“I had known enough to know I had had a great teacher”

An excerpt from "Why Writing Matters"



By 03/11/2020

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Book cover of "Why Writing Matters" by Nicholas Delbanco

Teachers

Two of my models are Teacher, by Sylvia Ashton Warner (1963) and a collection of talks by Eudora Welty called One Writer’s Beginnings (1984). Both are splendid books and both of them committed to advance by indirection; they wind their way from personal experience to general assertion and the overarching issue: how does one study, how teach? Pedagogy is their subject: learning to read and to write. The first person enters in, as it must in any autobiographical account, but in neither instance does the writer insist on stage center. I hope, in the pages that follow, to follow where they led.

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A first emblem of instruction takes place when I was fourteen. (There are other and previous ones, of course, but childhood memories or the acquisition of and devotion to language are not my present point.) In the Fieldston School, in Riverdale, New York, our ninth-grade teacher was a man by the name of Dean Morse. My image of him is clear but blurred: youngish, wearing glasses and a Harris Tweed jacket and brown polished shoes. Though to my adolescent eyes he seemed august and well-established, I imagine he was not yet thirty-five. Most of the faculty at Fieldston had been teaching there for years, and Mr. Morse was a relative stranger; I don’t think he lasted all that long and don’t know what became of him or if he remained in the “trade.” I was his student in the sense that there were twenty of us in the room, jockeying for position and hoping turn by turn to earn or escape his attention.

Nicholas Delbanco

Nicholas Delbanco

All this happened more than sixty years ago. But I remember, vividly, a conversation we once had.

The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy, was published in 1905. A best-seller of the period, set in the brutal aftermath of the French Revolution, it compelled my youthful admiration. So did the 1934 movie version starring Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon. A kind of precursor of Clark Kent and Superman, the Pimpernel was a seemingly vacuous English nobleman who in fact worked as the daring secret rescuer of blameless French folk in distress. His indolence was a disguise, his heroism real. His wife thought him superficial; there were romantic depths. As a boy, I dreamed of great adventure, and I’d pop up behind the couch in my parents’ living room, or emerge from behind a half-closed door, to declaim:

They seek him here, they seek him there

Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.

Is he in heaven or is he in hell?

That damned elusive Pimpernel.

I loved the book. At semester’s end, a group of us—school-supervised—went on a camping trip to Lake Saranac in upstate New York. Paddling inexpertly in the constant rain, we yawed our way from cove to cove and set up camp in a series of lean-tos; Mr. Morse served as our no-doubt reluctant chaperone. That night, around the campfire—after we’d eaten the near-raw hamburgers and burned hotdogs and scorched buns and washed them down with lukewarm Coca-Cola—I told our group of the Pimpernel’s brilliance and quoted my quatrain. “They seek him here, they seek him there . . .”

“It’s a great novel,” I said. Our teacher disagreed. I went on and on, or so it seems in memory, perorating on the excellence of Orczy’s text, until finally he took off his glasses and, wiping them, said, “Read it again.”

That summer I did, and he was right. The Scarlet Pimpernel embodies the very essence of escapist fiction; it’s a bodice-ripper; it candy-coats reality; it’s full of coincidence and unearned attitude and empurpled prose. There are, of course, certain books that appeal to the young and the mature reader equally—think of the work of Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, or Mark Twain. There’s much entertainment value in “the Pimpernel”; it’s a perennial crowd pleaser, with its swordplay and narrow escapes. (Witness the more recent movies and television serial and Broadway show of that title; an audience still seeks “him everywhere” more than a century after the dandy’s fictive birth.) That I dislike the novel now should not gainsay that once I found it fine.

But my teacher’s soft impeachment has stayed with me through all the decades since; it was one of my first lessons in the art of reading and, by extension, writing. Whether or not he’s still alive to register my thanks, Mr. Morse deserves them; the distance between the eleven-year-old who first applauded Orczy’s work, and the fourteen-year-old who learned to dismiss it is the distance, in effect, between the unlettered and instructed reader. Read it again!

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Elbert Lenrow

Elbert Lenrow

In twelfth grade—Fieldston called it the “sixth form”—I studied literature with a senior member of the faculty, Elbert Lenrow. His was an established reputation, and we knew we were lucky to be in the room where Mr. Lenrow taught his fabled class. The course was a survey of sorts, and an ambitious one; we read selections of Greek tragedy and comedy, the Odyssey and Iliad, the Aeneid, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe’s Faust. It would take a goodly while in college before I encountered a text to which I had not been at least briefly introduced in high school, and Mr. Lenrow’s aesthetic was a discriminating one.

He was, I learned later, a balletomane and opera buff, one of those bachelors of independent means who taught not for the paycheck but for the reward of it, and he managed to bring Michel de Montaigne and John Stuart Mill and Samuel Taylor Coleridge to life. We read Albert Camus and Ernest Hemingway also, but his heart was in the classics, and for the bulk of a wide-ranging year he lectured on “old” books. Mr. Lenrow was big-stomached, sparse-haired, and like Mr. Morse wore glasses—often as not on the bridge of his nose or perched athwart his forehead while he peered around the room. We students sat at facing tables, seminar-style, waiting to respond to his passage-specific queries. He was exigent, impatient, and he could be brusque. In retrospect it’s clear, however, that he gave us the gift of attention, suggesting in his seriousness that we could be serious too.

Our teacher sweated easily, and I can picture still the halfmoons at the armpits of his shirts. They were expensive shirts. He asked us to write sonnets and Socratic dialogues; he made us read aloud from masterworks as well as the apprentice efforts we clumsily composed. Several faculty at Fieldston wrote and published poetry or short stories; his was an unswerving devotion to the work of others. Whether we were reading Beowulf or “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” or “Dover Beach,” he brought the texts to life. I was impressed by each of my teachers of English, but Elbert Lenrow stood unchallenged as and at “the head of the class.”

This was ratified, for me, in 1966. At the august age of twenty-three, I applied for a faculty position at Bennington College. The novelist Bernard Malamud was taking a leave of absence, and in my youthful arrogance I believed I could replace him. Astonishingly, the members of the Department of Language and Literature agreed I should be interviewed, and in a snowstorm I arrived in the small town of North Bennington, Vermont. It was my first such academic encounter; I did not know what to expect.

Howard Nemerov

Howard Nemerov

We met in the house of Stanley Edgar Hyman, the Department “Secretary”—a post that rotated annually, since the college did not believe in department chairs, and no one wanted the job. Six or seven faculty trudged to his door, complaining about the weather and congratulating each other on having dug out from the storm. Bennington had a non-resident term, mid-winter, and only a rump caucus of the department attended; Malamud himself was not in town. It was clear as clear could be that the decision as to hiring lay principally in the hands of the poet Howard Nemerov.

Aristocratic yet seedy, gimlet-eyed yet withdrawn, this heir to a Fifth Avenue furrier’s fortune and brother to Diane Arbus did not suffer fools gladly. Too, he thought most he encountered were fools. He had recently served as poet laureate consultant to the Library of Congress; in 1988 he would do so again. Nemerov was unimpressed by my credentials—an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a graduate degree from Columbia, a first novel soon to appear. He stared out the window, sighing; he poured himself a second glass of scotch. Others in the room asked questions; I bumbled and stumbled my way through the interview while the afternoon wore on. Then, almost as an afterthought, the poet asked where I went to high school.

I said, “Fieldston.” He had too. He asked if I had ever studied with Elbert Lenrow; I said, “Yes.” For the first time fixing his gaze on me, Nemerov asked what I thought of the course. By then I had despaired of gaining favorable attention or of being hired, and so I told the truth: “Best damn class I ever took.”

“No further questions,” said the soon-to-be-anointed winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Bollingen Prize for poetry. He donned his snow boots and muffler and gloves and walked out of the house. I had passed the test.

I’m aware that all this smacks of “the old boy’s club” and preferential treatment and would no doubt not happen today. But there was a snowstorm and remedial whiskey and mine was a replacement appointment, not a full-fledged faculty search. Too, something in my answer did trigger Nemerov’s approval, or at least his gambler’s guess that I had been well trained. I had known enough to know I had had a great teacher; he could trust me for the rest.

From Why Writing Matters by Nicholas Delbanco. Published by Yale University Press in March 2020. Reproduced by permission.




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