Field Research

Today I made a seven-hour drive from Manchester, New Hampshire to Batavia, New York to give a paper on John Gardner. For the better part of a year I have been making my way through Gardner’s fiction and attempting to visit some of the places he lived in and wrote about. I began in Susquehanna, PA, his last place of residence, went through old Bennington, VT, where he lived for a brief time, and now I’m in Batavia, where he was born, raised, and made the setting for two novels and a few short stories.

There is really nothing much to say about Batavia. It’s between Rochester and Buffalo, being a little closer to Buffalo. Attica Prison is nearby, but so is Darien Lake Amusement Park. It’s not hard to see why Gardner would leave a place like this. Like most of upstate New York, the visitor gets the sense that the city’s best days are behind it. I’ve been here less than five hours and I am already itching to leave.

In preparation for tomorrow’s conference on Gardner, I decided to take the afternoon and do some sightseeing, combined with research. I checked out a few places Gardner frequented, and more important, wrote about, especially in The Sunlight Dialogues, his “big” novel that is set in Batavia. After getting some dinner, and rewarding myself with a few beers, I decided to head out to Grandview Cemetery to see if I could find Gardner’s grave.

Grandview Cemetery is located just on the border of the city, and it was already getting dark when I arrived. The cemetery is much bigger than I anticipated, so finding his grave was going to be a lot more trouble than I thought. After driving around the goat trails lining the cemetery, I decided to get out and try my luck while there was still light enough to see. It was much colder than I expected, and I was upset that I did not pack my heavier coat. Nevertheless, I wandered up and down paths and between headstones, none of them really old (at least not by New England standards), and noticed that this was a well-kept cemetery. After about fifteen minutes I decided to give up and come back the following day. Then, much to my amazement, I stumbled upon a family tomb (not Gardner’s), exactly like the one I have in mind for the ghost project. Although I can’t say anything more about that particular project now, I did manage to take some notes, a picture with my phone, and a few rude sketches of the tomb.

For literary scholars research is not nearly as romantic as Hollywood, or A.S. Byatt, makes it out to be. In fact, the type of research we do is the furthest thing from the Indiana Jones-type research I wanted to do as a kid when I first saw that film in the theaters. Having said that, I do find that a lot of my research does take me to some interesting and even exotic places. So maybe I am wrong about the previous statement. Lately, I’ve been visiting a lot of cemeteries, and this particular family tomb will certainly make it into the ghost project.

It’s incredibly important that teachers, as well as students, make it out of the classroom whenever they can. My friend and colleague at SNHU, Charles Wilbert, takes a class to Concord, MA every fall. This type of field research is invaluable for turning students on to literature and research. Too many students think that doing research involves sitting in front of his or her computer in the comfort of a dorm room. I suspect that most students do not even bother to walk over to the library any longer. Why should they? But I’m getting off topic.

The fact of the matter is that I went today in search of one thing and found something completely different. And since I am never working on just one project at a time, today’s find made the seven hour drive, combined with my all-too frequent absences from my family, worth while. Tomorrow it’s off to Gardner’s favorite restaurant in Batavia, The Pok A Dot. (Pictures to follow)

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