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1033 words
SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Letters to the Grandchildren
by Skip Eisiminger

Reviewed by Duff Brenna

Clemson Univ. Press (2014)

Cover of Letters to the Grandchildren by Skip Eisiminger

For several decades Skip Eisiminger has kept journals and 3x5 cards filled with his thoughts about literature, composition, and humanities courses that he taught as a professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. Eventually, the categories he covered grew to 2200 subjects. When he started writing articles for magazines, he drew upon his journals and card catalogs, using them as brainstorms for a wide-ranging array of essays:

These cards are now in my file where one day someone will have a ready supply of material for a biography or elegy. But as I filed the cards under “Skip,” I thought, “Why should someone else have all the fun?” So I decided to write an essay based on the quotes, some original but most not, that I once chose for their humor, truth, or both.

The ultimate result (for now) is a collection of forty-six essays under the title Letters to the Grandchildren. Each essay is rarely more than two or two-and-a-half pages long. One might call them mini-essays, or maybe micro-essays.

Eisiminger tackles a vast assortment of subjects, including pedagogy; surnames; 9/11; the psychology of territory, clocks, rivers and time; the value of anecdotes in a classroom; curiosity; imagination; excuses; slang; technology; cursive versus keyboard; multitasking; and many other themes. The list could go on for the rest of this page and spill over into the next page as well.

Considering pedagogy, Eisiminger gives us a list of his “beliefs” called “Classroom Commandments”:

  • Show up and give a cluck.
  • Make it seductive and they’ll teach themselves.
  • Do the worst first.
  • Love your dictionary.
  • If you’re boring yourself, imagine how the rest feel.
  • No dumbing down.
  • Forward into the past, not backward into the future.
  • Make them laugh 3–4 times per hour.
  • Consider that you might be wrong.
  • If you cannot persuade, insinuate.
  • It’s not the eloquence; it’s the evidence.
  • Assume the best until you know otherwise.
  • Kill them with work and they’ll die educated.

A floundering instructor may well do valuable service adopting Eisiminger’s self-regulating “commandments.”

What’s in a surname? History.

Eisiminger has a Dictionary of Surnames, which he uses to trace the historical background of his students. He has a list of surnames that date back as far as the fourteenth-century. A student named “Whetzel” actually had a fourteenth-century ancestor who was a whetzel—“a tool sharpener”; “Resler” had a forefather who was a “wrestler”; “Bowman” and “Finley” descended from “soldiers.” The student surnamed “Bergland” had an ancestor who was a “mountain dweller,” so on and so forth. In the case of Student “Burrell” (“harness maker”), some of the earlier Burrells were “judicial torturers.” How interesting. How does one go from harnesses to chains? Perhaps the name itself implies a certain degree of inevitability? Eisiminger himself decended from Sandlappers, a name that once described people so poor they had to eat sand to fill their bellies. “Sometimes we forget that progress is real, and our names offer some of the best evidence we have of it.” For those caught up in the boom of tracing their lineage, Eisiminger might say: “Follow the surname. It’s a reliable beginning.”

Eisiminger points out words, phrases, sentences that fail us and make him (and us) chuckle. He recalls a postcard that said, “The scenery is here; wish you were beautiful.” Remember June Cleaver’s command to her husband about her son? “Ward, come upstairs and talk to the Beaver.” How about an ad that says, “Brick, hardwood floors; this one won’t last.” Words can be dicey, misleading, fathomable and unfathomable, meaningful and meaningless. Language is after all only an approximation of reality. “We all know that.”

Our eclectic writer is fascinated with clocks. He tells his students that clocks as late as 1800 didn’t have a minute hand. (Side note: I’ve told my students to study the minute hand and note how it’s ticking away the seconds of our lives that are beyond recall forever. Point being: don’t waste time.) Eisiminger reminds us that “clock” (German Clocke, “bell”) once had no hands at all: “...they were just a bell mechanism that chimed the canonical hour without a visual display.” He talks about the sun and moon as time pieces that morphed into sundials and water clocks, which have now evolved into quartz-crystal technology and the atomic clock. The atomic clock “...should lose or gain a second every 313 million years, but what chronometer could you check it against?” Did you know that people have used “scent clocks (a different smell for each hour), spice clocks (a different taste for each hour)...a cuckoo wrist watch, clocks inside silver skulls displaying the time remaining before the owner’s death, Jewish clocks that run counterclockwise, and Muslim clocks that point to Mecca and sound an alarm for each appointment with the prayer rug”? Look around you. There are clocks everywhere. Eisiminger sums up clock ubiquity by telling us that “time is the most often used noun in English.” I believe him.

The Eisiminger essays are packed with not only historical and pedagogical lessons, but also with philosophical observations concerning an astonishing assortment of topics: carpe diem, free speech, fiction, myth, religion, proverbs, computers, photography, music, the Trinity, romantic fools, loneliness, responsibility, fear, cars, fundamentalism, democracy, homosexuality, comedy—all of them earnestly contemplated, but also peppered with waggishness and wit and humor that reminds us of his eighth Classroom Commandment: Make them laugh 3–4 times per hour.

Letters to the Grandchildren reveals at its heart the clever musings of an infinitely curious mind whose quickness and energy can, at times, leave a reader breathless. In the third paragraph of this review, I called his offerings micro- or mini-essays. But the total effect is as large and down to earth as are intellectual ruminations written by many a high-powered wordsmith. John Updike (Self-Consciousness), William Gass (Life Sentences), Bertrand Russell (Sceptical Essays) come to mind most readily.

Deceptively brief creations; full-sized results.

Perhaps Vincent Van Gogh summed up Eisiminger’s achievement as concisely as one could wish when he wrote to the artist Albert Aurier: “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”

—Previously published in South Carolina Review (Volume 47, Number 1, Fall 2014)


“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury