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The "Great Good Place"

In the 1930s, a graduate student overcomes Harvard's "chilling indifference."

September-October 2001

Harvard University hadn't been my first choice for post-graduate English studies, and I wouldn't have been there if the University of London had admitted me without time-consuming conditions. Somewhat to my surprise, Harvard, albeit with conditions of its own, did accept me despite my scrappy knowledge of ancient and modern languages.Late in the summer of 1933, the nadir of the Great Depression, I saw a poster advertising "limousine service" between Chicago and New York City, $25 one way. I showed up a month later at a designated corner on Cottage Grove Avenue an hour before the 10 a.m. departure time. I carried an old Gladstone bag stuffed with clothes, a laundry bag of odds and ends, and a portable typewriter. Most of my cash I hid in rolled-up pairs of socks. At mid afternoon, a beat-up touring car pulled up to the curb. Three people occupied the back seats, two others the jump seats. My place was in front with the unshaven driver. He told me his name was Rossovsky and that Barney Ross, the lightweight boxing champion, was his cousin.Illustration by Robert SaundersBarney Ross's cousin didn't try to make up time after our delayed start and puzzled me and the other passengers by abruptly halting in alleys and side streets for no discernible reason--that is, until we learned that his employers had no license to operate outside Illinois. Presumably they had warned him to be on the qui vive for cops. They were a tough outfit. In Cleveland their henchmen threatened to beat us up unless we unlocked the car doors and allowed one more passenger to squeeze in next to me.We crept into New York after a more than 24-hour drive, Rossovsky at the wheel all the way and dozing from time to time without quite falling asleep. By now we Argonauts were intimate friends, our reserve eroded by the whiskey I bought in Cleveland and by our enforced proximity. We sang songs and revealed ourselves the way people do who never expect to see each other again. The Serbian grocer nervously anticipated a reunion with a brother he hadn't laid eyes on in 40 years; a small fiery Russian in an electric blue suit prophesied his murder by gangsters; an elderly woman passenger told us she was heading for Washington to report the lynching of an Indian on a Montana reservation; a self-styled "college girl" of mysterious origins confessed her anxieties as she was about to enroll in some eastern school. A "writer" would have stored away these revelations and sketched portraits of the speakers. I was too self-absorbed or excited to reflect upon the crazy excursion from Chicago to New York, and from there to Cambridge, but I was reminded of it during the next few months every time a $5 or $10 bill popped out of my cache of socks.Ivy League English departments in 1933 were reputedly leery of taking graduate students who seemed unlikely to "fit in" or who looked or talked or dressed in ways that set them apart from their fellows. Hence the majority of Jewish applicants (or so my department chairman in Ann Arbor told me) were ordinarily diverted to other subjects--chemistry or German, for example--where manners and accents mattered less. This professor went on to say, however, that he and his colleagues were confident that I would pass muster anywhere. No doubt he meant to be encouraging, but his words shook me a little. I had always assumed that anyone with adequate grades and enough money could study pretty much where he pleased. Tuition at Harvard was $400 a term, quite a lot in the 1930s, but my dwindling inheritance would pay for a degree in English literature. After all, in those lean times families of four were surviving on $12 a week; a bottle of milk cost 11 cents, a loaf of bread 12 cents, and two packages of cigarettes (at the A&P) 26 cents. You could buy a gallon of gin for less than $4.During the first year in Cambridge, I lived more than comfortably in a Linnaean Street apartment with three law students. Acolytes of an elite Harvard brotherhood, they revered and feared their famously rude teachers and regarded their academy as at once a kind of purgatory and a guarantor of better things to come. This couldn't be said of my friends in the graduate school, who had no such expectations and, if anything, were more marginal to Harvard College than the unfledged lawyers. Indeed, "Harvard" meant only the "College," and it took little time for strangers with bachelor's degrees from the provinces to wise up and adjust to this salient fact. The majority of them lived either in monastic dorms or more precariously in grungy rooming houses short on bathrooms. Unless affiliated in some way with the Freshman Union or one of the Houses, outsiders foraged for grub in the local eateries. It cost 50 cents for a not very good meal and a few dollars or less for a decent one.Even the comparatively well-fed and comfortably housed from the hinterlands weren't part of the intangible networks that constituted the "real" Harvard. First-year graduate students often remarked on the University's chilling indifference. Would they arouse any concern or curiosity if they expired in the middle of Harvard Square? Would anyone even turn them over to find out who they were? There were moments in the winter months when spirits sank with the temperature. During the Christmas recess, the thermometer dropped to 20 degrees below for more than a week. I survived on baked beans while studying 3,000-lines-plus of Beowulf for a course taught by George Lyman Kittredge, an immensely learned, white-bearded scholar who could stop traffic on Massachusetts Avenue simply by waving his cane. The wind blew down the streets of dirty old Cambridge. There was no way to muffle the sounds of church bells on the ghastly Sunday mornings when the few cafeterias open for business further depressed the depressed and Widener was shut all day.Illustration by Robert SaundersWidener, the research library, was Harvard's hub. It was also its Rialto, where academic business was transacted, an unfathomable resource, and a retreat for the bruised and wounded. At this time, the library stacks were closed to undergraduate traffic. Alcoves on the upper and lower levels housed special collections, shelves of books (some of them untouched for decades), and files of defunct periodicals. Here you could make serendipitous discoveries and legitimately waste time; here you were treated as a participant, however minor, in a common enterprise; and here was the soul of the University that for all of its reputed nose-in-the-air exclusiveness was the heterogeneous and heterodox Great Good Place. The year 1933-34 was a bleak time for me and a much bleaker one for the hard-up and unemployed, ubiquitous but socially remote. While the New Dealers schemed to rebuild the economy, I took courses taught largely by grammarians and textual scholars, men of enormous learning and industry but--so their critics charged--steeped in the dregs of nineteenth-century German scholarship totally devoid of intellectual content and demanding no reflection, no analysis. True or not, the graduate program did seem a bit remote from the actualities of FDR's "First Hundred Days." Unable to settle down, I broke out of the philological thicket the next year.In my second year I shared half of an eight-dollar-a-week room on Trowbridge Street with a Wesleyan University graduate, John Finch: a clergyman's son, a poet, disciplined hedonist, and amateur blacksmith. His friend and Wesleyan classmate, Charles Olson, lived nearby. Olson was a six-foot-six mailman's son from Gloucester, north of Boston. He wore his suit jacket like a cloak and startled me when he said "shit" right out loud in a restaurant. We were consciously anti-academic. We played and replayed Bla Bartk's second string quartet (it was introduced to us by a quirky music student in our rooming house) without making much sense of it. We hashed over Dostoevsky, Shakespeare's darker plays, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (whose Boston performances we religiously attended). We made much of Nathanael West (our private novelist happily still outside the precincts of English departments), of James Joyce's Work in Progress, Herman Melville's life and works (we joined Olson on his voyage into Melville's watery world), and E.E. Cummings.The last, whose initials hadn't yet been offcially reduced to the lower case, was our Lord of Misrule, our Golden Boy, our profane Peter Pan, and (as much as Hemingway and Fitzgerald) a link to the Twenties. We memorized his poems about whores, flowers, children, and theatrical proletarians, went to his public readings, and savored his lyricism and satire. He was the most satisfactory repudiator of Irving Babbitt's and Paul Elmer More's New Humanism that had slowly been expiring after a brief flurry in the late 1920s.Babbitt [A.B. 1889, professor of French literature] had retired from Harvard shortly before I got there. His doctrine of the "Inner Check" still had some currency among a small number of graduate students and faculty who shared his social conservatism and espoused his gospel of self-constraint, moderation, and decorum. We attached ourselves to the party that flouted and vulgarized his directives. Humanism for us connoted political reaction. Like the Harvard aesthetes of the previous generation, we intellectualized our dissipations. It wasn't hard to detect vestiges of pagan rites in the patter of burlesque comedians at the Old Howard, a Boston landmark, and in the artful strip-tease performances of Ann Corio and Gypsy Rose Lee subject matter for a kind of pop anthropology. We made pilgrimages from Harvard Square to Scollay Square to sop up the atmosphere of the Hotel Imperial, the place (in the words of the master of ceremonies) "where old friends meet." The return to Cambridge past midnight on a streetcar loaded with the soused and the sick provided a stimulating exposure to the Hub's Lower Depths.To say that we subordinated the social and political to the aesthetic is only partly true--the times certainly affected our tastes and judgments--and yet revolutionary forms meant more to us than revolutionary messages. The criticism we favored, whether celebratory or analytic, was not primarily ideological. We jeered at the call for a "socially significant" literature and at the very idea of ranking writers (as Edmund Wilson put it) by their "readiness to subscribe to the mechanical slogans of this or that political fashion." We also agreed with him that great literature, however "non-doctrinal," had always dealt with "the larger events of the world." Hence our delight in Orson Welles's Mercury Theater production of Julius Caesar that transferred Shakespeare's Rome to Mussolini's capital and made the totalitarian pageantry of black shirts, jack-boots, and brandished banners seem theatrically and ideologically appropriate. Equally bristling were Clifford Odets's Group Theater plays--the agit-prop Waiting for Lefty and the sugar-coated Chekhovian Awake and Sing. We distinguished the acting and staging from the Communist Party heroics, but I can't say that I was entirely deaf to Odets's political wailings.In the spring of 1935, at loggerheads with myself and the world and encouraged by several former teachers, I applied for a teaching fellowship at the University of Michigan. A slot opened providentially, and I used that academic year to rethink my options. In college, I had been a principled nonreader of "American Literature" (which of course didn't include contemporary writers or popular "trash") and of "American History." Now, back in Ann Arbor, I wondered what bearing, if any, my Cambridge lucubrations had on the national and international crises that increasingly absorbed me. One of the texts for the English composition classes I was teaching with misplaced confidence was a collection of "thought-provoking" essays that encouraged pontificating on social issues one didn't know much about. My students swallowed everything I pronounced except my warnings about the insidious influence of Thomas Wolfe, their favorite author, whose fiction lifted their spirits as it inflated their prose.At this time I began to read American history systematically and enrolled in an American literature course taught by Howard Mumford Jones, one of the last of the polymath educators and secular evangelists whose learning was said to be "encyclopedic." A lanky man with a reddish mustache and resonant voice and determinedly Midwestern in manner, he also wrote poetry and fiction (some of it had appeared in H.L. Mencken's Smart Set), but it was his scholarly publications in literature and cultural history that made his national reputation. He would spike his lectures with allusions to forgotten or obscure figures--a geologist, say, or the author of some pathbreaking work on calcareous manures, or a neglected political theorist or economist, or a minor regional novelist whom, he intimated, the serious scholar neglected at his peril. He was drawn to sweeping subjects and given to writing books with the words "civilization" and "culture" in their titles. If neither intellectually nor stylistically "brilliant," they were solidly put together, packed with information, and lucidly composed. Jones was an energetic man--gruff, droll, untranquil. When crossed by bigots of any camp, he swelled with wrath, an American Democrat breasting the Winds of Doctrine, a sometimes testy but always honorable patriot.Jones's departure from Ann Arbor to Cambridge triggered my own return to Harvard. It also coincided with the celebration of the University's three-hundredth anniversary, in September 1936, and with the inauguration of its graduate program in the History of American Civilization, which (thanks to Jones in part) I straightway entered. I was on hand when he received one of the 62 honorary degrees Harvard awarded to an international galaxy of scholars.For two weeks, famous names materialized in academic processions and on lecture platforms. Charles Olson and I went to hear Carl Jung, and I stood next to Charlie when he questioned Jung on the mandala figure in Moby Dick--a significant moment for me. Another came when I saw President Roosevelt plain. His open touring car was only a few yards away when it slowly passed me on Massachusetts Avenue. He looked as he did in the newsreels--the head confidently cocked, the jutting jaw, harsh grin. Lots of the Harvards hated his guts and resented his presence. I had my reservations, too. He didn't go fast and far enough, I thought then. But he was my hero all the same. My arms shot up as if some force had yanked them, and I roared a cheer.Being a "radical" in 1936 meant many things, of course, but to me it came down pretty much to challenging an arrogant corporate America and backing organized labor. Communism, whatever it was (it depended on whom you were talking to), had its good and bad features, but many of us saw the USSR as the last bulwark against a hydra-headed "Fascism" the "Capitalist Powers" wouldn't or couldn't face up to. By "we," I mean people roughly of my age and background--born a few years before the First World War, not rich, not poor, and growing up in a late-Victorian culture. "We" came of age in a dislocated and conflicted decade. In our childhood and adolescence, the national maladies of the sort Walt Whitman catalogued in Democratic vistas were plain to see, but it was not plain what they signified. Throughout the Depression I was never hungry for want of money, never homeless, never beaten up by the police. There was plenty of deprivation and suffering and injustice to hear and read about, to see enacted in movies and documentary films, but between 17 and 21, I'd been too self-absorbed to mull over the political and economic convulsions of the day. Since childhood, I had always taken sides in the historical conflicts I'd read about, from the Peloponnesian War to the First World War, but there was no consistency or logic in my allegiances. Now the Nazis and their allies subsumed all the wickedness of the world. Any regime in the anti-Fascist camp passed muster.After a year's absence, Harvard looked and felt different, as if the intervening rumblings, national and international, had shaken it up and made it less granitic and chilly. Senior professors I studied under in 1933 were desiccating before my eyes, and in shifting from the still strongly philologically oriented English department to the study of American literature and history, I felt that at last I was about to deal with long-skirted issues and to get a new perspective on my country and my times.Daniel Aaron, Ph.D. '43, is Thomas professor of English and American literature emeritus and a cofounder of the Library of America, reprints of essential works by major American authors. The preceding excerpt is from what he calls "a 'memoir' of sorts," scheduled for publication by Harcourt Brace in 2003; the working title is Circlings: A Personal History of the United States, 1912-2000.