As a child growing up in rural New York, David Treadup reveals no special abilities, but when he is seventeen he falls severely ill with osteomyelitis, and with nothing to do but read books, he experiences a new insight into the life of the intellect. He is guided in this revelation by a perceptive, kind teacher, Maud Chase. Thus he is enthusiastic when a year later he is allowed to attend the Enderby Institute, where he studies under Absolom Carter, an inspired teacher who is ultimately the greatest influence on his life. As a role model of the “all-around thinker-athlete,” Carter is to Treadup a paradigm of what the naïve youth knows he wants to become. Carter tutors Treadup in Benjamin Franklin, Plato, Xenophon, and Plutarch, treating him to a secular education that forms his thinking for good. So “the agnostic Carter’s instinct in giving David this extracurricular course in ethics was to bear fruit: Something skeptical, temporal, and sophisticated would stay with David all his life—and would give him difficulties as a missionary.”
Treadup’s conversion to Christianity comes when he is a twenty-five-year-old sophomore at Syracuse and provides him with great relief. He is freed from the terrible aimlessness that has bedeviled him and is given moral support in his struggle with carnal desire. His new purpose in life so enriches his spirit that his vague hypochondriacal complaints fade away. This spiritual confidence stays with him for forty years until, sick and despairing in a Japanese camp, he undergoes a “counterconversion” prefigured by a flare-up of his old osteomyelitis. He finds his loss of faith cathartic in an ironic way:I feel as if my hands and feet had been tied for a long time, and that the knots have suddenly been undone. This has been an eerie experience. I don’t think I am going to be quite so afraid any more. If there is a God, I must be a disappointment to him.
At this stage of his life, Treadup stands quite alone, severed from the allegiance that powered his efforts for four decades....
(The entire section is 843 words.)