The Village of Stories
by Richard Kopley, Edgar Allan Poe scholar at Penn State
Many years ago, on a bus in New York City, a little old lady in a babushka stared at me. I looked away, and then back, and she was still staring. I rose to get off, and she stared as I approached. And she said, matter-of-factly, catching my eye as I passed, “In my little village, everybody looked like you.” I stepped off the bus, mystified, wondering where that village was and whether I would ever find it.
Well, I never found that village, but I’ve always known another one—a village of stories. Dr. Seuss and Robert McCloskey lived nearby, and Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe only a few blocks away. I eventually explored more distant streets and found Fyodor Dostoevsky and Franz Kakfa and then returned to my own neighborhood and stopped by Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. None of them looked like me, it’s true, but they all thought in terms of stories. At first my connection was through their characters and plots and themes, but over time I became interested in language and allusion and form. Yet whatever my connection, it was the same village. And whatever I was doing, that village was there for me to visit.
I grew up in Watertown, Massachusetts; Bayside, Queens; and New Rochelle, New York. And I went to New Rochelle High School; Brandeis University; Teachers College, Columbia University; and SUNY Buffalo. I taught English at Walden School in New York City; Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois; and finally Penn State DuBois, where I’ve been for twenty-six years. And wherever I’ve lived and worked, I’ve lived also in that village of stories.
My wife Amy lives in a village of pictures—her mother was an artist; she is an art historian at Lycoming College. We visit on occasion—I look at her pictures; she reads my books. But mostly we meet in the middle and tell each other about our villages. My trip to DuBois and hers to Williamsport are not our only commutes.
We have two fabulous children who are finding their own villages. Emily, 24, a graduate student in English at Stanford, seems to have taken a cottage down the street from mine. And Gabe, 22, an undergraduate at Pitt, stayed in my village for a while (he has a BA in English), then moved, preparing to set up shop in my father’s old town and Amy’s father’s as well—a place of digital derring-do.
I visit with my mother in her apartment in New York City and we talk about our lives. She’s been a traveler, having been an accountant, a teacher, a guidance counselor, a business magazine editor, a computer exhibit organizer, and a financial advisor. Now, in retirement, she is visiting my village more frequently. She’s reading, writing, taking courses at Hunter College. I sent her one of my course syllabi recently, and she—who first read to me, “Tom! No answer. ‘Tom!’ No answer. ‘What’s wrong with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!'” –now reads what I teach—and what I write.
I still think about that little old lady in the babushka. I wonder if I’ll ever find her village. I suppose I might—I’ll be speaking on Poe in St. Petersburg, Russia, next fall. But even if I were lucky enough to find that place where everybody looks like me, I would have to leave eventually. The village of stories I will never leave.
Copyright © 2012 by Richard Kopley, All Rights Reserved
Note: September 7, 2012, Congregation Brit Shalom, 620 East Hamilton Avenue, State College, former congregation President Cliff Cohen presented Richard Kopley with the Helping Hands Award, for among other things, bringing Rabbi Ostrich to State College
Note 2: Following the award, the congregation celebrated the 2011 marriage of Emily Kopley and Raphaël Godefroy. The couple reside in Montreal. Emily is completing her dissertation on Virginia Woolf and is currently researching whether Virginia or her husband Leonard won the lottery which made their literary press possible.
Note 3: Richard Kopley and I are working to honor the memory of Philip Young, the scholar who made Penn State the center of Hemingway scholarship in the world. We have chosen February 26 (the date Young’s landmark book Ernest Hemingway, A Reconsideration was published) 2013 as a Borough of State College Official Day of Hemingway Celebration, an effort our enthusiastic Mayor Elizabeth Goreham supports.
Note 4. David Ostrich is a wonderful rabbi who president over the memorial service for my mother Miriam P. Schmerler at Addison Court’s bingo parlor where Lady Gaga has a standing invitation to appear.
Note 5. I came across Dr. Kopley’s “The Village of Stories” article while cleaning up my apartment. The article originally appeared as Richard’s profile in an old yellowing copy of the synagogue publication The Scroll where the article appears here not updated or edited. The intention was to tell readers something about members of the synagogue Board of Directors. This article is the account Richard gave of himself. Most articles in this genre discuss what the new director will do for the congregation, the importance of a Hebrew education, and the support for the Jewish community including the State of Israel. I will let you judge for yourself how well Dr. Kopley adapted his subject matter to the task at hand. At the regular Friday morning meeting of the “Bagel Boys” group founded by Bruce Pincus, Dr. Kopley gave his permission to publish this article on my site, where it certainly belongs.