The Boys of '49
The Hopkins fall term did not open until the third and sometimes the fourth week of September. I arrived a few days ahead of time to complete registration, look around and settle in. At Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station I found a cab, and had the cabby run down my steamer trunk--then a standard part of student travel--and with it strapped to the rear bumper set off, in a manner befitting, I fancied, my station and class, for the Homewood campus and Alumni Memorial Hall, the single dormitory Johns Hopkins then operated.
My arrival was not lonely. A dozen other cabs bearing a dozen other students and a dozen other steamer trunks clogged the tiny parking lot, and as soon as one pulled away another pulled up. The two black porters, Gene and Charles, worked steadily dollying trunks to their proper entryways. Hopkins' urban setting ensured an abundance of rental rooms, apartments and basements on every side, besides which a dozen or more fraternities maintained houses within a few blocks; and in any case approximately half the sixteen hundred undergraduates were Baltimoreans, as required by the Hopkins legacy, and lived at home. Dorm rooms remained precious, however, to the half who hailed from elsewhere, like me, and no bed at the dorm went begging. All but the smallest rooms had gone from single to double occupancy because of the postwar crush, and the ground-floor suites, once coveted for their parlors, bay windows and fireplaces, were now ordinary student warrens cramming in as many as decency allowed....
Ira Singer and I were to room together that year, his last and my
first, and I found him waiting, surrounded as usual by half a
dozen pals and acolytes, on the second floor of "E" entry.... As
Gene muscled my steamer trunk inside, I tried to sort out the
gaggle of new acquaintances already on hand or arriving after me.
One, identifiable at once, was Hank Bobrow, a genial, heavyset
senior from Queens who seemed almost as magisterial as Ira; he
had been taken prisoner in the Bulge, and prompted by Ira he
launched into the tale of the stratagems he'd devised to conceal
his Jewishness from his SS captors. With him was his roommate,
Ray Carol, a third senior from New York who was, Ira assured me
sotto voce, a brilliant student of American politics, a subject
Ray proposed, upon acquiring a Ph.D., to teach; he too was a
veteran of the navy as I remember, and he talked out of the
corner of his mouth in a hearty blend of street argot and
Aquinian logic-chopping. Presently his mentor--soon to be the
mentor of us all--turned up: a big, bald, florid Roman Catholic
priest, Walter Gouch, middle-aged, paunchy, invincibly Irish and
by everyone else called simply "Gouch" or "Tuck," as in "Friar."
He wanted to know where we were going to dinner that night. "The
Chesapeake," Ira instantly decreed, and without further
discussion we set off, leaving the door open, the steamer trunk
unopened and a cluster of goggle-eyed freshmen who were
That note of restless excitement and dead-cert decisiveness was to prove characteristic of my first year at Hopkins, when I and most of my fellow veterans behaved a lot like inmates unexpectedly freed from long prison terms. We were a visible majority of the student body, and in any case probably would have dominated campus life by virtue of our age and our inclination, reinforced by the war, to bully our way to whatever we wanted. Few of us, bringing odd lots of transfer credits for a quarter, semester or year somewhere else, had much idea when we'd graduate, nor did we much care--the G.I. Bill would pay the freight. We intended to howl while we could.
SOON CLASSES BEGAN. Hopkins was swollen with students, but
somehow room was found.
Because I still thought I might want to study medicine I chose--
the only case in which I did so--to repeat inorganic chemistry,
and was immediately glad I had. The lectures were given in a huge
auditorium in Remsen Hall, the chemistry building, where we sat
in curved rows descending to a pit and a lecture bench beneath a
large copy of the periodic table. Dr. John Bricker, a young
professor of astonishing vitality, paced and wheeled behind the
bench as he lectured, his athletic style accompanied by
undergraduate whispers, behind notebooks and slide rules, that
he'd worked during the war on the Manhattan Project. That was
exciting stuff, but even more exciting were the clarity and force
of his lectures, which seemed to reveal a whole new way of
looking at chemistry....
It was fun to be back at the books, and for a variety of reasons, among them relief from the stress of war, intellectual adventure, the company of peers; and like almost every veteran attending college under the G.I. Bill I took an unfamiliar satisfaction in being a student again. College after the war, it became clear, was nothing like college before. I no longer regarded my education as an inevitable privilege, something to which the good fortune of birth entitled me. I had seen too much to indulge that fantasy. Courses were not simply unpleasant chores to be done, well or poorly, in order to rise another rung; they were windows on the world, on life, and they helped explain how the world and life worked, or else sought to. Learning was good in itself, not a duty but a revelation, and instead of a clock needing only occasional oiling a mind turned out to be a bottomless reservoir requiring constant replenishment. Meanwhile, however, I was a sophomore with academic "obligations" to discharge besides English, history and chemistry: two years of French in addition to my transferred German; math through differential calculus; a semester each of political science and political economy. The important difference, a result of war and age, was that I anticipated performing my "obligations" with a pleasure education had never given me before....
The course that most deeply engaged me that first year back, and
the intellectual revelation that was to transform my life, was
English: more specifically, the required survey of English
literature, a perfectly conventional overview, taught everywhere,
that ended by altering all of my academic and professional plans.
The improbable agent of this upheaval was a desiccated,
prematurely palsied and seemingly ineffectual associate professor
named Edward Norris, who had been at Hopkins a long time and was
stuck for good at a secondary academic rank; he was fussy and
unfriendly, a bachelor in his fifties widely said to be a
drinker, difficult to like and without visible professional
standing beyond the modest responsibility for teaching sophomores
a course all had to take but few gave a second thought. But
something in the way he read poetry to the large lecture section,
and in the smaller weekly quiz section, which I also had under
him, made me admire him enormously. He was a routine lecturer,
flat and sometimes tedious, and he showed little concern for how
his students responded to the material; but I had never heard
poetry read that way, easily, conversationally, without the
singsong stress on beats and rhymes I remembered from high
school, and it gave the poetry itself a new place among the
accomplishments that provoked my curiosity. His reading of
Hopkins' "The Windhover," which I'd found incomprehensible on the
page, brought me nearly to tears with its clarity and force. Yet
Norris read without false dramatics or cheap sentimentality, and
it seemed to me--though the suggestion drew laughs from those who
knew him, and I never heard him utter a word outside class--that
beneath his mien of threadbare failure and disillusionment he
remained a man who'd heard and been possessed by the genius of
the English language.
It helped that almost weekly one of the senior professors in the English Department--or now and then, when it was appropriate, another department--lectured us. Raymond D. Havens, who'd devoted a lifetime to Wordsworth, delivered a moving account of the creation of "The Prelude," lingering with calculated emphasis on the line, "And never lifted up a single stone"; and Don Cameron Allen, who specialized in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature and thought, lectured on Milton. Kemp Malone, whose international fame rested on his scholarship in Middle English, appeared one day to talk sharply but surprisingly on Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, not in those days a novel that usually got much academic respect; and a man named Einarsson, who specialized in Old Icelandic, lectured us on Beowulf. Especially memorable for me were the appearances of two outsiders: Elliott Coleman, the poet who ran Hopkins' new writing program, read The Waste Land, which was rapidly becoming the bible of my literary generation, and did it with such authority no one clapped, spoke or even moved after he'd uttered the final "shantih"; and Charles Singleton, whose swarthy, bearded countenance gave him the air of a medieval Italian ruffian, lectured us on Dante's Commedia, ending with a reading of canto 26 of Inferno and the last voyage of Ulysses that sent me scurrying through downtown Baltimore for a copy of my own and, as Singleton recommended, Santayana's Three Philosophical Poets. I could not know that Singleton himself soon would be regarded as one of the two or three preeminent Dante scholars in the world.
I was not the first young man to find himself besotted by literature, but--beyond an affection for this work or that--I could not say why it had happened....Edward Norris was but the catalyst, though a welcome one, for something that may have been happening to me since boyhood.... Wisely or unwisely I said farewell to medicine and informed the English Department I intended to become a major in the fall. I knew better than to inform them of my pretentious parallel intention to make my living as a writer.
GRANDIOSE EXPECTATIONS AND PLANS were not unusual in that first
year of peace.
"Euphoria" had still to be invented, awaiting a briefer and more
nearly bloodless war; but the sense that one's possibilities were
limitless was hard to restrain when survival was fresh and the
nation, released by a great but hard-won military victory, seemed
capable of achieving anything. If in coming decades the United
States was to find that cruelly untrue, and if we ourselves were
to discover drastic limitations to our own gifts and wisdom, we
did not know it in 1946.
Veterans dominated the campus, dominated American life, and the sight of us seemed automatically to confirm the country's most optimistic hopes for its future. We were everywhere, and instantly recognizable by the ruptured ducks or miniature ribbons in our lapels, as well as, less happily, by missing arms and legs or grotesquely scarred faces. Older people smiled and nodded in deferential courtesy, and small boys--not infrequently including freshmen, to whom we condescended with what we hoped was Hemingwayesque disdain for the uninitiated--followed us around.
We were a roughneck lot to be college students, still wearing our G.I. boots and o.d. shirts and trousers as well as battered A-2 flight jackets, tank jackets and field jackets, all mixed with elaborate forethought both to impress professors, freshmen and girls and to thumb a nose at the canons of proper military dress. It was comme il faut to attend early class unshaven and in a ragged fatigue shirt, preferably of abandoned style, from which the sergeant's or corporal's stripes had been meticulously stripped to show the shadow. Stan Seiden, a friend from "A" entry, was the master of such costuming, invariably evoking a pained matutinal look from George Boas, professor of philosophy and a Hopkins luminary of the first rank, who was in fact a veteran of both world wars but, well past such shenanigans, always dressed with the fastidious perfection of a French diplomat.
I blush to recall, however, that we were not above exaggerating
the valor of our martial exploits. Girls were everywhere,
especially abundant and eager at neighboring Goucher College, and
it was not unusual, on a Saturday evening at Baltimore's German
rathskeller--said to have been the prewar headquarters of the
local German-American Bund--for a crowd of us to egg each other
on to tales of greater and greater heroism, and thus to bigger
and bigger lies, in order to impress the evening's wide-eyed
dates.... A corollary stretcher was Joe Stefanisko's miniature
Silver Star, one of the army's highest and rarest decorations for
bravery, which the rest of us shamelessly borrowed, and he
cheerfully lent, when the date was especially promising.
These were harmless hijinks. A more sinister note was sounded when a friend from "D" entry who'd foot-slogged his way across Europe brought his introductory German class--and, as the story spread across Homewood, the rest of the Hopkins campus--to an awed halt. The instructor, an impeccably Prussian blond brute complete with dueling scar who was, unknown to us, an anti-Nazi refugee from the early thirties, heaped scorn on my friend's oral work, bringing his harangue to its apogee by saying, in an accent worthy of Erich Von Stroheim, "Young man, I have failed better students than you"; whereupon my friend, as if wrapping up a particularly nasty piece of house-to-house combat, rose, threw his textbook through the open fourth-floor window, said, "Yes, Herr von Glockenspiel, and I have killed better Germans than you"--and stalked out of the room.
It could be risky to cross a veteran; I knew several, even within the gentlemanly precincts of The Johns Hopkins University, who, especially after a few beers, were all too easily ignited. Some resented wounds, some imprisonment, some obscure slights or losses army service had inflicted or caused. Sudden absurdly unnecessary fistfights were uncommon but not unknown. This suggests an atmosphere of festering hostility and bellicosity that did not exist, however. Most of us were too happy to be alive and safe to want to fight anyone about anything. My guess, though it is idle to psychologize, is that we were releasing emotions the war had aroused in us for which we were not prepared. War had taken us unawares, as little more than boys still cozily lodged in the immense innocence and security of the isolated America in which we'd been born and grown up; in every theatre not only the nightmare of combat but the discovery of unanticipated human frailty, cruelty and even bestiality had piled horror upon horror, and the revulsion and fear they aroused had gone on too long, proved too exhausting. Perhaps what a later generation would tart up as "posttraumatic stress" afflicted us too (though without the benefit of counseling centers), and our sometimes exaggerated eagerness to conceal the extent to which we'd been hurt and disillusioned was a way of reentering what we devoutly hoped was "normal" life. The key word was tough; being tough became an ideal of behavior--not the toughness of the street but the toughness embodied in the movie portrayals of Humphrey Bogart, whose acrid on-screen cynicism revealed a bitter unwillingness to be deceived but did not keep him from being tender if honestly touched.... The highest praise we could give a campus friend or figure was to call him "tough-minded."
If this was an affectation the toughness of Hopkins itself was not. It was a toughness of fibre rather than style and it ran to the heart of nearly every feature of campus life.... The university had no "dean of students," and on the rare occasion when official disciplinary action was required the mild, agreeable dean of the Faculty of Philosophy, G. Wilson Shaffer, did what was necessary--generally, in his benign view, very little. Hopkins declined to act in loco parentis; campus and dormitory rules scarcely existed; students kept whatever hours they liked; class rolls were never called. Perhaps this sounds permissive, but in practice it had the intended effect of focusing undergraduate attention on what Hopkins regarded as its sole purpose: scholarship.
With no generation of students was it more successful than the
generation of World War II veterans. Something of the sort
happened all over the country, of course; decades later aging
college professors still recalled with wistful pleasure--and
perhaps with a degree of envy of their younger selves--the
diligence and application of their G.I. Bill students, who
remained, in memory at least, the best of their teaching careers.
No doubt the legend had its oversights, for many veterans who
went to college that way went on to perfectly conventional lives.
Still, the atmosphere of academic seriousness was palpable and
impressive, even to those of us who were part of it, and if only
a fraction went on to careers of distinction the fraction was
larger than American higher education had seen before or has seen
since. At Hopkins the results were especially happy: the
university's traditional high-mindedness, which made it
forbidding for all but the most dedicated and ambitious young
men, was exactly what most veterans--whose wartime experiences
seemed to have purged them of the usual adolescent taste for
pranks, sloth and the "gentleman's C,"--needed, sought and knew
how to use.|
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