The second half of Life Itself, Roger Ebert’s 2012 autobiography, reads like the best of the Ebert we know: There are short, insightful encounters with stars like John Wayne (“You couldn’t catch him acting”) and he relates the surprise of his television success with typical candor (“[Siskel and I] never had a meaningful conversation before we started to work on our TV program. Alone in an elevator, we would study the buttons.”)
But I took two things away from the first, developmental half of his autobiography that have not figured prominently in the elegies published since Ebert’s death on April 4. I read the book a few months ago but in discussing Ebert with friends in the wake of his death, I realize that I now see a different side of him, a side that has nothing to do with thumb-pointing telegenics or bravery in illness. Ebert’s autobiography champions two institutions that are rarely championed: the Catholic Church and the public university. He loses his faith in the former as a teen and it gives way to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which cemented in clearly detailed episodes Ebert’s picture of intellectuality, his public-mindedness, his humility and depth.
But first, Catholicism: “In my childhood the Church arched high over everything. I was awed by its ceremonies.” He was an altar boy, never saw or heard of any abuse, and got a solid grade school education that “probably couldn’t get state approval today” from Dominicans who told them sinners went to hell and forbade the naming of pets after saints, but still “applied Catholicism toward liberal ends” including freedom of speech, the rights of workingmen, and the separation of church and state (“it was all that protected us from a Protestant takeover.") Later, Catholic ritual infused appreciation of certain filmmakers. He felt a “kinship” to Bergman’s brooding struggles with faith, and agreed with Pauline Kael that “the three greatest American directors of the 1970s—Scorsese, Altman, and Coppola—had derived much of their artistic richness from having grown up in the pre-Vatican II era of Latin, incense, mortal sins, indulgences.”
One gets the impression that some quality of discipline (he prides himself on never missing a deadline) and an ability to be absorbed in literature came from his Catholic training. When, late in college, he begins to educate himself about Shakespeare, he “plunged deeply, in reading that was a form of prayer.” He writes that he could probably perform a Mass to this day, so often did he serve as altar boy, reciting the “Latin that had a ‘thunk’ to the syllables, measured and confident, said aloud the way they looked.” When was the last time you heard Latin mass described not as occult mumbojumbo but as a paradigm of straightforwardness? Honest as a Latin Mass—spoken like it’s spelled.
Ebert grew up in Champaign; home to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, it is the crown jewel of the Illinois public university system, and a corn-filled 2 1/2 hour drive south of Chicago. His father, after having shuttered a flower shop in Florida under the depression, retrained as an electrician and always found employment—“got on,” said his father—in some capacity at the university. Before Ebert enrolled in it, the university was a kind of life-force: the football games, the credit union, the community. After the war, the family regularly ate at the university-subsidized staff cafeteria. It seeped into his world in quiet, benevolent ways: in the morning his father would “make coffee and liked his toast almost burnt...and he’d hand me a slice, slathered with clover honey from the university farms.”
In his last year of high school, Ebert declared that like his heroes Jack Kennedy and Thomas Wolfe, he wanted to go to Harvard, and not to Urbana-Champaign. His father responded, “Boy, there’s no money to send you to Harvard,” and started to cry because he knew, as Ebert did not yet, that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. The whole book unfolds under a big, woolly cloud of cigarette smoke, first produced by the adults in his world, parents and aunts and uncles, and then later by his colleagues in the newsroom.
Champaign-Urbana’s wonderfully straightforward motto is “Learning and Labor.” Ebert was dedicated to both; his GPA suffered from the amount of time he spent in the basement office of the school newspaper with trembling rotary presses. Newspaper making was a material endeavor in his recollection: “Something was forever lost from newspapers when their buildings stopped trembling.” But, he also encountered literature. Far from the “stupidity of modern academic theory,” English professors like Daniel Curley held the “romantic notion that in order to study a text one must read it”—appreciation, Ebert was taught, over deconstruction. Madame Bovary, The Ambassadors, Crime and Punishment became his new liturgy, “cornerstones of my life’s reading.” Like the Mass which paired the complexity of theology with the sensory satisfaction of tracing its surface language over and over, Ebert enjoyed the “thunk” of words (reading aloud helped him understand Cummings), and felt that the complexity of literature wasn’t a riddle to be solved, but a prompt for discussion. There was still labor in the learning. Symbolism, motivation, character, and plenty of context (“during the war the English fled to Trollope as escape”) would make that response better and more true. Film finally added to the range of the sensory that he had come appreciate, and he wrote about his bodily responses in a way that foreshadowed the honesty with which he would write about his bodily failures. Take the first sentence of his Star Wars review, from 1977: “Every once in a while I have what I think of as an out-of-the-body experience at a movie.” That emphasis on response, not deconstruction, helped Ebert's film reviews become so broadly beloved.
There’s no question that in looking back on his life, Roger Ebert, whose first book was An Illini Century (an anthology of 100 years of university history as reported in the school newspaper) wanted to raise a glass to the great American public university. His father called Champaign-Urbana “the greatest university in the world,” a Burnham-designed neoclassical oasis with a first-edition Audubon open on display in the library. It was a place that attracted minds from all over the world, including a Hungarian professor whom Ebert respected so much that young Robert did his paper route backwards to serve him first. Champaign-Urbana is still a first-rate education, but the university predicts that tuition, fees, room and board for Illinois residents will come to between $29,594 and $34,514 for the 2013-14 academic year. As we say goodbye to Roger Ebert, let’s hope that Labor can still lead to Learning, and that we haven’t eradicated the conditions of possibility for a whip-smart high school senior with parents of little means to get a thrilling college education. That thrill, a thrill relived in Life Itself, was Ebert’s beat.