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"A Unique Experience"

Dissertation tales

May-June 2006

Even as a first-year graduate student, I knew that Aldous Huxley’s novels would be my dissertation subject. Harvard didn’t share my enthusiasm. When I informed one of my professors that I planned to study modern British literature, he assured me I’d love the nineteenth century; that was as modern as Harvard got in the 1960s. To this disdain for living authors, I owe much of my success as a Dickensian. Huxley remained my vocation; Dickens became my hobby. David Perkins’s T. S. Eliot seminar, which I took in fall 1964, was one of the first ever on an author not yet interred. (Eliot died in 1965.) Huxley passed away in November 1963, the same day President Kennedy was shot and only a little more than a month after I began graduate work. His demise made a reassessment of his life and career imperative; but it made finding a director for a Harvard dissertation on a modern novelist no easier.

Edgar Rosenberg, my first choice, left for Cornell. Perkins decided to stick to poetry. Invited to direct a Huxley dissertation, Jerome Hamilton Buckley expressed enthusiasm eloquently and at length until he realized that my interest was not in Huxley’s grandfather. I turned to the chair for help.

Monroe Engel
Harvard University Archives

Besides running the department, Herschel Baker was on the Dunster House faculty; as resident tutor in English, I saw him every Wednesday at our faculty luncheon. He disconcerted me one afternoon by announcing to the table at large that he’d spent the morning putting together the committee for my Ph.D. oral exam. Now, in his Warren House office, he sympathized with my plight. “See Monroe Engel,” he said. “Tell him to supervise your dissertation.” At Professor Engel’s next office hour, I explained my predicament and asked for his help. He declined. He admired Lawrence but didn’t think much of Huxley. I rephrased my request, this time including Baker’s directive, which I realized I should have mentioned from the start. I found myself being glared at by the professor who had just reluctantly agreed to oversee my dissertation.

I’m happy to report that working under Professor Engel was a unique experience because I couldn’t have stood it twice. When I finished a chapter, I called to set up a drop-off date, either at his office in Widener Library or in the kitchen of his Brattle Street residence. Several days later, he would telephone to tell me when I could pick up the typescript. He never gave an opinion over the phone, so there was always an interval of a few more days before I learned his verdict. He would either allow me to proceed or insist that I try again. If the latter, he never suggested improvements. “If I told you what’s wrong with it,” he said of a chapter I’d already revised twice, “I’d be doing your work for you. Once you figure out why it’s deficient, you’ll know how to improve it.” On one occasion I handed in an essay that exceeded our agreed-upon chapter length. He met me on the threshold of his office, thrust the manuscript into my hand, muttered “De trop, Meckier, de trop,” and shut the door. I like to think that he intended a comma after the first “De trop.

Our disagreements bordered on the irresolvable because I admired Huxley greatly, whereas Engel considered him second-rate. The challenge was to articulate my appreciation for the modern satirical novelist of ideas moderately enough so that Engel could tolerate my approval. I revised the first two chapters a dozen times between September and Thanksgiving before Engel accepted them. I wrote the third chapter in about a week; to my amazement, Engel approved it. (In 1974, Robert E. Kuehn anthologized it in Aldous Huxley: A Collection of Critical Essays.) But simmering tensions came to a boil over Chapter IV, “Huxley’s Lawrencian Interlude.”

I regard Lawrence as one of the twentieth century’s finest novelists, head and shoulders above Joyce if novels are supposed to show one how to live. For Engel, who had written several excellent essays on Lawrence, the son of a coal-miner was both icon and sacred cow. He recoiled whenever I tried to present the Huxley-Lawrence relationship from the former’s point of view. I not only attempted to explain what each author took from the other; I also showed how their fundamentally different attitudes toward life guaranteed that Huxley’s most intense friendship of the 1920s was bound to be no more than an interlude.

That Huxley came to feel he had outgrown Lawrence infuriated Engel. Yet Brave New World, published two years after Lawrence died, is as much an anti-Lawrencian satire as it is a diatribe against H.G. Wells. It portrays Lawrence’s beloved New Mexico as Malpais, the bad place, no alternative to a London modeled on Henry Ford’s factories. Huxley’s future world outlaws motherhood (Connie Chatterley’s preoccupation); it transforms the sexual relationship between a man and a woman, which Mellors insists is the core of one’s life, into a pornographic game its citizens play with as many partners as possible. Mechanization, a new set of taboo words such as “mother,” and prescribed promiscuity—these cardinal features of life in A.F. 632 were slaps in the face to Lawrence and his blood philosophy. As much as Huxley admired Lawrence personally, his own self-characterization as the arch-skeptic—“the amused, Pyrrhonic aesthete”—predicted a dystopian future that would have little use for the latter’s ideas. In the Fordian, Freudian, Pavlovian, Wellsian society to come, the Lawrencian noble savage’s only recourse is to hang himself.

How could Huxley and Lawrence have gone on much longer even if the latter had not died prematurely? Lawrence was coughing constantly by 1929. Nevertheless, he still claimed that the greatest thing is simply to be alive in the flesh. By the mid 1930s, Huxley was admonishing readers to seek union with the Divine Ground, to transcend, in other words, time, one’s ego, and its cravings. Repeatedly, he bemoaned the wearisome tension within each of us between passion and reason. He detested an allegedly mismade world of conflicts and counterpoints, external and internal, that disturb one’s peace of mind and make physical and spiritual harmony next to impossible.

I lost count of the many revisions I did of the Huxley-Lawrence chapter; “innumerable” is the adjective that springs to mind. I told my parents that I expected to be working on this chapter until I was 40. That Engel accepted my umpteenth reworking is testimony to the power of patience and compromise on both sides.

Eventually, I finished revising Chapter VII, the last chapter, and Engel declared himself content. “I’ll raise no more difficulties” was how he put it. I had overshot the deadline for a June degree, so I received the Ph.D. in March 1968, despite submitting the dissertation the previous summer. I spoke with Reuben Brower, my second reader, twice—first by phone when I asked for his guidance and again in his study in Adams House when I picked up his copy of the final draft. Flipping through the pages as we talked, I noticed check-marks penciled into the margins, sometimes two or three per page. Panicking, I asked if they indicated places for additional revisions. “The marks note things I liked,” Brower replied. “Professor Engel doesn’t always do that.”

When my book came out, the following notices, printed one after the other in Book Review Digest 1970, would have amused the contrapuntist. Recommending Aldous Huxley: Satire and Structure to university libraries, the reviewer for Choice concluded by observing that “[Meckier’s] chapter on the relationship between Huxley and Lawrence holds considerable human interest, as well as being critically rewarding.” On the other hand, Keith Cushman in Library Journal, though calling my book “one of the best studies of Huxley’s achievement as a novelist,” took exception to “the lengthy chapter on the relationship between Huxley and D.H. Lawrence,” which he judged “less satisfactory.” In the “Acknowledgements,” my remark that “Dr. Engel’s critical vigilance, especially in the Huxley and Lawrence chapter, was more than I had a right to expect” stops just short of irony.

And yet I remain greatly indebted to Monroe Engel’s involuntary supervision. He told me to write a book, not a dissertation—excellent advice that I always passed on to my graduate students. He never excused something he disliked, which I now see as a tremendous compliment; I would never be guilty of any fault he thought he could correct. To this day, whenever I write, he looms over my shoulder, a grey eminence, whispering “De trop, Meckier,” until I reach for the blue pencil and begin to shorten the manuscript. In the chapter on Great Expectations and David Copperfield in the third of my books on Dickens, I make kind use of Engel’s The Maturity of Dickens, a belated thank-you for his unrelenting attentions.

 

Jerome Meckier, Ph.D. ’68, professor of English emeritus at the University of Kentucky, has edited Critical Essays on Aldous Huxley; he is coeditor of the Aldous Huxley Annual. A festschrift of his essays, Aldous Huxley: Modern Satirical Novelist of Ideas, will be published later this year.