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Tuesday, April 13, 2010


I am not a terribly sociable person by nature, and making friends is, for me, rather difficult, but being a member of Winthrop House's Senior Common Room gave me a ready-made circle of acquaintances with whom I could pass the time. A number of them linger in my memory. Richard Onorato was a literature student, whose dissertation studies eventually turned into a book on Wordsworth. Dick was of middling height and already going bald, but he had a body-builder's physique and was far and away in the best shape of any of us. He was a great tennis player, and used to play regularly with his friend, Murray Levin, then a young political scientist at Boston University. Dick would stroll out onto the court flawlessly dressed in blindingly white tennis shorts and shirt, his game a picture perfect mixture of big overhead serves and stinging volleys. Murray would shamble onto the court in jeans and a rumpled sweatshirt two sizes too large, the stub of a cigar clenched between his teeth. It looked to be no contest, but in fact the two were very evenly matched, and Murray was as likely to prevail as Dick.

In 1960, during the primary campaign that led to the nomination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as the Democratic standard bearer for the presidency, Murray undertook some fieldwork around Boston for what eventually became his 1966 book Kennedy Campaigning. Jack Kennedy, Massachusetts' junior senator, was wildly popular, and this being a state in which "the name's the same" had been raised to a fine art, there were thirteen Kennedys up and down the ballot for local, state, and national office. Six of them were named "John," including the State Treasurer John Francis Kennedy, who had already parlayed his name into public office, and now sought the nomination for Governor. One day, as Murray was interviewing prospective voters in Southey, he knocked on the door of a little old Irish-American lady. This was the sort of home in which there would be three pictures reverentially displayed in the parlor -- of Jesus, the Pope, and JFK. Murray asked her who was her candidate for the Presidency. "John F. Kennedy," she replied unhesitatingly. "And who is your candidate for Governor?" "John F. Kennedy." Something in the intonation of her voice told Murray that she thought they were the same person. "Do you think that the same man should run for both offices?" asked Murray. "Sure," she replied in a broad brogue, "if the dear boy wants to be President and Governor, I don't know why he shouldn't be."

Richard Taub [not to be called "Dick" under any circumstances] was a bright sociologist whose principal claim to fame in our Senior Common Room was his girlfriend, Doris, a tall, beautiful young woman with a spectacular figure. Richard eventually went to the University of Chicago, where he worked with William Julius Wilson on Wilson's famous studies of the South Side Black community. For his dissertation research, Richard went off with Doris to India, and he wrote back some marvelous letters about his time there. When he first arrived and settled in, he found that he needed a government license to buy fuel for his home. Having been well schooled in Max Weber's theoretical analysis of bureaucracy, Richard went along to the appropriate office to pick up the license. He found his way to the correct desk, and began to ask the man sitting behind it for a form to fill out. The man interrupted Richard to ask him when he had arrived in India. This was followed by questions about his parents, his wife, his upbringing, and whether he was enjoying his time in India. After a while, tea was served, and the interview came to an end. Richard was ushered out, still without his license. When he returned the next day, the man greeted him as an old friend, and said solicitously, "How may I help you?" Bureaucracy or no bureaucracy, in India every interaction was personal, and no business could be transacted until a suitable relationship had been established.

Robert Tracy was not actually a member of the Common Room, but I got to know him through Onorato and another literature student, Donald Friedman. Bob was a large, fleshy, friendly man who had chosen as his dissertation topic the performances of Chekhov's plays in England and America. His dissertation director was the famous Comparative Literature scholar Harry Levin, who apparently paid as little attention to Bob's progress as Henry Aiken and Rod Firth had paid to mine. Levin was self-conscious about being hard of hearing, which may have contributed to his air of reserve when students came to see him. Bob soldiered on, and eventually finished a draft of the first half of his thesis. He submitted it to Levin, and went around several days later to get Levin's reactions. As Levin began to make some comments about what Bob had written, it dawned on Bob that Levin had forgotten the original topic of the dissertation, and thought it was devoted solely to the performances of Chekhov in England. Bob wisely kept his mouth shut, typed up the first half of the dissertation, and got the degree.

The Master of Winthrop House was David Owen, a member of the History Department. Owen was a wonderful man, responsible for transforming Winthrop House from the jock house into a genuinely humane and scholarly place. There is too much to say about him for these memoirs, so I will simply urge my readers to Google "David Owen history Harvard" as I did and read the lovely Harvard Crimson story on the occasion of his stepping down from the position of Master. Owen presided over a dinner each Spring for the graduating seniors and their parents. One year, the son of one of the authors of the Ellery Queen novels was among the graduating class, and Owen invited him to speak [I cannot now recall whether it was Manfred Lee or Frederic Dannay]. He made an observation that has stayed with me all these years, because it seemed to me absolutely true and oddly profound. "No one is ever a fan of detective stories and science fiction at the same time." When I was a boy, I was a fanatic sci fi reader, and in fact, as I observed in an earlier chapter of this Memoir, my first publication was a letter to the editor of Astounding Science Fiction. But once I went to Harvard, I started reading detective stories, and never read science fiction again. Eventually, I read my way through the collected oeuvres of Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, John Dickson Carr, Josephine Tey, Michael Innes, Dannay and Lee, and many other grand old figures of the classic mystery genre.

Since these memories of my Harvard years are fast coming to a close, I should perhaps say just a word about Susan Sontag, whom I knew during my graduate student days. Susan showed up as a first year graduate student in Philosophy as I was returning from my European wanderjahr [see Chapter Three, with a link on the June 28, 2009 post in this blog.] Her husband, Philip Rieff, was visiting in the Psychology Department [I think]. They had met when Susan was an undergraduate in one of his courses at the University of Chicago, and had married when Susan was quite young. Susan had an infallible nose for who was in and who was out in any academic or social situation. I had done quite well on the famously forbidding set of written doctoral examinations known familiarly as "The Prelims," so she decided to latch onto me as her guide to success in the department. Since she and Philip lived quite close to where Charlie Parsons and I were living, she and I fell into the habit of walking home from the Yard together. One day, she invited me into her home, and as the door was opened by their housekeeper and nanny, I met little David, then about two years old or so. [This is the same David Rieff who has since made a considerable name for himself in the world of letters]. Being basically a nice Jewish boy, I said, when I was introduced to him, "How nice. Are you planning to have any more?" Susan fixed me with a basilisk eye and said, coldly, "I have paid my debt to society."

Susan and David actually invited me to dinner once -- up to that point in my young life, my first formal dinner invitation. I found the dinner table conversation utterly mysterious. There seemed to be only two topics of conversation: the wine, about which I knew absolutely nothing, and people who had been denied tenure because they were Jewish. Susan stayed on for two years, but after I got my doctorate and went off to the Army [see Chapter Five], she must have left, because by the time I returned from my martial interlude she was gone.


Andrew N. Carpenter said...

Thank you for posting these memoirs, which are thoroughly engaging (and informative and entertaining!).

About the Ellery Queen thesis: I am a fan of both genres, although I tend to move to one to the other and don't think I've ever read from both at the same time.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you,Andrew. That is one of those little bits of wisdom one picks up in life.

Warren Goldfarb said...

In 1991 Susan Sontag received a Harvard GSAS award, and I, as Chair of the Philosophy Dept., was her host at the luncheon. She told me she had two great regrets in life: not having continued for a Ph.D. in philosophy, and not having had more children.

-- Warren Goldfarb

Jeff Engelhardt said...

I've enjoyed reading these; thank you.

Extended commentary from Isaac Asimov on the practical tension between science fiction and mystery appears in the introduction to one of his collections of science fiction. I don't recall which collection it is, but I wouldn't be surprised if you can find it in his Asimov's Galaxy: Reflections on Science Fiction.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am delighted to hear that, Warren [if I may]. She did ok without the doctorate, heaven knows, but as a father of two, I can testify that each additional child is a blessing.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thanks for the reference, Jeff. I will look it up. Needless to say, back in the day when I was reading both Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction on a regular basis, Asimov was a hero of mine.