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Most of what I learned at Yale I learned outside its classrooms, and my four years as an undergraduate I remember as one, long, wayward conversation in the only all-night restaurant on Chapel Street. The topics under discussion—God, man, existence, Alfred Prufrock’s peach—were borrowed from the same anthology of large abstraction that supplied the texts for English 10 or Philosophy 116, but at 3 a.m. in the brightly-lit booths of the United Restaurant the review of the material seemed somehow closer in tone to what was being said in Greenwich Village than to the mimeographed course outlines placed on the desks of Linsly-Chittenden by the academic hirelings of the American Rome.
The waiters didn’t speak much English, but they could be cajoled into silencing the juke box likely to play “Hey There” or “Stranger in Paradise,” and so permit anybody who showed up late for 10-cent coffee and a 40-cent hamburger to proceed, without frivolous interruption, to the search for the ineffable and the work of intellectual revolt. The dramatis personae changed from week to week, but the company invariably added to the sum of its quixotic hopes and miscellaneous discontents—apprentice poets and would-be novelists, a trumpet player in one of the Yale jazz bands badly unnerved by his sexual encounter (two days in the Hotel Duncan) with Sarah Vaughn, authors of plays in one scene, aggrieved Jews resentful of their status as designated proofs of Christian tolerance, a student of Russian literature (suspected of Communism and arrested by the F.B.I. for possession of a Thompson submachine gun), admirers of Albert Camus and Bertolt Brecht, angry young English professors chafing under the rules of academic tenure, an actress from the Drama School who said she had been to bed with Brando. All present delighted in their defiance of anything and everything that would be identified with Dink Stover or Henry Luce, and none of us had very far to look for the objects of derision on which to chalk up the proofs of our loyalty to a higher truth and a nobler purpose.
Yale in the autumn of 1952, the Yale of the neo-Gothic quadrangles and the Whiffenpoof song, continued the lessons in conduct and deportment begun at New England boarding schools—larger in its ambitions than Andover or Hotchkiss, and not as strict in its rules about drinking the soup or turning off the lights, but otherwise an elaboration of more or less the same sermon in Protestant stone. A gentleman’s college where the sons of the American haute bourgeoisie were sent in station wagons to improve their acquaintance with the civilization (here is London, there is Paris) in which they would have occasion to be spending a great deal of money. Words were meant to be seen, not heard, but it was a matter of good form (like knowing how to dance the waltz or play a five-iron shot out of wet sand) to appreciate the distinctions between the Black Death, the Battle of Trafalgar, and a logarithm table.
To take seriously the precepts of so complacent an institution was to commit the crime of philistinism and trade one’s soul for the standard mess of Wall Street pottage.
The line of underground resistance revealed itself in principled objection to Harris tweed and the football team, to teas at President Griswold’s house, the Yale Daily News (steadfast in its support of Lester Lanin and Senator Joseph McCarthy), the Fence Club, J. Press (where prescuffed white buckskin shoes sold for $10 more than the same shoes new in the box), weekends at Vassar or Smith, Battell Chapel, the C.I.A. (which maintained recruiting offices in both the History and the English departments), button-down shirts, captains' chairs, and Scholars of the House.
It was to New York City instead of Sterling Library that the novice Yale intelligentsia went in search of exemplary texts, and I remember numerous journeys south on slow trains to see performances of The Crucible and Waiting for Godot or listen to W.H. Auden distinguish poetry from prose in an apartment near Washington Square, to follow Thelonius Monk’s wanderings through the key of C-sharp minor and watch Dylan Thomas drink himself to death at the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street.
By comparison with the excitements of Greenwich Village and the energy of the all-night seminars on Chapel Street, much of the classroom seemed timid or bland. I came across a few splendid teachers, most notably Alexander Witherspoon, who taught Milton’s Paradise Lost with the proviso that all present take note of the proposition that “education is a self-inflicted wound.” But as a classroom proposition Yale was largely a matter of filling out forms, and most of the faculty accepted the terms of their service with graceful irony, content to apply the veneers of cultural polish to the expensive furniture temporarily on loan from Fairfield County or the shores of Long Island Sound. Over a term of four years the representative celebrities of the human soul (among them Plato, Hamlet, Thomas Jefferson, and Tiny Tim) put in guest appearances on the academic talk show and were welcomed with rounds of polite applause. The students who received the better marks were those who could think of the most flattering explanations for the greatness of the great figures and the great truths.
By the winter of junior year I had pretty much stopped going to class. Excited by almost any book that fell into my hands (books about medieval riverine fortifications, books about Talleyrand’s mistresses and Kaiser Wilhelm’s uniforms, books about bees), I also had encountered the exuberant presence of Charles Garside, a teaching assistant in the history department, who prompted me to write term papers in imitation of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Garside’s delight in the play of ideas was a wonder to behold, but he was not a man to look lightly upon the sins of scholarly compromise. Late one night in the United Restaurant I carelessly allowed him to read an essay about John Donne that I had written earlier in the evening and of which I was presumptuously fond. “Surely,” he said, “you can do better than this,” and so saying, with a theatrical gesture suited to the staging of a play by Moliere, he tore the manuscript into small and irretrievable pieces.
The paper was due to be handed in the next morning at 10 a.m. to a course in 17th-century poetry taught by a professor who didn’t like surprises. But Garside was a brilliant lecturer, and as usual I was captured by his baroque enthusiasm and his command of almost any subject that came to mind. We talked about Donne for an hour, with the result that I redrafted the paper along a line of argument that hadn’t been discussed in class. The professor awarded it the numerical equivalent of an F and took the trouble to add an irritated marginal note: “I’m not interested in what you think about Donne. I want to know that you know what I think about Donne.”
The comment defined the thesis of the standard Yale education in the spring of 1956, and at the time I thought the professor a sheep-witted pedant. Not until many years later did I understand that it was Yale’s implacable smugness that goaded me into the pain of thought and the love of words. Presumably that was the point. In full view of Harkness Tower, together with its superb collection of striped and polka-dot ties, the College left carelessly lying around under the elm trees a large assortment of sharp and blunt instruments, all or any one of which, unless handled with extreme care, was apt to inflict a life-long wound.
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