One summer evening in the early 1930s, as the story goes, William Faulkner sat on his porch in rural Mississippi with his wife, Estelle. She remarked upon the special quality of light that appeared there every August. Faulkner, struck by Estelle’s observation, immediately ran to his study, where he had been working on a manuscript. He scratched out the words “Dark House” on the title page and wrote in their place “Light in August.” Light in August became the title of one of Faulkner’s greatest works: a compelling set of narratives investigating the American psyche of prejudice, racism, alienation, and, at last, the quest for redemption.
I am not sure what Faulkner and his wife saw from their porch during that August in Mississippi. But I have noted that the late-summer light here in the Pacific Northwest bears a special quality, too. Sometime in August, something happens in the atmosphere, and the sunsets start to glow with a particular pink and orange brilliance. It is as if the western horizon, hovering over the Olympic Mountains and looking out to the Pacific, knows there is a long stretch of darkness approaching. In defense, by some mysterious alchemy, the sky conjures an especially brilliant final display of summer light and warmth to sustain us through the long nights of the Northwest winter. That light show simultaneously entertains, reminds, and encourages us about the unparalleled light that will come again next spring.
Light has long been considered a figure for truth and knowledge, especially for us in the academy. Late each August we renew our collective effort to seek the light of knowledge, to explain the way the world works, to understand the mysteries of human thought, ambition, and expression. At this time of year I often think of a classic book I first read as an undergraduate in a class on romantic poetry: The Mirror and the Lamp by M.H. Abrams. Abrams notes how fitting are these two technologies of light as metaphors for an emerging belief in the early modern world, expressed first by the poets, about the nature of truth and of human knowledge. The poet is a mirror, reflecting light from some other source, the conveyor of a truth beyond himself; but the poet is also a lamp, an incandescent flame that weaves truth with words and images, making new meaning out of perception, sensation, experience. What we know, then, is something we both observe and something we invent. “All that we behold” in “all the mighty world” as Wordsworth put it in “Tintern Abbey”—including “the light of setting suns”—we at once “perceive” and “half create.”
I have been drawing an unusual degree of pleasure from the light in late August and early September these last weeks, as the students and faculty start returning to campus, bringing with them their irresistible, transforming light, enlivening and enlightening the quads that have been dimmer and quieter over the summer months. And as I think about my job, at the dawn of another academic year, I think of how a good college president, like a good professor or poet, or a great college, must be both a mirror and a lamp, reflecting the great array of lights that are already there and providing a source of new light, a vision and direction that fuses with those familiar elements to produce a light not seen before, another kind of light in August.