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- The complete "Our Common Home" conference on Laudato Si' (pg. 42)
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In 1964, a teaching prospect had his first tour of the Heights
I showed up at the English department office in McElroy Commons just in time for my nine o’clock appointment with Professor John Mahoney, the department’s chairman. His was one of several department offices then on the second floor of McElroy. (Construction of Carney Hall was well under way; orange safety fencing surrounded the new building.) The January morning was sunny and very cold; wisps of snow were on the ground. Students were on winter break. The year was 1964.
“Ooooooooh. Dr. Mahoney is not here. You’ll have to wait.” The department secretary gestured toward a chair. Her voice (British accent) was low, as if she were divulging confidential information. I took my seat.
A few weeks before, I had interviewed with Boston College at the Modern Language Association (MLA) convention, held that year at the Palmer House, in Chicago. The interview team was John Mahoney and a department colleague, Donald Sands. This proved only nominally true, however, for Professor Sands rested on his hotel room bed throughout the meeting, eyes closed, though he did bestow a cordial, sleepy wave when I was introduced. Professor Sandman. I remember nothing else of that interview, but a few days later, by phone, I was offered a position at Boston College and invited for this campus visit.
At the time, I was in my fifth year of the Ph.D. program at the University of Missouri, teaching four freshman courses each semester and earning $450 per course. No longer taking classes, I was writing my dissertation. In the fall I had sent letters to more than a hundred colleges, and received promising replies from perhaps a dozen, proposing either interviews at MLA or campus visits. I chose to make follow-up visits to only two schools: Boston College and another of at least equal stature. But my visit to the other school had been disturbing. Junior faculty had cornered me to let me know their dissatisfaction with their chairman, clearly hoping to impress me with their cause. I hoped my visit to Boston College would go better.
Boston College meant coming home. I had grown up in the Boston suburb of Arlington, and until my marriage to Gail, just five months before in Pine Bluffs, Wyoming, Arlington had been home. Only my mother and brother lived in the Arlington house now; I had not seen them since the wedding. I flew to Boston from St. Louis a day early and spent the night before the interview in my old bed.
Perhaps 30 seconds after I was told that I would have to wait, Dr. Mahoney showed up, laden with the day’s mail. I recognized him as he approached—a tall, slim man with a purposeful stride. His mission, it turned out, had been to the mailroom, on the other side of McElroy. He was getting a jump on the day’s work. On our way upstairs to the Faculty Dining Room, he told me that his secretary, Miss Cockcroft, had worked for British Intelligence in World War II, which explained the accent and the air of secrecy.
What we talked about over coffee and Danish I do not remember. Dr. Mahoney—despite his urging, it would be several months before I felt comfortable calling him John—probably reviewed the terms of the job offer. I would be teaching four freshman courses in the fall and three more plus an elective course in the spring. My salary, assuming I received my doctorate by the time fall classes began, would be $7,500; otherwise, $6,500.
John would have asked about the progress of my dissertation. Its subject was the prose works of Robert Greene, a minor figure in the English Renaissance. If he is remembered now at all, it is probably as the contemporary who called Shakespeare—that “upstart crow”—a plagiarist. The claim was made in a deathbed pamphlet: Greenes, Groats-worth of witte, bought with a million of Repentance (a pamphlet, by the way, now believed to have been written by someone else).
The dissertation would have four chapters. The first, on Greene’s prose style, was done. It compared the frequency of certain linguistic transformations found in Greene’s prose with their frequency in the writing of several of Greene’s contemporaries. I toted up preposed and nested dependent clauses, restrictive and nonrestrictive relative clauses, interrogative sentences—that sort of thing. (This was my Chomsky period. I was then more confident than I am now that syntax is the key to all mythologies.) The other three chapters were already researched, but the writing was still “in my head,” as we say.
Soon John and I were joined at our table by another member of the department, Tom Hughes: tall, tweedy, a pipe, a touch of an Irish brogue. He told us—told John, actually—that he had not heard from his son since the exam period had started at Harvard. John explained that Justin was a senior at Harvard, which then held its first-semester exams in January, and also that he was captain of the football team. I waited for a pause in the conversation and told Professor Hughes that the University of Missouri was considering adopting for its freshman English classes Rhetoric: Principles and Usage—the book that he had coauthored with P. Albert Duhamel, his Boston College colleague.
This disclosure was not entirely false. At Missouri, teaching fellows who stopped by the coffee room were often asked their opinions of new textbooks. Recently we had been sliding that book on rhetoric back and forth among us like an air-hockey puck. Knowing that a campus visit to Boston College was in the offing, I had thumbed through it. The book proposed that the precepts of classical rhetoric—which the authors broke down into seven parts and three kinds, along with useful tropes and figures of speech—remained the best preparation for a student writer. It was an important textbook, linking the relatively new field of written composition to its classical tradition in oratory. But John soon diverted my cordial praise and returned the conversation to the subject of Tom’s silent senior son. When we left for our next appointment, John let me know that the man whom I had just met, Tom Hughes, was not the coauthor of the textbook I had been praising. That would be another member of the department, Dick Hughes.
That next appointment was with Professor Duhamel himself—the only Professor Duhamel in the English department, I must surely have been hoping. He was at this time director of the College Honors Program, but John told me, as we made our way from McElroy to Gasson Hall, that Professor Duhamel was ending his tenure in the position. The undergraduate Ho nors Program had not developed as hoped; Boston College was redirecting resources to graduate education. There had been a recent turnover of college deans and, thereby, of Duhamel’s dream.
The director’s office was a closet-size room inside the Honors Library. I was a bit wary of this meeting with Professor Duhamel, considering that I would be working in his area, the English Renaissance. But what he wanted to talk about, and did talk about, was new developments in literary studies. Of particular interest was the Hinman Collator at the University of Kansas, which, happily, I knew a bit about. This apparatus, named after its inventor, Charlton Hinman, a Shakespeare scholar at K.U., was an optical system that allowed one to view multiple texts of a Shakespeare play simultaneously: quarto and folio texts of Hamlet, for example. This allowed for immediate detection of variants, the identification of individual compositors, and so forth. The Collator was a great advance in Shakespeare textual studies. Professor Duhamel contrasted it with the long, laborious years that his own University of Wisconsin professor, Myles Hanley, had spent compiling a word index of Ulysses by hand on 3 x 5 cards. There had to be a better way.
All this future-talk with Professor Duhamel, and not a word about the English Renaissance, let alone Robert Greene and his Groats-worth of witte. I did gather the impression—though maybe this was later—that a career devoted to Robert Greene might be plotted somewhere on a line between farce and tragedy. The thought had surely crossed my own mind.
On to the office of the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “We have a weak dean—an interim appointment,” John Mahoney said, as we waited in the anteroom. His words, helpfully intended, affected me strangely. I was aware that a dean was an academic official of some sort but had no conception of a dean’s duties, let alone what I might expect from a weak dean versus a strong one, or what use I was to make of this sudden bit of information. Of the meeting itself I remember only that a kindly man wearing a cassock rose from behind his desk to greet me.
John and I next walked to the apartment of Professor Maurice Quinlan, on Commonwealth Avenue, just beyond the grounds of St. John’s Seminary. John identified him as one of the top scholars in the department. An older man and a recent arrival, his field was the 18th century. He was at present writing on Samuel Johnson’s religious beliefs and practices.
Professor Quinlan had a gentle, witty manner, as though beneath any utterance there might lurk resources for merriment. The sun, sinking in the early January afternoon sky, shone brightly through the front windows of his apartment. I was getting sleepy, but I perked right up when Professor Quinlan let me know he was pleased that I might be joining his department and bringing to the Boston College community my “accomplished wife.” The remark baffled me. Not that the adjective was inappropriate, but it was not the first that would have come to my mind to describe Gail.
Cicerone John Mahoney once again intervened. Professor Quinlan had confused me with another person who might be joining the department in the fall, Bob Reiter. And Bob’s wife, Josephine, was a pianist. Professor Quinlan knew this because there had been some vigorous negotiating between the department and the administration regarding the shipment of Jo’s baby grand piano from Ann Arbor to Boston. At the time, Boston College would reimburse moving costs up to $500; the cost of transporting the baby grand exceeded that amount. This was not the case with the only piece of furniture that Gail and I owned: a monstrous Naugahyde recliner upholstered in light brown imitation leather, studded with golden ornamental nails.
The trip to Professor Quinlan’s apartment was the last event of my campus visit. John walked me to the trolley stop across the street. I would be back in Columbia, Missouri, later that evening.
So there you have it, the day of my first visit to Boston College. We can be sure of one thing: Nothing happened on that day just as I have retold it here, as a series of merry anecdotes. For the past, in James Joyce’s lovely phrase, is “fabled by the daughters of memory.” Beyond these anecdotes, I have questions: What was I like then, what was my younger self like at that busy time in my life, almost a half-century ago?
Marriage: After a long bachelorhood, I married at age 30; Benedick, the married man. Well, what was that like, those first months of marriage? Did I miss my earlier carefree life? Did Gail miss hers? What sorts of changes were necessary? Difficult? Delightful?
Teaching: My new profession. Did I enjoy teaching? Did I think I was any good at it? Perhaps more important, did my students think I was any good at it? Both Gail and I were English teachers, by the way, but it was customary at the time, more than customary, that the woman would step aside while the man proceeded to a career.
Family: Gail was talking about starting a family. Fatherhood. There’s one for you. What did I anticipate, if anything?
Church: My inherited faith was Catholicism, and I had been a reasonable practitioner, but more, I suspect, out of filial than spiritual devotion. Now, away from my old home and family, what was I prepared to believe?
The world: The same week that Gail and I married, a young Baptist minister had spoken from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial: “I have a dream,” he began. A few months later the President of the United States was assassinated. His successor was moving civil rights legislation through the Congress. On the other side of the world, claims of a sea battle in the Gulf of Tonkin prophesied war. How did such events as these affect my view of the world? Did I have a view of the world to speak of?
When I seek answers to these questions, questions that probably were important to me then, and certainly are important to me now, I do not find them. It is as if I see myself, my old self, through a scrim, a silhouette without color, lacking in detail. We don’t get to choose what we remember.
The quickest way home from Lambert Field, St. Louis, to 1021 Southpark Drive, Columbia, was at the time unusual. The interstate highway system was under construction. When completed, I-70 would parallel and virtually replace old U.S. 30, a two-lane, coast-to-coast highway. But so far only sections of the interstate were open. So you would speed along for several miles on the new and not quite discovered interstate, detour to Route 30 via a single-lane county road lined with drainage ditches, poke along 30 for a few miles, then detour back along another county road to I-70. After five or six repetitions of this crenelated pattern, the bright lights of Columbia would appear; then home.
Gail would be waiting up. She would have been wearing, I now imagine, her favorite gray cashmere cardigan (its top button dangling perilously an inch or so from the buttonhole, held by a solitary sturdy thread), a full woolen skirt (gray and purple plaid), bobby socks, and penny loafers. I would tell her that the campus visit had gone well. She would agree that, the next morning, I should call John Mahoney and accept Boston College’s offer.
Now, work to be done. The unwritten chapters of the dissertation were lined up like ducklings. Chapter Two would compare the sheep-shearing scene in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale with its source: Greene’s prose romance, Pandosto. Chapter Three would be a presentation of Greene’s customary rhetorical practices and Chapter Four a scholarly edition of Greene’s second deathbed pamphlet (assuming he wrote the first one), The Repentance of Robert Greene.
I would write, Gail would proofread, and Celeste Clifford, the daughter of the department secretary, would type the day’s work on her wondrous IBM Selectric—the model, you will remember, whose letters were protrusions on a rotating golf-ball-size head.
That $1,000 differential in starting salary was a powerful incentive. I can’t tell you how many groats that would be worth.
And all would be well. The dissertation was completed, defended, and bound before the June deadline. On a hot Sunday afternoon in mid-August the University of Missouri held its summer graduation ceremony on the campus green. Days later I rented a U-Haul trailer, the smallest on the lot, and Gail and I began filling it with our earthly belongings: dinnerware and kitchen utensils, wedding gifts and clothing, notebooks and books—among these a fresh-bound copy of “The Prose Works of Robert Greene.” The prodigious Naugahyde recliner would be making its own measured progress to 21 Montview Road, West Roxbury. “Four to six weeks. Maybe longer. Depends,” the man at Allied Van Lines had told me.
And so, very early on a late-summer morning, I drove away from Columbia, Missouri, and began the two-day drive, with much zigzagging. Overnight, if all went well, I would be at the Holiday Inn in Ashtabula, Ohio.
Gail would be flying to Boston a few days later. She had been advised not to travel over the roads. She was now near the end of her second trimester of pregnancy.
All of this was a pretty long time ago.
Paul Doherty is associate professor emeritus in the English department of Boston College. He has previously published articles in Boston College Magazine on Doug Flutie, the history of English composition, and Professor P. Albert Duhamel.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The print version of the article referred to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a Methodist minister. He was a Baptist minister.
Read more by Paul Doherty