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Parini: Remembering Ed Lathem

05/25/09 5:55PM By Jay Parini
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(HOST) A long-time literary figure at Dartmouth has died. And commentator Jay Parini has this remembrance.

(PARINI)  Edward Lathem died unexpectedly on May 15th , while still at his desk at Dartmouth College, where he had worked in various capacities at the library since 1952.  As anybody who knew him realized, this was a remarkable man.

Ed was a close friend of Robert Frost.  Indeed, when Ed married in 1957, Frost served as his best man.

He met the poet while an undergraduate at Dartmouth, and Frost quickly adopted him as one of his so-called "boys" - that was the term Frost used for the young men who became his protégées.

But Ed Lathem was more than this, over time. Indeed, he published a formidable edition of the complete poems of Robert Frost in 1969 - a book that's familiar to a generation or more of grateful readers.

In all, Ed Lathem published some thirty books, and he wrote many articles, including several about his closest friend and college roommate, Theodore Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss.

And yet this only begins to explain Ed Lathem.

My first teaching job was at Dartmouth, and soon after arriving on the campus in the summer of 1975 I met Ed Lathem.  I heard he had known Frost and, as a young English professor with an interest in the poet, asked about the friendship.  Ed invited me to lunch at the Hanover Inn, and we sat there for a long time, talking.  He had an infectious charm, and his courtly manners seemed deeply out of sync with the twentieth century.

One hears this said about various people, but it was true of Ed Lathem:  he was a gentleman of the old school.  He wore a suit every day, with a white shirt and - always - a white tie.  That tie was a kind of signature.  He had a soft voice and quiet laugh, and his eyes sparkled as brightly as his conversation.  He was full of good stories.

He told me, for example, about being in England with Frost in 1952. The poet was to receive honorary degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge, and a special dinner was held for him in London.  It was hosted by T.S. Eliot, about whom Frost had rarely had anything good to say. Ed had perfect recall for such anecdotes, and he told me how Frost had squirmed in his seat at Eliot heaped praise on him, calling him the most important American poet of his era.  From that day on, Frost cooled it when talking about Eliot.  No more derogation.

It always amazes me what an important part people like Ed Lathem play in my life.  I suspect we all know similar figures - those who never become close friends, but who inspire us with their integrity and sense of life, their high spirits, their innate generosity.

Like many, I will miss Ed Lathem.  His death marks the passing of an era.  He was a fine man, a brilliant editor, a clear-eyed companion, and the last of a rare breed.
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