A Herculean Task: Purging Old Files

Heracles prepares to clean out the Augean stables


My last few days have been emotionally tumultuous. That’s because, in preparation to moving into my mother’s cabin when I retire in June, I must clear out all my father’s files. As far as I can tell, he never threw anything away, including all the letters he received and sent. (There are carbon copies of the latter.) I feel like I’m going through the files of Moses E. Herzog.

Actually, Saul Bellow’s protagonist in Herzog doesn’t actually send the hundreds of letters he imagines writing. My father did, however. Whenever he saw a scholarly article he liked, he would send a letter that engaged with the ideas. Often he received letters in return.

I have found some gems among the correspondence. Robert Penn Warren liked my father’s poetry collection ZYX of Biblical Sex. (“You are a funny man, Scott Bates,” he wrote.) There are a number of interchanges with poets Richard Wilbur, X. J. Kennedy, Philip Appleman, Elizabeth Alexander, and Reed Whittemore. These were all scattered around so I just stumbled on them.

And then there is material from my father’s civil rights days. For instance, I came across a letter where he was censured by the dean for opening up contacts with Howard, Morehouse, and Fisk colleges (this when Sewanee was still segregated). I found letters he wrote to various newspapers fighting the good fight.

Perhaps I should have prayed to the goddess Athena, which is what Heracles did when tasked with cleaning out 30 years of muck from the Augean stables. Here’s Seamus Heaney’s account of the myth:

My favourite bas-relief: Athene showing 
Heracles where to broach the river bank 
With a nod of her high helmet, her staff sunk 
In the exact spot, the Alpheus flowing 
Out of its course into the deep dung strata 
Of King Augeas’ reeking yard and stables.
Sweet dissolutions from the water tables,
Blocked doors and packed floors deluging like gutters…

Hopefully Athena’s wisdom has been present in what I have thrown away, because throw away I have. I have recycled grade books going back to the 1950s, tenure committee files, reports of old Board of Trustee meetings (the faculty wanted my combative father as the faculty representative), notices of film series, minutes of the college’s lease committee. And letters to editors, publishers, and scholars. And documentation of the controversy that erupted over an erotic film that my father made with his students. And old protest signs carried at civil rights rallies, LBGTQ rallies, July 4th parades. And on and on.

Above all, there’s his research—cartons and cartons of it. I tell myself that most of it has published, especially the material on French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, so that it won’t matter if I throw it away. In some ways, I’m feeling like a parricide.

Making it a little easier is the fact that I’m doing the same with my own files at the moment as I prepare to move. My own sons won’t have to go through this.  Still, it’s different when it’s someone who you’ve admired and emulated.

So much work, reflecting creative energy, intellectual excitement, and communal commitment, is being consigned to oblivion. It’s a sobering experience.

Another poem: My mania for cleansing the apartment also brings to mind the Lucille Clifton poem “at last we killed the roaches.” It’s not an exact fit since I salvaged a few precious documents. Still, I felt like an exterminator as I threw away entire boxes:

at last we killed the roaches.
mama and me. she sprayed,
i swept the ceiling and they fell
dying onto our shoulders, in our hair
covering us with red. the tribe was broken,
the cooking pots were ours again
and we were glad, such cleanliness was grace
when i was twelve. only for a few nights,
and then not much, my dreams were blood
my hands were blades and it was murder murder
all over the place.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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