My Stuff

Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

Total Pageviews

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Harvard Square was very different in those days from what it has become. The community of students and professors, with associated shops and eateries, extended very little beyond the Square itself. Brattle Square, a stone's throw from "the Square," was home to Cronin's, an old-fashioned bar with as many working class as academic customers. By the time one had wandered even a few blocks east toward Central Square, or north toward Porter Square, one was in old Cambridge, a congeries of Irish and Italian Catholic enclaves. The commercial heart of the academic community consisted of a several block long stretch of shops across the street from the southern side of Harvard Yard, and a parallel stretch of Mt. Auburn Street. Many of these shops, such as J. Press, a clothier, were longtime residents of the Square area, and had served the fathers of the students now hurrying by them with green bookbags on their shoulders. In the center of the actual Square itself was the Harvard Square station of the T, opening onto a little island around which traffic flowed in all directions. The two dominant establishments on the west side of the Square were the Coop -- the Harvard Cooperative Society -- and the University Theater, which in those days of course had only one screen. The UT, as it was known, showed a double feature from Sunday to Tuesday, and a different double feature from Thursday to Saturday. Wednesday was review day, when the UT revived two golden oldies. The Brattle Theater, in Brattle Square, showed art films. It was there that I first watched Ingmar Bergman's the Seventh Seal.

Then as now, Harvard was a claustrophobically insular place, aware only of itself and obsessed with its most insignificant internal fluctuations. One vignette captures this character perfectly. My undergraduate friend, Mike Jorrin, a tall, handsome, blond man with a deep bass voice, with whom I and Richard Eder had wandered the streets of Cambridge singing madrigals, won a Fulbright in 1954-5 to study documentary film making in Europe. When he returned to Cambridge after a year away, he ran into his undergraduate tutor as he was exiting the T into the Square. His tutor looked up briefly, and said, "Hi, Mike. Been out of town?'"

Most of my social life, such as it was, centered on the Philosophy Department, of course, but I also got to know some of the other inhabitants of the Square. Robert J. McCloskey was a charming, friendly Canadian expert on constitutional law, a member of the Government Department and one of the few senior professors who actually consorted with Assistant Professors. He had gathered around him a little coterie of junior faculty, from Government and related fields, who would meet from time to time in the University Luncheonette for coffee. I attached myself to the group, as a hanger-on. Among the members of the circle were two hotshot junior Soviet experts, both Polish -- Adam Ulam and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Ulam was a big, bluff man with a wide, open face, looking more like a pro linebacker than a professor. Brzezinski was thin and intense. Harvard then [and perhaps now] had the charming custom of hiring two junior professors in the same specialty, and telling them that one would go up and the other out. In the end, Ulam went up, and Brzezinski had to leave. He went to Columbia, and from there, of course, to an important role in American foreign affairs.

While Brzezinski was still at Harvard, Isaac Deutscher came to give a lecture. Deutscher had been a member of the Polish Communist Party, expelled for opposing the Russian pact with the Nazis. He was a brilliant historian, best known for his biographies of Trotsky and Stalin. During his visit, Deutscher was invited to lunch at Adams House, and Brzezinski was there, as was I. It was immediately obvious that the two men hated one another, and the conversation grew steadily icier between them, as the rest of us watched, fascinated. Finally, Deutscher fixed Brzezinski with a stare and snapped something at him in Polish, which of course none of us could understand. Brzezinski went white, and said not a word thereafter. We figured that Deutscher had uttered a mortal insult, but we were all too scared to ask Zbig what it had been.

It was in effect because of McCloskey that I committed one of my more embarrassing faux pas. He had announced a seminar on Constitutional Law, and I thought I would sit in. The seminar was scheduled for Littauer Hall, a large white building north of the Yard that I had never actually entered. On the day of the first meeting, I went along to Littauer, and since I am habitually early, I was the first person in the seminar room. I walked around to the side of the table away from the door and sat down. As people began to come in, they looked at me strangely, but I just smiled, and nobody said anything. Finally, a young man entered with an armful of thick computer printouts, which he distributed to the assembled group. McCloskey was nowhere to be seen. When the young man began to talk, I was treated to a two hour discussion of a one hundred sector input-output computer analysis of the U. S. economy. It was only some years later, when I got to know the brilliant young economist Franklin Fisher, that I discovered I had stumbled into the faculty seminar of the Harvard Economics Department. Frank said they all knew I was in the wrong place, but were too tactful to say anything. I even asked a question! Ever since that time, at the beginning of the first meeting of every course, I tell that story and then turn my back to the class, offering anyone who has wandered in by mistake the opportunity to leave without embarrassment.

I was, of course, still a member of the Massachusetts National Guard. My commitment was six years -- six months of active duty [see Chapter Five of this Memoir] and five and a half years of weekly meetings combined with two weeks a year at summer camp. Since I had enlisted in the summer of '57, I was on the hook until the summer of '63. Each Tuesday, after dinner, I would put on my fatigues and my Army boots and go down to the Armory, where I and my fellow weekend warriors would waste a relaxed two hours. We did actually get called out once during a hurricane to direct traffic and pick up fallen tree limbs. Half a century later, when I retired from the University of Massachusetts, my service earned me an annual $250 bump in my pension.

Although these memoirs are devoted primarily to professional rather than personal reminiscences, I simply cannot pass over what was the focus of my emotional life -- my attachment to Cynthia Griffin, who eventually became my first wife and the mother of our two children. Cindy had enrolled in Harvard Medical School after earning a magna for her honors thesis on Hardy, but she very quickly realized that her heart was with literature rather than medicine. Stubborn pride made her stick it out at med school until she had finished dissecting her corpse, but in the middle of the first year, she left to go back to graduate school. She was a bit late for application to the graduate program in English, and the misogynist W. Jackson Bate, who headed the department, had not the slightest interest in cutting her any slack. When she told him that she wanted to enter the English doctoral program, his response was, "Why don't you go over to Anthropology? I hear they are looking for women over there." Fortunately, her senior tutor, Albert J. Guerard, was more sympathetic. He gave her some very good advice. "Apply for the degree of Master of Arts in Teaching, and during your first year, take nothing but graduate courses in English. Then apply in the regular way to our doctoral program. When you are admitted, you will get credit for those courses, and you won't have lost any time at all." That is what Cindy did, and it worked exactly as Guerard had predicted.

This was my first direct encounter with the prejudice against women in the Academy. Tip O'Neill liked to say that all politics are local. It is as true to say that all ideology is personal. My commitment to feminist ideals had its origin not in theoretical reflection but in my outrage at the indignities and career obstacles Cindy faced. Bate's off-hand dismissal was the first, but as later chapters of this Memoir will attest, scarcely the last. For what it is worth, Cindy ended up a more distinguished scholar than Bate, for all his bigoted pretensions.

I have said that there was no social life among the Philosophy Department faculty, but that is not quite accurate. Cindy and I were actually invited to dinner at the home of Henry David Aiken and his wife. This was, of course, the same Aiken with whom I had tangled first as a seventeen year old Sophomore and then during the writing of my doctoral dissertation, so I was, to put it mildly, apprehensive. The invitation was so casual that I was not actually certain it included dinner. To be on the safe side, Cindy and I ate before driving out to Harvard [a town forty miles west of Cambridge having nothing at all to do with the university]. As it turned out, the invitation was for dinner, so we choked down our second meal and made polite conversation.

No comments: