Nota Bene: "Yielding But a Dream"

“So long as I remain alive and well
I shall continue to feel strongly about
prose style, to love the surface of the earth,
and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.”
—George Orwell, “Why I Write” (1946)

My friend Neal Burdick ’72 is arguably the dean of American university magazine editors. He has held the blue pencil at St. Lawrence for over 38 years and before it becomes a stub, he’s retiring it and himself with this issue. That’s a longer run than Harold Ross had at The New Yorker. Neal has his own facility with words, of course, but as an editor, he has memorably improved the prose of others and created a legacy of grateful writers and students. There are countless instances of Neal precisely clarifying one’s intended meaning.

Before Neal became an editor, he was first a reader, a writer and a student, notably an accomplished St. Lawrence student. He and I share a formative memory of taking our courses in Shakespeare from two different professors, but arriving at the same inflection point that demarcated a new road in our life’s intellectual journey. We both lament missing Tom Berger in peak form, but can imagine him reciting Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech in improvised drag before astonished undergraduates believing they had just suspended disbelief. Or put another way, they were looking upon an unbelievable professor. Nevertheless, we learned our plays by ear and eye from other large personalities.

One of the first plays studied in the typical college Shakespeare class, also one of the first plays written before the bard’s two explosive moments of creative genius occurred in 1599 and 1606, is A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Years later, I am still not satisfied that I ever caught everything going on, though it is a play within a play, so part of the joke is on the players as much as the play-goers. In many ways now, this work anticipates the literary genres of fantasy, science fiction and virtual worlds, so perhaps today’s students are better equipped to enter the frolic of an imaginary moment and place. And yet, it also reminds us how much an editor is like a playwright—always mindful of an audience, calm before the opinion of critics, and constantly stitching complex lines and plots together like the seams of a king’s robe.

Scholars have categorized the play as a festival comedy set around St. John’s Eve in late June at the time of the solstice. In Quebec, for instance, going back to 1636, great fires were lit at night on the banks of the St. Lawrence River by the first French colonists to observe Midsummer’s Night.

Another view of the tradition, expressed years before Shakespeare wrote his play, was published by the English Puritan Philip Stubbes. With considerable disdain, he said it was an occasion that gave young people winking permission to go “gadding over night to the woods, where they spend the whole night in pleasant pastimes.”

Many Laurentians, remembering the enchanted social arrangements of warm college nights, may in hasty rebuttal have the better argument about the ultimate good of starlit pastimes. Some of those voices in strong favor of the “gadding,” after all, would become happily married. Shakespeare was on the side of love, most of the time, but it was never straightforward, never unequivocally so, because, well, in reality it’s complicated.

A Midsummer’s Night Dream somehow speaks more pointedly to those of us who once lived as students near the sylvan forests of the North Country. It still evokes the quality of feeling free and alive, if only for a few years before the burdens of responsibilities begin to press. Like the staging of the play, we watch the actors step upon the set as new generations of college students coming to a rural place. They enter a realm that is far from the control of city etiquette, while also probing their first steps on the edge of a nature unbound, or at least not so tightly bound as life before college; they also take measure of their own natures, while testing the familiar structure of themselves and trying out new ways of being and belonging.

The unforgettable character Puck in this deceivingly elaborate play is a pure force of nature himself, independent of normative human manners and order; he exhibits a life where rational choice is not the first concern. Can students get that or must it wait? What does Puck’s purpose, assuming its carefree license is vital in some way, finally mean? Emotion, intuition and uninhibited responsiveness must also become central to learning, so long as we can hold that thought for just a while longer, maybe for an extended stretch after college, but hold off from dismissing too soon the charming, spontaneous sprite Puck as a make-believe shadow.

Shakespeare uses the word “eye” more times in A Midsummer Night’s Dream than in any other play. It is not from an unintentional habit that he writes the same word multiple times. He does so as a unifying concept and as a topic of exploration, for the eye can miss so much in the darkness of the night. And so, as with Shakespeare’s single-word emphasis, a person whose life and career has been one of making words make sense, an editor has to think about the work of the eye without missing anything.

The eye is for looking, seeing and reading. Each of these functions of the eye is distinctive, but taken together they are necessary for the liberal arts to succeed in full, and particularly for an editor to achieve the best production values possible. Powers of observation, simply looking, belong to all the senses that build intellect, but the eye is primary. How we see something requires the finer eye to take the view of analysis. And finally, in the activity of reading, we become interpreters and make judgments. Emerson expressed education as a process of enlargement, which is what the eye is constantly doing to look closely, see clearly and read creatively. With the practiced eye of an editor, Neal Burdick has enjoyed a dream job, undoubtedly knowing many days that turned out to be the wonder of a beautiful night in midsummer.

Excerpts from St. Lawrence President William L. Fox's interview with Neal Burdick '72, editor of St. Lawrence magazine from 1977-2016

NEAL BURDICK, THE FRESHMAN

President William L. Fox ‘75 (WF): Let's start with the St. Lawrence part of your life. Your journey to St. Lawrence. Nineteen sixty-eight, a year in our nation's history that stands apart from just about any other that was after 1945 - quite significant.  Why St. Lawrence? How did you find your way here?

Neal Burdick ’72 (NB): I had a couple of friends in high school ahead of me that were students here. One in particular had been the editor of the high school newspaper her senior year, and I was the assistant editor and then moved up to her spot as the senior editor. You can see a life pattern here, I guess. Martha House Charlebois ’71 is her name now. Maybe you knew her? She worked in admissions.

WF: Yes, I know her.

NB: We were close friends from high school in Plattsburgh, and we kept in touch. She had a very good experience here. I came over to visit her. St. Lawrence just seemed like the right match, which is really what it always is when you go to college. In those days, the entire admissions literature package was a catalog. I picked one up and looked through it and said, “these classes look interesting” and that was it. I applied and they accepted me and I showed up. It was really quite simple.

WF: Do you remember your first day on campus and moving into Sykes?

NB: Yep, Sykes southwest corner, third floor. Yeah, meeting my roommates. It was the first time I had been away from home for any length of time so I think I went through a little homesickness. Orientation kept us pretty busy. I remember the first day of classes very well—I was scared to death. I was thinking, "can I really handle college?"  

WF: Since it was in the late 1960s, let's not forget the background music of your freshman year. Woodstock hadn't happened yet.

NB: Yes, Woodstock was the next summer. I remember listening to “Hey Jude” on the chapel bells every night for my entire first semester.

…I was quickly active in the outdoor club. I think my friends looked upon me as a resource because I was from the North Country and many of them were from New York City area. I was an authentic North Country “Adirondacker” who could tell them where to go on hikes, so I was accepted pretty quickly with that group. I also got very active with a theater group. I had worked summer stock theater in Plattsburgh. There was also an anti-war group on campus that I got involved with. My personal convictions drew me to that group…. I also knew I was going to be an English major from the get-go and right away I made some friends in my classes. And the guys in my hall in Sykes got along well. We were kind of crazy.

WF: That was a fun year. Sykes was the place that had a lot of energy. All freshmen men with a dean of freshmen men living there.

NB: How he survived living there, I don’t know.            

WF: I don’t think anyone stayed in that job very long.

(Laughter)

NEAL BURDICK, THE RETURN TO SLU

WF: You and I share, not only an alma mater, but we share the rare experience of coming back to work at a place that was so formative in our college days.  Who inspired you to do that?  You got here a lot sooner than I did … but who helped or encouraged the possibility?

NB: I’m not sure I can put my finger on any one individual. I stayed in touch with some of my professors.

I remember Professor Don Makosky. I also stayed in touch with Stan Holberg, my adviser and Shakespeare professor, at that time. 

WF:  What do you remember about Stan that stays with you?

NB: Great teacher, knew his stuff. Very demanding, very formal in the classroom. But once you got to know him, he had an incredible sense of humor. He was more like a Bismarck in the classroom and Groucho Marx outside of the classroom.  But you had to win his favor. You had to win his respect and that took some work. I worked harder in those courses than any other and did well, but I learned a lot and appreciated working hard because he made me want to.

I also had Calvin Keene and Dan O’Connor. These were old-school guys. They didn’t put up with any nonsense in the classroom, and you had to be prepared or you would be called out in front of everybody.

WF: Those were the days that professors also dressed for class. By all social cues, it was a more formal space.

NB: Yes, that’s right. You couldn’t go hide in a corner; you had to be there physically and intellectually.

Even early in my graduate school career, I was hoping I would have the opportunity to come back to St. Lawrence because it was such a good fit.

WF: It’s a place you never get over.

NB: Exactly, as I've said, once you get here you never want to leave.

NEAL BURDICK, THE EDITOR

WF: We could cover your tenure by years or number of St. Lawrence magazine issues, and I’ve calculated about 160 issues which is more than 1,000 pages.  Those are hall of fame numbers, Neal.

… One of the favorite and unchanging features of the magazine, of course, is the Class Notes. Before there was Facebook, there were the St. Lawrence Class Notes. They are enjoyed because of a certain intimacy, personality, and contemporaneous feel. As an editor, you had the confidence to let that just happen and evolve. Was that intentional or did you feel like it was a natural part of what the magazine is about?

NB: You put your finger on it, my philosophy about Class Notes. I really wanted to let the reporters keep their voices to the extent possible because I saw them as a way for the class to communicate to themselves. The rest of the magazine communicates the University to the readers but the Class Notes are a chance for the classes to share “notes;” it’s what it’s called. They could talk to each other. So, I used a very light red pen—a pink pen maybe—so the reporters could keep their voice or even the class’s personality because each class has personality. So, I mostly edited to make things fit. I almost never took out a person’s name. I would edit out what we in the industry called “fluff” sometimes, or I would condense. But I would never cut a person out, and I would not cut out the voice. That was key.

WF: They are very fresh, unfiltered and fun to read kind of like a postcard from a friend.

NEAL BURDICK, THE TEACHER

WF: You’ve influenced a number of students in English 409 over the years. What advice do you have for young writers?

NB: Advice to young writers: rewrite. And then, rewrite it again.

I stress knowing your audience and knowing what you are trying to tell them and tell it as clearly and simply as you can. Partly that is what I tell myself, and telling that to students reinforces it for myself. It’s a good reminder. They say the best way to learn something is to teach it. Teaching has made me a better writer and editor. I have taken a lot of pride and satisfaction in being a teacher, which is not what I was hired to do, but just evolved.

I think a lot of students come in and try to be very formal and structured in their writing, and I tell them to lighten up. I try to get students to think in conversational tones. That helps them write more simply and therefore with more clarity.

NEAL BURDICK, THE LAURENTIAN

WF: St. Lawrence is loaded with traditions. Do you have one that is particularly meaningful and you could say is a favorite?

NB: I would say the bells at the end of the day.

WF: Which puts you in the company of the majority of Laurentians

NB: That is probably a cliché, isn’t it? It struck home when they weren’t there for 18 months. The bells mark the passage of time but also say, “Everything is okay. Here we are. We’re moving along and we are not going to disappear.” And yet, we’ve moved forward. We are not the same today as 24 hours ago when the bells rang. We’ve changed in often subtle, sometimes not so subtle ways. We are not standing still and yet carrying things forward that are meaningful to people and connect back to our founding principle. For me, they are a combination of structure and permanence but also of evolution which says good things about the future of this place. If the bells keep ringing everything will be okay.

WF: Still the same octave of notes but different music.

NB: Yes, that’s a good way to put it.

WF: Thank you for your reflections.

NB: Well thank you for asking me.