Opinion

Melvin Maddocks: an appreciation

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"You just can't give thanks the way you give a 'Whoopee!' on New Year's Eve," wrote Melvin Maddocks in a column on remembering Thanksgiving in The Christian Science Monitor of Nov. 23, 1984. It was republished on Nov. 26, 2003, including the words: "Giving thanks, when thanks are forced, is the phoniest of pseudo-emotions. But when thanks sing from the heart like a psalm, there's no mistaking the real thing. The feet dance on the mountaintop, and who is going to look at a watch and say it's time to stop?"

No one who knew Mel during his Monitor decades is going to say it's time to stop dancing. His melody lingers on in the memories and tributes following his passing last month.

Typically, one of his first pieces after joining the Monitor in 1946 brought to life how the Harvard captain many years earlier had refused to join in a rules conference, stating, "I would send you a copy of our rules but we do not have a spare copy." The 63rd Harvard-Yale game did take place, because later Harvard faculties had been closer to Sir Walter Scott:

Then strip, lads, and to it, though sharp
be the weather,
And if, by mischance, you should happen
to fall,
There are worse things in life than a
tumble on the heather
And life is itself but a game of football.

That was Mel, working a literary reference into a sports story. And, what about an actual literary figure, such as Samuel Beckett? Mel wrote: "He wanders among misty bogs turned surreal, he talks to the wee folk of his own bad dreams, he files reports on introspected black visions with a kind of blarney eloquence. Like an actress cradling a doll for her stage baby, his language keens and croons about tales that are not quite there."

Speaking of language, Mel wrote about cartoons in his "At Large" column for the first issue of World Monitor magazine (October 1988): "Silence knows no foreign country." He found in Pagina 12 of Buenos Aires: "The balloon above the grandfather reads: 'My generation contracted the foreign debt.' The father says: 'My generation is refinancing it.' The son declares: 'Mine has to face up to it or leave the country.' The grave jest is completed at the end of the row by an invisible presence, above whom the balloon reads: 'And I, luckily, don't exist yet.'"

And that was in Argentina 20 years ago. Mel wrote for the Monitor in various roles including arts editor and book review editor from 1946 to 1989. Afterward, he continued to contribute pieces. He also wrote for Time-Life Books and Time-Life Records, as well as Sports Illustrated and the Smithsonian. In music he embraced classics and jazz. Quote: "Giving jazz the Congressional seal of approval is a little like making Huck Finn an honorary Boy Scout."

Somehow Mel met and married Jean Lister of the Monitor's photo department in 1950. For some years, they both came to work on Mel's motorcycle. Soon they had two sons and a daughter and a grandson. One can imagine how good the grandson had it when Mel and Jean were baby sitters.

I can imagine how people Mel wrote about felt. Before I joined the Monitor, he wrote about my way-off-Broadway performance as Faulkland in Sheridan's "The Rivals." I played it "strictly as comedy with conspicuous success." Surely this critic passes his own requirement: "It is one test of a fully developed writer that he reminds us of no one but himself."

What modesty through it all. In the 50th Anniversary Report of our Class of 1946, Mel wrote in total: "Harvard remains a love-hate mixture, lots of ambiguity still, about the institution – but I'm surprised, and pleased, at how much old friends mean, though I'd be afraid to meet them – including my old self."

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