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Making It at LaCrosse

Making It at LaCrosse

by George Soule

From The Carleton Miscellany, Winter, 1969

Recently, as I read an account by Norman Podhoretz of his rise to literary fame, I was afflicted by nostalgia. I too had gone to college right after the war--excuse me, World War II--and I too had studied under professors who were more interested in individual poems than historical movements. We were a serious lot. We read our John Crowe Ransom and F.R. Leavis and argued into the night about fallacies and heresies and The Great Tradition. By the time I left college to go on to graduate school, the intellectual distance I had travelled from Fargo, North Dakota, to Northfield was almost as great, I think, as from Podhoretz's Brooklyn to Podhoretz's Morningside Heights. But I found that graduate school required more than simply analyzing your responses to literature. You had to know how a poem was part of its age, and you had to know everything, or almost everything, that had ever been written about it.

It was not easy, but I was soon able to be as scholarly as anyone else. I didn't abandon my idea of the relevance of all great literature. I merely added an almost Baconian sense of the scholar's mission: to amass as much information as possible about as much literature as possible in the hope that someday it might be useful to someone. Issues of journals like Notes and Queries had an almost magical attraction for me. They contained such wonderful tidbits of information - Marvell's residences, a Swinburne allusion - that I would dream of the day when I could learn how to make contributions, however small, to the gradual accumulation of human knowledge.

Soon after I finished my dissertation, I took a job in the English Department of the University of Wisconsin. I remember how happy I was to become a junior member of a group of scholars, many of whom had international reputations. For example, Merritt Y. Hughes's edition of Milton is honored everywhere for its lucid introductions and meticulous annotation. Mr. Hughes was a model to me in other ways as well. He was a slight, wiry, merry man whose wit could be devastating yet who was always friendly and helpful to young teachers. I quickly found out, however, that the amenities of a full professor's life were not to be my lot. As at any large and prestigious university, the instructors and assistant professors were locked in an anxious, if by and large gentlemanly, struggle to get ahead. Getting ahead meant publishing, and we had strong suspicions, possibly unjustified, that the number of items in our bibliographies was more important than the value of what we wrote. I'm sure we had been drawn to literature by the beauty and significance of great works of art, but, unlike Mr. Hughes, many of us did not write about them. For one thing, it was hard to find a professionally acceptable way to talk about beauty and truth. For another, minor figures by definition so outnumber major ones, and minor works so outnumber major works, that we found it much easier to find something to say about second-rate men and second-rate poems. At any rate, the point was to get published on some subject or other. And even more to the point, I had never published a word.

I had two decisions to make: what to publish and where. My colleagues at Wisconsin had the answer to the second question. An organization called, if I remember rightly, The Wisconsin Academy of Arts and Science published an annual volume of Transactions, which had often served as a place to publish maiden efforts. (Rumor had it that it was also a dumping ground to which senior scholars sent articles which had been rejected elsewhere.) I was also advised that, although scholars of rank and stature merely submitted their writings, my own chances would be better if I delivered my paper at the Academy's annual meeting. In those years I had an appetite for all the variety of experience that life could afford, so instead of being annoyed, I welcomed the idea of addressing a learned audience.

The Transactions would be the journal, but what would I write? Despite having read all those notes and queries along the way to my Ph.D., I had no natural feeling for how to write them; I knew they did not contain the earnest talk about life and art that went on in my classes. Since I did not hear the call of any particular muse, I turned to more mechanical means to find something to write. Many people I knew had chopped their dissertations into article-sized pieces and published them; maybe I could do the same thing. My own dissertation was an involved and laborious attempt to prove that Dryden's early political poems were more interesting than most people thought. It bristled with footnotes which I had composed to divert attention from its substance; the whole thing now strikes me as a pathetic parody of what I must have thought a dissertation should look like. Surely, I thought, somewhere here was the stuff of which articles were made. Then I made a second assumption: my first article should be trivial. Here was a chance to make the kind of modest contribution I had dream of for so long. I ignored my incisive comments on Hobbes and my impassioned reinterpretations of Dryden's major poems and turned to a few comments on a very unimportant poem the poet wrote to Lady Castlemaine, Charles II's mistress. In trying to achieve academic respectability, I had chosen to write my dissertation on a poet I secretly thought rather dull. Would it not now be appropriate to my calling to begin my career as a published scholar with an article on a minor poem by this very poet?

Despite my sad experience with my dissertation, I had not given over my hope of uniting a spirited love of literature with the formalities of the profession. As I reworked the pages of my old typescript, I was determined to try to play the game without losing my soul. To this day I think that I did passably well. My style was at least sprightly, and my interpretation amusing; instead of a dull compliment, I saw in the poem a witty and ironic jeu d'esprit in which Dryden twitted Lady Castlemaine for many, if not all, her vagaries. My final act was to give the article a provocative and even daring title: "Dryden and the Infamous Lady Castlemaine." I had done it, I congratulated myself. Here was scholarship truly in the service of art.

It was accepted. Even when I saw that the title on the program had been silently changed to "Dryden's Poem on Lady Castlemaine," my elation was not dampened. That year the annual meeting of the Wisconsin Academy was to be held on the campus of LaCrosse State College in LaCrosse, a city on the Mississippi over one hundred miles west of Madison. One of my colleagues, who had read my paper and approved of it, decided to come with me, so we set out on a brilliant Saturday morning in May to drive to the meeting. As the towns went by - Spring Green, Richland Center, Viroqua - my colleague tried to set a mood appropriate to my subject by reading racy excerpts from the Comte de Gramont's Memoires. If this was the literary life, I wanted more of it. We arrived in LaCrosse, two Restoration rakes in search of an auditorium.

I'm sure LaCrosse State has swollen by now, but then it was a sleepy small school. The men who built it had not evidently cared much for beauty or symmetry; buildings in various styles were spaced far apart in random positions. The school was not old enough to have trees like those that shaded the campus walk at Madison. On the other hand, you couldn't call it completely new; the building I was to talk in reminded me of the seedy high school I used to attend in Fargo. Our further investigations were also disheartening. In the men's room, I saw printed on the wall over a wash bowl, not the obscenities you would expect, but a plaintive "These tests sure are hard." Not intellectually promising, I thought; Madison's graffiti, while similarly unintellectual, were at least nasty. But a greater shock came when I found the room I was to speak in. It was not the auditorium I had imagined, but a tiny classroom with a lectern and about forty wooden chairs.

After lunch, my colleague wisely decided to stay in the car and listen to a White Sox game until time for my performance. For some unknown but possibly patriotic reason Merritt Y. Hughes was the chairman of the literary section of the Academy. He and Mrs. Hughes, a charming and motherly Scotswoman, greeted me in the little classroom. His eyes glittered in anticipation as he explained that we were to have five papers that afternoon, of which mine would be the third. He urged me to stay through the program in order to answer questions at the end.

I took a seat about half way back in the room, and it began to fill with an ominous assortment of people. An intense lady with dark wispy hair seated herself gingerly in the first row close to Mr. Hughes. Three of four men who looked like they might be county agents looked in, hesitated, then sat down. A man and a woman who resembled nothing more than Russian peasants sat stolidly looking straight ahead, he in overalls, she in a housedress. Just before me sat an exotic and stylishly dressed woman in her late thirties looking as out of place as I felt. In all, there were about thirty-five of us.

The first paper, delivered by a cheery and efficient woman, was entitled "Galena, Illinois: Center of the Lead Mine Region." By this time I had lost my illusions about the intellectual nature of our proceedings, so I was able to listen to the paper happily. It was a good local history, and I have since found its information useful in talking to people from Galena, Illinois. When the cheerful lady was finished, we all clapped, and ten people (not including the exotic lady, I was glad to note) got up and left the room.

The wispy lady was next, talking about Thoreau's trip up the Mississippi to St. Paul a year or so before he died. She didn't have much to say about Transcendentalism, but she went on reading excerpts from diaries and in general giving a pleasant account of what he did. Her audience was so lulled by the placidness of her account that it was startled when she concluded her paper by describing the author's death, then stiffening and reciting at top voice a page of impassioned prose from Walden. She sat down in tears, overcome by her love for Thoreau. I felt sympathy well up in me, and also shame. Here was a kind of commitment to literature that went far beyond my playful encounter with Dryden. We all clapped, including many people who seemed to be her particular friends. Merritt Y. Hughes was visibly moved by this moment of pathos, and he thanked her gently. Fifteen more people walked out.

My colleague and Mrs. Hughes appeared. They, the Russian peasants, the exotic lady, and a couple of county agents were all that were left. I rose, told my small audience that we were like Henry V's army - "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers" - and delivered my paper without incident. My colleague and Mrs. Hughes would sometimes laugh and give me encouraging looks, but the occasion was neither disastrous nor stimulating. When it was over, there was some applause. My colleague and Mrs. Hughes left.

Next came the exotic lady. When she spoke, it was clear that she was a European, probably an Italian, and I gathered that she taught art at a Wisconsin college. Her paper was entitled "Some Parallels of Florentine and Etruscan Art - Part II." What I was hearing, then, was a continuation of an address begun at an earlier meeting of this same body. The exotic lady spoke quickly, loudly, earnestly - with the passion and eloquence we associate with Latin peoples. She drove her points home with an emphasis that bordered on belligerency. I noted how beautiful she looked - black hair with just a touch of gray, pale luminous skin with only a few wrinkles, dark shiny eyes. Her makeup was delicately shaded, and she wore a tweedish suit in which various shades of green and yellow were cunningly blended.

Even though I was beginning in the middle of the exotic lady's catalog of parallels, their general nature was soon obvious. Though separated in time by more than a millennium, Etruscan art and Florentine were similar because they shared the Italian Spirit (gesture). They were alike in that they were Passionate (she spat the words out like Anna Magniani). They were both Vital. They both showed Love of Life and Love of the Common People. They Accepted Life As It Was, and were Earthy, Simple, Sincere. My memory may have played some tricks on me, but these were the sorts of parallels we were asked to take seriously. She talked on and on, then ended with a flourish and sat down, a triumphant smile on her face.

To the audience's credit, no one left. In fact, midway through the exotic lady's rhapsody, a girl entered the room and sat quickly in the back row of seats. She was pretty in a cola-ad kind of way - tall, lithe, self-possessed. And she was young: after she came in the exotic lady seemed to fade by comparison. When our applause died down, Merritt Y. Hughes introduced the girl as a LaCrosse State speech major who would deliver the final paper of the afternoon for its two co-authors, two professors from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who could not be with us. My heart sank when I heard the title: "Wisconsin's Contribution to Musical Composition." It proved to be as terrifyingly banal as its title promised. Wisconsin's contributions were slight. I seem to remember a nineteenth century coloratura who rose to be a voice teacher in New York; a concertmaster with the Cleveland Orchestra who wrote a number of sonatas and one violin concerto; Carrie Jacobs Bond, a housewife who wrote "I Love You Truly"; Woody Herman, who graduated from Marquette as an English major; the composer of "Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye"; a man who had played with the Horace Heidt band and who now was an executive of the American Broadcasting Company . . . As the list went on, I could feel my gorge rising. At least the wispy lady and the exotic lady had some sort of passion I could learn from. This paper on Wisconsin's composers was the most arid and cynically trivial piece of scholarship I had ever encountered. Who were they to ask me to drive all the way from Madison to hear this, especially since the authors themselves declined to come? Who were they to put my intelligent and sensitive (although admittedly slight) paper on the same program with all this twaddle? I slumped in my chair, thinking black thoughts. Here we were - me, Merritt Y. Hughes, the pretty girl speech major, the exotic lady, the county agents, the Russian peasants - all brought together by a malevolent deity right out of a nineteenth century novel in order to make some sort of cosmic joke.

Then unexpectedly the girl, who had been happily and prettily mouthing someone else's words, began to understand the full vapidity of what she was saying. First she smiled briefly, then she hesitated and gasped. Finally she began to read as fast as she could, evidently fearing that if she once stopped she would break down. Minor bassoonists, piano teachers, jinglewriters sped by in her talk. When it was over, she ran from the room. Here at least was one thing the afternoon had accomplished. One pretty speech major had discovered just how silly academics could be. A lot of effort by a lot of people went into teaching her that lesson, but perhaps in the long run it was worth it.

Merritt Y. Hughes took the podium uncertainly and asked for questions. He looked hopefully but not confidently about the room. There were none. After he adjourned the literary section of the Wisconsin Academy for another year, I walked up to him to say goodbye. "There are usually questions," he said, "but people just didn't seem to want to ask any this year." I rejoined my colleague, and we drove back to Madison. I didn't send my manuscript to the editor of Transactions, and it remains unpublished to this day.