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Riddle of Sophocles : A Tale of Learning--and Wisdom

July 03, 1988|RICHARD E. MEYER | Times Staff Writer

BANKS, Ark. — During the whole of a quiet morning in the Piney Woods, the old man tried hard to understand the way it had turned out.

His faded brown eyes looked straight at his visitor. He reached into everything he knew for an explanation. Once more, he failed; and he looked down at his shoes.

"I have," he said deeply, "had a load on me."

His name is Eddie Lovett. He had just turned 72. He is a dirt farmer, the son of a sharecropper, the father of six children and a man who has assembled a library of 40,000 books on his plowed and planted land here in the trees. He figures he has read 10,000 of them.

An Erudite Man

He is lettered through only the eighth grade but takes no shame in that. "I am an erudite man," he says, speaking a fact and not a boast. He knows Aristotle's philosophy, and he knows that "Amazing Grace" was written by John Newton, the captain of a slave ship who got religion on the high seas.

The nature of prodigious self-education is freedom--to pursue the important and the unimportant, the significant as well as the simply interesting. Together, this freedom and the range that it offers, unfettered by the strictures of professional academics and pedants, would by now have made Eddie Lovett a wise man. So one would think.

His life has been filled with this rare kind of learning, an experience so natural it has been a pleasure. Unable to call himself a Ph.D., the honorific of many far less knowledgeable, he signs his name: Eddie Lovett, Polyhistor. "Poly, that's the Greek root for many. A person learned in many subjects." Among friends, he is known less formally, but with respect, as "the Piney Woods Thoreau."

But his life also has been filled with pain, the kind that tests a man's assurance of what he really knows. It would be the nature of this kind of experience--shattering; even, in this case, a cause for shame--to have turned Eddie Lovett into a doubter of himself and of everything he has come to recognize, over the years, as wisdom. So one would think.

One Errant Son

Five of his children have prospered; but, despite the extraordinary love, guidance, discipline and encouragement he has given to all of them--to learn and to grow and to do well--one of his sons was taken away not long ago to Cummins state prison near Grady, convicted of kidnaping: a kidnaping some think was murder.

"I taught my children," Eddie Lovett said, looking up now from his shoes and back into his visitor's eyes. Unfailingly gracious, he had offered a chair in his small brick home. He had put on a dress shirt and dark coat for the occasion. His hands were calloused but gentle--soft touches for the written knowledge of generations.

"I taught them right here, by the fireside, and later when they were in school, to get a good education and to try to make useful citizens, good, decent, law-abiding. That's why it's so crazy about Sophocles."

This is the story of Eddie Lovett and Sophocles, his son. It is a story of learning--and of wisdom.

Eddie Lovett praises his own father--who, like his father before him, was a humble but learned man. His name was Bertram Lovett, but everybody called him Shoat, as in a fat, half-grown hog, because he was, indeed, chubby; even some of his kin didn't know his real name until they saw it on his tombstone. Like 90% of the blacks in southern Arkansas at the turn of the century, he was a sharecropper. And he was a log cutter. But none of that made it any the less important to Shoat Lovett that his children follow in the family tradition: He saw to it that every one of them acquired learning too.

"He didn't like us to roam around like other boys, shooting marbles and things," Eddie Lovett remembers. "When he came out of the fields at night, we had to count and recite poems and things of that nature. 'Course, he had the Bible and different books, and we'd get some books out. Oh, he had a lot of his father's books. Some were McGuffey's Readers. And then he had his own father's Blueback speller. But the first book was the Bible--and a book written about the Bible, big and thick. It was known as 'Daniel and the Revelation.' It was beautiful. Very beautiful. Everything in there was pictorial--different things, the dragons and the Devil and everything. It would refer you to the Bible and would tell you where to find everything in there. It had a lot of poems. Allegories. Daddy would teach us to say these poems. Four beasts, you see them coming up out of the sea, and you see Daniel standing there. All them seven horns and them seven-headed dragons. They'd tell us to go to bed; and we'd be talking too much, and they'd say, 'Better be quiet now, or that dragon'll get you!' Things of that nature." He chuckles. "We loved it."

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