The Last Man of Letters
1 | 2 | 3
| 4 |
5 | 6 |
had an ineffable ability to see the humor in everything, and it
served him well. In 1944, Knopf published Minor Heresies, a book
of reminiscences of his childhood in Shanghai. Two others quickly
followed. Excerpts were printed in The New Yorker, and for good
reason. The stories of young John amongst the "heathens," as his
parents called the Chinese, were charming, witty, sometimes laugh-out-loud
funny. But they were also touching, and even critical, of Christians'
belief that they could somehow "civilize" the most civilized of
societies, and of naive Americans and their coddled children.
favorite stories from the trilogy were reprinted by the University
of California Press as Minor Heresies, Major Departures in 1994.
At the time, novelist Amy Tan called them "compassionate and yet
honestly critical, and always mindful of the ways that human nature
both undermines and uplifts us." Still, after all those years.
many ways, John Espey represented not only the exalted qualities
sought after by Cecil John Rhodes, but also those sought after by
UCLA and its students. As an institution of higher learning, UCLA
could not have hoped for a more enthusiastic educator and autodidact.
He spoke of Melvyl and Orion (the two computer systems used to catalog
books at the university's libraries) as though they were pals of
his: "Well, I sat down with Melvyl, and we found that there are
two copies of Double Trouble in the UC system, unfortunately residing
for the moment in Irvine and Davis."
as a high school theater student, an assignment required me to find
a scene for two women from a Henrik Ibsen play. I didn't want to
do the same old A Doll's House (everyone else was doing it), but
I couldn't, for the life of me, find anything else. John appeared
triumphant one evening, having spent all day in the University Research
Library, and pleased as punch. He handed me a copy of Lady Inger
of Östrat, an early play of Ibsen's so bad that the playwright himself
had tried to prevent its publication. But it had the scene I needed,
and I got to wow my teachers with a play they had never heard of.
Lady Inger and her fight to save her beloved Östrat became a running
joke in our family.