Thursday, November 15, 2007
WRITTEN WORD 24 - Professors of English
My college, Princeton, was a gray, reactionary, intensely alcoholic and snobbish place where those in power frequently tried to ape what they saw as their betters on the other side of the Atlantic. Physically, it was a Disneyland version of 800-year-old Oxbridge buildings set down in New Jersey. Across Nassau Street there was a more American stage set, a Williamsburg sort of town – uniform buildings of plastic-looking red brick with white pillars.
There on Nassau Street you could buy white bucks and Oxford gray suits and leather covered flasks to take to football games, but no books and no art supplies. Back behind the Williamsburg façade the place was as segregated as if this were Alabama – narrow streets behind Nassau Street filled with black people, many of whom worked at the college and in the eating clubs, which were Princeton’s version of fraternities. The presence of black servants was often given as the reason most of the clubs would not take black students as members – though by the time I got there things had opened up the point where each class had an actual Negro in it. They had to be kept out the clubs, it was said, not because the college men were bigoted but because, club officers claimed, the loyal Negroes doing the serving would be the first to object to integration.
The English department was full of celebrated experts on modern American literature who seemed to hate literature – the Frost expert who wrote a book about how Robert Frost was only a minor poet and, worse, no gentleman; the Hemingway expert whom Hemingway said should be avoided; the Melville expert who wrote a book about how this Moby Dick was a homoerotic treatise, celebrating the joy of sinking your fist into white blubber.
I wrote a column on The Daily Princetonian – assigning it to myself since I was editorial chairman (something I did in the free time I had created by not going to classes) – a column saying these English professors had no feel for writing, for anything aesthetic or moving – mentioning their claims heard so often in class that there were right and wrong answers about the meaning of any given work of literature, that you could really understand a novel if you saw one of their blackboard outlines of it – their unspoken claim that literature was a dry subject where emotion had no place. I said in my Princetonian column that all this awful stuff was light years away from the experience of walking along the green banks of Princeton’s Carnegie Lake in springtime – an experience foreign to these tweedy professors.
Carlos Baker, the Hemingway expert, was the English Department chairman (gender always specific at this place back then when women were never seen except when dates came down on some weekends). Carlos Baker called a special meeting of all the preceptors (the Anglo term for instructors, such British-sounding terms favored here the same way fake Gothic architecture was favored). He gave them talking points to refute this young Fred Poole person – for how can you know anything about literature if you do not follow those who so bravely analyze it and analyze and analyze it. Then he clinched his argument by showing them the transcript of my grades, which I thought were not bad considering I spent most of my time away from the campus and hardly ever went to classes and still managed to pass sometimes – but which he thought would be the clincher that would prevent Fred Poole and anyone else who thought the way young Poole did from further corrupting the students. He told his preceptors to show copies of the transcript to everyone in their preceptorials.
I spent a lot of time away from classes and had a lot of adventures in all the wrong parts of New York and one year the wrong parts of European cities. Then after college I was in places where the young people were not right-wingers networking to set up their post-college corporate lives. Sometimes I was in sybaritic places and sometimes artistic places and sometimes war-zone places, and sometimes all three at once, but never a place where you could base a world on fake architecture.
Once was in what seemed to me the real world at last, for thirty years I never considered taking a course from anyone – not until I had this physical pull into visual versions of reality. In one of my first classes at the Art Students League, where I was following the classic path of drawing from life , one night while drawing a girl whose lines were not interrupted by clothing, I was at an easel beside the actor Peter Falk’s easel. When he was between films in California he always came East to draw here. I saw the sort of passion I had never seen the last time I was in classrooms. Peter Falk could be furiously vocal if a teacher were late – more direct displeasure than shown by the subtle detective he played on television.
Before art school places I did not know there was such a thing as a student who was not overjoyed to find a teacher absent – but then my last experience with education, thirty years back, had been in a place that was more boarding school than many boarding schools – no cars or girls allowed, compulsory chapel, huge pressure to attend athletic displays. As if that were not enough, the students were infantilized further for the greater glory of their country. “Princeton in the nation’s service” was the grim motto of the school – and almost every time through the years that I heard about someone really awful in the American government it would turn out to be a fellow alumnus of Princeton – Eisenhower’s devious attorney general Herb Brownell, Nixon’s respectable front men, Reagan’s war-loving bully Casper Weinberger, who seemed to get a sexual joy out of bombing small defenseless countries, or George Schultz, who had a hidden Princeton tiger tattoo, or the older George Bush's consigliore Jim Baker who afterwards maneuvered the drugged-out Bush son into power after an election the son had lost – not to mention the old Princetonian Donald Rumsfeld, veteran of various cruel administrations who came back again to start and oversee of the murderous devastation of Iraq, which included the inauguration of torture, and the use of mercenaries. as American policy.
In addition to athletics, corporate networking, binge drinking and preparation for government, there was some creative writing honored at Princeton when I was there. One person in my class praised by many in the English department was a brawler named Mark who wrote imitation Hemingway, mostly about drunken fights, though, unlike Hemingway, fights in places it felt like Mark had never seen. And the aesthete Norman who wrote imitation Faulkner, with the same sort of deep South settings that Faulkner, though apparently not the anglophile Norman, saw as home.