The Sensations of Jim

By David Maraniss

Looking the part: Jim Maraniss as a graduate student

On a sweet November football Saturday, my brother Jim stood outside the gates of Pratt Field at Amherst and waited for me to arrive with my pal Jimmy Warren. We had come up to Western Massachusetts from Washington that morning ostensibly to take in the season finale against Williams. The “biggest little game in America” that season had the bonus attraction of a Cajun quarterback who wore No. 4—our very own “little Favre” leading the way for the Lord Jeffs. But mostly we were there just to hang out with my big brother, who had been Warren’s Spanish professor decades ago at Amherst. The game was incidental. “Daaave!” Jim said when our eyes met, sounding exactly like our father, Elliott, who had a way of greeting family and friends as though he were surprised and overjoyed every time. My brother and I adored our dad, but Jim was more overt about it; to him, everything seemed to have a family subtext. Then, when he saw who was with me, he smiled and lowered his voice to acknowledge “Jimmmee!”

He had been stationed outside the stadium for quite a while before we got there, warmed less by the autumn sun than by the constant recognition of former students who had flocked back to campus for game-day reunions. Jim had been a tenured professor at Amherst since the early 1970s (when he was in his mid-20s), was consistently voted one of the most popular professors on campus and had a well-known soft spot for students from Wisconsin, anyone who took his classes and most jocks. As the unofficial gatekeeper at Pratt Field, he was in his element, although putting it that way leaves room for misinterpretation. This was not Bill Clinton working a campaign rope line as a means of self-gratification. My brother is the furthest thing from a glad-hander or striver. But the game, the setting, the students, our arrival—all combined to make him contagiously happy. Jimmy and I brightened at the sight of him, rocking slightly on his spindly legs, his pants riding high above his waist, his pale, bespectacled face protected by a wide-brimmed hat.

The secret about Jim is that he is too cool to care about appearances. Or, as one of his Amherst colleagues recently described him, at once joking and accurate, “He’s so laid-back, he’s prone.”

We had special seats awaiting us up in the rickety press box, but as much as Jim looked forward to watching the action from there, he seemed in no hurry to abandon his pre-game position. “Life is sensations,” he explained, as the three of us loitered outside, chatting. “I’m just soaking in the sensations.”

Warren cast a quick glance my way, and we shared an unspoken appreciation that I can’t fully explain. It’s not just that you never know what Jim is going to say, it’s more that whatever he says will have several levels to it. In this case, it helps to know that Jim is a Calderón and Cervantes scholar who wrote his doctoral thesis on Life is a Dream and is now working on a translation of Don Quixote. Whatever I might say about those seminal works of Spanish literature would sound embarrassingly superficial compared to Jim’s deep understanding of them, but I sensed that my brother, as he luxuriated on a Saturday afternoon outside Pratt Field, was in a frame of mind to blissfully mistake a barber’s basin for a knight’s helmet or an innkeeper’s hunchbacked daughter for a princess—or a kid named Marsh Moseley (’05) for Brett Favre. Of course, I don’t mean that literally. Jim is rarely literal. I mean it in the sense that at that moment he was ready and able to experience the illusions of life with two loyal Sancho Panzas at his side.

Life is sensations, he said. The sensation of life with Jim takes me back to another story, a few years earlier, with Jimmy Warren (’74) again bearing witness along with my wife, Linda, and a few other relatives and me. On the evening of Jan. 30, 2000, 130.7 million Americans were at home watching the broadcast of Super Bowl XXXIV between the St. Louis Rams and the Tennessee Titans. But in Cambridge, Mass., we plodded through the slush and snow to join a sports-snubbing scrum of literati and music devotees, most of them gray-haired, elegant and sophisticated, for a singular operatic performance of Life is a Dream. Twenty-two years earlier, Jim had written the libretto for the work by his Amherst friend Lewis Spratlan, a professor of composition, and now part of it was being performed for the first time. Many in the audience arrived an hour earlier to hear Jim lead a discussion on Calderón and the meaning of the play on which the opera was based. I forget everything he said except one line that I’ll remember the rest of my life. Someone in the audience asked a question comparing Pedro Calderón de la Barca to William Shakespeare. Without missing a beat, Jim rummaged through his massive and eclectic brain to dredge up an apt quote from that famed literary critic George “Sparky” Anderson, former manager of the Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds. “As Sparky Anderson said when asked to compare Carlton Fisk to Johnny Bench ...”

This was not a crowd expected to know its major league catchers, but for those few of us who followed the allusion, it was classic Jim. He can talk Golden Age literature and minor league prospects for the Tampa Bay Rays; New Wave French Cinema and 1970s pro soccer players from the Netherlands; World War II fighter planes and linemen from the Coach Bart Starr era of Green Bay Packers football. It is typical of Jim that he would focus on Starr as the coach of mediocre teams rather than as the legendary quarterback of the glory years Packers. As for those anonymous linemen from the lost years between Lombardi and Favre, his favorite was Ezra Johnson, who once was delayed lumbering onto the field because he hadn’t finished eating a hot dog—or was it bratwurst? Jim was certainly the only member of his Harvard class who, for an alumni magazine in which they were asked to provide capsule summaries of their lives after college, wrote not about himself but about Sweet Lou Whitaker, an African-American Tigers second basemen who had declined to stand for the National Anthem because worshipping the American flag contradicted his religious beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness. That essay, in its own poetic and indirect way, said more about Jim than any account of his advanced degrees and book translations.

The brothers Maraniss: Jim [left] and David

James Elliott Maraniss is my only brother, four and a half years older than me, and he skipped a grade in elementary school, so he was gone to college by the time I reached seventh grade. We shared a bedroom until then, but we were not uncommonly close. He was redheaded and skinny, and his ankle and knee joints snapped, crackled and popped loudly when he walked up the stairs. I was even skinnier and noisier, an asthmatic who wheezed all night, not only keeping him up, but drawing more attention from our mother. I was a little tattletale who squealed on him and his friends when I spotted them stealing a baseball from a variety store. One of my strongest memories as a 5-year-old in Detroit is of Jim playing the role of a Nazi SS interrogator, sitting on top of me, my arms pinned to the ground by his legs, as he assumed a German accent and asked me what my name was and where I lived and slapped my face, shouting, “Oh, you lie!” after every answer. A few years later, when we were at our grandparents’ farm outside Ann Arbor, he fired his BB gun at me from about 40 paces. I was facing the other way, down past the peach trees. He hit me behind the right knee. I presume he was shocked by his accuracy, and more shocked by the fact that our dad happened to be looking out the picture window and saw the whole thing and came running out to punish him while I whimpered in disbelief. The BB didn’t penetrate the cloth of my pants, as I remember it, but still I had a story forever. The time my brother shot me!

During Jim’s college years, when he was coming home to Madison from Harvard for the summers, I was at my adolescent worst, a brainless borderline delinquent who read little beyond the sports pages and knew nothing about the wider world. Jim got migraine headaches and listened to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and read García Lorca and had an exotic Radcliffe girlfriend named Pamela and wore cool jeans and herringbone sports coats and must have thought he had a loser of a little brother. “Dave, don’t be a boor,” he admonished me one day, in front of my friends, who mocked me, and I suppose him, by repeating that line for years.

My brother was so much smarter than me that I didn’t know how to handle it. On the surface, utterly outmatched academically, I stopped trying to compete with him and pretended that I was happy to be a dumb jock, even though I was better at playing dumb than at being a jock. But deep inside, at some point I started to feel proud and lucky that he was my brother. The taunts of our early days left no lasting trauma. I knew that he did not want to kill me with that BB gun, and that the rest of it, the slapping and the condescending, was just what big brothers tend to do at certain stages, and by age 16 I was bigger than he was in any case. If family circumstances and my own laziness had left me trapped in a persona I didn’t want, I came to realize as I approached adulthood that Jim was showing me the way out. I couldn’t do it his way, by succeeding in academia, but I could draw on the traits we had in common, especially a shared sense of feeling different. He instructed me in what he thought it meant to be a Maraniss, apart from the crowd, not brazenly or predictably nonconformist but nonchalantly so, and made me feel that I could live up to the name as much as he did. For the last 30 years, that is something we talk about between ourselves, but rarely with anyone else, because even to talk about it is to do it a disservice.

A few years ago, at a wedding reception in Washington, a guest in his late 20s came up to me and said he had been one of my brother’s students at Amherst. “Man, I love Jim,” he said. “In fact, I always wanted to be Jim.” This well-dressed black guy who had played intercollegiate sports at Amherst always wanted to be Jim? What was that about? I can’t imagine that he wanted to have Jim’s fragile body—his chronically wobbly legs and various psychosomatic ailments. And there are a lot of people who look bolder and more self-assured. But Jim, he said, seemed so easy, natural, unburdened by the normal pressures of success, so different from the other professors and the white upper-class ambiance of Amherst. “Jim, man, he was the coolest.”

Actually, I had heard it many times before. Jim’s former students had been coming my way for more than three decades with some variation of that pronouncement. Part of it is easy to explain. Jim didn’t abide by routines. He lectured for as long as he had something to say, then stopped and dismissed class, ignoring the standard schedule. He played pool with his students, and talked football with them, or movies, or small towns in the Upper Midwest, or church suppers, or Slovakian surnames. He knew something about everything. He taught what he wanted, his classes ranging from Spanish to Cervantes to the Spanish Civil War to French cinema to Nazi propaganda. He was a notoriously lenient grader. He had a fantasy baseball team called the Rojos and was always inquiring about American League prospects. He was incessantly curious, constantly learning something, and then never forgetting it. His big white house, overloaded with books and newspapers, dirty dishes in the sink, kids everywhere, classical music or reggae playing and amazing wife Gigi offering wisdom and a sympathetic ear to anyone who dropped by, became a sort of off-campus student union. Who wouldn’t want to be Jim?

But part of it is more complex. He hides his vulnerabilities in plain sight. As the oldest of four children, Jim had the most complicated relationship with our mother, Mary, who was brilliant, beautiful, musical, gentle, frustrated, mildly depressed and the most sensitive person I’ve ever known. I don’t fully understand the dynamics of their relationship, but it seems that her hypersensitivity was difficult for him because he felt it tamped down his ability to enjoy life. I won’t go any further than that; it’s something he should write about, if he wants to, not me. In the old Smothers Brothers routine, Tommy always complained that Mom liked Dick best. In our family, partly because of my childhood asthma and partly because I lacked the intellectual powers of Jim and my older sister, Jean, I had to find some other means of parental approval, so I became the child most sympathetic to our mother. I’ve never been quite sure how Jim felt about that, but she is gone now and all love is equal in memory.

The affection of our dad, a crusty old newspaper editor, was more easily shared. On the surface, he could seem as insensitive and crude as our mother was sensitive and refined. He smelled of Bermuda onions and hard salami. He rarely ate without a piece of food sticking to his chin or mustard spotting his shirt. He once slammed a car door on his hand and didn’t feel it until someone told him his hand was caught in the car door. But Elliott was equally positive with all his children, he saw the best in each of us, and you always knew where you stood with him. While Jim inherited our mother’s intellect, he and I both got our love of sports and journalism, and in some sense our life force, from our dad. Bending the nepotism rules slightly, we both worked at his newspaper, the Madison Capital Times, during the summers of our college years, though Jim did it more as a diversion and I saw it as my lone way out. We worshipped the p.m. daily of the precomputer age—the copy paper and pneumatic tubes, the cigarette butts on the linoleum floor, the smell of ink and paste and the lineup of old-fashioned newspapermen. One of the many things that Jim and I share is a love of names—place names, given names, surnames. To us, names are poetry, evoking more feeling and memory than any adjective.

Few things give Jim more pleasure than to recite the names of the old newspapermen at the Cap Times: Art Marshall, Irv Kreisman, Cedric Parker, Frank Custer, Harry Sage, John Sammis, Aldric Revell, John Patrick Hunter, Elliott Maraniss.

The defining story of his summers at the paper involved a tragedy at the Henry Vilas Zoo in 1966, when Winkie the elephant seized a 3-year-old girl by the trunk, yanked her through the cage bars and stomped her to death in front of her horrified parents—the sort of unspeakable story that no journalist, no matter how grizzled, could enjoy. Dad, as city editor, looked around the newsroom, saw that Jim was the only reporter available at the moment and instructed him to go find the grieving mother for an interview.

“Dad! I can’t do that!” Jim said, recoiling at the very idea.

Jim recounted this story at our father’s funeral, pausing here and there for the desired effect, before offering the quintessential city editor’s punch line:

“Then you’re fired!”

Another pause.

“And don’t call me Dad!”

The love with which Jim told that story is hard to overstate. When Elliott was dying in a Milwaukee hospital, Jim came out and sat by his side for days and read him chapters of War and Peace. He would call me up and moan into the telephone: “Dad! Daaad! Dad!” In many ways, Dad was our strongest bond, and still is, the touchstone for our love and our shared sense of being different. Elliott loved nothing more than to lie on the living room couch or a cot on the side porch in his shorts and T-shirt and talk about sports while listening to a ballgame on the radio. It is no coincidence that many of my sweetest moments with Jim are retakes of that scene. For many years, back when I lived in Austin, we would share a hotel room in Washington every April for the annual baseball draft in our Washington Post (Ghost) rotisserie league. It was usually the same weekend as the Masters Golf Tournament, and after the draft we’d go back to the room and lie on our beds in our shorts and watch the final round and talk about our players. It was all about Dad. Sometimes my son Andrew would be there, passing it down another generation. It sounds stupid, perhaps, but the glow in the room was spiritual.

With Dad gone, those moments with Jim are even more special. At Andrew’s wedding in Nashville in 2007, a weekend filled with emotion, one of my favorite moments came late one night when Jim and I and two of his sons, little Elliott and Ben, along with our friend Jimmy Warren, gathered in Jim’s hotel room and talked. He sprawled on the bed in the style of our father and announced that his favorite NFL coach was Jack Del Rio of the Jacksonville Jaguars. “Jack Del Rio!” he said, and Jimmy Warren and I looked at each other with the same unspoken understanding we shared that day outside the gates of Pratt Field. Though I must say I’m still trying to figure out the connection—and I know there must be one—between Jack Del Rio and Calderón and Cervantes.

One final story about my big brother brings this full circle. On April 14, 2000, Jim hosted a conference on Spanish literature at Amherst. Attendance was paltry, and Jim’s spirits were even lower as he left for home that night. He felt out of it. Over the hill. Out of the zeitgeist. No one cared about what he did. The world seemed mean, empty, superficial. If life is sensations, this was a sensation he could do without. Inside the big white house, the message light was blinking on his telephone answering machine. It was full of messages—from me, from Jimmy Warren, from our father. All ecstatic. All saying versions of the same thing. Hey, Jim! You won’t believe it! The opera. You and Lew Spratlan. Performed only that one Super Bowl weekend up in Massachusetts 22 years after you guys wrote it. It won the Pulitzer Prize!

Life is a dream.

© David Maraniss. The author is an associate editor at the Washington Post and the author of many books, including First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton (1996). He won a 1993 Pulitzer Prize for his newspaper coverage of Clinton. This essay was originally published in the 2009 book Brothers: 26 Stories of Love and Rivalry (Jossey-Bass). Among the book’s other contributors is Chris Bohjalian ’82, writing about his brother Andy ’77.

Photos courtesy of Jim Maraniss

Postscript: Despite the 2000 performance of Act II  that won Spratlan the Pulitzer Prize for composition, Spratlan and Maraniss had to wait another decade to see Life is a Dream finally performed in full. Read the whole story of the opera and its world premiere, which took place in Santa Fe in July.