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Looking Back at the 1960’s: Academic Portraits – Part 3, A Smoking Jacket

Although most faculty dressed casually, shabbiness raised to the level of acceptable academic convention, I still, from time to time, wore a three piece suit. One colleague, who shall remain nameless, as he himself preferred to be (so no one would interrupt him during office hours when he would be working on indecipherable poems), wore the same tweed jacket for twenty years; and, since he smoked a pipe which burned as fiendishly as the old Bethlehem Bessemers, his jacket-cum-patches smelled as if it been aged in Fitzgerald’s “valley of ashes.” To talk with him was to risk  asphyxiation.  

This colleague, who went to Paris every summer to “fuss” with his oblique poems, talked at length, if one did enter his office, about the “old days in Greenwich Village” where it seemed he had known all of the major literary players of the 20th century. The longer he talked, the less conscious one became which was, in this case, a mixed blessing. In retirement, he calls me from the West Village  from time to time.

It’s easier to listen to him at a distance now; and it may be, at this point, if a personal truth be told, that I have more in common with him now than I do with young people who clutch their smart-phones as if they were electronic rosaries.

In saying this, I “date” myself; but that is my main point: we are born into the atmosphere of a particular historical moment; and if we write, we are likely to become “generational memoirists.” If we abandon the terms of our origins, we’re rootless; if we cling only to these terms and fail to adapt, we become endangered species. Like a healthy tree, we need stable roots in order to flower in a slightly different way every spring. (My transplanted mountain ash can attest to this.)

Darwin is relevant here, and as George Orwell says in “Why I Write”: “But if he (the writer) escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.” As one gets older, one has both more and less to say as a teacher: one’s values and taste provide points of lucid contrast; at the same time, these same standards become less relevant in themselves.

I still believed in the serious study of traditional literature at the graduate level at a time when the anti-war and counter-cultural movements were ramping up and authority of all kinds – including literary authority and “authors” – were being called into question. In one sense, I was disappointed. After all, I had spent more than a decade preparing myself to teach what F.R. Leavis called the “great tradition.”

Even as I had an inkling, driving from Ann Arbor to Buffalo in the late summer of 1967, that everything I had been preparing to teach was going to be called into question, I never dreamed that the deck of cards would be reshuffled so quickly or that the literary game I had been taught to play – New Criticism — soon would be called “irrelevant” (one of the key words of the emerging period of protest).

In another sense, I felt as if I had been given a writer’s gift: dramatic material to write about. One didn’t have to become a war correspondent, it seemed, like Hemingway to cover the action. University campuses, including UB’s, had become hot spots. Not the padi fields of Viet Nam or the killing fields of Cambodia, to be sure, but places nonetheless where a writer might believe that he had something important to write about.

And the gestures of those predatory talons at department meetings allowed me to think that I, too, had a good fight to wage against those Frenchified professionals who considered the human value of students to be unimportant in the light of critical principles.

I always had intended to be a writer – no matter how I made a living (including the life of an academic) – so, almost from the beginning of my “teaching life,” even before the era of protest heated up, I began to consider the classroom and the institutional environment as a “living theatre” of sorts in which the human drama – the drama of being human — could be observed and recorded.

I say almost from the beginning, because it really wasn’t until the period 1963-66 — when I was a Teaching Fellow at The University of Michigan (where I earned my Ph.D. in 1967) – that I understood in one of those “aha” moments of revelation that a classroom was a temporary community in which the instructor and students interacted in various dynamic ways. Students were “persons” as well as “learners.”


Looking Back at the 1960’s: Academic Portraits is a weekly multi-part series by Howard R. Wolf. Please check back next week for part 4. Click here to view all the parts in the series, as they are added.

Howard R. Wolf is Emeritus Professor and Senior Fellow in The Department of English at SUNY-Buffalo. He is the author of The Education of a Teacher and Far-Away Places: Lessons in Exile. Some of his recent work has appeared in Colere, George Orwell Newsletter, Moment (online), Evening Street Review, Prosopisa (India)and The Buffalo News.