The Last Man of Letters
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did not have to be a student to reap the rewards of John's company.
Among those he championed were novelists Alison Lurie and Diane
Johnson. Both were faculty wives (Johnson later entered the graduate
program) who - bored and lonely - had taken up writing. No one would
give them the time of day except John, who listened to their stories,
told his own and helped them to begin to become the writers they
longed to be. Talk about instincts to lead and to take an interest
in his fellows.
then, there was my mother. As a pathologically shy graduate student
in the early 1960s, she could hardly hold her head up to address
her professors. It was John who supported her choice to write her
dissertation on the Hollywood novel, though others thought the subject
"lacking." "He knew more than anybody else in the department, so
all the misfits, the people who fell between two stools, ended up
with him [as an adviser]. The thing is, he never said a mean word
to anyone, never, in all the years he taught," my mother says.
had married his college sweetheart, Alice Rideout, in 1938. They
had two girls, Alice, born in 1949, and Susan, in 1951. During his
wife's long battle with cancer, he became her caretaker and his
daughters' protector, though he was never a model of health himself.
1974, a year after his wife's death, John Espey would call my mother,
beginning what would become a 26-year relationship. During that
time, John never stopped encouraging his old student, always supporting
her work and making her laugh. One nonfiction book, one memoir and
five novels later, my mother can say, without question, that he
was the best teacher she ever had. Together with my sister Lisa
See, the three collaborated on two historical novels, Lotus Land
and 110 Shanghai Road, under the pseudonym Monica Highland. Books
they would gleefully call "airport reading for smart people." This
time, it was all for fun.