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Wednesday, April 28, 2010


When I left Justus Buchler's office I caught a cab to Grand Central Station for the trip back to Boston. There was still snow on the ground as the cab drove south through Central Park. I leaned back against the seat, looked out, and thought to myself, "This is it. This is where I am going to live for the rest of my life. My career is now a success. I am an Ivy League Philosophy professor." It was fourteen years since I had taken that same train from Grand Central Station to begin my college education as a sixteen year old Freshman. I was pretty pleased with myself.

Chicago's response to the Columbia offer was extremely generous, the suspicions of the undergraduates notwithstanding. On the spot, they agreed to match the promotion and tenure and top Columbia's salary offer of $11,000 by a thousand dollars. I was genuinely flattered, but we decided to make the move to New York.

Cindy had applied for and won a fellowship from the American Association of University Women for the academic year '64-65 so that she could complete the writing of her dissertation. We put the money in our bank account [or thought we did -- see Chapter Six of Volume One], for use when we started living in New York. Meanwhile, we prepared to leave for Europe. Since Cindy was phobic about flying, we went by ocean liner -- the United States out, the France back. Our first stop was in France, where we spent a week or so. We actually had a meal at Tour D'Argent, then a three star restaurant but now demoted to one star. I ordered the quennelles and their signature dish, the pressed duck. It was quite good. We also bought some Limoges china to take with us to our New York apartment. Then it was on to London, where Cindy would spend time doing research for her doctoral dissertation. The principal venue for her research was Dr. Williams' Library, a private library located in Gordon Square containing a splendid collection of Nonconformist Protestant literature.

Gordon Square is, or was in those days, a picture book little lozenge shaped square around a tiny park, ringed by buildings on both sides. It could have served as a movie set for Peter Pan or My Fair Lady, and for all I know actually did. The librarians at Dr. Williams' were enormously helpful. If you filled out a card asking for some manuscript or volume, like as not the person who went into the bowels of the stacks to retrieve it would bring back three or four other items as well, saying "I thought you might find these useful, considering what you are looking for." One day, Cindy took out a collection of pamphlets bound together in a single volume. On the tube going home, she was leafing through it idly when suddenly she froze. "Do you know what this is?," she said urgently, pointing to one of the pamphlets. "This is a first edition of Death's Duell," which, she explained to me, was a very famous sermon preached by John Donne. "We must go back to the library and return it immediately." Back we went, so that she could hand it in. "I do not think you realize what you have just done," Cindy said portentously. "This is a first edition of a Donne sermon." "Oh yes," the librarian replied gaily, "that's all right. Until the first world war, our circulating copy of Shakespeare was a First Folio."

While Cindy did research, I amused myself by reading Pamela, Richardson's first novel, and having a go at Clarissa. I should explain that these novels are monstrously long. They make War and Peace look like a penny dreadful. I never made it all the way it through Clarissa, and I did not even attempt Sir Charles Grandison. One day, I took myself to the British Museum, and talked my way into the famous Reading Room [not then knowing that it was there that Karl Marx plotted the downfall of the capitalist order.] I filled out a slip, and forty-five minutes later a runner delivered to my desk David Hume's own copy of a Treatise of Human Nature. As I have many times made clear, I am not a religious person, but when I held that book in my hand, I did feel as though an Angel of the Lord had brushed his wings against me.

Probably the most memorable moment of our London stay, at least for me, was an outing to Trafalgar Square, where we saw A Hard Day's Night in a first run theater. I am a devout lover of baroque music, and as I have already written, I listened to Bach's B Minor Mass with Susie when I was courting her as a teenager. But I fell in love with the music in that movie, and retain to this day a special place for it in my heart.

We even had time for some antique hunting. In the town of Alresford, fifty miles southwest of London, we found what can only be described as an antiques warehouse. After spending a shaky couple of hours on a bicycle built for two, my only experience with this antique contraption, we bought a magnificent Georgian chest on chest with the original finish for fifty two pounds ten, a pittance even then. It was one of the few pieces of antique furniture that were included in my portion of the household furnishings when Cindy and I separated twenty-two years later, and it sits today in the living room of the condominium that Susie and I bought in Chapel Hill. I also had a tailor in the North End make me a suit from some tweedy woolen fabric we had found, but alas it is some decades since I have been able to fit into it.

With Cindy's research completed, it was time for us to sail home to the United States and begin our life in New York.


Unknown said...

"Our first stop was in France, where we spent a week or so. We actually had a meal at Tour D'Argent, then a three star restaurant but now demoted to one star. I ordered the quennelles and their signature dish, the pressed duck. It was quite good."

O.K. So you not only remember at which restaurant you ate but also the specific menu item.

Remind me how many years ago this was!!!!?????

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Well, it was forty six years ago, but then the duck was really good. :) The quennelles floated off the plate.

David Pilavin said...

I am glad to hear you are a devotee of Baroque Music.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am indeed. One of my greatest pleasures was playing viola in an amateur baroque ensemble on year when I was living in watertown, MA

NotHobbes said...

"We even had time for some antique hunting. In the town of Alresford, fifty miles southwest of London"

Did you arrive in New Alresford by train Professor?
You could have sat next to a Soviet spy as you made the journey...The station being a meeting place for members of the Portland Spy Ring around that time

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Well, I have been trying not to blow my cover, but ...

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