Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Dead Professors Society

William N. Fenton
I am taking one of my favorite dead professors to lunch. Not the Australian historian, or the Romanian scholar of religions, but a great American ethnographer of the Iroquois who was very generous with his wealth of knowledge and experience when my dreams spurred me to study the traditions and dreamways of the Six Nations. I have the professor take a seat in my kitchen while I call a taxi, giving my street address.

I woke from this dream in the early morning light with warm memories of this professor. His name was William N. Fenton, and he was the doyen of scholars of the Iroquois. His field work began in the 1930s, and until just before his death in 2005 his energy for research was unflagging and he continued to produce remarkable books, including his vast history of The Great Law and the Longhouse and a memoir that was published posthumously under the title Iroquois Journey.    

     I made contact with Bill Fenton after I moved to a farm near Chatham NY in 1986 and was called by dreams to revisit the life of Sir William Johnson, the wild Anglo-Irishman who became King's Superintendent of Indians in the eighteenth century, and study the traditions and dreamways of the Longhouse peoples he knew so well. Fenton invited me to lunch in the Patroon Room at the University at Albany
     We talked about how Johnson, as a new arrival from Ireland, won the friendship of the Mohawk Indians. 
To win acceptance and adoption among these people, Bill insisted, “You have to be a participator. Johnson ran with them, hunted with them, sang with them, loved their women." He recalled how in his early days of field work at the Tonawanda reservation, he was allowed to join in the singing. “Though I was always a bit off-key, I was soon being introduced as ‘a man who sings with us’.” 

     Bill Fenton became a wonderful friend and counselor. We lunched regularly at his
The young William Johnson
favorite Albany restaurant, Jack's Oyster House. He talked about fly fishing, about how a Jesuit missionary to the Iroquois at Kahnawake can be considered the founder of modern anthropology and - without any grandiosity - about how he had helped to inspire Edmund Wilson to write his book Upstate. When I talked about my dreams and visions of early America, he confided that he was rather proud that he was a direct descendant of Rebecca Nurse, who was executed as an alleged witch in the infamous Salem witch trials, in 1692.
     One night Bill and his wife came out to the farm for an intimate dinner party. We stood together in front of a maple with a forked trunk, looking at what appeared to be the shape of a long-haired shaman or sorcerer in the tree. He recalled reading somewhere about a Native shaman whose spirit took up residence in a tree. I told him I had dreamed this, and had written the scene in a draft of a book in progress. Over cognac in my library, in front of a blazing hearth, Bill said to me, "I have never met any man in this century who reminds me so much of Sir William Johnson."
      Today, after my dream encounter with Bill, I was working with the copy edits for the sections of my new book that describe my "Years of Writing Dangerously" when I embarked on what I thought would be an historical novel about Sir William Johnson and his world in the eighteenth century. I looked closely at all the details in my text, and checked and rechecked my source citations, remembering that Bill was a careful and exacting scholar.

I could not resist posting a note on my Facebook page about my encounter with Bill. It drew a wonderful response from a woman named Christine. She reported that "while working on a college project a few years ago, I read so much of Fenton's work that I would have long dream conversations with him. Those dream conversations really helped me create a stronger, more focused presentation." 
      I was eager to clarify whether she dreamed of Fenton before or after his death in 2005. Christine responded, "This particular project, a paper and presentation on Iroquois healing herbs and traditions, was done in 2009, long after Bill died. I spent many hours immersed in my topic, and kept returning to his books - they became a touch stone for what I was doing. In my dreams he would often point out where I needed to expand on my research or concepts that needed to be included. I once jokingly pointed out to my professor that Bill was a much more accessible professor, since I could sleep and work at the same time!
     "It was in the those dreams that I realized how important it was to discuss the culture and history of the Iroquois, rather than just the herbs, because of the way healing and medicine is embedded in the Iroquois way of life. It was a fascinating project, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and all the more so because the dreams were so vivid. 
It's been a while since I had one of those dreams now, so please give Bill my best regards!"   
     Christine is clearly a full member of the Dead Professors Society. It is a very special club, but don't go looking for an application form. It is invitation only. Look for the invitation in your dreams.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

very nice post
two thumb up for you ^___^