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Looking Back at the 1960s: Sense and Nonsense

When I arrived at UB in the late summer of 1967 after a drive across Southern Ontario from Ann Arbor to join UB’s Department of English, I assumed that Orwellian common sense and well-wrought ordinary language (“Politics and the English Language,” “Why I Write”) were the critic’s most useful tools in a democratic society in order to communicate with a wide audience – an audience that included undergraduates and the public at large.

Most major American English Departments pre-1980 had at least one critic who bridged the gap between on the one hand what professors, somewhat pedantically, call the “academy” and on the other a general readership: John Aldridge at Michigan; Irving Howe at Brandeis; Randell Jarrell at Sarah Lawrence; Alfred Kazin at Amherst (for a few years); Mark Schorer at Berkeley; Lionel Trilling and the Van Doren brothers at Columbia; Raymond Williams at Cambridge; and Robert Penn Warren at Yale.

Many unaffiliated literary critics (some of whom were poets and editors) and journalists at large still wrote for influential journals with large audiences: Bennet Cerf, W.H. Auden, Norman Cousins, Bernard DeVoto, Randell Jarrell, Mary McCarthy, and, most importantly, Edmund Wilson who was perhaps the most powerful literary critic of the American 20th Century along with the Baltimore Evening Sun’s bombastic H.L. Mencken who wrote a famous book on The American Language.

There have been some echoes variants of these “general” voices in America on mass media and in print since the end of the Viet Nam War: William Buckley, Dick Cavett, Jason Epstein, Charlie Rose, but no one with equal public standing. Robert Silvers, brilliant editor of The New York Review of Books, has made an invaluable contribution to American belles letters, but he has not been a writer (though I hope he will write a memoir).

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Academic Portraits – His Own Grand Academy of Lagado: An Imagined and Documentary Memoir

by Howard R. Wolf (aka Ludwig Fried and Hemmy Zimmer)

For many years, he wanted to cry out in the halls of the department – where one screw-ball article could put you at the top of the totem and taboo pole – that his alias would make him a celebrity in Brighton Beach, North Miami, and Ben-Gurion’s old neighborhood in Tel Aviv.

He had wanted to cry out until he was tallith-blue in the face that he was a winner in the Borscht Belt, at least the notches that were left, one of a handful of intellectual lite-porn writers with a challah twist, like the lemon rind in espresso. He had a few literary rivals, but he was the best at what he did and the most successful, but his success had been hidden, invisible.

He had wanted to toot his own horn for many years, but they might have laughed at him and, worse, the Chair could have assigned him night classes of composition, three hour sessions, the meeting place of the comma and comatose. The department, always fighting for funds, competing with sexy areas (but not real sex) – neuro-science, informatics, Diasporas – wouldn’t have allowed Ludwig Fried, a.k.a. “Hemmy Zimmer,” to go public without some form of professional punishment for having embarrassed them. In the academic world, faux decorum was the last firmament of theoretical minds.

And now, on the verge of breaking free from the burdens of the past, he had learned from the mailman that his arch-rival, William “Bull” Horn, popular culture maven, had moved into a unit on the posher side of the pond. It was the kind of improbable coincidence that you only came across in an O. Henry short story, but there it was, a factoid. Maybe Bull had seen the same ad that he had seen in the travel section of the Daily Racing Form.

Whatever, there he was across the pond. Ludwig hadn’t seen Bull yet, but he had heard his music waft and wail across the pond at night — King Creole, Count Basie, Duke Ellington. The music was too loud, but Ludwig had to admit that Bull had some taste and that he had been successful. Bull had made it Big Time in a small-time place: department chair, endowed chair, local celebrity: a minor figure with major PR.

He was the War and Peace man, Conflict Resolution from Homer to Hanoi. One year at the Brookings Institute, he was the proverbial big gefilte fish in a small pond. If these were your shallows, he was the shark. Bull wasn’t politically correct, but he was famous in acceptable, if egomaniacal ways, and so the college had given him everything, even though he sometimes taught in armor and brought a cross-bow to class. Most colleges had one Bull, one performance-artist, who could fling the higher dung Frisbees, who caught the imagination of undergraduates and opened the wallets of alumni.

Bull’s coup de grace at the end of the term was to shoot an arrow across the lecture hall at a poster of Hitler that dropped from the ceiling at just the right moment. It never failed to bring the students to their feet, clapping and cheering. Ludwig had seen him do it once, and he was reminded, with some envy, of the audience’s response to Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty when the audience had joined in shouting, “Strike! Strike!” Bull was no Odets, but he had his fan-base.

And there he was now across the pond. Bull never had taken any notice of Ludwig really, so even if Bull saw him now, he would continue doubtless to ignore Ludwig. Bull had assumed, if he assumed anything about Ludwig, that Fried was just another stump of academic deadwood.

When Ludwig published a small volume of travel essays with a small press, Immigrant Review, Bull said to him in the elevator, one of the few places they ever met, “Nice going, Lud, as with women, so with writing, one likes to be between covers. But remember, you want to do it more than once, and with a major press next time, good luck shmuck.”

At least it rhymed. The door opened, and he was gone: exit, no exit.

It humiliated him now to think that he had taken such an insult from Bull without fighting back. Bull had kicked him in the psychological balls, and he had limped back to his office, a momentary stay against contusion. The time had come to retaliate, to catch him off guard, to mount a “counter-attack.” The word hit him between the eyes like one of Hemingway’s big game shots. Without his cross-bow and his character armor, Bull would be vulnerable. Ludwig would bring him down off his self-appointed high-horse. Without his cuirass, Bull would be vulnerable to Ludwig’s cutlass.

The time for action had come. He had, in his own way, in his subterranean idiom, written about rebellions, uprisings (plenty of those), and revolts – how could you not if you had written in the 20th century? But he had stayed in the shadows. No Hemingway, only a semi-Hemingway, a “Hemmy,” but not, happily, suffering from hemorrhoids, he had hunted in his imagination. Like a lord of the jungle he had hunted at night, but no one had known that he was a hunter.

That would change now. The action, his, would begin now. “Now was the time for the Now,” as he recently had written elsewhere in one his philosophically erotic romps. It was late in the day to be taking action, and it soon might be too late. If he waited much longer, his epitaph would read: For Whom the Bell Never Tolled or The Postman Never Rang.

Academic Portraits is a weekly multi-part series by Howard R. Wolf. Please check back next week for the next installment. 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.  

 


Looking Back at the 1960’s: Academic Portraits – Part 4, Return of the Expressed

By 1970, I had made the leap from “class consciousness to experience,” a simple, but radical, step for those days and perhaps even now. I came to believe that, whatever else was true, students and I were “persons,” real and complex people. Our destination might be objective, but the journey was, in many ways, subjective.

In fact, they were related. There were plenty of facts in the world, but they needed to put in a context of reference and association before they became meaningful. Points, with or without   power, were useful, often crucial, but they were most useful – other than dotting I’s – when they were given literary texture. Rewrite the Gettysburg Address as a Fox news report and see how it sounds.

In one sense, it felt natural to come to this awareness because it emerged, as I’ve mentioned, during the counter-cultural period of the 1960’s – the period of what was called “campus unrest” and opposition to the war in Viet Nam when so many of the received assumptions of the previous period, to say nothing of Western Civilization itself, were being called into question.

I never was a Nietzschean – “the revaluation of values” — but all values were on the table, especially those that derived from the precincts of AUTHORITY. In America, it didn’t seem to matter to students whether those authorities were located in one’s home (father/father figures), in the Pentagon, Wall Street, or university administration buildings. Even Chairs of Departments were viewed with suspicion.

Almost a century after Matthew Arnold first stated his concern about the survival of “good literature” (“The Study of Poetry,” 1880), its future became dramatically uncertain. Literature with a capital L came under attack after Mai, 1968 by “theory”-minded critics who called into question every kind of authority and hierarchy, including the Classics — texts which, in my generation, were considered sacred cows. But the “Frenchies” were not cowed by Hindu prohibitions.

So embedded were these Books in our consciousness as pillars of the academic pantheon that it never occurred to us that the world had been or could be different. To see a bust of Plato, Michelangelo’s David, or Shakespeare on a teacher’s desk seemed as natural as using an Esterbrook fountain pen.

There are traces of serious history and literature on TV – PBS’s “Masterpiece Theatre,” the History Channel – but it’s only a trace, the tail-end of a what may be a burnt-out cultural comet, but it’s too early to tell.

There are signs of hope for the likes of me and my contemporaries: the Internet (with access to Wikipedia and other sites of information) has reinvented the Library of Alexandria, as it were, as a source of world knowledge; previously priestly acts of inquiry – the province of scholars – are now available to anyone who can operate a Smart-Phone, Android, or Kindle.

As Luther’s edicts made everyman a priest, so the new technology may make it possible for everyman to become a Renaissance Man, and through texting to become a writer. What has changed, one hopes, is not the quality of words and texts that are being generated, but the modes of distribution.

Great words seem to endure whether they are preserved in Dead Sea Scrolls, stone, vellum, or microfilm. Genius transcends technology – it would seem. But it’s too early to tell; Perhaps it’s always too early to tell until the end of days.

 

Looking Back at the 1960’s: Academic Portraits is a weekly multi-part series by Howard R. Wolf. Please check back next week for the next installment. 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.  


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.  


Looking Back at the 1960’s: Academic Portraits – Part 2, The Wobbly Chair

It did seem at some critical moments in the 1960’s that the Humanities as we had known them were seriously imperiled. On my own campus at The State University of New York at Buffalo, a smoke-bomb was rolled into the office of the Chair who never recovered from this dangerous assault upon the integrity and assumed autonomy of the Groves of Academe, the Ivory Tower, and the Halls of Ivy (even though we taught in temporary trailers and surplus Quonset huts).

Although I sympathized with the Chair’s fear for his life and the life of the department, I had to admit to myself that I was somewhat wary of his authority myself. One of the department’s leading crazies at the time had advised the Chair to fire me (I had been told), and I wasn’t confident that the Chair wouldn’t take his advice.

My adversary — a former 1930’s socialist who never had recovered from the betrayals of Stalin’s show-trials — saw the students of the 1960’s and faculty who were somewhat sympathetic to them as sanculottes and participants in a neo-Reign of Terror. For him, the peace sign was equivalent to the guillotine.

So far as he was concerned, I was trying to destroy the university through the incendiary methods of what then was called “the open classroom.” This person was convinced he knew something about fire since he once had written (108): “I believe it is in the light provided by the burning of its own bridges that the mind can best see.”

The Chair didn’t fire me, but I, too, became somewhat suspicious about authority and could then, to some extent, view the student protest on certain issues with more than a little sympathy. I never stopped defending “great literature,” but I stopped wearing three-piece suits and began to question my goals as a teacher and writer.

After the smoke-bomb incident, the Chair was understandably terrified by the Student Movement. It was always on his mind, and he suspected that people were plotting against him even in their dreams.

Some years after his reign, during an idle moment in a department meeting – such moments were not uncommon – I leaned over and mentioned that he had been lecturing to me in one of my dreams. He looked alarmed and said, “Stop dreaming about me.” I said I would try as hard as I could.

He retired a few years earlier than anyone thought he would and, with the help of a wife’s inheritance, bought, I am told, a lovely house in the Berkeley Hills where he writing, as I understand it, a book about the Russian Revolution. I see him, in my mind’s eye, if not in dreams, looking down towards Telegraph Avenue, where a rag-tag remnant of the 1960’s, reinvented as Occupy UCal, keeps him on edge and alert. I suspect he sometimes dreams that his house is the Winter Palace.

If I’m in the dream, I probably look like Trotsky.      

 

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 3. 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.  


Looking Back at the 1960’s: Academic Portraits – Part 1, Arrival at UB

ARRIVAL AT UB: The Pressure Cooker

                    “…it is the generation which provides the fundamental

                    method for historical investigation. “

                              Ortega y Gasset, “The Method of the Generations in History,” Man and Crisis

I arrived at the “new” State University of New York at Buffalo in the fall of 1967 with a manual typewriter at a time when mimeograph and chalk were state of the art technologies. I upgraded quickly, with my first paycheck, to an electric machine, though I couldn’t afford   IBM’s futuristic “spinning ball.”

It took me a decade to catch up with the secretaries in the department who were whirring out manuscripts for senior faculty who, in those days, were called “eagles” at a time when the then energized English Department of The State University of New York at Buffalo had aspirations to build a nest on the upper cliffs of the Profession. On days when I felt insecure – there were many of them – I imagined that some of my upper tier colleagues had talons, not fingers.

The possibility of symbolic anatomical injury was even more threatening than having one’s eyes pecked out, so to speak. I recall, soon after my arrival in Buffalo, a department meeting when a candidate for appointment at a senior level was being considered. The candidate – who was reputed to be brilliant – had published several major articles in leading journals, articles which had realigned the vertebrae of his discipline.

This realignment had corrected a mild sciatica in his corner of the field, to the relief of those with back problems in that learned area, but, though forty years old, this person had yet to publish a printed book — which, in the pre-digital era, was the sine qua non for a tenure appointment in the Humanities. In those days of what now seem like “yore,” DIGITAL meant a visit to the proctologist.

Unlike the sciences, books are (were?) more important in literary fields than articles. The river of knowledge moves less swiftly in the Humanities whose flow more resembles glacial movement until every half century or so an ice-berg breaks off and is suddenly visible to everyone (Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”).

Throughout the discussion of this candidate’s credentials, the former chair of the department, whom everyone regarded as the George Washington of UB’s “modern” English department, looked puzzled, even agitated, and began tapping the center of his forehead   — as if to locate the epicenter of his brain – as he often did when he had a major point to make.

Although he no longer was Chair and even was thought odd by some people, his word tended to carry the day because he typically knew more about any candidate than anyone else did (he actually had read their work!); and when the tapping on his forehead became audible, one knew that he was on the verge of making a   decisive judgment, one that would be likely to swing the vote.

The former Chair was recognized by the current Chair (there tends to be a lot of furniture in academic departments). He jumped up, turned slowly, taking us all in with the confidence that Churchill must have possessed when he addressed the Commons, and said, “Gentlemen, let me introduce a razor into this barber shop – the candidate doesn’t have One!” He then smiled broadly and plopped down (his lucid mind was counter-balanced by a bean-bag of a body).

Some colleagues seemed to get the point quickly. I was somewhat puzzled. Had I forgotten to wear a tie or, in a moment of pre-tenure panic, even forgotten to put on a pair of socks or to zipper my fly?

Or, since I still was deep into my Freudian period, it occurred to me that this might be an oblique reference to “castration anxiety.” One never was sure where the former Chair’s point might be leading.

I checked my clothing. Everything seemed to be in order, and then I understood: THE CANDIDATE DIDN’T HAVE A BOOK — a fate worse than castration anxiety. The candidate was doomed. If he was going to leave Idaho, it wouldn’t be to join the potato field of UB’s fertile English Department.

I was properly dressed, and that was reassuring, but I didn’t have a book at that time. I hoped that dressing well might convince a few senior faculty that I did have potential and would not be consigned to the pile of deadwood which the department burned from time to time.

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 2. 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.  


We the Buffalovers

love notes

You have your head down, fingers racing across the touchscreen keyboard, ears plugged with blaring headphones, and feet pacing in sync with the beat of your iTunes. Stop, smell the roses [they’re coming – we promise], and look up to see all the Buffalove in the air.

Once a city under siege, a now thawed and transformative place has shown its true colors as one of pure hometown pride.

It’s as if you can feel the hopes for prosperity from the cracks of the sidewalk beneath you and the pores of the one sitting next to you.

It is this exact sentiment that broods from the BuffaloveNote movement.

Hand printed on paper objects of every size and color, the BuffaloveNotes emulate all that the term ‘Buffalove’ could ever hope to represent. Within this ‘city of good neighbors’ comes about something that allows you to track just that. These small acts of kindness are meant to be picked from their Etsy store, posted about in true 2015 Instagram fashion, and then passed on to the next person to revel in and enjoy.

Reading things such as, “Your sunshine is showing”, “Your love gives me powers”, and the option of a custom message, brings about smiles that you probably haven’t felt since your crush in 5th grade handed you that secret valentine. There is truly nothing like walking out to your car and finding some love hiding underneath your windshield in place of the usual looming parking ticket.

It’s time to bring the true nature of pure kindness and unprompted compliments back to life. Bring on the sunshine and bring on the BuffaloveNotes. We hope you’ll send us some, too.

11018490_1629835980583465_1531017158_n 1599102_863955773665758_1118554987_n   love note

 

Instagram: @BuffaloveNotes

Twitter: @BuffaloveNotes

Etsy: Etsy.com/shop/BuffaloveNotes

 

~ Pearl Leigh Gates    

 

 

 

 

 

 


Infringement Festival 2014: Downloadable Program

infringement2014The 2014 Buffalo Infringement Festival starts today and runs through July 24th. Look for the opening parade through the streets of Buffalo at 6, heading to Days Park at 6:30, followed by the opening ceremonies at Netizsche’s, starting at 7pm.

Make sure to pick up a copy of this week’s Artvoice! Inside, you’ll find a full pull-out schedule inserted in the middle of the paper detailing every performance, installation, show, and event taking place as part of this year’s festival.

You can also download a PDF version of the insert by clicking here.

For more information about the Buffalo Infringement Festival, including updates about any last minute changes to the program, please visit www.InfringeBuffalo.org.




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