My time as a graduate student in Comparative Literature was as good as can be, and a pleasure to recall. Who would have thought that it would be this enjoyable?
Since I could no longer stay in one of the undergraduate houses, I had to look for an off-campus domicile. That is how I lucked out by letting a room from the Streeters. He taught history of astronomy at Harvard; I can’t remember what her profession was if she had one. They were both delightful persons, and I hope I was as congenial to them as they were to me.
Mr. Streeter, though agreeable, was somewhat distant; the wife was a perfect charmer. They also had two dogs of which I became quite fond; both were named for famous astronomers. The brown, medium-sized poodle was called Tycho (pronounced like Ti Cobb without the Bs) for the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. An amiable dog but surpassed in appeal by the basset hound Reggie, named for Regiomontanus, the nickname of the fifteenth-century German mathematician and astronomer Johann Mueller. I very much doubt that his introduction of algebra and trigonometry to Germany could have made him as much fun as Reggie,
Reggie had a will of his own, but wasn’t too obstinate and a joy to watch as he waddled across the landscape. I have always liked animals, especially cats, but none more than this varicolored, sausage-shaped creature, amusing in ways that I cannot individually recall.
Mrs. Streeter was a prototypical New England lady, tall, blond, winning, with a face not quite beautiful but somehow open and welcoming. On top of which, she possessed a large collection of Noel Coward recordings, rare at that time, which I played with inexhaustible relish. I can’t recall if I previously had much of a sense of Coward, but these enabled me to conduct a Coward program, “Tonight at 9:30,” over Radio Harvard and Radcliffe.
Already as an undergrad I had had two excellent tutors. One was Albert Guerard, who was wonderfully permissive. He taught a course in Conrad, Gide, and one other novelist (I forget who), which, however, I did not take. Initially, he said I didn’t need his tutorial, having proved myself with one on Edmund Spenser. But, being a Francophile, I wanted Gide, saying I’ve had “The Faerie Queen,” and now wanted the Queen of the Fairies.
But Guerard left Harvard, and I needed a new tutor, for which I chose Hyder Rollins, the editor of several anonymous Renaissance song collections. He protested that nobody before had wanted a tutorial with him, that he did not know how to administer it, and that I seemed capable enough to tutor myself. He ramained one of my favorite professors.
Licing with the Streeters, I was allowed to have girlfriends stay with me overnight. I had two of them. One was Marietta, born in Austria, and a fellow grad student in Comp Lit. She had already been the favorite student of my great German professor, Karl Vietor, who liked me and approved my involvement with her. During my relatively brief but depressing stint in the Post-World-War-Two Air Force. Professor Vietor wrote me encouraging letters and sent me German books I asked for, notably the poems of Max Dauthendey. When I got out of uniform and back to Harvard, he was on his deathbed in hospital, but still sent me messages to get down to writing my doctoral thesis without further delay. That I did not visit him during his final illnessi still saddens me.
My other girlfriend, for alternate weekends, was Jane: Floridian, government student, and thoroghly American. Whereas Marietta had a slightly too short nose. which she explained as a car door once slammed on it. Jane had a curvature of the spine, which she managed to minimize with admirable posture. Mrs. Streeter liked both girls, but preferred Marietta because of her European background,
Two other profs were important to me. One was the head of the French Department, Jean Seznec, admirable and famous, but rather cold. In his seminar on Flaubert, he was somehow distant, but when I read aloud my term paper in which I compared something (I can’t remember what) to ham sandwiches sold on trains that were a thin slice of meat surrounded by thick, boring bread, he sat up and stopped playing with his key chain. We had one embarrassing moment when I came to the door of his on-campus suite, and, upon knocking, misheard his request to wait and came upon him changing his trousers. Momentarily very annoyed, he forgave me.
I recall his standing before the blackboard and trying to remember how to spell the name of the great French actress Valentine Tessier. He wrote out both Tessier and Teissier, and for a while couldn’t decide. I figured that if the great had such problems I could have them too. When the Flaubert seminar was over, he offered me a stay at Emory University, where some newly discovered Flaubert letters needed to be edited for a prestigious academic publication. I declined, preferring to write an essay on Flaubert’s women. Seznec felt rebuffed, but forgave that as well..
Most important to me, by his being the head of the Comp Lit Department, was Harry Levin, a brilliant but touchy teacher and writer. I was the sectionman in his popular course on Proust, Mann and Joyce, and all was well until Lillian Hellman, visiting lecturer, made trouble, She had asked for some graduate student to translate for her passages of Anouilh’s play on Joan of Arc, headed for Broadway,so as to get a sense of how various characters talked. She was paying a measly hundred dollars, but one was to be allowed to sit in on rehearsals.
When I handed in fifty double-spaced pages, she would pay only fifty bucks, because she had expected that many pages in single-space. When I protested in a phone call, she complained to Harry Levin. He threatened to throw me out of Comp Lit, but we finally settled on my writing a letter of apology. I did, but in a double-edged way, which Levin vetted but let pass, although he must have recognized the irony.
Eventually I got my Masters’ and PhD, and so landed a job with the Mid-Century Book Society and its editors, Auden, Barzun and Trilling. But that is another story, about which I have written elsewhere.