Thursday, May 21, 2020

History of My Reading: Poetry and War with Mr. Spanos

My second year at Knox I took two literature courses--really one year-long course--from William V. Spanos.  The one in the fall semester was probably my very first college literature course, and I could not have chosen a better starting point: I learned how to read a poem. I've mentioned Mr. Spanos before--his vigorous remarks at our freshman orientation sessions on the Two Cultures, and his friendship with Fred Newman.  This was the first time--and the last time--I had the opportunity to take a class with him.  He was leaving Knox at the end of the year.

William V. Spanos, 1966 Yearbook photo
His forceful manner of speaking, the singular vocabulary, the peculiar resonance of his suddenly booming voice that made it seem deeper in pitch than it actually was, and his air of authority (as well as his black hair and beard) that made him seem taller than he actually was--all contributed to making him an unmistakable figure.

 He was easy to spot, and easy to parody.  Mike Hamrin in a fake black beard did a good job for one of the Mortarboard satirical skits, in a scene set at the Gizmo picnic table where faculty met, next to his friend Doug Wilson (played in this case by himself.)

 His unique characteristics were on full display in his classroom, along with his repertoire of mannerisms.  The one I remember best was a twisting of his hand, fingers slightly splayed, as he worked his way to a complex point: he appeared to be changing a phantom light bulb, or screwing the lid off an invisible jar hovering upside down above his shoulder.

 Though he perpetually seemed to be slightly angry about everything, and his glowering intensity and insistence on taking everything so seriously could be intimidating, he could also be kind, compassionate and companionable.  He may not have had much of a sense of humor about anything else, but fortunately he did have one about himself. I got to know him and his wife a little that year, went on a road trip to Wisconsin with him, socialized a bit and served as babysitter a few times in their home.  But even now, when it feels appropriate to be referring to Sam Moon and Doug Wilson, I can't bring myself to call him Bill.  He's forever Mr. Spanos.

   I recall this Types of Poetry course as a large one, with juniors and seniors among the second years.  Mr. Spanos defined his mission at the first class: Most people don't know how to read a poem.  They get a feeling, as he said with undisguised sarcasm.  But true poetry is not sentimental mush.  Poems make statements--they assert, narrate, ask questions, provide if/then arguments and internal debates.

There are sentences in the lines of poems, with subjects and verbs and objects, however they are ordered.  The pronouns refer to something: the 'it' in the 7th line of the third stanza in Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium" refers to "heart" in the fifth line, for instance. Poets use devices, sound patterns, rhyme schemes, themes, ambiguity, irony, paradox ("To that sweet yoke where lasting freedom be," Sir Philip Sidney in "Leave me, O Love.")  In the course, we were going to learn how to read what's really there in some of the best poems in the English language.

Our main text was 100 Poems: Chaucer to Dylan Thomas, edited by A. J. M. Smith (Scribner's 1965.)  Along with the poems, the Glossary of Technical Terms in the back proved useful.  These poems were supplemented by others in handouts. Mr. Spanos impressed upon us that there was a lot in each poem to discover.

 He did that partly by spending what seemed like weeks on the first poem in the collection, that in its entirety is four lines, by an anonymous poet: Western wind, when wilt thou blow./The small rain down can rain?/ Christ, if my love were in my arms,/And I in my bed again!

We spent another year on the first two lines of Chaucer's Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English.  Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote/The droghte of March hath perced to the roote...  But once you know "shoures soote" means "showers sweet," then let the metaphor begin.

 I have my copy of 100 Poems from this class, with my circles and arrows to my marginal notes on Spanos' analysis.  He points out a troche (two syllables, first stressed) and the places where Shakespeare shifts his rhetoric from negative to positive and back to negative again in his Sonnet CVI, which pits Platonic ideals against the changeableness of human nature: "Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments."  The line continues "Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds," which means one thing when "alters" and "alteration" refer to the same sort of behavior, but something else with the Elizabethan meaning of "alteration" as the ravages of time.

 (There's another note I made that probably went right by me at the time, but now that I've become more familiar with Shakespeare's plays, it's brilliant: "Mixed metaphors (to be effective) must be analogous images."  Shakespeare deploys cascades of mixed metaphors--see Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech alone--but because the images are analogous, they work together.)

 We spent a lot of time on Thomas Wyatt's "They Flee From Me"--the rhyme scheme, the movement from present to past and back, the ironies, the reversal of the traditional metaphor of man the hunter and woman the hunted, but also the poem as a reflection of the historical moment: it was a lament on the rise of the "newfangledness" of courtly love.  Yet knowing this did not disturb, and does not disturb, the phrases and elements of language that attracted me, and that continue to work their magic on the level of (don't tell anybody!) feeling.

 And so it went, with large cultural themes and hidden antinomies, disparaties, dichotomies, ambiguities...existential implications, sexual metaphors, symbols and allegory, persona and allusions, verse forms and rhyme schemes...By the time we got just to Dryden (1631-1700) the class was thoroughly intimidated, which led to my one moment of glory (sort of) that I remember.

We were looking at "A Song for St. Cecilia's Day," and Mr. Spanos began by asking the class, "What kind of poem is this?"  Silence, for an uncomfortably long time.  I timidly put up my hand.  "Occasional?" I offered.  "It's an occasional poem!" he thundered in exasperation.

 It wasn't exactly a genius flash of insight on my part.  The title says it--it is a poem marking the occasion of St. Cecilia's Day.  It even includes the date.  But after all these areas of arcane mysteries had been revealed, the obvious looked like some sort of trick.

 In old pages of my persistent college fictionalizing, I came across a scene that might come from this class.  If it didn't happen that way (as my Aunt Toni used to say) it could have.  It centers on a poem that's not actually in the 100 Poems collection, a very short lyric by Robert Frost called "Dust of Snow":

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

In my pages, "Mr. Spiros" insists the poem is scatological: "'This person--the persona of the poem, some young kid with a broken heart--' Spiros deeply sang the words in the measure of ridicule--'who goes out, burdened with sadness and suicide, like students like to go out in the rain, feeling abysmally sorry for themselves, and loving it.  This persona is standing under a tree, and up in the tree a bird shakes some snow on him.  For a moment he thinks its bird droppings that have fallen on him.  But then he realizes it's snow and he laughs in relief.  He laughs at himself.'"

  In my fiction, the "persona" is a student who scribbles down his own version of what a Spiros version of Frost's poem might be:

  The dust of snow from a hemlock tree
fell down and revolted me.
'If you don't have the courage 
or the good sense,
shit on somebody else
who isn't so tense.'

Nervous was I
when I spoke out these words
to take the snow from a tree
for spineless bird turds.

But I grew wise
as I grew old
and realized turds
are not that cold.

It does sound like something Spanos would say, and the kind of doggerel I wrote during classes. We were assigned to read more poems than got marginal notes in my text, but I'm not entirely sure which ones.  There's nothing marked in Blake, though we must have done at least "The Tyger."  We must have blitzed through Wordsworth (pausing to note the rhyme scheme of his sonnets) and the rest of the English Romantics, the 19th century Americans.  (The editor's judgment was also part of it--one Byron, lots of Keats, one Emily Dickinson.)

 The notes pick up when we reach Yeats, and explode with Eliot's "Gerontion" and "The Hollow Men."  And that's more or less where we would return in the Spanos spring course, Modern British and American Poets.

Before that however, a little about the supplementary text for this Types of Poetry course: A Prosody Handbook by poets Karl Shapiro and Robert Beum (Harper & Row 1965.)  Notice that both this and 100 Poems were new that year.  Of the two, only A Prosody Handbook remains in print, which is odd only in the sense that the authors' foreword made it sound like only the latest in a long line of books on prosody, and apt to be replaced at any time as ongoing debates are resolved.  But it's still around.

 According to the two poets: "A poem yields up its meaning, and makes that meaning an experience, in two ways: (1) through the semantic content of words that are organized in sequences of images, ideas, and logical or conventional connections; and (2) through the "music," the purely physical qualities of the medium itself, such as sound color, pitch, stress, line length, tempo."

 Prosody has to do with the music, the sound.  "In recent decades, the study of poetry has focused intensively on the semantic elements of the poem, and prosody has been somewhat neglected," the authors assert.

  Spanos probably leaned that way, too, but he dutifully included prosody in his discussions of individual poems. Shapiro and Beum write that teachers should feel free to assign their book without going through it point by point, and to my recollection that's what Spanos did.

Fortunately, this book also has a useful glossary, which is probably how I used it. That's not because I disdained prosody (though even now I find the early going in this book confusing.)  If anything, all the new knowledge about semantics seemed to devalue my natural attraction to the sound.

That's been true in my own writing, prose and verse: the music is its greatest strength, and therefor at times its greatest weakness. But I no longer am intimidated about this preference.  Robert Frost is known for his country wisdom, Wallace Stevens as the premier poet of ideas, and Edward Albee for the riveting characters in his plays.  But all three said that sound is primary in their work.  It's the rhythm, the sound of words, the music.

Reading poems in this analytical way inevitably involved interpretation, and the ongoing question was what made an interpretation valid?  Those attracted to poetry could become defensive if their experience of the poem was demeaned.  Were they "mis-reading" the poem, or simply getting something else out of it?

 Such conflicts could get quite emotional. Interpretation quickly gets into the realm of literary criticism, and methods or styles of criticism can change.  The dominant style at Knox in 1965 seemed still to be the New Criticism of the 1940s and 50s.  Even as early as this Types of Poetry course, there were at least a couple of works of criticism referenced.  In any case, I'm pretty sure I bought my copy of The Well Wrought Urn by Cleanth Brooks that spring (copyright 1947.)

Another I heard about but am not sure I owned at the time was Theory of Literature by Rene Wellek and Austin Warren.  ("Wellek and Warren" were often mentioned.)  These days I own a vintage paperback of the second edition of 1955--the first edition was in 1941.  It's one of those books I'm glad I remember hearing about, because it's more interesting to me now than it would have been then.

 While Mr. Spanos may have shortchanged the evocative somewhat, this Types of Poetry course imparted skills in reading and analyzing that revealed and enriched the experience of the poems.  On that essential level, it was one of the more important courses I took.  Spanos balanced his own critical point of view and enthusiams with the nuts and bolts analysis--scanning the lines, noting the spondees, revealing the meaning--and double-meanings-- of words at the time they were written, and so on.  However, in the spring course he gave freer reign to his own insights and point of view.  He took us on journeys deeper into the poems.

For this British and American Poetry course The Imagist Poem, an anthology edited by William Pratt. was the first paperback we used, mainly to trace the historical path to modern 20th century poetry that proposed centering on the accurate and original image, using ordinary words, in a rhythm that corresponds to the emotion evoked by the poem.  The model was Ezra Pound's: The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough.

Most of the course as I remember it concentrated on William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot and Pound.  (I seem to recall that Spanos wanted to add a more contemporary poet, like Stanley Kunitz, but we didn't get that far.)

 In Yeats' Selected Poems and Two Plays (edited by M.L. Rosenthal) we certainly read "The Second Coming" though I have more marginal notes on the lesser known poem that follows it--"A Prayer For My Daughter."  We read "Among School Children" and the Crazy Jane poems.  Classmate Leonard Borden reminds me of one short poem that got the full Spanos treatment--which he points out is particularly apropos for us these days:

  Speech after long silence; it is right,
All other lovers being estranged or dead,
Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,
The curtains drawn against unfriendly night,
That we descant and yet again descant
Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:
Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young
We love each other and were ignorant.

So emphasized and drummed into our heads was this poem that I parodied a few lines of it in my short story published later this spring, "The Pressure of Reality."

We read a lot of Pound, no poem more intensively than the very long "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly."  My notes are extensive, and include analysis by John Jacob Espey, evidently from his book on this poem.  It's not surprising then that Spanos published a long article on Mauberly in Contemporary Literature, where he dealt with the issue of who is speaking--the persona.  I have an undated reprint so I don't know whether it was a class handout or came later.

 "Mauberly" in particular was an apt transition to T.S. Eliot.  While we used the New Directions paperback of Pound's Selected Poems, we got the hardback edition of Eliot's The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950. I believe it came without a dust jacket--just that firm, deep green book that was like modernist scripture.

We did the major poems (though not the ones that would ultimately be the most famous--the Book of Practical Cats poems that were the basis of the international hit musical Cats): "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "The Wasteland," "Gerontin" and at least one of the Four Quartets, plus some of the lesser known poems, and perhaps a play, and certainly the essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (not included in this volume.)

 This book is less marked up--maybe because I was reluctant to deface a hardback I was likely to have for awhile.  Some--perhaps many--of my classmates had been acquainted with at least Prufrock in high school, as Spanos himself had been when Eliot was alive and fashionable.  But with the possible exception of "The Hollow Men," Eliot was all new to me. Such was the power of these Eliot poems that they seemed to permeate that entire spring--but more about that in a future post.

 Eliot got into our heads--he seemed suddenly to have invaded the whole campus--but I was also intrigued by Pound.  I bought his ABCs of Reading that spring, and other books of his poems and prose for several years after.  According to a notebook I ineptly kept that school year, I also read at least some of Hugh Kenner's The Poetry of Ezra Pound.  I would later acquire and read his opus on this generation of writers, The Pound Era (1971.)

This British and American Poetry course (in which none of the poets were, strictly speaking, completely British or entirely American) was one of the last Spanos taught at Knox.  He left at the end of the spring semester, taking a position at what would become the State University of New York at Binghamton, where he taught for the rest of his academic career.

 Spanos was part of the second wave of the faculty exodus in my Knox years.  Others who left then included Kim Chase, my sociology professor Michael LaSorte and respected history teacher Gordon Dodds.  I took 18 courses in my first two years.  Eight of them were taught by faculty members who weren't around for my third year.

 Students continued to express concern if not outrage about this exodus, which this year numbered at least 17.  More than twenty Sociology students and fifty Economics students signed letters of protest in the Knox Student.  Bill Barnhardt wrote an editorial on it, commenting "It is one thing to experience 'mobility' among the faculty, a growing trend in higher education, and quite another thing to witness the one-way drain of academic talent from the campus."

In a draft of his autobiography that he circulated privately, Spanos attributed his leaving Knox to a desire to devote more time to scholarship, which student demands on his time precluded.  His essay in the Spring 1966 issue of Dialogue tells a different tale--of disillusionment with the college, and despair that it will change for the better, especially in view of this exodus of young faculty.

  Also that spring, he signed for me a reprint of an article he'd published (which unfortunately I can't find.)  I recall it said something like "with pleasant memories of a interesting year, despite"--and here I am sure of his words--"the persistent bad faith."  In a Sartrean sense, bad faith may simply mean conformity, but perhaps in this context something more.

 1965-66 was also the year that Dennis Parks brought ceramics-making to Knox, which attracted a lot of people I knew to "throwing" pots in the new studio--something that changed the lives of students Tom Collins and Harvey Sadow, who became famous ceramicists.  Doug Wilson got into the process as well, and probably as a going away gift he made Mr. Spanos a huge serving plate, upon which the words "Man, God, Art" ran vertically, intersecting like a crossword with the appropriate letters in the word that ran horizontally: Spanos.

My notebook records a party that winter that student James Campbell gave for Spanos on the publication of his first book, which at that time no one had yet seen, including him.  But eventually his Casebook on Existentialism made it into the Knox Bookstore, which in those days actually sold books.  This book became arguably his most influential, in this and a later, expanded edition.

  Over the next decades Spanos published some 15 books, not including those he edited. In 2015 Northwestern University Press published a selection of essays titled A William V. Spanos Reader:Humanist Criticism and the Secular Imperative.  He is referred to as a "pioneer of theory," meaning the postmodern theory that dominated universities especially in the 1980s and 90s. He also founded one of the most influential journals of postmodern analysis, Boundary 2.

 Unfortunately for me, the little I sampled of his work in this era I found unreadable, as I did most of this kind of criticism.  The specialized language (or jargon, depending on your point of view) was so dense as to render the old idea of a sentence--or a verb--inconsequential.  But his intentions are fairly clear.  Spanos expanded the New Criticism kind of reading to include political and cultural implications. He championed 'the full obligation to think the question of the human in an absolute sense: every single minute of one’s waking life.'  And in a 2010 book, his most personal, we learn why.

  In 1945, waves of British and American warplanes firebombed the undefended city of Dresden, Germany, and reduced one of the most beautiful cities of Europe to ashes and agony.  In sheer destruction it rivals Hiroshima, but it was not widely known, during or after the war, until 1968, when Kurt Vonnegut's celebrated novel Slaughterhouse-Five dramatized it.  (I knew of it years before however, because I read about it in a combat comic book, which celebrated it.  The drawing of incendiary bombs lying on rooftops to be ignited by the sun stayed with me.)

As a young US soldier and prisoner of war, Bill Spanos was present during the bombing of Dresden and its aftermath.  He wrote about it in that 2010 book, In the Neighborhood of Zero.

I did not know this about Mr. Spanos, and I doubt if many at Knox did.  It seems he did not talk about it--at least in public-- until after Slaughterhouse Five brought the Dresden bombing into public discussion, including the charge that it qualified as a war crime.

That would have been at least two years after he left Knox.  It may have been longer. That was not uncommon among World War II veterans.  But I marvel now at the mental picture of Spanos, witness to Dresden, sitting at that Gizmo faculty picnic table next to history professor Miki Hane, who had once attended school in Hiroshima.

I had no trouble reading In the Neighborhood of Zero--it is a remarkable, powerful book.  It is a memoir of his experiences as a young Greek American in the Army, the chaos of combat in the Battle of the Bulge, his capture by the Germans, the days of transport in a sealed boxcar with so many other men that they had barely enough room to stand, and his months of labor and privation as a prisoner in Dresden.  All of this before the sustained terror of the bombing, and the shock of the aftermath, when he and other POWs moved broken masonry to find rotting bodies, though some were even more horrifyingly well preserved.

 His narrative continues through a forced march with other POWs ahead of the Allies invasion, his escape, and after a strange interlude with two German civilian women, his re-connection with the US Army, and his dehumanizing voyage home.

 If this were a book and the story of a perfect stranger, I would find it gripping and illuminating.   Some awkward writing only adds to the sense of an earnest struggle to tell his story as truly as he can. But it also sets off odd flashes of recollection concerning the Spanos I knew.

 In his captivity he struggles to recollect a war poem he read in high school--it is Wilfred Owens' "Dulce et decorum est," which he would teach us in one of these classes, not from a book but a mimeographed sheet.  It concerns a young soldier whose ideals are shattered by the realities in the trenches of World War I.

In his Knox class, Spanos was especially passionate about this poem, and the expansion of the Vietnam War then underway was an undeniable backdrop. When sifting through the rubble after the Dresden bombing he thinks of "a heap of broken images" from Eliot.  But another Eliot line he quotes brings back a memory from outside of class.

Between the British and American bombing runs he remembers " was Ash Wednesday, around 10:30 in the morning--we returned to the sawmill where we were told to await further orders.  I was physically and emotionally exhausted.  My mind was like the sky in T.S. Eliot's poem, a 'patient etherized upon a table.'" It is one of Eliot's most famous lines, but it evokes for me an image of Spanos at  a kind of spontaneous after-party late at night at his house in Galesburg, in which he, his wife and some other faculty and spouses were playing charades.  When it was his turn he suddenly swept everything off a coffee table and lay down on it in the corpse position.  It didn't take long for someone to guess the answer.

Spanos relates some personal reasons for not talking about or writing about these experiences for so long.  He briefly mentions Vonnegut's novel, but his description of it is curiously reductive.  He refers to the experience of Billy Pilgrim becoming "unstuck in time" as a mental breakdown, and his encounter with the alien Tralfamadorians as hallucination.  This tends to devalue what the aliens (or Vonnegut) say about time--that events exist simultaneously like peaks on a mountain range.  The past, present and future always are.

 This is interesting because in this book Spanos also makes a powerful point about time.  He begins the book by quoting an exchange with a student after a lecture on Vonnegut's Slaugherhouse-Five: "Did you ever return to Dresden, Professor Spanos?"  "I never left there."

He ends the book after his return home, as he and his sister Kitty watch a parade on the day the war with Japan--and all of World War II--finally ended.  His sister notices that he's quiet while everyone else is cheering.  Why isn't he celebrating?

  I don't know what to say to her in response... I'm physically here in Newport, which has become the center of the world, but in my mind and heart I'm far away, in the midst of another center.  I'm in a sepulchral city of ashes, Dresden/Hiroshima/Nagasaki.  The world of zero.  And yet in a perverse way that I can't explain even to myself, I feel in the very abyss of my anguished heart, inextricably, the tentative stirring of a beginning not of a new story but a now time that bears within it, always, like a chalice, that infernal time. I say in response, "I am celebrating, Kitty. I am!" 

Spanos is in a sense making a point about time similar to Vonnegut: that the past inhabits the present.  But his emphasis is opposite to the Tralfamadorians, who say that they find the pleasant places in time and concentrate on those.  Spanos commits to recalling the worst places, to inform the tasks and the meaning of the present.

 And so emerges another dimension of a man I thought I knew.  It shifts the focus of the memories, including the moments in class when he passionately insisted on finding the power and meaning in the books and the poems we read.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

History of My Reading: Lucretia Parsnips and The Great Turkey Heist of 1965

Flipping through a complete set of Knox Students for the 1965-66 school year reveals a few trends.  The college--students, faculty and administrators--was highly focused on the college, with the ongoing Faculty Planning Committee and its preliminary reports, and with pages of Letters to the Editor in the regimes of editors Ed Rust and Bill Barnhart.  Vietnam and related issues began to appear with increasing frequency.   Computers were mentioned, including the Computer Science major to be offered the following year.
Michael Chubrich (right) in debate, Judy Dugan moderating, Len Borden taking notes. Gale photo.
Michael Chubrich took over as Student Senate president, promising sweeping changes. Guests on campus included Senator Paul Simon of Illinois, J. Allen Hynek, the UFO advocate; the classic filmmaker Joseph Von Sternberg (The Blue Angel) and poets Mark Van Doren, Robert Bly and James Dickey.

 Knox theatre's mainstage productions were Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (the last ever to be directed by departing professor Kim Chase) and The Mikado. Kevern Cameron directed Waiting for Godot, locating it in a circus. Among the Social Board movies was To Kill A Mockingbird.  A few Cinema Club titles inevitably suggest the college ambience: My Life To Live, The Exterminating Angel, Through A Glass Darkly, La Dolce Vita, The End of Innocence.
Immediately upon my return to Knox in the fall of 1965 for my second year, I was very, very busy.  I was news director of WVKC, the campus radio station, and doing music shows as well, which required selecting music from the station's record library (or bringing my own albums), creating a playlist for the engineer, and using a copy of it for my on-air introductions. I did jazz and folk shows, and filled in occasionally for classical shows--while adopting a slightly different voice suitable for each form (folksy, cool, FM-whispery).

I already had my news voice(s).  As the year wore on and I got more tired and bored, my David Brinkleyisms on the ten o'clock news became more outrageous. I did have one distinction: I was the first DJ in Knox history to legitimately play a rock song.  They had been forbidden, until the station director (Mike Bourgo) bowed to the inevitable.  The first rock song?  "Help!" by the Beatles. (It was at the end of an original radio mystery that Skip Peterson and I wrote.)

My summer conversion to the Beatles was continuing--I was rapidly accumulating Beatles records and other material, as we shall see (read on.)  There was some negative reaction to WVKC's belated rock revolution, however-- from students (including an offended letter to the editor.)

 One more note about WVKC.  In February (1966), the first combat death in Vietnam of a Knox alumnus was recorded: Albert Merriman Smith, class of 1960. He'd also worked at WVKC.  His father (also Albert Merriman Smith, though he'd dropped the "Albert" professionally) was the White House correspondent for United Press International, one of the wire news services we used for our newscasts.

I became an editor of Dialogue, the campus essay and issues magazine, now established in its second year.  I joined the editorial board (with students Kevern Cameron, Steve Goldberg and Dennis Stepanek, and faculty members Douglas Wilson, Gordon Dodds and John Pascucci) and by spring, I was functionally the managing editor, preparing the issue for press.

 I also began writing a column for the Knox Student, called Metaphor.  I started with a piece ostensibly "explicating" the expression "one book man." For a long time I thought I'd embarrassed myself by totally misunderstanding it. In 1965 I thought it meant a dogmatic person who derived their beliefs from the equivalent of one book.  Later it seemed it really meant an author who manages to write or at least publish only one book.  (An example of that would unfortunately be me.)  But it turns out that the original phrase "man of one book" from Thomas Aquinas meant what I thought it meant in 1965.

The only Metaphor column anyone remembers was one I wrote on a particularly frenzied night in November (I think I wrote it at the Toddle House, where I spent many late nights after my midnight radio show) that used a strange punning language to describe the weekend as a society or gossip columnist would--in this case "Lucretia Parsnips" or movie columnist Louella Parsons.  The names in particular drew attention (for example,"kafka livingston" was Kathy Lydigsen, "maybe jefferson" was Mary Jacobson, who returned the favor by dubbing me "big coincidence.")

Afterwards I heard from at least one English faculty member about my "Joycean" language, derived from Finnegans Wake by James Joyce.  I smiled and nodded knowingly but in fact I'd never looked at a page of Finnegans Wake.  My model was John Lennon, whose similar punning style was on display in two books, the recently published A Spaniard in the Works and the earlier In His Own Write, which I'd absorbed over the summer.  However, I hastened to acquaint myself with the works of James Joyce outside of A Portrait of the Artist--and he became an obsession for many years.

I have since learned that my experience essentially replicated John Lennon's.  When his first book came out, a critic mentioned its Joycean origins, but Lennon hadn't read Joyce either--though he did after he'd been influenced by him.

 My fellow columnists for the first semester were Kevern  "Casey"Cameron ("The Noisemaker") and Skip Peterson ("The Styleboat Skipper.") Cameron ignited a letters debate between Professors Brady and Doug Wilson, and Skip and I were envious.  But the three of us also collaborated in different combinations (I believe we may have written each other's columns once--I'm pretty sure I wrote a spoof of Cameron's.) I'm sure the three of us once got together to write a combined letter to the editor we thought was hilarious, after which we repaired to the BV for more liquid refreshment, returning to campus arm and arm and singing, a unique experience in my college career.

Unidentified Englishman (probably a duke by now) and me
I was still active in the Knox debate club, and in particular participated in a debate with two touring student debaters from Cambridge University in England.  Judy Dugan and I were each paired with one of these lads, on one side or the other of the topic (as we say in America), or the question (as they say in Brit.)  Judy and I did our standard research and serious preparation on whatever it was.  But the Brits were much looser, employing wit, rhetoric and sometimes fanciful argument.  I eventually got into the spirit with a few ripostes of my own that went over well, so we had a great time.

The Gale photo.  Mark Brooks and Neil Gaston behind me.
But my big public speaking moment that fall was addressing the Student Senate on the issue of how students were selected to participate in the Faculty Planning Committee's work (which is the occasion of my photo on the title page of the 1966 Gale yearbook.)

 I was part of a group that drafted a statement, and I wrote the accompanying speech.  I read it first before at least some members of this group, and specifically included the words "denizens of Olympus" so I could see Mary Jacobson make a face--she disapproved of such rhetoric. I made some changes based on their comments (but I kept "denizens of Olympus" in anyway. It gives me a laugh even now.)  As writing, the speech is pretty good--probably more accomplished than my columns--and clearly modeled on the style of Robert Kennedy.

 So with all of that elevated activity, none of it having anything to do with college sports, no one would suspect me of collaborating in the crime of the year.  But that was a key to our success--we were not the usual suspects.  So after more than five decades, now it can be told: the true story of....

The Great Turkey Heist of 1965

The closest equivalent college campus to Knox is Monmouth College in nearby Monmouth, Illinois.  The annual football game between the two schools is an historic rivalry, and the winner is awarded the bronze statue of a turkey.  Why?  Beats me.

  Anyway, the winning school keeps and displays it until the other school wins it back.  Except...part of the rivalry is finding ways to steal the Turkey in advance of the Big Game.  And this is what a highly unlikely crew did.  Our photos were published in the Knox Student--with our faces obscured.  So--Knox students of a certain age-- prepare to be shocked.

Ed Rust
The mastermind was Ed Rust, editor of the Knox Student.  In a letter to the editor at the end of his tenure I described him: "In conversation he is jittery, his eyes are piercing, his head and shoulders are bent forward, his chin jutted, all giving the impression of disorganized intensity."
 Today I would just recall him as a combination of Robert Kennedy and Dennis the Menace.

 Rust enlisted the unlikeliest of suspects: Jim Bronson (the tall, clean cut, affable photographer and writer for the Student) and the truly shocking one: Ruth Mesing, recently appointed as one of the first student representatives on the Faculty Committee on Student Affairs, along with Bob Misiorowski.  And, for some reason, little old Indie me.  How Ed talked me into it I don't know, but he could be persuasive about his enthusiasms.  (There were others in that photo but I don't recall who they were.)

RFK with Ed Rust reporting
Rust, who had seen entirely too many James Bond movies (Goldfinger was the latest hit in the series), concocted an elaborate plan, a real caper.  He obtained a car somehow (this was when Knox students weren't permitted to have cars on campus, or even to drive one)and sent Bronson and me to the Monmouth student union.

Jim identified himself as a photographer for the Monmouth student newspaper, and I was his assistant.  He sweet talked the union's (adult) manager into allowing him to take a photo of the Bronze Turkey in the display case.

 Only Jim kept getting a reflection from the glass, so he asked the manager to take the Turkey out of the display case.  But we needed still more light--daylight for instance, and so the manager accompanied us as we took it outside.  Just then at that very moment, he got an urgent phone call (Rust? Mesing? calling from a phone booth within sight of us) and had to go back inside.

Bronson was looking into his viewfinder while I held the Turkey.  He motioned me a little farther back.  Then a little farther.  And when he was sure the coast was clear, he waved me away.  We had the Turkey.  It was a heist, though I believe we liked to call it the Great Turkey Coup.

 But it wasn't over.  The Rust caper had a few more twists and turns. We met back at the car and Jim drove off, but he didn't head back to our campus directly.  Part way back to Galesburg he pulled off the road into a secluded area, where, under some trees, there was a second getaway car waiting.  It was a station wagon, the back of which had one of those compartments in the floor for the spare tire.  The Bronze Turkey went in there, with a nice rug atop the compartment.

Ruth Mesing and Miz wait for a Student Affairs meeting to start
Ruth Mesing drove the station wagon, the real getaway car.  I rode to Galesburg with her, while Bronson drove back alone.  So if anyone was looking for two guys riding together, they wouldn't find them.

 Meanwhile Ed Rust distributed fake editions of the Monmouth newspaper on their campus, announcing the theft of the Bronze Turkey, by "townies."

My participation ended there, but the fallout continued.  The next day Monmouth dropped a one page edition of the Knox "Stud" on the campus from an airplane.  Later, five pillowcases of feathers were dropped on the Monmouth campus.  Then Monmouth students tried to raid the Knox campus but one was captured and held overnight in a frat house.  Then Monmouth students did the same to a Knox student.

  The escalation might have continued, but by then it was time for the actual football game.  Which Knox won--the team's only victory of the season.

  The Theatre of Smoking

 I associate two other sets of memories with this school year.  I've previously recounted my New York misadventure with the tape of songs by my hometown folk trio, the Crosscurrents.  But that didn't end the Crosscurrents.  The other two members were high school friends, Clayton and Mike, who attended a college close to home. That fall, Clayton and I decided to write songs together long distance: I would write lyrics, send them to him, and he would write the music.  When I went back, the three of us would work out the song.  We wrote perhaps a half dozen songs that way.

 I vividly remember writing one of the lyrics-perhaps the first--on a yellow pad, in the Knox library.  That's a kind of holy memory.  They were good songs, though the lyrics were a little flawed.  One of them became pretty well known among a small audience.

 The other memory was of how I took up cigarette smoking.  It happened in the Gizmo, where I was entertaining the table with imitations of how various professors smoked.  Teachers smoking, let alone smoking in class, was new in my experience. But these were the '60s, and pretty much everyone smoked, pretty much everywhere (although at Knox, women were not permitted to smoke and walk at the same time.)  I got laughs by holding a cigarette with two fingers in an erect V, very close to the hand, as Mr. Grutzmacher had.  And smoking the cigarette down to the last quarter inch, as Mr. Haring did in my political science class.

The act was such a hit that I repeated it.  After a few times I just kept on smoking the cigarette, and then I started buying them.  I went from Salems to unfiltered Pall Malls in my senior year with lots of stops between.

At some point I discovered the variety of obscure and foreign brands sold in the Knox Bookstore and began trying them all.  I especially got a kick out of the multicolored ones--the actual cigarettes were odd shades of magenta and florescent green and so on.

 In the 70s when I quit (after succumbing to Gauloises and Gitanes) I identified this theatricality as part of what made smoking so habitual and (apart from the physical addiction of tobacco) so hard to kick.  How one held the cigarette, when one breathed in and out in rhythm with smoking, especially while talking; the cigarette as "a baton on the end of your gestures," made cigarettes an integral part of personal style and daily identity.

Speaking of theatrical, one of the actual courses I took this year was modern theatre history with theatre professor William Clark, who persuaded me that if I was going to write plays, I ought to know something about theatre. The text was Mordecai Gorelik's New Theatres For Old.

While I found the class less than mesmerizing  I did get something like a grounding in stagecraft history and theatrical styles.  I read plays and wrote about them.  I particularly enjoyed Ibsen's Ghosts and a little-known Tennessee Williams play, Camino Real.  In later life, when I found myself reviewing and writing about theatre, I maintained the habit of reading the plays I was seeing, and reading as much about them as I could.  This was often more fun and rewarding than seeing the productions.

And speaking of Phil Haring, I took his Modern Political Theory class second semester.  We sat around a large table, and so had plenty of opportunity to observe his smoking.  I remember we read a number of paperbacks, covering political theorists such as Hobbes, John Locke and David Hume, onto more contemporary theories such as applying behavioral psychology in The Behavioral Persuasion in Politics by Heinz Eulau, a taste of things to come.  I wasn't fond of that approach, as I wrote in a pretty good final paper.

I enjoyed instead the observations of Philip Whitaker in his 1964 book we used, that seems to have completely disappeared from the planet since: Political Theory and East African Problems.  His observations on political theory rather than East Africa were on point.  Still, I ended up not being motivated to continue in political science, which I had briefly considered as a possible major.

 In future posts, I plan to discuss the two writing courses I took this second year with Sam Moon, and the two literature courses with William V. Spanos (I never could call him "Bill") and the Whitman/Wallace Stevens seminiar with Douglas Wilson--all of which decided me.  But to end this post, I must recount the continuing influence of the man who wasn't there, the Ghost of Fred Newman.

  The Ghost Who Talks

Fred Newman's absence was a presence when classes resumed in the fall of 1965. Photos of the demonstration in support of him the previous spring appeared in the Knox Student.  The tensions among students, faculty and administration continued, and Newman was evoked in various commentaries.

Meanwhile Newman himself was in New York, teaching at City College (CCNY.)  That fact led a group of students to a further and ongoing protest--the wearing of CCNY sweatshirts.  There actually weren't any, we found, and so we had them created.  They arrived all together, and a fairly large group of us repaired to some off-campus apartment (probably Mike Hamrin's) to claim our blue sweatshirts with the white CCNY letters.  We returned to campus together, and entered the Oak Room together for dinner. The effect was slow to sink in but it remained for awhile, including some bitter criticism in letters to the editor, suggesting traitorous behavior.

 Newman's ghostly presence continued throughout my year, even academically.  It was most pronounced that fall, when I was using his language and accompanying it with his arm and hand gestures, and the way he rolled back on his heels where he stood.  In the Oak Room after dinner once, Wendy Saul commented on this, and added that I not only was beginning to resemble Fred Newman, "some people think you are Fred Newman."

Since childhood I found myself entering the image, so to speak, of figures I admired.  While other boys got themselves Davy Crockett coonskin caps, I felt myself become Davy Crockett, speaking and moving like Fess Parker had in the TV shows and movies, or rather feeling I was.

 I did something similar when I was learning, for example, to play and sing Bob Dylan songs or Beatles songs.  I became them internally, and outwardly imitated their voices and so on.  These were explorations and even ways of learning the songs, so eventually I would integrate their styles in my own way. But Wendy's comment made me realize I had gone too far this time.  The ghost of Fred was taking over.  I had to let it go. Besides, I had just bought my first John Lennon cap.

Still, all that year the influence remained in my classwork.  I took a philosophy of language course first semester (I don't recall the teacher) and a Theory of Controversy course second semester, taught by speech professor Donald Torrence (who was also in charge of debate.)  That practically was another philosophy of language course; I recall we read A.J. Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic. 

The text for the philosophy course was probably Readings in the Theory of Knowledge, edited by John Canfield and Franklin Donnell.  I remember we spent a lot of time on long excerpts from Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.  

My papers for both show a marked preference for books from the Newman course the previous year (notably Quine's Word and Object), and a style of discourse often similar to Newman's "Rules and Games" speech.  Even my final paper in Modern Political Theory began with a Wittgenstein/Newman riff on theory, rules and games, and returned to it later.  Reading that paper now, I have to observe that it actually was apropos, and successfully integrated those ideas for observations which I find valuable in looking at political situations today.

 Fred Newman however was not actually a ghost, and we were in sporadic contact by letter and phone.  Christmas vacation is often the occasion for big academic conferences (which cover for head-hunting and job-hunting for academic positions) and there was to be a philosophy conference in New York. Senior Michael Hamrin, one of Newman's students (who later entered the Stanford graduate program in philosophy, where Fred got his advanced degrees) had a VW bus at home in Joliet, and the plan was for him to stop by in Greensburg and pick me up on the way to Manhattan.  Judy Dugan, who lived in Chicagoland, would meet up with Hamrin for the trip. I was excited, not only about New York and the conference, but about the occasion of my two worlds coming together: two Knox friends (especially Judy) would meet my hometown friends, Mike and Clayton.

 Hamrin and Judy were scheduled to arrive at my family home on Christmas day. But the phone rang early on Christmas with Mike Hamrin on the line, explaining how his VW had been rear-ended on a city street.  He and Judy were uninjured but the VW was damaged to the extent that it wasn't safe to drive.  So they didn't come.  There were several further occasions when my two worlds were supposed to meet and didn't.  When they finally did...well, that's another story, for another time.
Fred talked about joining the faculty of Antioch College, a prestigious liberal arts college in Ohio, known for its unconventional academic approach.  I decided to apply for transfer to Antioch, which he encouraged. By spring, he'd been rejected for the job, and I'd been rejected for a scholarship. He wound up at Case Western Reserve, and I remained at Knox.

Fred also spoke about the possibility of a summer job for me, and for getting me a grant for summer school at Harvard.  Neither of these happened either.  (I'd forgotten most of this, but much of it was recorded in my letters home, which my mother saved.) Fred Newman returned corporeally to Knox in the spring, gave a well-attended talk in the Commons Room and a long interview on liberal arts colleges in the Knox Student.

 There were other highlights to my second year.  Stay tuned for posts on Sam Moon, William V. Spanos and Doug Wilson.  Other posts in this series can be found by clicking the History of My Reading or Knox College labels below.

Friday, May 08, 2020

History of My Reading: Ticket To Ride

My first year away at Knox College in Illinois, the 1964-5 school year, I watched for letters from back home in western Pennsylvania.  I got mail both at my Anderson House residence and in my campus mailbox outside the bookstore in Alumni Hall.  The letters were from family and high school friends, including from girls I hadn't known that well, but who wrote to me at my distant campus with the sweet dutifulness of writing to soldiers at remote postings in countries only slightly more foreign to them than Illinois.

 Then when I went home that summer, I watched with even greater anticipation for letters from Knox students I'd met the previous school year.  The situation had become reversed: I was separated from new friends, and a place where I'd begun to feel more at home than my home in Pennsylvania.

 The letters I got told of similar feelings--of frustrating jobs, boredom and loneliness.  "I'm going crazy" was a frequent message. One admitted ruefully to a longing to get back to school, but that was implied in several more.  The center of our lives had relocated. 

The letters were also something like literary efforts: self-referential (offering a running commentary on themselves) and playful (puns especially.)  My letters back certainly were that way--a reason to write, offer observations and opinions, construct fictions and jokes. One recipient got a call at work from her mother, alarmed that she had received a letter from the Howard Johnson Hotel Complaint Department.  She went home at lunch time to find it was just a letter from me, stuffed in a purloined letterhead envelope.

In general, the letters allowed us to reveal interests and a personality that couldn't be expressed in the same way on home grounds. The bulk of my correspondence was with a young woman I won't name--even a half-century later, I feel the need to be discrete on her behalf.  Our letters were exploratory but ardent and personal. We also exchanged poetry we'd written, and I sent her a short story I wrote that summer.  When fall came our relationship faltered, but her letters were a lifeline that summer.

 In response to my letter about events at the end of the school year, I got a letter or two from Mary Jacobson that I can't find.  I recall she passed on a compliment on my writing from Jay Matson, editor of our literary magazine that evidently can No Longer Be Named.  (I agree completely with the decision to dump all official uses of Siwash and Siwashers, but let's face it--the magazine was the Siwasher then, though it appears Knox College no longer describes it as such.)

 I remember this compliment because it was one of the first indications I had that my literary writing might be worth pursuing. I also remember Mary writing that she had just read the Thomas Mann story, "Disorder and Early Sorrow."  I loved the title all right, but found the characters and the story uncompelling, and didn't finish reading it.  But I kept such judgments to myself, while I was learning.

 Among the letters that did survive are several from Judy Dugan, a couple from Jim Miller (my Anderson House roommate), and a few from classmate Jill Crawford.  Evidently I'd sent Jill a copy of J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories, and she wrote back enthusiastically about the book, describing the stories she liked best.  She also read the two long Glass family stories collected in Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenter and Seymour: An Introduction, as well as re-reading the two Glass stories in Franny and Zooey.   

I'd read all of those as well, and in fact the only book I associate with that summer is Salinger: A critical and personal portrait, edited by Henry Anatole Grunwald.  It's a collection of literary essays, book reviews and commentaries by such leading critics of the day as Arthur Mizener, Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedler, though the longer and more formal articles were generally by lesser-knowns.  I remember reading it in the bright sunlight in my backyard.

 Looking back, that book was probably important for me because it contained a number of differing critiques and evaluations, as well as literary analysis, of a writer whose small body of work I already knew.  I had yet to take a college class that required this kind of literary analysis.  I was still learning about it by osmosis.  It certainly helped that I knew the work being discussed, so I could more or less concentrate on what kinds of things these writers said about it, and how they said it.

 I probably was a little aware of this at the time, though it wasn't my principal motive. I was still deeply involved in Salinger's work, and I read this volume of criticism to enrich my experience of the writing. I found some of what I felt articulated, and also plenty to argue with.

 Some of the essays and reviews compared Salinger to other authors, which gave me names of books and writers to explore. Fitzgerald was mentioned more than once, for instance, and The Catcher in the Rye compared with Huckleberry Finn. Salinger was very popular in the early to mid 60s, and so some of the critics bemoaned the attention he got over other contemporary writers they named who they considered more worthy. So, more names and more books to investigate.

References to Zen and eastern religions piqued my curiosity, just as Salinger's own mention of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus sent me to the Seton Hill College library in high school to peruse a volume of his writings.

portrait of Salinger on the cover of TIME 1961
I saw what criticism could do, for good and for ill.  Editor Grunwald provided a valuable introduction, in which he critiqued the critics for opinions supported and not.  He described literary criticism as many machines: "pull the right lever, and off the conveyor belt will roll social consciousness, depth psychology, historical perspective, neatly stamped-out pedantry and, gratifyingly often, passion for literature."

 The pieces I liked best articulated aspects I valued, but did so better than I could. One of these was by literary critic Ihab Hassan (who went on to have a distinguished career), another by a college-age student, Christopher Parker (writing mostly about The Catcher in the Rye.)  They both emphasized the theme of a stubbornly retained openness and innocence--championing innocence as an important ethical element.  Salinger's popularity tracks with the first baby boomers reaching adolescence.  This theme is essential to understanding our experiences and responses, particularly in the second half of the 1960s.

  One of the subjects of those letters from home to campus the previous spring had been about summer job prospects.  There seemed to be several decent ones, but none happened.

Finally my father got me a job at the Hempfield Township Supervisors office.  The township of Hempfield surrounded the city of Greensburg, though much of it was to the west.  It was at least as old as the city, beginning with a few large farms in the 18th century. It was now where the postwar housing and population growth was going.  My family lived at the nearest edge since the early 1950s, just a couple of city blocks or so outside the Greensburg city limits, in the district called Carbon, for the mine that used to be there.

Housing was expanding farther out even faster in the 60s, with lots of roadbuilding and so on. My father was at the time the de facto head of the township's "auxiliary police," which basically did crowd and traffic control as volunteers.  He knew the main administrative supervisor, a fellow Democrat, who wanted to create an actual township police (paid, and with police powers.) The proposal was to be on the ballot in the fall. My father was set to become the Chief.

 So he had some pull and I was hired as one of the young guys with very inspecific job duties.  At first I was sent out with the other two guys to assist the ancient township surveyor, as boring a job as you can imagine, especially in the hot sun.  One of our jobs was fashioning wooden stakes, at which I was spectacularly incompetent.
Westmoreland County courthouse, where I did research and occasionally viewed trials
Nobody knew what to do with me, but when the young head supervisor learned I could do research and write, he knew a good thing when it fell into his lap. He sent me to the county court house to research deeds and other public information.

  Eventually he assigned me the job of researching and writing a report on why having a police force was a good idea.  I did, the report was issued officially and written up in the newspaper--with my father named as the author.  My first experience as a ghostwriter. However, the police measure failed in the fall, and all that remained of the township police force was a premature gold badge marooned for decades in a basement drawer.

 The other aspect of working there I recall--apart from the ambiguous attentions of the township secretary, who chatted enthusiastically about her children as she stroked my arm--was the complaint by the Republican supervisor that I was reading on the job.  Apparently, when I had no assigned duties, it was okay for me to sit and do nothing, but on no account could I read a book.  It was a peek at the working world I would remember.
There were plenty of events on the television and in the newspapers that summer: a couple of Gemini missions and the first flyby of Mars, and after years and years of debate and some drama that summer, both the Voting Rights Act and Medicare passed Congress and were signed into law.

 At the same time, there was strife surrounding civil rights demonstrations in Selma and elsewhere in the South, and in August the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles erupted in six days of violence that resulted in 34 deaths and nearly 300 businesses, public and private buildings burned and destroyed.

 In June, the number of U.S. ground troops in Vietnam was increased to 72,000 from the initial 3500 sent in March.  In July, that number was increased again, to 125,000, with draft calls doubled to 35,000 a month.  Anti-war demonstrations continued in Berkeley and a teach-in was held in Washington.

 I wrote several letters to the editor published in the Greensburg Tribune Review, often responding to the right wing rantings of an ultra-conservative retiree and frequent letter writer: I defended Medicare (then called "medical care for the aged") and Vietnam war Teach-Ins, and supported Senator Robert Kennedy's efforts to encourage nuclear proliferation treaties.  Something to do in the vacuum of summer.

 My big trip of the summer was to New York City in August.  Knox student David Altman was something like assistant station manager at the campus radio station, WVKC, and I had just been named News Director.  He was at NYU for the summer and invited me to visit, and stay in the dorm.

NYU is located in Greenwich Village, so I was keen to visit the folk music clubs there.  I also saw my first off-Broadway plays: what turned out to be the original production of the Albee/Beckett double bill of Zoo Story and Krapp's Last Tape. After seeing Knox studio theatre productions of such contemporary plays, I was at first disconcerted to see adult characters being played by actual adult actors.

We spent a desultory day at the 1964 World's Fair, smothered by the heat and discouraged by the lines.  Towards the end of my stay, I took a train up to Darien, Connecticut to visit classmate Sue Barry.  I drank beer out of a pewter mug and saw my first four-way stop signs.  I'd written to Sue earlier in the summer about my New York trip, and she invited me to visit.  She mentioned that the Newport Folk Festival would be happening in late July, but I didn't get to New York until August.  That festival would go down in history for Bob Dylan's first "electric" performance with amplified back-up, comprised of players who would later form the Band.

 I also had some musical business to do in New York.  I carried with me a tape of several original songs that my folk trio the Crosscurrents recorded in my basement earlier in the summer.  I'd written most of them.  I looked up a talent agency and took it to the address.  They told me to wait and someone would see me.

 In the waiting room a slightly older guy advised me that if I had doubts about the quality of my material I should leave, because you usually got only one chance.  But I couldn't come back, so I stayed. A middle aged man came out and started walking me back to where he would play my tape, his arm on my shoulder.  He was asking about me in a friendly way, and as he held my tape casually inquired what the speed was.  These were reel-to-reel days.

I said 3 and 3/4.  He stopped. He was sorry but they didn't have the equipment to play back at that speed.  Most home recorders had options for 3 3/4 and 7 1/2.  The slower speed meant you could get more on the tape, though at lower quality.  But professional recording was done at 15, and their machinery could play back only that and 7 1/2. So I left the building without our songs being heard.

As it turned out, that would be as close as the Crosscurrents got to folkie fame. I found myself blinking in the sunshine, having had my hopes raised and dashed in a matter of moments.

There was a movie theatre across the street, which promised darkness and air conditioning cold.  I went in.  And it was that moment that changed my life. It was the afternoon and only a few people were in the theater, but I was sure that one guy I saw in front of me was Bob Dylan. I got a pretty good look at him walking past me--he left in the middle of the film.

The movie that was playing was Help! by the Beatles.  It was new that summer. I walked into the theater a folk music snob, and walked out a Beatles zealot.  The music, the style of humor, everything about it blew me away.

 I'd been into rock and roll in the 50s (Buddy Holly was my guy) but left it for jazz in high school and then folk music.  I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and all the screaming girls, but it was radio pop, not serious or meaningful or relevant like folk music, so I had no reason to see the Beatles' first movie, A Hard Day's Night.

That all started disappearing in the wake of Help!'s opening credits.  By the first musical sequence, the recording of "You're Gonna Lose That Girl," it was gone.  By the ski scenes to "Ticket to Ride" I was transformed.

 When I got back home I assembled the Crosscurrents, and we went to see the movie together--several times. (Another time soon after that we saw it again on a double bill with A Hard Day's Night--both of them several times.  Back in Galesburg in the fall I repeated the process at the Orpheum theatre.  I started in the afternoon and was still there for the last show in the evening, when I saw Doug Wilson walk in.)

 Back at his house after the movie that summer, Clayton figured out the chords to all the movie's songs while his younger sister Taffy wrote out the words from memory.  We (Clayton, Mike and I) played them over and over in a frenzy in Clayton's basement, much to the delight of his many younger siblings.  So many things changed, so much of our future direction was reset--musically, culturally and even for me, in my reading and literary pursuits.  It was a new ticket to ride.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

History of My Reading: Living Paradox

In early 1965--the second half of the 1964-5 school year--Frederick Delano Newman was approaching 30, and in his third year as a professor of philosophy at Knox College.  Born in the Bronx, he worked as an apprentice machinist and in other jobs after his father died and left the family destitute.  At 18 or 19 he joined the U.S. Army and served in Korea just after the Korean war officially ceased.

 Thanks to the G.I. Bill, he graduated from the City College of New York, which (according to its web site) was known as "Harvard of the Proletariat" and "the poor man's Harvard" because of its "academic excellence and status as a working-class school." Newman got his PhD from Stanford University, the self-styled Ivy League college of the West, just before he began teaching at Knox, which at the time liked to call itself the Harvard of the Midwest (complete with Harvard's purple and gold.)

 At Knox he was friends with Douglas Wilson and William V. Spanos of the English Department (among others), and so I probably knew of him from Wilson (my academic advisor) in my first semester.  Newman and Wilson were principals in a folk music ensemble, famous that year for their satirical song about "the rug," which--if memory serves-- told the story of Knox buying the world's largest carpet and building a Fine Arts Center around it.  The CFA had just opened.

But I'm pretty sure my first direct experience of Fred Newman was in the intro philosophy course (Philosophy 115) I took that second semester.  I probably knew that--like my fiction-writing course with Harold Grutzmacher--it would be my last chance to take one of his courses, because it was to be his last semester at Knox.  But I'm not entirely sure about the timing, since Newman himself was not told until January that his contract wasn't going to be renewed after this semester (so late in the year that it was itself a violation of rules established by the American Association of University Professors.)

 A disturbing number of young and favorite faculty members were leaving Knox that year, as others had the year before and more would the year after. Newman's abrupt and mostly forced departure was the most dramatic example of the Knox brain drain, and that drama played out all semester, culminating in a Student Senate resolution and a protest march at graduation.

But while this drama slowly built to its climax, my ongoing and intensive experience was this philosophy course, the first I'd taken.  It was not, we were emphatically warned, about a "philosophy of life," or even the Great Thoughts and schools of philosophy through history.  Newman had studied analytic philosophy with the charismatic Donald Davidson at Stanford. Its general areas of interest were logic and language (which happens to be the title of what I believe was one of our texts: Logic and Language, an anthology of essays by the likes of Gilbert Ryle, John Wisdom and G.E. Moore.)

 Logic and language also happened to be areas of my intense interest and aptitude. As I was to learn later, this brand of analytic philosophy emerged from Oxbridge--the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in England-- beginning in the early twentieth century.  One emphasis among several was dubbed Ordinary Language Philosophy, which questioned academic reliance on specialized or technical terms (especially jargon) and instead analyzed the meaning of words and expressions in everyday use, and their relationship to philosophical questions.

A.J. Ayer
(There was also a reductionist version of analytic philosophy called Logical Positivism, championed by Oxford's A.J. Ayer.  It was the subject of many a debate at Knox and elsewhere before collapsing under its own weight.  Playwright Tom Stoppard mentioned in his Paris Review interview that he'd seen Ayer on television responding to the question of what were the main defects of logical positivism.  "I suppose its main defect," Ayer said, "was that it wasn't true." Nevertheless, it still managed to rise from the dead in various late 20th century movements.)

Beyond the Fringe: Oxbridge Quartet
This analytic/ordinary language philosophy was so ingrained in those English universities that it became a basis for the characteristic humor of an age, first through the Oxbridge quartet (Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett) who devised and performed Beyond the Fringe in the early 1960s (most directly in the sketches called "Oxbridge Philosophy" and "Portrait from Memory" which was about Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore.)

 That style of language and logic play also inspired the likes of David Frost (That Was the Week That Was),  the members of Monty Python's Flying Circus, and Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)--most of them Oxbridgers.  It also influenced the work of several English playwrights--notably Tom Stoppard, who wrote a play about academic philosophers (Jumpers), and Michael Frayn, who wrote a long book of philosophy, which I reviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. This is not to imply that this philosophy course was a joke (though Quine's writing and Newman's talk could be playful and witty.)  On the contrary, it was among the richest, most consequential and most intellectually mind-opening courses I took at Knox.

  I remember the class as being huge.  I believe we met for lectures in the Fine Art Center, perhaps the main theatre or the music theatre.  The lectures were supplemented by tutorials, with either Newman or the only other member of the philosophy department, Donald Milton. Perhaps Milton lectured as well, but Newman was definitely the main attraction, a mesmerizing and theatrical performer.

I'm not sure what books we were required to buy for this course, if any, but I'm sure of several books that were central to the course (we may have been given handouts from various chapters):  Mind and the World Order: Outline of A Theory of Knowledge by C. I. Lewis (a book originally published in 1929) and Word and Object by Willard Van Orman Quine, a contemporary Harvard philosopher.  If I didn't acquire those books during the course, I did shortly afterward.  We also intensively studied at least one essay ("Two Dogmas of Empiricism") from Quine's essay collection, From a Logical Point of View.
We were definitely given handouts, including texts of Newman's lectures (double-spaced mimeographed purple ink copies.)  I also have a long article by Warner A. Wick from the Philosophical Review that looks like it came from this course.

We wrote frequent short papers, some perhaps based on articles like this, which were the subject of our tutorials. The tutorials were held in the philosophy office where Newman and Milton would hold them simultaneously in different parts of the room. Each would be sitting in one chair, with an chair for the student opposite. We filed through, one after another. It reminded me of two priests hearing confessions, except we didn't kneel.

 Philosophy 115 was not a standard introductory course that presented a range of material, organized by historical chronology or types, which students were expected to learn to identify.  We were introduced instead to philosophy as an activity.  We were dropped in the middle of philosophical undertakings--into what seemed like live discoveries and debates.  We weren't learning about philosophy; we were learning to do philosophy.

 Along the way there were new ideas and a new language, and our heads were swimming among the given and interpretive, analytic and synthetic, a priori and empirical, not to mention relativistic ontological relativism.  But we learned most of the terms and ideas on the fly, inside the analyses being done. This was an electric combination.

The books and essays we read were making actual arguments to advance knowledge, as were Newman's lectures, or at least some of them.  As students we were focused on Newman's preoccupations and his brand of philosophy (which I realize now in paging through two of his subsequent books, Explanation By Description and The Myth of Psychology, had American roots in the pragmatism of William James as well as certain Oxbridge figures.)

 But a semester is not a long time, and this approach to an introduction seems as least as valid as the more standard one.  In one sense it could be said that instead of learning the history of swimming and the various methods, we were thrown into the pool to learn how to swim.

More than that, I felt it as a model completely new to me: a course in which students witness and share in the ongoing work of the teacher in their field.  What could be more exciting than that? That impression was augmented by Newman's availability.  He was on campus a lot, in the Gizmo even at night, and although discussions could be wide-ranging (and funny), the kind of analytical approach we were learning in the course was always present, if not predominant.  (For some reason I recall one specific day when Newman sat in the Gizmo with his back against the heat register or radiator.  He talked for hours, even though he had a cold.  Then he got up, declared that he'd sweated out the cold and felt better, and left.)

 What were we learning? Especially what transferred beyond the discipline into other areas of knowledge and life?  Of course that varied for each student.  But at this remove, two areas occur to me as prominently in the mix for many.

 First of all, to question, beyond what we may already have learned to question.  Not just the accuracy of facts, the legitimacy of sources, the faulty arguments (by authority, for example) or illogic.  But the meaning of every statement, every word--its logic and implications.  Philosophy analyzed the internal logic--the hidden assumptions, the unquestioned contradictions--of entire fields of endeavor, such as science (including social science.)
  It wasn't a stretch to ask similar questions about politics or literary studies, or relationships.

 Second, the defining role of the mind in our reality.  In effect, this philosophical approach stated that the world as we know it is as much a product of the mind as the mind is of the world.  In a meaningful way, we are the medium in which the apprehensible and comprehensible universe exits; our abstractions, analogies and stories construct a universe.  We couldn't exist without the given world, but the world we knew couldn't exist without our mental participation.

 This is a paradox, and the paradox is us.
This single insight of the mind's active relationship to reality becomes crucial to approaching such disparate subjects as quantum physics, the Tao and Zen meditation, modern literature (Wallace Stevens, for instance), Vietnam and Yellow Submarine ("It's all in the mind, ya know.")

G.E. Moore
It's a heady moment when the stability of the world is shattered, and you can no longer see yourself as simply a receiver or observer of it.  The first temptation is to go immediately to the extreme.  There is a philosophy student rite of passage when you're convinced by the argument that you can't prove anything actually exists outside of your mind.  Fred Newman said that G.E. Moore's argument for the existence of physical objects was to wave his big meaty fist in your face, and ask if you wanted to test its reality.

 The philosophy we studied--of Quine and Lewis particularly, but with roots in Kant etc.--posits a given world, but humans define it in the most basic and subtle ways.  Moreover, we don't often do this individually.  Reality and its elements are a product of social agreement.

This is the subject of the one paragraph of Quine I've always remembered.  He points out that calling an object "red" is a product of learning and agreement--we don't really know that everybody sees exactly the same color, and that indeed there are differences in the light that create slightly different colors, but we still call it red.

 Here's the paragraph (from the first chapter of Word and Object): "Different persons growing up in the same language are like different bushes trimmed and trained to take the shape of identical elephants.  The anatomical details of twigs and branches will fulfill the elephantine form differently from bush to bush, but the overall results are alike."   

There was a certain shared euphoria among students in this course.  I remember a long conversation with an older student named Barbara Johnson about the course that was exhilarating (and not just because she was.)  This course fulfilled dreams of what college could be. And the college was about to take it away.

Paul Shepard
The year before, Knox lost pioneer ecologist Paul Shepard; if there are future historians, they will recognize him as one of the geniuses of the 20th century.

Jerome Schiller also left. He was hired a year before Newman, and together with him, began to built an academic philosophy department where none had been before.

 At the end of the 1964-5 school year, Gabriel Jackson, widely viewed as a brilliant historian and teacher, was leaving.  Student Patricia Perry wrote: "Dr. Jackson is a tremendous human being, enormously talented, interested in almost everything, with a reverence for life.  He is a first-rate scholar with a concern for the humanities, for social justice, for rational and compassionate solutions to human problems.  In his classes, one gets the impression of his true concern for problems that matter."

 Writing professor Harold Grutzmacher was leaving, depleting the writing faculty by half. Also leaving was Rowland K. Chase, chair of the theatre department, who not only directed a stellar production of Hamlet this school year, but wrote a lecture/ essay about his approach to the production published in Dialogue--the only such occasion in my time at Knox.  Kim Chase had also revolutionized the Studio Theatre program to be more student-oriented, and revitalized theatre at Knox in the process.

 Some 18 faculty members were not coming back in the fall.  There is always some turnover, and people have individual reasons for moving on that students of my generation were probably not equipped to understand, such as career advancement, money to raise a family, escape from Galesburg, family preferences and relationships, for example.

 But some faculty exits had troubling factors in common, having to do with the college's uneven commitment to academic excellence, and conflict with the administration over policies, especially over the onerous student codes (chiefly women's "hours" or curfew, but other issues as well) that were becoming serious causes of campus conflict.

Most troubling was the quality of several of the teachers who were leaving.  Having experienced excellent teaching, Knox students were not happy about losing these opportunities.  Many felt betrayed. A charismatic teacher like Fred Newman would probably have been the focal point of student anger anyway, but the nature of his situation ensured it.  Unlike the others leaving (who weren't on one year contracts), he had been fired--in a brutal way, halfway through the school year.  Knox avoided national censure by offering him a one year terminal contract, which he refused.

The reasons for his firing were the sources of rumors all semester.  In April, the editor of the Knox Student, Ed Rust, interviewed Newman, and got his version.

 Newman talked about the achievements of the philosophy department in a sudden array of classes and--for the first time--philosophy majors, but also disappointments and difficulties of a two-person philosophy department--requests to expand it were denied.

 Then he talked about the reasons he thought he was fired.  Newman was part of a group of young faculty members who worked within established channels to increase institutional opportunities for student participation in college decisions, and especially to modify women's hours, with the aim of eliminating them with a simple sign-out system for juniors and seniors.

 That seemed close to success the previous spring (of 1963-64), he said, but a sudden reversal of the Student Affairs Committee vote led to alarm that the administration was closing the door on considering changes.  Classes were over for the year, but students still on campus wanted to talk about this, and discuss active responses, including a demonstration at the last remaining event of the year, graduation.  One of those meetings was held at Newman's home.

 According to Newman, the college president (Sharvey Umbeck) accused Newman of leading or instigating this putative revolt, using a figure of speech I hadn't heard since a particular nun employed it in my fifth grade: "heads will roll."  (Newman said he had opposed a demonstration at graduation, and in the end students didn't demonstrate anyway.)

 Rust's interview ended with the information that the other philosophy teacher, Donald Milton, was offered a contract to stay at Knox but declined.  Also that the one philosophy teacher Knox had hired to replace them had changed his mind and wasn't coming.

As of April, Knox had philosophy majors and philosophy students, but no philosophy department for the following school year. Rumors again circulated--spread by at least one administrator I heard them from--that there was more to Newman's dismissal: something so dark and sinister that it couldn't be specified. Meanwhile,  the senior class "by a substantial margin" selected Fred Newman as their Senior Convocation speaker.

In May, a resolution crafted by an ad hoc student committee passed the Student Senate 26.5 votes to 4.  The resolution asserted that "a valuable member of the Knox faculty has been dismissed for reasons other than his academic competence.  Specifically, he is being dismissed for taking a position with respect to the social structure of Knox College, a position differing with the official administration policy."

 The resolution called a dismissal on such grounds "irresponsible" and "a threat to the intellectual welfare of the entire student body." It ended with this: "We, the students of Knox College, will express our concern on Friday, May 21, 1965."

That was the date of the Senior Convocation.  The demonstration the administration apparently feared the previous spring was happening one year later.

 The last Knox Student of the school year, also dated May 21, contained Ed Rust's editorial, stating that while claims were made that Newman was lying about why he was fired, no one offered contrary evidence.  There was a long essay by student Gordon Benkler and several pages of letters to the editor, many in support of Newman as well as other departing faculty, especially Gabe Jackson.

 Probably the most significant letter was from Jackson himself.  He countered the charges that Newman's interview was "full of lies."  There were "omissions, a few errors of detail, and some distortions of motive which understandably hurt a great many peoples' feelings--my own included.  However, the interview is, on the whole, highly factual..." Jackson's letter ended with two sentences that would reverberate for years to come:  "I do not know the extent to which the administration and trustees are determined to create a great liberal arts college at Knox.  I do feel that I know that a truly excellent faculty and excellent student body cannot be maintained within the present codes."

This issue of the Student also contained the text of Newman's speech to the Senior Convocation, entitled "Rules and Games."  It was reprinted a year later in Dialogue. Reading it today, it remains well-cadenced, eloquent, heartfelt and insightful.  It is personal and at the same time creates a thoughtful context for the 1960s but also for our densely computerized age.

 It continued themes of our course as well as a theme of the year for me--the defense of individualism.

 Individualists, he said, are aware that in "acting in accordance with existing norms" they are choosing to endorse these norms, and are "sensitive to the fact that these norms are, in part, a result" of their choices.  Norms or rules cannot become moral crutches. "Individualism needs defending," he said.  People can "dehumanize" themselves.

 Aspects of the address are also very interesting in light of Newman's own later career.  At the time, with its evocations of Wittgenstein, it continued and--for those of us who were his students--completed our course in philosophy.

  I don't remember much about the actual demonstration that spring.  In memory I thought it happened after the graduation ceremony.  I seem to recall being in Seymour Union to get my picket sign, waiting for it to start.  I remember it as being silent--a long line, single and double file--more of a funeral procession than a raucous demo.  Or maybe that's what I felt--that it was a funeral for my Knox College hopes, for the possibilities I saw in the course I'd just experienced, that seemed to be taken away in the next instant.

  Effects of this philosophy course and the events of that spring--personally and at Knox more generally-- continued into the next year. I intend to pick up the story in a future post.

  As for Fred Newman, by that late spring I'd established something like a personal relationship with him. He volunteered to drive me and my boxes and suitcases of stuff to the Q train station to send home for the summer, in exchange for my babysitting for an evening so that he and his wife could go to what amounted to a farewell party.

 We exchanged a few letters (though none survive), and I saw him occasionally over the next three years. He seemed to come back to Galesburg at about this time every spring, including 1968, when the last students who'd had him as a teacher were about to leave.

It was perhaps the year before that he arrived a little later, when Galesburg was already gripped in its solid block of summer heat. Probably my last memory of him was outside the apartment where I was staying on West Berrien.  He'd been in a mood, almost hostile at times, alternating with gloom.  I saw him sitting on the hood of a car, looking into the sunset.

CCNY today
After Knox, Newman taught at his alma mater, the City College of New York.  There was some talk of Antioch, but he wound up at Case Western Reserve in Ohio.  His official biography says that he was forced out of his positions at both schools when he insisted on giving his male students As, to ensure they kept their 2-S deferments from the draft and weren't shipped off to Vietnam.

 Once when he returned to Galesburg he was promoting his new idea, an independent program called the Robin Hood Relearning Corps.  He also mentioned a summer experiment, in which he and three other philosophers and their spouses lived in the same house, so they could do philosophy full time.  The only result, he said, was that all four marriages broke up, including his own.

 By the 1970s he was out of academia, and those two anecdotes suggest directions his life would take.  I remember him once cursing psychologists as "failed physicists," an offhand remark that continued to seem apt in many ways.  Just as his philosophical mentors claimed that reality is socially obtained, he decided that psychology required a social practice.  He and others developed a new kind of therapy, at least partially based on some of the theories that got attention in the late 60s, such as the work of R.D. Laing in the UK.  He became a therapist, with highly controversial methods.  Some of his work on personal and social development was with underclass black and Latino youth.

Newman also became a player in New York politics (he ran for Mayor at least once), and a playwright with his own theatre.  I have no personal knowledge of any of this, so I'll just quote his New York Times obituary:

  "Fred Newman’s influential role in New York life and politics defied easy description. He founded a Marxist-Leninist party, fostered a sexually charged brand of psychotherapy, wrote controversial plays about race and managed the presidential campaign of Lenora Fulani, who was both the first woman and the first black candidate to get on the ballot in all 50 states. He helped the Rev. Al Sharpton get on his feet as a public figure and gave Michael R. Bloomberg the support of his Independence Party in three mayoral elections, arguably providing Mr. Bloomberg’s margin of victory in 2001 and 2009. He created an empire of nonprofit and for-profit enterprises, including arts groups and a public relations firm. He wrote books on psychology and philosophy as well as plays. One play, about the 1991 riots between blacks and Jews in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, was condemned as anti-Semitic by the Anti-Defamation League. His greatest impact came through mobilizing his followers, sometimes called “Newmanites,” to build alliances with third parties, including that of the Texas independent H. Ross Perot."

When I heard about his death after a long illness at the age of 76 in 2011, I looked up this dizzying information: he's got a wikipedia page as well as his own website and material on the East Side Institute site.  He's got his own Vimeo page and C-Span page of videos.  I can't comment on the insights he had on psychology and politics, or dramaturgy for that matter, since I haven't really perused them.  But I did see that he continued to have enthusiastic followers whichever way he turned.

I began to see Newman not as a phony or a charlatan, as he has been called over the years, but as a charismatic personality, and as much a captive of it as others were captivated.

 I've known other people since with similar traits: that brilliance that focuses with complete belief, together with an insistent persuasion and cultivation of complicity--until they drop it and pick up something else with the same conviction.

 This is not necessarily bad but can be dangerous.  Generosity is accompanied by a need for the emotional connivance of others, and at worst there is a blindness to consequences and disparagement of non-believers. The first effect of that charismatic energy, to quote a multi-year student of Fred's, was a kind of ecstasy: "I fell completely under his spell."  But also: "Fred left quite a trail of victims, and quite a trail of followers."  This former student detached himself from Newman's orbit when he began to see destructive consequences, long after he left Knox.

 In similar circumstances, others apparently either overlook or rationalize such consequences, or believe they are not primarily consequences of what the charismatic figure said or did. Or they remain so convinced or just overwhelmed by the brilliance and the vision that nothing else matters as much.

   His complexities, it seems to me, don't require condemnation, just wariness.  Specific actions or ideas can be evaluated on their own. The charismatic personality is hard to resist but can become stifling as well as exhausting, so sometimes--or maybe inevitably-- you eventually just have to move on.  But the words are still there to be read and considered.

  The Newman I knew introduced me to Quine and Wittgenstein, and to seeing the world in a different way.  In "Rules and Games" he quoted Wittgenstein about what games had in common--don't think or assume you know, but really look.  Newman also said of his speech that he wished he'd been asked "to hear for you rather than talk to you."  Those two statements remained guides for me and my work from then until now.

 The 1965 Fred Newman ended his Senior Convocation Address by returning to Wittgenstein, and his last words: "Tell them I've had a wonderful life." "Even those who never understood were to be thanked for allowing him to rant and rave and to be his individualistic brilliant self," Newman said.  "I am surely no Wittgenstein and I do not believe I am about to die.  But I feel compelled to conclude by saying to all my friends who have understood as well as to those who gave me the opportunity to persuade, 'Thank you.'"