“In my little village, everybody looked like you.”

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.

State College, PA – Celebrate Hemingway and the Scholarship that Makes Penn State More Than a Party School

Greatness comes in often curious packages. The greatness I have in mind, as I sit here in my apartment in State College, is Ernest Hemingway, a genius whose link to this area – through a combination of circumstances – is strong.

“Hemingway made a difference,” wrote the late Philip Young, of Penn State’s English department. “There are people who do not admire his work, but even these are perfectly ready to admit – if only that they may deplore the fact – that he is ‘important.’ It is hard to think of a contemporary American who had more influence on modern writing, or on whom both general readers and literary critics are more likely to agree that the experience of his fiction is worth having.”

The clock on a Spanish television website is counting down 22 hours, 32 minutes, and 52 seconds. “Not long to go” the clock explains after I push the “English” button to understand. At the end of the countdown, the bulls around Pamplona, Spain, beginning every morning at 8 a.m. from July 7-14, run through the streets to the bullring. In the evening, the best of the bulls are chosen and slaughtered in a bullfight Hemingway described in loving detail in two of his best books, “The Sun Also Rises” and “Death in the Afternoon.”

There is a bust of Hemingway in downtown Pamplona where he is a national hero. State College should have a bust of Hemingway in front of the municipal building.

Certainly, it is a shame that Hemingway’s conception of manhood is linked to his glorification of brutal yet stylized death.

“Romero’s bull-fighting gave real emotion, because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him close each time,” Hemingway wrote in “The Sun Also Rises.” “He did not have to emphasize their closeness. Brett saw how something that was beautiful done close to the bull was ridiculous if it were done a little way off. I told her how since the death of Joselito all the bull-fighters had been developing a technique that simulated this appearance of danger in order to give a fake emotional feeling, while the bull-fighter was really safe. Romero had the old thing, the holding of his purity of line through the maximum of exposure, while he dominated the bull by making him realize he was unattainable, while he prepared him for the killing.”

The language is so clear. Before Hemingway, good style included ornamentation – long words, long sentences, long paragraphs, and lots of adjectives. After Hemingway, the nature of American writing changed. Certainly, there is a place for the elegance of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the beautiful intricacies of William Faulkner. However, what Hemingway gave all of us was the example of what good writing can be.

In a world where the written word still dominates communication, Hemingway showed that the best writing says what you want to say, simply, clearly, and without fuss. Anyone who teaches good writing teaches Hemingway. Hemingway’s manual on bullfighting “Death in the Afternoon” is the best model technical writers can use to describe software. Does it matter that Hemingway’s character flaws were numerous and his affectations were questionable?

For some people, greatness has no rules and the celebration of that greatness requires our admiration.

Here in State College, we live in the center where one of America’s greatest writers is studied and appreciated. Penn State’s associate professor of English Sandra Spanier, following in the scholarly tradition of Phil Young, is in the process of editing the complete letters of Ernest Hemingway.

Penn State does not need to think of itself as a party school any longer. Forget football and beer bongs. Read “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and read them to your children as I have read them to mine.

The Book of John asserts, “In the beginning was the Word … ” In our midst Ernest Hemingway, warts and all, receives the appreciation he deserves for keeping the spirit of the word alive.


State College, PA – Celebrate Hemingway, the Running of the Bulls and the Scholarship that Makes Penn State More Than a Party School