Book Review: Buffalo Trace: A Threefold Vibration

Reviewed by Harmony Jankowski, Indiana University

Cappello, Mary, James Morrison, and Jean Walton. Buffalo Trace: A Threefold Vibration. New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2018. 249 pp. ISBN (paperback): 978-1-947980-16-7.

Buffalo Trace: A Threefold Vibration collects memoirs by James Morrison, Jean Walton, and Mary Cappello in which the writers reflect on their shared time in the English graduate program at SUNY Buffalo in the early 1980s. As the writers acknowledge, the program was, at the time, a hotbed of theoretical inquiry, and we see them, as students, at once buzzing and grappling with the influence of this fecund intellectual space. However, as Walton warns, “if you seek in these pages an accurate portrait of the talented and influential professors who taught at SUNY Buffalo in the eighties, you will be disappointed, and maybe even disapproving” (111). Buffalo Trace provides, rather, a compelling and deftly woven account of the three scholars’ intellectual development through Morrison’s memories, Walton’s journals, and Cappello’s correspondence with a beloved teacher and colleague. In each memoir, the writer pairs academic work with the work of becoming, allowing textual exegesis to inform and share space with personal and intellectual excavation. The three pieces reflect the various shapes pedagogy takes during one’s graduate education—some expected, others less so—in these honest, humane accounts.

Though all three memoirs trace different ways of seeking out one’s teachers, the first, James Morrison’s “His Masters’ Voice,” engages most overtly with those he found at Buffalo. In vivid, amusing anecdotes, Morrison recounts his search for masters as part of the sometimes-harrowing professionalization process. The section on Morrison’s first semester of teaching hits all the right notes—we see him grappling with imposter syndrome, trying to glean value from his “Intro to Teaching” proseminar, dealing with the smart-aleck student, and eventually recognizing his own expertise—and would be a welcome addition within the kind of proseminar he describes. Teachers also emerge outside the classroom in conversations, at parties, through new forms of queer relationality, and sweetly awkward crushes as he seeks out “something else, something even deeper and yet to be explored that would blend…sensibility, spirit, sexuality…and integrate [his] life” (31). Morrison presents Buffalo, both program and city, as the kind of liminal space in which such integration might occur.

Jean Walton, in “Buffalo Trace,” eschews generic restrictions, throwing off the masters Morrison sought. She opens with a journal entry from 1982 that digs into the psychical thicket of her preoccupations with love, life, and an essay on Proust that she could also send as a letter to her grandmother. In these early pages she asks parenthetically, “what on earth is this wall I keep coming up against” (103), inviting the reader to imagine, or perhaps recall, this raw, but common, feeling. Frequent references to her journals remind the reader that these experiences are filtered through Walton’s thought and language, creating a vibrant affective portrait of a scholar seeking her voice. She notes early on that “something had to crumble, for something else to emerge in its place” (104); Walton’s mode of self-fashioning entails the breaking of the habitual through multiplicity—by allowing herself to shift in and out of identities, intimacies, locales, and historical periods, she makes dust of the wall and “become[s] the I that flows from my pen” (165). The reader meets two “I”s in “Buffalo Trace”—Jean/Jeannie/Djinn of the journals, and the authorial “I” interpreting those journals (the one I met as Professor Walton in the late 1990s). The interplay between the two creates a comforting counterpoint between the earnest worry of the student and the authoritative reassurance of the other “I” that recommends “Buffalo Trace” to anyone considering, in the midst of, or well beyond graduate school.

In “My Secret, Private Errand,” Mary Cappello inhabits the unwavering, confident voice of an experienced writer, one who sees in the past its undeniable value for the present. The memoir splices memories from Cappello’s time in Buffalo with her friend and teacher Marty Pops with passages from one of his cassette-recorded lectures and those from letters and emails they exchanged in the time leading up to Pops’s death in 2011. Cappello reminds, “like you, I have stolen and been robbed repeatedly” (185), an apt metaphor for the lessons students take in and for what is taken in return. In this way, Cappello presences Pops within the text through frequent citation and reminding the reader of the degree to which those whose thoughts intermingle with our own are never lost to us.

Though graduate programs offer students countless resources, those resources rarely present the academic labor with such blunt sincerity as one finds in Buffalo Trace. As Morrison aptly notes, “To go to grad school was always a kind of bid, a wager that things might actually work out” (29). The fact that the three writers have enjoyed successful careers—Cappello and Walton at University of Rhode Island, and Morrison at Claremont McKenna College—will reassure readers newer to the profession. For readers long-since out of graduate school, it offers the nostalgic pleasure of revisiting one’s earlier self during an intense time of self-discovery. And, for those who teach and advise graduate students, it offers a valuable reminder of how malleable their minds are, how mutable their affections and allegiances—to ideas, projects, and intimacies.