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For David 2: A Way of Living

(Photo: David Lenson, from the 1963 Nutley High School yearbook)

When I remember David Lenson it is his kind eyes and his wicked grin, full of mischief, as though he had just eaten a bird and was waiting, even hoping, for someone to notice.

The first time I met him was in the classroom, during a graduate seminar he taught on the Double in literature. He was the first professor in my experience at UMass to open up possibilities rather than limit them, which in graduate school it seemed everyone was aspiring to do. He explored every tangent not as a tangent but as a tributary that eventually would lead everyone to the same ocean. The one big note. It feels fitting now in retrospect what I first learned from him was the complexities of our consciousness. That we all have Jekyll and Hyde within us. 

As a teacher, David loved to make connections to everything, which is why I suspect he loved comparative literature so much. There was nothing erroneous or passé or clichéd. As he once said to me, whenever other disciplines tired of their fathers, comp lit was there to accept the castaways. Evident in everything he did, David sought to embrace the world as a whole, rather than the constituent parts of it. When I first started teaching, he told me the purpose of education wasn’t to solve problems, but to create new ones. To him, tragedy and comedy were both apparent—in all of Shakespeare and quantum mechanics and statistics and poetry and philosophy and evolutionary biology. What happened in the cosmos could be witnessed in the collapse of the Red Sox bullpen and a dirty saxophone solo.

When I came to work at the Massachusetts Review, it was the night of the slush pile slaughter. Hundreds of manuscripts had piled up and with summer approaching they had to be read. A dozen of us gathered in the bowels of South College around the dining room table—I think I remember David saying it had been his mother’s—and all went at it, tearing through one story after another. When we wearied of it, we started to distance ourselves from the creative output we were entrusted with, poking fun at the worst of them. What I remember very vividly was David reading lines aloud—not to lampoon, to celebrate. Even the most outrageous, verbiage that sounded like the accident of a terrible translation, he read with delight and gusto, marking the moment for a writer to be read, someone who probably wouldn’t ever see their words printed in a journal’s pages but who had, in their own way, bled all over their story. David valued it with reverence: those who aspired to “create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before” he respected and read, even if he wasn’t going to publish them.

For a man who loved juxtaposition so much, an editor of a literary journal like the Massachusetts Review, dedicated to current affairs, seemed so perfect. I was honored and am eternally grateful that he invited me to be a small part of that history. He showed me that creativity wasn’t just a lens with which to view the world, but a way to live in it.

Aaron Hellem is Admissions Counselor at Greenfield Community College and a former managing editor of the Massachusetts Review.

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