Sunday, May 8, 2011


The current issue of  Harvard Magazine contains the following quotations:

            “In any battle between the literati and the philistines,
            the philistines invariably win.” –- Harry T. Levin, professor
            of comparative literature, following the 1961 court
            ruling adverse to Grove Press, in the Boston censorship
            trial having published Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.
            “I am a professor of comparative literature, not of com-
            parative lust.”— Harry T. Levin, testifying in the same
            trial, responding to the prosecutor’s question: “Profes-
            sor Levin, which do you think would more excite lewd
            and libidinous desires in the mind of a young girl—
            Shakespeare’s ‘Rape of Lucrece’ or Henry Miller’s
            Tropic of Cancer?’”

This perfectly illustrates the wit and wisdom of Harry Levin, chairman of Harvard’s Comp. Lit. department, in which I was a student and, later, assistant in his course “Proust, Mann and Joyce.”  Harry Levin, author of several important books, was also a great scholar and teacher without ever acquiring an advanced degree. He had, however, been one of Harvard’s prestigious Junior Fellows.

Levin was a subtle ironist, a consummate stylist and lecturer, a strict grader, and somebody with whose approval it was unsafe to gamble. I say this as one who had both enjoyed his favor and, on one occasion, incurred his hostility. He and Renato Poggioli were two of my Ph.D. thesis directors, and though alike in brilliance, they couldn’t have been more unlike in temperament. On Levin’s precision and sharpness you could cut yourself; Poggioli was a practitioner of laissez-faire toward both his students and himself. Harry never made the slightest factual error; Renato cheerfully admitted to vagueness concerning such things as exact dates.

About Levin, a famous colleague said, “A dangerous man—you cannot even count on his enmity.” So I experienced in the Lillian Hellman affair, as I dubbed it, in which I incurred his wrath. A fellow graduate student, Richard Defendini, had contracted to supply Hellman with ample specimen passages from Jean Anouilh’s The Lark, which she was adapting for Broadway. The task was to submit translations of chunks of each major character’s speech, so that Hellman (who claimed to know French!) would get a feel for each individual’s language. For a mere hundred dollars, Defendini agreed to a good many pages, but then enlisted my collaboration. We did it, clearly, not for profit, but for prestige.

When Hellman would pay only $50, because the typing was, as she put it, double-spaced, Dick was so disgusted that he left demurring to me. On the phone, I facetiously referred to Hellman’s Calvinism, to which she earnestly replied that she was Jewish. And she remained adamant.  Harry summoned me to his office and reduced me to tears, demanding, on the threat of expulsion, a letter of apology to be overseen by him. He let the letter pass, however, despite a certain irony in its tone.

I go into this to show that nobody is perfect; in this case Levin’s excessive awe as a mere academic vis-a-vis an artist. Still, Levin was a great teacher, though that was in a very different time and, I suspect, at a very different Harvard. I do firmly believe that beyond thorough knowledge of his field and a good deal of general culture, a teacher should be simultaneously instructive and entertaining. Students tend to be an unruly audience, and a bit of humor is an invaluable teaching tool. But there should be no jokes about the grading.

Today, things have come to a pretty pass. Students arrive in college equipped with a well-nourished ignorance, and propose to graduate without any serious tampering with it. I have heard a graduate of an Ivy League institution boast of earning his degree without cracking a single piece of assigned reading. This can be partly the fault of teachers, but as often of administrations, expecting for financial reasons the smallest number of flunkings. Which is where I feel defeated, having my employment at more than one institution of higher learning dropped , stated or unstated, for grading too stiffly.

Even more dispiriting is something else. I was reprimanded by a female department co-chairman for making too many corrections in student papers. I had spent roughly an hour-and-a-half on each, only to be told I should have corrected the major mistakes (whatever those might be), leaving the others alone. Too many corrections were depressing and counterproductive.

So it would seem that our teachers need as much educating as our students. A daunting situation, as is the passing of the buck from grade school to high school to college for such basic skills as grammar and spelling. And that does not even account for dealing with copying from Wikipedia or other, subtler forms of plagiarism.

Can there be a solution for all this? I am sorry to say I don’t know.


  1. "Today, things have come to a pretty pass." Pretty pun, indeed, those last two words. Lucky, though, you didn't facetiously refer to litigious Lillian's Stalinism or she would have given you a Hellman of a lawsuit decades before she did so to Mary McCarthy.

  2. I learned the most from those teachers who expected the most from me. I will always remember all my tough teachers, because it was in their classes that I actually learned something -- and what I learned was often as much about life in general, and myself in particular, as it was about Algebra, Latin, or American History. So thank you Father Lux, Miss Moylan, Mr. Wlach, Mr. Vogt, and Sister Margaret Mary!

    PS: I know you are not a fan of my work (at all!), but I enjoy reading your sentences. You are an excellent writer -- a bit of a miserable mean spirited 'ol bastard at times, but you write so very, very well. So thanks for that, and don't retire ever (and I'm quite sure you won't)...

  3. Are college-level STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) courses dumbed down too? I would guess not, although foreign students are no doubt necessary to make a quorum.

  4. I recall a few moments from my undergraduate years in the fields of history and comparative religions:

    One history professor, who put on a forbiddingly formidable front of exacting authority, once opened one particular session of his History of Christianity class in the dead of winter at the brutal hour of 7:30 a.m. with this one-liner as through his cold lenses he managed to peer down at us even though our seats rose on an incline before him:

    "The Enlightenment caused atheism!"

    Not long before that, in that same quarter and class, as an historic eclipse was darkening the early morning, a colleague popped in to whisper something to the professor, causing him to laugh, and he repeated it aloud for our benefit:

    "Professor So-and-So just remarked on the amusing coincidence of the darkening of the day as we begin our lectures on the Enlightenment."

    As for the usefulness of humor, another professor of mine, who taught a class titled -- no doubt with an eye to snare freshmen to sign up -- The History of Love (a history of the idea of love from Plato to the present) -- after three months of demanding homework, papers and pop quizzes, along with serious and cerebral lectures, not so fun as many of the students had expected, he announced to the class that we were to enjoy a four-day weekend.

    "Why, Prof. ___?" asked a student.

    "A lady friend and I are going away for a little vacation in the mountains."

    The same student then thought he'd deliver a wittily rhetorical question, only to hand the professor a perfect set-up for the climactic punch line.

    "Oh?" said the student, "Will you two be studying Shelley, Keats, or Thoreau...?"

    "No. We're going to get back in touch with Nature."

    And the class roared with laughter for the first time that quarter.

  5. Dear John,
    You were my section 'man' in Soc Sci in 1961. The assignment was to write a paper on the phrase "freedom is the recognition of necessity". You engaged with my inquiring mind, such as it was, in a long discussion of Whitehead, Tolstoi and St Paul. I went back to my room and wrote quite feverishly. You gave me an 'A'. The only one I received. I read the paper last night. One of the things that has fascinated me since is the accurate role of moral civic action. This led me to produce a PBS documentary on Havel and the revolutions in Eastern Europe and publish a book. I was startled last night to see how much the success of that one paper had on my 'formation'. You led me out... E DUCO. So thank you!
    Sheldon Sturges