The Grand Gesture and Other Thoughts About Graduation



An HTMLGIANT/Rumpus Joint Publication
When he was 21 Langston Hughes quit Columbia University. He’d been there only a year. He signed on as a member of the crew on a steamship bound for the Canary Islands and Africa. When the boat was off Sandy Hook, Hughes took his college books on deck and threw them into the ocean.

The grand gesture impressed no one at Columbia University. But grand gestures never impress an audience as much as they impress the person making the gesture. We make some of our grandest gestures when we are young and nobody is paying attention to us. Everybody else is too busy working and we don’t know yet what work is. We are like the guy on the first tee who takes five practice swings and waggles his club around and looks repeatedly up the fairway with a serious expression, and then tops it thirty yards into the deep rough. We are novices, and novices are all about gesture and large ideas.

At 21 we possess intelligence and ignorance in equal portions. Our brains are freshly crammed with knowledge, but knowledge of what? We have a perfect idea of what we want to do and no idea how to do it. Our sociology classes taught us how to measure tendencies in the human race but gave us no idea how to read another individual. Calculus taught me how to map complex three dimensional shapes but I was never going to make a living mapping complex three dimensional shapes. Even now they haunt my dreams. I read Tristram Shandy, a eighteenth century novel about wasting time, which, on the face of it, sounds like a perfect handbook for running a 21st century business meeting. It isn’t.

When we are 21 the world is spread out before us like a roadmap printed in Mandarin or Hindi. We are perfect fools and it is this foolishness that makes the grand gesture such a lovely thing. America is a grand gesture. In 1776 some men in short pants and wigs wrote a document insulting the greatest power the world had ever known. They knew it would probably get them all hanged but they were young and the country was young and the British lived all the way across the Atlantic. As it turned out the greatest power the world had ever seen hit a duck hook fifty yards into the deep rough and went home mad. Grand gestures are wonderful when they don’t result in sudden death.NPG 4285, Dylan Thomas

When he was 21 Dylan Thomas met his muse, Caitlin Macnamara, in a pub in the Fitzrovia neighborhood in London. He put his head in her lap and told her she was beautiful and that he was going to marry her. She was and he did and together they acted out their romance over the next two decades, mostly in pubs. The poet traveled far and wide and fell down stairs and hypnotized audiences with his poetry, winding up in New York City in the White Horse Tavern where he set a record consuming thirteen straight whiskeys. That was the gesture that killed him. He was 39. We never know how short the road is, any better than we know where it is going.

When he was 21, Paul McCartney sat down in a Paris hotel room and played a new song for producer George Martin, which he called “Scrambled Eggs.” Six months later he and the other Beatles would record it at Abbey Road Studio, retitled “Yesterday.” Paul Simon was 21 when he locked himself in his bathroom in Queens and wrote “Sounds of Silence.” Keith Richards was 21 and on tour with the Rolling Stones, staying at a motel in Clearwater, Florida, when he dreamed the trademark riff of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” He got out of bed and wrote it down then and there. The next day Mick Jagger wrote the lyrics in ten minutes beside the pool. Despite actuarial predictions each of them is still in the business, as we say. Still musicians on tour. Although Mick Jagger does own a chateau in France.

Who knows what will happen? Sometimes we have a vague idea, but life is full of odd turns. When he was 21, O. J. Simpson was running away with the Heisman Trophy. George Armstrong Custer was last in his graduating class at West Point. Samuel Clemens was learning to be a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi. Food maven Alice Waters was visiting France for the first time. Physicist Stephen Hawking was 21 and in his third year at Oxford when he noticed a sudden clumsiness in his movements. He was referred to specialists who ran a series of tests. They didn’t know what was happening to him, but they believed whatever it was would probably kill him in a few years. They prescribed vitamins, and Hawking began listening to Wagner. He is still living all these years later, frozen in place and nearly mute, but he understands exactly how the universe unfolded and is happy to tell anyone who will listen.

When we are 21 we have everything and have earned nothing. We know everything except what we should do. We have committed our small crimes and are still forgiven for our mistakes. It is all up in the air. It is the perfect time for grand gestures, really. The only time they really matter.


Top image by Ian Huebert.

“Dylan Thomas” by Rupert Shephard (1909-1992), oil on board, 1940


Co-published at HTMLGIANT

Eric Hanson has been published in the Atlantic, Smithsonian, McSweeney's, the Tyrant, Torpedo and other publications. A Book of Ages (Harmony, 2008) is about grand gestures and other episodes from famous lives. More from this author →