Morningside II: Five Great Teachers

posted by SWC on September 25th, 2011 · 1 Comment | | Printer Friendly Version

Moving uptown from NYU’s Washington Square College in Greenwich Village to Morningside Heights and Columbia was more a matter of cultural than geographical relocation. NYU turned out to be the right place to sort out, debate, and eventually establish one’s lifelong political and philosophical leanings. This process occurred mainly in the school cafeteria, known as The Commons. The Village itself added a cultural-laboratory effect to an otherwise drab urban university curriculum. Columbia by contrast was an intellectual finishing school where graduate students were given the learning and models they needed to become ready-to-hire scholars. The cineramic personalities who educated us were themselves renowned intellectuals, each with a mythic reputation for great teaching. Below are my remembered perceptions of five professors I thought fit securely in the stellar category.

Gilbert Highet (1906-1978) was a classicist, probably from infancy. Glasgow-born, he spoke with just a hint of Scottish burr (very handy for words like “terrific” and “pure”). Movie-star handsome, he was clearly meant to play the role of nothing less than a foreign secretary, though I think even Anthony Eden would have looked a bit raggedy-edged by comparison. I don’t recall him using his desk, unless as a prop. He demonstrated the art of teaching as performance by whipping around the class while describing some contemporary bounce of the living Classical Tradition, often through face-to-face enactments with randomly chosen students. Though he would often refer to his “own darling Catullus,” his infectious first love was his love of teaching. The Art of Teaching is his handy guide for those who would teach anything to anyone. Always affable and generous with his time, Highet was the easiest of professors to speak with. His wife, incidentally, was Helen MacInnes, also Glasgow-born, and my favorite spy and mystery novelist from high school on.

Marjorie Hope Nicolson (1894-1981), chairperson of the Graduate Department of English and Comparative Literature, was a woman of generous girth, convincing authority, and what I remember as profoundly grey eyes. A practitioner and fine tuner of the old historicism before it became the new historicism, she lectured from her desk on the thought and poetry of the seventeenth century (read her Breaking of the Circle or Newton Demands the Muse), but she could just as comfortably spend a New Critical hour in tracking down the simple subject and predicate of Milton’s “On His Blindness” or parsing one of the shorter poems of John Donne. Nicolson also taught the virtues of organization and clarity, not surprising for the daughter of a midwestern newspaper editor.

Maurice Valency (1903-1996) lived fortunately well into his nineties. Fortunately, because he had much more than an average lifetime of literary and allied accomplishments to work his way through. Although he was described as a theater master in Mel Gussow’s New York Times obituary (playwright, author, critic and professor of drama; known for his award-winning adaptations of the plays of Jean Giraudoux and Friedrich Duerrenmatt), Professor Valency was also a member of the New York bar, was fluent in at least seven languages, taught at Brooklyn College, was director of academic studies at Juilliard, and taught Spenser and Courtly Love at Columbia, where I had the mistaken notion that anyone who lectured so alluringly on sixteenth-century love poetry could hardly be doing much else. Valency had the air of a jaded patrician; he should have had one of those proud European names awash with prepositions. In the row behind me and a little to my right sat Charles Van Doren, one of Professor Van Doren’s two sons then at Columbia.

Mark Van Doren (1894-1972) had the aura of someone who might have received an Academy Award for his starring role in Civilization and who found no better way to express his thanks than to teach the plays of William Shakespeare. Van Doren’s Shakespeare classes are the stuff of legend. You would see very little note taking; there was too much in the way of thoughtful and easy-flowing talk to dwell on. Pick up his Shakespeare, indispensable and beautifully written, start reading on any page and you instantly get a sense of Van Doren. W. H. Auden is quoted in David Lehman’s foreword: “Professor Van Doren enlightens us, not because he has any special knowledge or private advantages, but because his love of Shakespeare has been greater than our own.” He was, in fact, a loving man who inspired love in others; it is not difficult to believe that if Lincoln had taught Shakespeare he would have spoken not unlike Illinois-born Mark Van Doren, whose son, Charles, was born on Lincoln’s birthday and given “Lincoln” as a middle name. Charles’s own story with regard to his role in the 1950s quiz scandals is available online in stacks of press coverage, but was best told in his own New Yorker article of July 28, 2008 entitled “All the Answers.”

Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) walked briskly into his Literary Criticism class as the bell rang and departed aloofly while topping off his lecture, disappearing before his students had an opportunity to ask questions or close their brief cases. His grey flannel suit, striped tie, button-down blue shirt and precision-trimmed grey hair gave him the appearance of a spiffy John le Carre double agent. Read his one novel, The Middle of the Journey, for a sense of his spirit and his times.

Literary Criticism , I thought, was an enviable class hour for any teacher; it was the kind of course that could be called “Thoughts on Culture” or “What occurred to me as I was reading my morning paper.” Of course, it took Trilling’s aplomb and fluency, his intimacy with the complexities of large and small subjects to pull that off. He spoke on Cold War morality, death symbolism in modern poetry, the Freudian vision of instinct and civilization, the doctrinaire Left, the great novelists, the prevalence of mass cult, and the superiority of sociological thought over fiction in explaining contemporary times. Occasionally, Trilling would toss out an inexplicable “as everyone knows.” For instance: “As everyone knows, Brahms is too loud.” Embarrassing, I thought, to hear such nonsense from a person of his standing. Obsessed, I was tempted to bug him about Brahms during one of our brief elevator encounters at 620 West 116th Street, where we each lived and where he had a workspace on an upper floor, but he usually had about him an air of cheerless and unsmiling preoccupation that I rarely had the temerity to penetrate. Nonetheless he was, like many enclosed people, more self-revealing than even he might have realized. I remember sometimes how feelingly he read Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” to his class, especially those lines about the world that “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light /Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain. . .” and I am brought back to an understanding of the brilliant yet complicated man that he was.

Years earlier Trilling had turned from the hopefulness of Marx’s Divine Comedy to the despairing world view of Freud’s Paradise Lost. He regarded Freud as a towering figure, despite his disappointing personal analysis. Almost twenty years after Trilling’s death from pancreatic cancer his wife, Diana, wrote in The Beginning of the Journey (1993) that “it would have been better for him if he had railed against the failure of his therapy instead of blanketing it in his admiration of Freud.” His son, James Trilling, whose profession as an art historian fulfilled Diana’s own long abandoned career hope, concluded, controversially, in The American Scholar (“My Father and the Weak-Eyed Devils” ; Vol. 68 Spring 1999) that Trilling, like himself, had experienced lifelong Attention Deficit Disorder. He too found Trilling a complex spirit, living inside the myth of himself and not liking it. Read John Rodden’s “The Trilling family ‘romance’: report of a psychoanalytic autopsy” (The Free Library). But in the end, it really didn’t much matter how Trilling got the way he was, because neither I nor anyone I knew regretted for an instant attending his classes.

One comment

  1. Really interesting – The best of all your postings. You were very fortunate to have this time to indulge in the life of the mind. Wondering t about Moses Hadas? Doesn’t he rank up there among the Olypmpians?

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