies.) The book is a fictional autobiography in which Tristram, the not-quite hero of a story that is not quite his own, attempts to tell us about his life from birth onward. However, he does not even begin to begin telling us about his birth and his first day on earth until the fourth volume because, like his own conception on page 1, his story is much interrupted.

(On page one, at the very moment Tristram is to be conceived, his mother asks his father if he remembered to wind the clock, an ill-timed interruption that, according to Tristram, produced an author who is incapable of telling a story straight to its end without breaks, questions, and digressions.)
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