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Academic Portraits – His Own Grand Academy of Lagado: An Imagined and Documentary Memoir

by Howard R. Wolf (aka Ludwig Fried and Hemmy Zimmer)

For many years, he wanted to cry out in the halls of the department – where one screw-ball article could put you at the top of the totem and taboo pole – that his alias would make him a celebrity in Brighton Beach, North Miami, and Ben-Gurion’s old neighborhood in Tel Aviv.

He had wanted to cry out until he was tallith-blue in the face that he was a winner in the Borscht Belt, at least the notches that were left, one of a handful of intellectual lite-porn writers with a challah twist, like the lemon rind in espresso. He had a few literary rivals, but he was the best at what he did and the most successful, but his success had been hidden, invisible.

He had wanted to toot his own horn for many years, but they might have laughed at him and, worse, the Chair could have assigned him night classes of composition, three hour sessions, the meeting place of the comma and comatose. The department, always fighting for funds, competing with sexy areas (but not real sex) – neuro-science, informatics, Diasporas – wouldn’t have allowed Ludwig Fried, a.k.a. “Hemmy Zimmer,” to go public without some form of professional punishment for having embarrassed them. In the academic world, faux decorum was the last firmament of theoretical minds.

And now, on the verge of breaking free from the burdens of the past, he had learned from the mailman that his arch-rival, William “Bull” Horn, popular culture maven, had moved into a unit on the posher side of the pond. It was the kind of improbable coincidence that you only came across in an O. Henry short story, but there it was, a factoid. Maybe Bull had seen the same ad that he had seen in the travel section of the Daily Racing Form.

Whatever, there he was across the pond. Ludwig hadn’t seen Bull yet, but he had heard his music waft and wail across the pond at night — King Creole, Count Basie, Duke Ellington. The music was too loud, but Ludwig had to admit that Bull had some taste and that he had been successful. Bull had made it Big Time in a small-time place: department chair, endowed chair, local celebrity: a minor figure with major PR.

He was the War and Peace man, Conflict Resolution from Homer to Hanoi. One year at the Brookings Institute, he was the proverbial big gefilte fish in a small pond. If these were your shallows, he was the shark. Bull wasn’t politically correct, but he was famous in acceptable, if egomaniacal ways, and so the college had given him everything, even though he sometimes taught in armor and brought a cross-bow to class. Most colleges had one Bull, one performance-artist, who could fling the higher dung Frisbees, who caught the imagination of undergraduates and opened the wallets of alumni.

Bull’s coup de grace at the end of the term was to shoot an arrow across the lecture hall at a poster of Hitler that dropped from the ceiling at just the right moment. It never failed to bring the students to their feet, clapping and cheering. Ludwig had seen him do it once, and he was reminded, with some envy, of the audience’s response to Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty when the audience had joined in shouting, “Strike! Strike!” Bull was no Odets, but he had his fan-base.

And there he was now across the pond. Bull never had taken any notice of Ludwig really, so even if Bull saw him now, he would continue doubtless to ignore Ludwig. Bull had assumed, if he assumed anything about Ludwig, that Fried was just another stump of academic deadwood.

When Ludwig published a small volume of travel essays with a small press, Immigrant Review, Bull said to him in the elevator, one of the few places they ever met, “Nice going, Lud, as with women, so with writing, one likes to be between covers. But remember, you want to do it more than once, and with a major press next time, good luck shmuck.”

At least it rhymed. The door opened, and he was gone: exit, no exit.

It humiliated him now to think that he had taken such an insult from Bull without fighting back. Bull had kicked him in the psychological balls, and he had limped back to his office, a momentary stay against contusion. The time had come to retaliate, to catch him off guard, to mount a “counter-attack.” The word hit him between the eyes like one of Hemingway’s big game shots. Without his cross-bow and his character armor, Bull would be vulnerable. Ludwig would bring him down off his self-appointed high-horse. Without his cuirass, Bull would be vulnerable to Ludwig’s cutlass.

The time for action had come. He had, in his own way, in his subterranean idiom, written about rebellions, uprisings (plenty of those), and revolts – how could you not if you had written in the 20th century? But he had stayed in the shadows. No Hemingway, only a semi-Hemingway, a “Hemmy,” but not, happily, suffering from hemorrhoids, he had hunted in his imagination. Like a lord of the jungle he had hunted at night, but no one had known that he was a hunter.

That would change now. The action, his, would begin now. “Now was the time for the Now,” as he recently had written elsewhere in one his philosophically erotic romps. It was late in the day to be taking action, and it soon might be too late. If he waited much longer, his epitaph would read: For Whom the Bell Never Tolled or The Postman Never Rang.

Academic Portraits is a weekly multi-part series by Howard R. Wolf. Please check back next week for the next installment. Click here to view all the parts in the series, as they are added.

Howard R. Wolf is Emeritus Professor and Senior Fellow in The Department of English at SUNY-Buffalo. He is the author of The Education of a Teacher and Far-Away Places: Lessons in Exile. Some of his recent work has appeared in Colere, George Orwell Newsletter, Moment (online), Evening Street Review, Prosopisa (India)and The Buffalo News.