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Sunday, April 25, 2010


Chapter Two A Cambridge Interlude

Cindy and I found an apartment up Concord Avenue in Cambridge, and moved in to get ready for the new academic year. In a frenzy of activity that I now realize was a therapeutic effort to repair our marriage, we stripped the wallpaper off the walls, painted the entire apartment, and settled in to what would probably only be a single year's occupancy. Cindy very much wanted to go to England the next summer to do archival research on Puritan diaries, Saints' Lives, and Autobiographies, and even with our combined salaries, that was going to be something of a reach, so I hunted about for some moonlighting to supplement my Wellesley pay. [By then I was making $8500 a year at Chicago, and Wellesley was not paying me any more than that.] I hustled around and managed to get a part-time gig at B. U. teaching political theory both at the undergraduate and graduate level. I also bagged a course at Northeastern University in an adult education division. In the end, I spent the year teaching full time at Wellesley, half time at B. U., and quarter time at Northeastern.

Once it had appeared, my Kant book didn't do too badly, as these things are judged in the Academy. The Excel spreadsheet on which I record the sales of all of my books shows that over a nine year period, from its publication in 1963 until Harvard allowed it to go out of print in 1972, it sold a total of 2226 copies, earning $4,264. That is a tiny fraction of the sales of some of my more successful books, but it may well have been a decent share of all the people in the United States seriously interested in studying Kant's First Critique. In '72, a new editor took over Harvard University Press and, in an effort to improve its bottom line, summarily consigned a long backlist of books to the trash heap. On December 12, 1972, Nanine Hutchinson wrote to me that my book was "placed with several hundred others in a mail sale, where the remaining copies found appreciative homes." In my rather irked reply, I wrote "I must say I found the tone of your letter a trifle disconcerting. I thought we were talking about a scholarly work, not a litter of kittens."

I very much wanted to find some way to keep the book in print, especially since I myself hoped periodically to teach a Kant course in which I would want to assign it. Someone told me about a reprint house called Peter B. Smith Publishers that might be interested in re-issuing it. I found the name in the phone book and called a North Shore number. Peter Smith himself answered. When I explained what I wanted, he said, rather hesitantly, "Well, we have a big backlog. It might be several years before we could get to it." Suddenly, I had one of those flashes of insight that come all too infrequently. "I don't really care about the royalties," I said. "I am willing to forego them so long as the book is available." "Oh well," he said, "in that case I think we can bring it out in three months." Harvard had destroyed the plates for the book, thereby violating clause 24 of our contract [inasmuch as they had not in fact informed me in writing of their intention to allow the book to go out of print], but Smith carefully disassembled a copy I sent him, made plates from the pages, and then reassembled and rebound my copy. The reprint, when it appeared, was identical with the original in every way save two. The hard cover was a mustardy yellow rather than a powdery blue, and the price had been substantially reduced. I just checked on and it is no longer available, but for decades after Harvard let it lapse, Peter B. Smith kept it in print, enabling generations of Kant students to read it.

Wellesley was as different from Chicago as a convent is from a schul. The Chicago students were an argumentative, rebellious lot, perfect for keeping a Philosophy class afloat. If a student walked into class late, like as not she would raise her hand as she entered and say, "I don't agree." The problem at Chicago was not getting a discussion started in class. It was getting out of the room alive once the discussion had erupted. At Wellesley, quite another ethos prevailed. The students were very smart, but they were demurely respectful. And they took notes. Everything I said that sounded even remotely important was immediately transcribed into their notebooks. They behaved a bit like a school of dolphins. On cue, they would all rise up with their pens, dive into their notebooks, and start writing. There were class periods during which I would scarcely see the whites of their eyes. I tried telling them to put their pens down and listen, but they wrote that down too. Then I tried forbidding them to take notes, but that produced a level of anxiety so high that it interfered with normal brain function, so at last I gave up and lectured to the tops of their heads. I recall one extremely quiet young woman who each day sat in the very last row of one course and never ever said a word. When I graded the midterm examinations, I was startled to discover that she was far and away the best student in the class.

There was one rule that I enforced with unbending rigor. I had heard from an old hand that Wellesley students had a tendency to come to one's office and cry. I told my classes that if anyone came to my office and cried, I would jump out of the window.

Wellesley was, and still is, a breathtakingly beautiful campus, set in a picture postcard town outside of Boston. The grounds were exquisitely laid out, and perfectly manicured. Shortly before I got there, a gorgeous new Faculty Club had been opened on the shores of a little lake. One sat on the second floor eating lunch and looking out over the lake, much as though one were at an exclusive country club. But though the physical plant was gorgeous, and the students were bright, albeit timid, the faculty was not welcoming to an outsider. No one asked me out to lunch. No one sought me out in my office for a chat. When I wandered into the faculty lounge for afternoon tea, I drank it alone, because the little clutches of old timers sitting together circled the wagons as I approached.

While I was teaching at Wellesley, Dave Dushkin contacted me from Random House and proposed that I edit a book for them. Pretty quickly, I came up with an idea for an interdisciplinary collection of readings on politics drawn from Philosophy, Sociology, Political Science, and Psychology. I called it Political Man and Social Man. At least, that is what I think the book is about. I am sitting in Chapel Hill writing this, and one copy of each of the various editions and translations of my books -- some sixty volumes or more -- is in our Paris apartment, where I took them so as to have something to fill up the book shelves. My only copy of Political Man and Social Man is there, and I shan't be back in Paris until June. It is now so long since I have looked at the book that I may be misremembering what it is about. [There is something a little odd about the fact that I can recall the details of even very minor events in my earlier life more easily than I can recall what is in some of the books I have written. When I first got in contact with Brian Leiter, to compliment him on a paper of his that my son, Tobias, had forwarded to me, he told me that he regularly had his students read a lengthy critique I had published in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy of Jon Elster's book on Karl Marx. I had totally forgotten that I had written it. When I pulled it out of a box at the top of my closet and re-read it, I was very pleasantly surprised.] According to my spreadsheet, Political Man and Social Man sold about 4300 copies during its ten year life. It actually made enough to pay for more than a year's psychoanalysis, at the rates then being charged.

Since we were living in Cambridge, my life was there rather than in Wellesley. For part of the year, I carpooled with Dave Ferry, a tall, lanky English Professor whose wife, Ann, taught in the Harvard English Department and had at one point been Cindy's teacher. Both Dave and Ann became quite eminent, Ann having the distinction of being the first woman to hold a full-time tenured position in the Harvard English Department. They had two children, and Wikipedia tells me that their son, Stephen, is now a photojournalist, but forty-seven years ago, when I was driving out to Wellesley with Dave, he was a little boy. The Ferrys wanted very much to get him into the Shady Hill School, a toney private school to which many Harvard Square types sent their kids. The school required an interview with tots applying for admission to their Kindergarten, and Dave was anxious about how little Stephen would do. The great day arrived, and Ann and Dave took him along to the interview. Afterward, Dave was beside himself with worry. Apparently the interview consisted of a series of questions, to each of which Stephen gave exactly the same answer. "Why do we carry an umbrella when it is raining?" "Because we like to." "Why do we put milk in the refrigerator?" "Because we like to." I think Stephen was admitted, and apparently, he turned out all right.

1 comment:

David Pilavin said...

"I just offer this as a suggestion to ambitious young philosophers.

Thank you for the advice - both this one and the "write short books" one...

Is it just me or the right side of the page became the left side? Is it supposed to symbolize anything?

It reminds me of the following passage from the Tractatus:

6.36111 Kant's problem about the right hand and the left hand, which cannot be made to coincide, exists even in two dimensions. Indeed, it exists in one-dimensional space in which the two congruent figures, a and b, cannot be made to coincide unless they are moved out of this space. The right hand and the left hand are in fact completely congruent. It is quite irrelevant that they cannot be made to coincide. A right-hand glove could be put on the left hand, if it could be turned round in four-dimensional space.

But then - this shift could also be interpreted politically