Freshman Comp, 1967 Print E-mail

Thomas_MacAfee(Anchor Essay Annual: Best of 1997 edited by Phillip Lopate)

That I was a severely bookish eighteen-year-old must have been fairly evident to my dormi­tory roommates at the University of Missouri, my freshman semester. The night before classes began, they tried to pry me away from my desk for a keg party to which I responded, “I can’t go. I need to finish studying the introductions to my textbooks.” I believed those small Roman-numerated pages would offer insight into the learning models that awaited me. In fact, so intent was I to begin my education that after saying goodbye to Mom and Dad a few days earlier I rushed out to purchase my course books and then, parked at my desk, nearly memorized the glossaries of each text. I wanted more than a head start; I wanted to achieve, as my dad sug­gested, the notice of those who mattered, the professors with whom I was soon to be engaged, and I hoped, enthralled. If called on in class, my responses would prove just how formidably prepared I was.

The following morning (classes began on a Thursday that semester), I woke at dawn, got dressed, gulped coffee, then walked from my men’s dorm, Atchison House, Don­nelly Hall, through the three high-rise women’s dorms, onto Maryland Avenue, and there beheld people streaming out everywhere on their way to class—women in groups of three, plain or tweed jumpers with bow ties, men in pairs or solo, with Weejuns, dress shirts and V-neck sweaters. I wore my faded blond corduroy jacket which I’d bought at the Salvation Army for fifty cents. By the time I strode past Crowder Hall, home of the R.O.T.C. (anti-Vietnam protests would erupt there the next year), the concrete sidewalk below my feet felt like destiny, as it must have for hundreds of others, stopping at traffic lights, ducking in a market, winding around trees and mani­cured lawns, hurrying by dawdlers. Maryland Avenue dead-ended at the Red Campus, the older, pre-Civil War red brick buildings with their turrets and manorial splendor. I rushed by the six bare columns, rem­nants of a facade whose structure burnt down long ago and which stood with lonely detach­ment in a vast green quadrangle. My first class, Principles of Geology, was in a three-hundred-fifty-seat lecture hall that, surprise, was jam-packed with people when I arrived.

I found a seat in the aisle, heard the litany of class requirements, took notes furiously about plates and faults and the ages of rock and sediment, recalling the yellow and tan layers of limestone that I saw exposed in freeway cuts driving to Columbia from St. Louis. The professor seemed more interested in enunciating the terms of geologi­cal origins than he was in making sure we got his information. He told us to hold our questions for lab; the teaching assistants would answer us there. By the end of fifty minutes, I was tired of his stilted diction and slow delivery. But one hour a day of this and one hour of Spanish, which met at noon, was nothing. When I went outside and watched hordes of students disperse on new paths, I was elated again. As I walked, I forgot the tedium of lecture and marveled at the harmony of college life. Apparently there was no turmoil here between black and white, liberal and conservative, no vice or crime or poverty that I could see. True, the students were one class and the faculty another. But I already noticed older men with book-laden arms and contented gazes, lingering with people half their age, in some cases strolling from one building to another, engaged in animated, extemporaneous talk.

Next morning, a Friday, I went to Introduction to Philosophy and felt, intellectually at least, like a child. It seemed every first course was Intro To or Principles Of or Basic Concepts In, the point being, I supposed, that we had not only to forget everything we knew but we probably, according to the University, really never knew anything to begin with. Deflated, I journeyed beyond the Student Union to the White Campus, the newer buildings made of blond Missouri limestone. There I entered Composition English 1 at one o’clock. My teacher, Mr. Marquard, a grand name for a writer, which I assumed he was, kept us ten minutes, saying we needed to buy the text, take it home over the weekend and, after reading any section at random, write a page or two in response. Any­thing. Use your brains. Half the class had no idea what he meant; but I did. When he excused us, I slid by the questioning herd to whom he exhorted, “Be creative, explore, invent.”

Our textbook, Writing With a Purpose by James M. McCrimmon, included an excerpt under “Prose Style” that illustrat­ed the common loose or cumula­tive sentence which dominat­ed written English. It was taken from Walter Pater’s book The Renais­sance, a chapter on Sandro Botticelli. Pater was describing the world-famous painting, The Birth of Venus.

An emblematical figure of the wind blows hard across the grey water, moving forward the dainty-lipped shell on which she [Venus] sails, the sea “show­ing his teeth” as it moves in thin lines of foam, and sucking in, one by one, the falling roses, each severe in outline, plucked off short at the stalk, but embrow­ned a little, as Botticelli’s flowers always are.

McCrimmon pointed to the subject and verb, then wrote of the lack of any patterning element in the sentence, the way it runs along sensually describing the vision of Venus rising from the wave, the way the sentence seems to reflect a mind in the process of thinking. This was contrasted with a periodic sentence from the same chapter.

[Botticelli’s] interest is neither in the untempered goodness of Angelico’s saints, nor the untempered evil of Orcagna’s Inferno; but with men and women, in their mixed and uncertain condition, always attractive, clothed sometimes by passion with a character of loveliness and energy, but saddened perpetually by the shadow upon them of the great things from which they shrink.

Next McCrimmon emphasized the balanced construction of “neither . . . nor” and the dividing semi-colon that set up statement and contrast, the way carefully weighted phrases and clauses which, unlike the cumulative sentence, reflect a mind that has already got its thinking in order. Notice, too, that the point of the periodic sentence is saved for the very end.

Yes: There were two ways to write sentences and those two ways were infinitely varied by the author’s decision whether to convey to his or her reader ideas in the state of their formulation or ideas in their already formulated state. Pater preferred the loose to the periodic, the thinking-it-through to the well-thought-out, suggesting that for him the cumulative mode represented the action of his mind. Style made meaning translucent, and such clarity was what a writer was after. Style, in fact, preceded meaning, so McCrimmon seemed to say. Yes: the rhetoric of the masters had hooked me. I could barely wait to prefer my own sentences.

Wanting to write was my dream even before I went to college, though I couldn’t know then what being a writer entailed. I had read writers’ autobiographical statements about their own lives, for one, John Steinbeck, who believed an author needed to work at dozens of odd jobs until his thirties when he might, so Steinbeck said, have something worth saying. But I had only worked construction in the summers. I was a total novice, all freshman. I had written poems, a few stories, many letters, several high school analytical essays, one against capital punishment, which my teacher praised excessively. My sensibility for literature had been shaped, though, from incessant reading. One habit of mine, much of my senior year, was to wake at six a.m. and read before school. I stole the habit from a bookstore owner I knew who, beginning at first light, so she said, read a book a day. I often read the summers away; I loved American novels, dawdling over Carson McCullers’ smokey prose or John Updike’s animistic descriptions. Reading enchanted me into reflection while it also taught me the pleasures of immersion and quietude. Thus it was easy to be stirred by reading aloud Pater’s lusty rhythmical language, the spell of classical rhetoric to and from my lips, igniting that flame of the brotherhood of the pen, a swoon and clutch as religiously enlightening as any medieval monk felt at prayer in his cloister. Chock full of sentence lore, I walked out of the Commons and into the evening, the night air cool as clean linen, hung as though for lovers and, before beginning my two pages for Marquard, I headed once more to look at ­The Birth of Venus. Where? Art books in the library.

At the center of the college, between Jesse Hall, the massive administrative estate of the Red Campus, and the Memorial Student Union, the student-faculty landmark of the White Campus, was Ellis Library, a temple of horsehide grey granite. Inside I followed the blue-veined marble steps up to the fourth floor, my feet slipping a little on their icy surfaces. The smell of oak banisters rubbed with oil mixed with the musty odor of a million tomes; those scents, released every day when a patron opened the leaves of a book, floated throughout the high-ceilinged reading rooms. In spring, blossoming magnolias on the lawn that circled the library would add, from the cranked-open high-arched windows, yet another syrupy smell to the August atmo­sphere.

I found a book with color plates of Botticelli’s paintings and, as I had in my puny, single-level high school library, stared again at the garlanded goddess of beauty, of whose countenance Pater wrote, “The sorrow in her face was at the thought of the whole long day of love yet to come.” There was the androgynous “emblematical figure” blowing the birth wind, the “dainty-lipped shell” on which Venus rode, the “falling roses” that adorned her arrival. And there too was Venus herself, demure and sensual, virginally desirous and yet withholding her fullest attention from us, the viewer. She was shrinking from us, too. She was old and young and, in her morning newness, as yet unloved. She seemed willing herself a number of contradictory commands: to be chaste, to remain the silent object of divine beauty, to welcome sexual union, knowing that every dawn she would reappear, borne again by an amorous wind.

Leaving the sanctuary of the library was not possible in my swooning condition so, lying on the floor in the stacks, I wrote my two pages. I described the floating figures, their camaraderie, their undefiled sensuality, aping Pater’s cumulative energy as much as I could. (Marquard’s comment on my paper a week later was, Very Nice Job!) But, though I was happily lost in my aloneness, staring at Botticelli’s figures made me yearn for their kind: exotic, impas­sioned liber­tines: arty types; poets and painters and actors—those capable of frisson. I suddenly realized there had to be such artistic, aesthetic presences in Columbia, Missouri, in the flesh, with whom I might commune.


Such presences were not to be found on my dorm floor. I felt only narrow curiosity for the guys down the hall like Richie Mullins from Patchogue, Long Island, who wanted everyone to get laid so he was fixing us up with female pen pals from his home town whom we’d visit come spring break, or Mike Kelpe from Alton, Illinois, a foreign-language whiz-kid, who seemed to come to Mizzou merely to drill us on our Spanish verbs. College for them was like summer camp, a stopover, a nine-month bash where Budweiser, mega-watt stereos, and evening-long brag sessions ruled: When do we organize the first panty-raid? How many girls did you lay in high school? (The truth was, I hadn’t laid any, though I fantasized about it regularly.) In Atchison House, an intellectual, cultured seriousness was non-existent; worse, none of them, not even my roommate, read literature.

It took a week or two but finally I found the aesthetic crowd. On Friday afternoons they packed the three front-windowed booths at the Heidelberg Bar and Restaurant on Ninth Street. There, upper classmen toasted the sober traditions of English literature while graduate students and sophomores made wild caricature of their bearded professors’ stammers and locutions. A few of us brave freshmen looked on, anteing up quarters for another pitcher of beer.

In these booths my other education—about jealousy and desire—also began where I witnessed the well-defined circles of literary intimacy formed between the students and teachers who regularly drank at the Heidelberg. I was on the periphery with other freshmen and sophomores, sitting a booth-wall away from the graduate students who occupied the booth with the lesser student-poets who, in turn, were next to the largest booth with the teacher-poets and the better student-poets, at whose center sat, usually withdrawn or else quietly readying to speak, the renowned Tom McAfee (picture included above). The Alabama-born and raised McAfee, who besides Wil­liam Peden, a short story writer and critic, and Donald Drummond, a classicist poet, was the most famous of the published writers at the Universi­ty. A professor of literature and creative writing, McAfee taught classes full of adoring students, especially once they had read his first book, Poems and Stories, which one reviewer called “brutally ironic.”

Getting closer to McAfee was the general desire of most in this all-male clique. (At the time, females were not allowed in these literary groupings because women, so the men decreed, must ­remain the ardent objects of men’s poetry. I’m certain women writers then simply stayed away from us, uninterested in our gender elitism or, worse, our pawing them for inspiration.) In any case, the literary procurement process, as I deciphered it, was strange indeed. The farther you were from McAfee, the more you were supposed to say, under the misguided or correct notion that he might hear you and approve and somehow invite you to his table where you said much less than before because, well, McAfee himself didn’t say much and so you, too, to be like him, kept your mouth shut, learned from his example, were happy to be there. McAfee’s palace guard, I observed, existed in a tumble of postures, but after long hours of drink their bodies collectively sunk like corks floating in oil. If they kept up with McAfee’s consumption through last call, they could accompany him to his home, a room on the ninth floor of the Tiger Hotel where the rarefied talk often went on till dawn. So they said. The intrigue grew for me in proportion to what McAfee & Co. discussed, which was no doubt quite spare, yet which I imagined was sentient and sacred.

One afternoon McAfee read in the Student Union auditori­um. He was by nature a consumptively nervous man, and the reading seemed to intensify his apprehensions about being close to people. He mumbled his poems with such severe understate­ment that I thought he was ashamed of his work. His short poems were wry, detached, maudlin. And they were disturbing in their intimate turbulence. Poems like “Much of My Anguish":

Much of my anguish has been
Purposeless but pure:
I never sin
In a high-brow Catholic way
But to the chords of a Methodist preacher’s pure
Squealing shout at the devil.
My guilt flares up at every natural evil
I suffer: a girl’s bad breath,
A spastic hand, any kind of death.
Electric shock or insulin
Might deaden my guilt, but who is there to pray
For all the silly people lately
In pain—whom I drink for and whom I hate.

Reading such verse on my own, I heard the poet’s intelligence sing. Hearing McAfee read the lines in public was an excruciatingly sour show of his self-consciousness. Did he actually feel his poems were too personal to bear live exposure? Did his writing exist only on the page and not in the voice?

Afterwards, I was befriended by a writer for the campus newspaper, the Man­eater, and suddenly, with five other young Turks, I was in tow on the next leg of the journey. The plan was for us to accompany Jerry Dethrow, one of McAfee’s favorites, to Deth­row’s house, where he would change his clothes and check on his girlfriend. Then we’d drink to McAfee’s triumph back at the Heidel­berg.

Jerrell Dethrow was a case. First of all, that name: Dethrow! Besides the obvious it rung a bell out of the Wild West, a name off a tombstone, some gunslinger or Indian scout. Tall and wiry, from Columbia’s own Boone County, he drawled like a feed store clerk, cussed with verve, and often quipped aphoristically, a line either witless or remark­able. About McAfee he once said, “That fucker can write some heart-breaking poems.” About academics, “Who wants to read all that faerie queen crap from England.” About something everyday, “Which of you dumbshits wants to go fishin’ Sunday?” Statements or questions, never any dialogue to speak of. As I observed him in those first weeks of my apprentice­ship, I determined that the poetry in Dethrow came from his sensitivity, a ponderous bit of bobcat animosity which, when riled, he enjoyed inflicting on anyone close by. Astonish­ingly, though, that animal was attached to a self-examining modesty, the proverbial storm-centered stillness. The combination of spitfire and self-possession radiated a dangerousness which I envied: That’s the way the poet was meant to be.

Dethrow’s place was a large, white clapboard house, a cat-clawed couch on the front porch, a rusted washing machine in the side yard. He lived there with his waitress girlfriend who, he said, had been gone now for two nights. When we entered, he told us to dig out beers from the refrigerator while he took fresh clothes into the bathroom for a shower. We sat around the living room on more ratty couches, a cheap stereo like mine in the corner, empty beer bottles and ash trays every two feet. A cheerless sight, his bed caught my eye through a wide-open door. A bare mattress beneath a torturously crumpled sheet, itself beneath severely flattened pillows. The bed spoke of lovers’ squalls, and I imagined the girlfriend had stomped out.

Wearing a clean work shirt, Dethrow sat down on a flimsy coffee table, elbows on knees.

“When’s she comin’ home?” someone suddenly asked, seeming much too intimate. I noticed the speaker had on a faded corduroy jacket just like mine, only green.

“Why?” Dethrow said, peeved.

“Why what?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“No, man, I don’t want to know,” the green-jacketed young man said quickly. “Forget it. It’s none of my business.”

“No,” Dethrow said, “it’s not.” He scoffed, and those deep-set mystically flinty eyes of his stared at me with such severity that I quickly looked away.

Riding in the car to the Heidelberg, everyone guzzling, the conversation was all Deth­row’s. He talked to us about how much he loved Robert Creeley, that remarkably laconic poet, and then he made a grand pronouncement, which sounded to me like the epigram of the poet’s race. He said, “You know, boys, the poet’s duty,” and he took a steep swig of Budweiser, “is to say what he has to say and get off the fucking page.”

That bowled me over, such a commonplace line, sprung more out of Harry S. Truman than Gerard Manley Hopkins. In the back seat quiet, I attributed such deftness of tongue to McAfee’s influence: The elder poet’s flair for words had rubbed off on Dethrow, which meant, given the opportunity, it might rub off on me. In the meantime, I pledged myself to silence, like the green-coated freshman sitting beside me, whom I ignored although I felt his tortured embar­rassment. He hung around us at future gatherings but he was only a sentinel, one of those owlish British butlers who hears all and says nothing. He spoke not, not out of deference to the muse, as I defined it; he spoke not, because he’d plunged from self-awareness into self-loathing.


Marquard's class was held in the Economics building of the White Campus, interlock­ing spired struc­tures, built of crane-carried blocks of coarse-faced, quake-proof Missouri limestone. Far less imperious than the Red Campus, the White had its quadrangle over which I loved to walk from the open west end, toward the fifty-foot clock-and-bell tower of the Memorial Student Union, its lacy spires piercing the sky, pulling my sight higher, lifting me out of myself. Marquard’s classroom felt a touch holy, too, with age and wear. Dark wooden desks, their seats worn honey-brown, covered the sagging floor­boards, where in long crenelated rows black nail heads had popped up uneven­ly. A raised lectern creaked when Marquard ascended it. In the rear a bank of six oak-trimmed latticed windows bore the slant light of fall upon Our Professor.

Marquard, a friendly, portly man, with a white gospel singer’s wavy hair-do and a tuba-player’s double chin, lacked the faraway, thin look of the poets I admired at the Heidelberg. His coat and tie and yellow dress shirt, his jowly laugh, his robust bookish­ness were decidedly unliterary, more intimate than distancing, more salubrious than consumptive. At one p.m. he entered promptly, carrying some bemused oddity in his head, as if litera­ture and the art of composition—essay writing—were oddities which bemused one, as if he had pondered all day some grammatical construct, like the nominative predicate, into lasting bemuse­ment. I liked that about him. He was preoccupied with ideas; he came into class ready to talk at his students, extending to us the exegesis of a Petrarchean sonnet he’d tackled with his col­leagues at lunch or the plot develop­ment of a Thomas Hardy novel he was readying for lecture in his class on the English novel. In my mind I could hear Hardy write the sentence of Marquard’s daily reality: “And into the class strode the grandilo­quent master, deter­mined to assail the young minds with the hammering ping-pong of a literary para­dox.” Once class began, Marquard focused on essays, pointing out a trove of stylistic features we student-writers must employ in our work. Each week, as he taught us the rhetorical stamps of illustra­tion, com­pare/con­trast, description, and narration (ordered and enhanced by the McCrim­mon text), we stepped to Marquard’s beat: Learn the rudiments of the essay mode one week then receive the paper assignment on Friday, discuss more readings on Monday and Wednesday, and then turn in our essays on Friday when Marquard would preview the next two week’s rhetorical flourish we were to attempt along with model essays to again read and imitate. He held to this formation like Stonewall Jackson at Bull Run. His plan was simple: Read the masters in order to compose essays as they did. It seemed our slightest obsequiousness to that aim would please him immensely.

Marquard treated essays no differently from great literature, the equivalent of Tolstoy or Shake­speare. “Read these gems over and over again,” he said, “and like poetry they’ll reward you with new insights every time.” The masters we studied included George Orwell, Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt and, for me, the most facile of the elegant Brits, E.M. Forster. The grudging, contradic­tory truths of “Two Cheers for Democra­cy” or “My Wood” inclined me to the same pleasurable contemplation as I assumed it did Marquard. These eloquent grand daddies were followed by the occasional es­sayists, who stumbled upon the form in the margins of their novels or poetry or other art. Agnes de Mille, Katherine Anne Porter, Randall Jarrell, D.H. Lawrence. The essay, Marquard said, was the most rhetorically knotty yet democrati­cally accessible form of composition, and any half-reflective temperament was easily attracted to its warehouse of changing opinion, unpopular idea, ghastly experience. People, not just famous authors, essayed an idea or a feeling to find out what their hearts were so desperate to say. “Even you students can write one,” Marquard would tell us, “once you learn what an essay is.”

Most impressive, Marquard embodied in himself the integrity which E.M. Forster or Henry David Thoreau demanded of themselves in their own work. One day he told us a story about an essay he was writing, which so happened to be about football and freshmen English. All through the sixties, the Missouri Tigers were winners, perennially bowl-bound because the team was coached by Dan Devine. Devine was a tyrannical yet brilliant coach, who, like Bear Bryant at Alabama, never opened a car door or paid for a meal so eager were his boosters to support him. Just keep winning, Coach. Devine and his staff, so said Marquard, regularly called him and his colleagues, the lowly assistant professors, to check up on their players’ progress in English, the most difficult of a jock’s courses. Was Nagerski getting it? Did Herkimer have a prayer? One recent semester, Marquard was teaching one of Devine’s players, a beer-gut tackle, a great first-year prospect, who was bobbing between C-minus and D-plus by the time of the final. Devine himself called Marquard and asked about the kid’s chances. If the tackle didn’t pass, so said Devine, and the boy had to retake English, that would put his scholarship in jeopardy, not to mention the team’s trip to the Cotton Bowl. Marquard then quoted Devine with an odious and ridiculing tone. “‘And, what’s more, Mr. Marquard, there’ll be hell to pay with the alumni.’” Marquard replied, “The boy gets the grade he earns. Nothing more, nothing less, coach.”

Some slouch in the front row muttered: “What happened? Ja flunk ‘im?”

“You bet, Mr. Winston, ah flunked ‘im.”

On the respect meter, Marquard pinned the needles. What could be more revolu­tionary than taking on the powers that be right there in the institution’s belly. Marquard was a radical, despite his suit and tie. But not everyone in the class agreed with me. There were plenty of cold-war patriots, young Republicans, agricul­ture majors forced into freshmen English against their will. I sensed their disapproval. Though they didn’t speak up, their dissent felt like humidity: Give the boy a second chance, for Christ’s sake. What do you expect from a halfback?

“Some of you may think I was too harsh,” Marquard continued, apparently used to filling in such freshman lacunae. “You think we shouldn’t expect a lot from a football player, that he needs some extra attention, some help along the way, especial­ly if we are winning football games. That’d be nice if it were true. But the more often we win, the more ethical we’ve got to be.”

Another incredible statement! Marquard had given us his own experience imbued with an unforced, mercurial meaning, an example, I thought, on which to pattern our own essays. Life, our lives, if we dared to look, had such subjects which could easily shape our prose. And didn’t he say that he was writing about the coach and the student himself? He’d said it in passing, as if to de-emphasize his accomplishment. But clearly he practiced what he preached. Later, at the student union, I fell to contemplating my starry future over a paper-cup Coke and paper-boat fries. Marquard’s effu­siveness in the classroom had me convinced that truthfully written words meant bravery, honor, principle. It was his individual engagement and daring that I loved; that and the pontifica­ting, the swagger, the teacherly rightness.

So, after Marquard’s rousing tutelage, back to the Heidelberg I went. And there was McAfee, calmly desolate and inert, yet ringed by all those student bodies, some talking, most waiting. I sat down to drink with several TAs, one of whom chaired a discussion section of the large English Literature survey course. His name was Todd; he was preppie and cocky. Others were praising Norman Mailer and William Styron, brilliant contemporary novelists. How good, how expansive, how vigorous were their books. Todd said that he hated to inform them, though, but it was his belief that the novel as we know it was dead. “Not only is it dead,” he said, “but it died with Mr. Joyce and Ulysses, and any picture­sque bit of narrative since then is a derivative sham.”

A couple others laughed at him. I looked to McAfee, whose reflection I could see in the window. He was staring at the rain.

“I don’t mean to say anyone can’t write a novel,” said Todd. “I mean to say the novel as a form, like God, is dead. The novel, not your novel. The novel.”

What was the difference? I thought. Suddenly, I was speaking. “You mean all those novels I read during high school are dead?”

“Dead as a door nail,” said Todd.

“But how do you know that? It’s just your opinion.” Others were watching me: I was speaking.

Todd scoffed. “Look, no one will ever write novels better than those of Joyce or Faulkner. As literature, their work is the pinnacle. Pinnacles aren’t the end of literary production of a given form. But they are the end of the form’s development. That’s for sure.”

“That’s absurd,” I said.

“O.K., a million more novels will be written,” he was being sarcastic or charitable, “and you and I will read them. Maybe even write a few. But the evolution of literature has its own story to tell. And evolution doesn’t care what we do. I think it’s time writers found not just something new to say, but some new—or old—way of saying it.”

Even though I had spoken, I couldn’t argue this point. I didn’t have the words, and I knew it. I wanted the missing Jerry Dethrow, out chasing his girlfriend we had heard, to rescue me, to say, “You’re full of shit, whatever your name is, and that’s all there is to it.” I wanted to yell at McAfee that the bastard couldn’t just broadcast his opinion like that and not pay for it. I swallowed my beer, got up from the table, and sighed dramati­cally at him. Outside, once I crossed the street, I caught McAfee in the window—a pale, over-sensitive, medita­tive man, waiting for God’s blessing. I wanted something from him: acknowledgment that I existed, a word or two of passion as Marquard supplied, something to shake my soul into creation. While McAfee was waiting for God’s blessing, I was waiting for his.

Clumping home, I got woozy thinking about Marquard’s style and that of Mc­Afee’s. Marquard’s enthusiasm for writing didn’t square with McAfee’s moodiness, his dark silence; no discussion of the genius’s artistry was allowed. (Perhaps that’s what made them geniuses!) All this was even more confounding because McAfee, the poet and short story writer, was published in literary journals and thin-spined books, evidence of his greatness. It came to me then that no one clung to Marquard even though he was engaged with his colleagues and his students. And yet everyone clung to the loner McAfee.


In mid-October a poetry reading was held in the auditorium wing of Ellis Library. I wanted not to go alone but my roommate had joined the poli-sci club which met on Friday evenings, of all nights, and no one else from the dorm ever mentioned poetry. So I went by myself. I sat midway back, with a clear view of the podium and of McAfee, who arrived at the last minute in his trench coat and tweed British motoring cap. I hoped Marquard would show, in part to see me there, in part for me to see that he, too, supported local literature. (When the reading began Marquard had not arrived.) Also attending and sitting in look-alike pairs were the graduate TAs with their button-down shirts and blazers. Audience members sat so far apart, though, it appeared we all had the chicken pox.

The readers were three—a black man named DePock, a rugged-looking poet with a pointy red goatee and bushy red eyebrows named R.P. Dickey, and Jerry Dethrow. A dizzily drunk DePock went first. Though his subject was the lost generations of black men who suffered racial prejudice, the poetry itself was vulgar bombast and malicious hostility. He screamed in freakish tones how his brothers’ ropes would one day noose the necks of “your” shiny white daugh­ters, once their white-devil boy­friends had been done in the ass by African King studs. God, it was awful. It wasn’t poetry; it was hatred. As he finished each piece, no one in the all-white audience respond­ed. We were embarrassed or felt guilty, I couldn’t decide which. Exhausting himself in about twelve minutes, DePock left the stage. The applause was underwhe­lming.

Then came Dethrow. He began reading his short poems, which mixed equal parts sarcasm, intole­rance and self-deprecation with sculpted two-beat lines and a rich assonance. We clapped heartily after each one. Each poem was right on target. Each poem was full of intensity. Each poem was soon over. As Dethrow read his little treasures, DePock, who was laid out in the second row with his feet up on the chair-backs, started to cackle at him.

DePock’s razzing got louder and louder until Dethrow struck the podium with his fist and declared, “Prosy poets from the projects ought to be shot.” DePock yelled, “Hah!” And Dethrow let him have it, a poem which (made up on the spot, I believe) mimicked DePock vindictively.

Honky policeman,
Prowling the streets,
Baton in hand
Beating my people
Into the gutter—
Soon, we’ll avenge the sins
Of the white man,
And this Ethiopian prince
Will be proud
To piss in your face.

Dethrow glared at his nemesis. “And you call that poetry, DePock, you piece of shit!”DePock stood up and yelled, “You’re lunch meat, faggot” and someone in front of him elbowed his face, sending him down instantly. He scrambled up, his glasses falling off. DePock picked the glasses up but couldn’t get them on because suddenly R.P. Dickey grabbed him from behind in a full Nelson, drug him up the row and then up the aisle. Under the faint red glow of the EXIT sign, Dickey kicked the long handle bar of the door and it burst open. He grasped DePock’s collar and the seat of his pants and threw him outside, bellow­ing like Zeus, “Get thee to the wind!”

Back inside Dethrow read a few more spare poems to an animated and appreciative crowd, which, w­hen he finished, whooped it up like hockey fans.

Next came our savior, Mr. Dickey. He read from his own two skinny volumes which he pressed flat against the podium each time he found a poem he liked. He said, “Here’s a good one,” as though they were flowers for the picking. His poems were highly dramatic expressions of praise and loathing. He loathed commercial enterprise, country clubs, politicians; he praised horses, velvet, walking over mountains, and words them­selves. He finished with a beautifully structured, long poem which repeated the command­ment, “I insist.” The phrase followed those things that Dickey insisted we abide—the ultra fine iron ore dust that blankets the steel mills on Chicago’s south side; the patina green of a sunken naval destroyer in Pearl Harbor; a boy racing popsicle sticks in a rain-swollen gutter; a year of peace and vegetable gardening in Vietnam. (That image drew raucous applause.) After a dozen such lines, Dickey built a quicker series of contrasts between concrete and prairie, melancholy and dreams, earthworm and oak, things which we all needed to swallow full into our “green beings,” and then from the inner breast pocket of his coat he pulled a gun—a real gun!—aimed it above his head, and fired. The audience jumped. “I insist,” he growled the poem-spectacle to an end.

We leapt to our feet, cheered his gall, his brilliance, plus the fact that he shot the ceiling and not one of us. It was a blank; no ceiling dusted down from above. What a poet! What a poetry crime!

Afterwards, I stood outside the auditorium’s entrance, waiting for someone to lead us back to the Heidelberg for beers and celebration, when Dethrow walked up. I was just about to compliment him on a great reading when he said, “Hey, you want to come up to Mc­Afee’s with us?” I looked around. Behind me were a couple sophomores who’d been drinking with us earlier. We were just milling about, hoping to be asked. I guess he meant all of us.

I looked back at Dethrow. “Sure,” I said.

“O.K., let’s beat it.”

Our small pack headed up Ninth Avenue, by the Heidelberg, by the Agora House, Columbia’s best bohemian café, by the Lutheran church in whose basement antiwar protests were being planned, by several darkened head shops. One street over to Tenth and the Tiger Hotel, up the elevator to the lime-green carpeted hallway leading to Tom McAfee’s penthouse apartment. Inside, McAfee’s pad looked like a hospital suite with veneered furniture, stainless-steel carts, and slippers upended in the corner. There was a smell of whiskey and medicine. A dozen men or more were already drin­king, R.P. Dickey, the crew from the bar, the graduate TAs. I searched; there was no Marquard.

I helped myself to a Budweiser and joined the large gaggle of men in the living room, who were imitating DePock’s bumbling poetry—verse as drunk as he was—and celebrating Dickey’s wonderful line: Get thee to the wind. “Wasn’t that from Shake­speare?” someone asked. “It is now,” another yelled. Someone else got Dickey to trumpet those words once more, his deep brogue resonating throughout the tiny apartment.

I was standing beside Dickey and said, “Right now, with a good breeze, I’ll bet DePock must be high over Kansas,” and Dickey slapped me hard on the back and yelled, “Yeah, that motherfucker’s in orbit.”

It was wonderful. Maybe I was duping myself big-time, but I was delighted to have finally made it to McAfee’s apartment where the circles of literary achievement so rigidly enforced in the Heidelberg no longer applied. I felt suddenly equal to the others, all of us ringing the great poet’s home like ape men returned from the hunt.

Just then a record began playing and a sudden silence fell. An orchestra of strings announced a familiar ballad, “Stormy Weather,” and Jo Stafford began crooning the lyrics. Jo Stafford, the great female torch singer from the forties and fifties was the same singer of sentimental tunes McAfee spent hundreds of quarters on in the Heidelberg’s juke box.

Across the room, standing by the phonograph, McAfee was singing along. Sort of. He looked as though he’d been swimming too long in a heavily chlorinated pool; he began swaying as if to fall, and then abruptly he did fall, onto the couch. While Jo Stafford sang, McAfee was almost spasmodic, his arms blustering the air, his index finger a conductor’s baton, his head lolling from side to side. I guessed he was laced. Beside him on the couch was a young man from Chicago, who had joined us once or twice in the bar. An upper­classman I believe, maybe three years older than me, he had a head of exceptionally thick coal black hair, curls and tousles cascading over his ears and onto his collar, then onto his shoulders. He was one of the first lavish long hairs of the sixties I recall, a type we would later associate with pouty-mouthed rock stars. But in 1967 he was unique, an unsullied archetype of how the new man might be or, at least, look. In the bar, his coiffure drew stares from men and women; he also possessed an overwrought delicacy which added to his mystery.

Just as I noticed him, McAfee abruptly focused on the young man, too. McAfee seemed startled, as though he missed seeing an ancient Chinese vase which had sat on the table next to him for years and suddenly there it was, where it always was, its bold reds and soft grays as alive as dawn. The poet said, “Do you mind, son, if I pat your head?” There was a father’s tenderness in McAfee’s stress on that word, son.

I sat down next to the pair and pretended to admire a landscape painting on the wall, a work no doubt from one of the poet’s students. I heard the young man laugh at Mc­Afee’s request.

“You want to pat my head?” he said.

“Yes I would. But I must first ask permission.”

“You may,” he said, closing his eyes.

McAfee placed his right hand, its nails unclipped and yellowed from smoking, on the young man’s head and started patting, much as one pats the upstanding virtue of a child. He patted and patted and the young man looked (in the corner of my eye) at once silly and self-conscious. The pat, then, seemed to give way to more earnest desire, less an up and down movement and more a crosswise palming motion, gauging the shape of the head, navigating its globe. The young man leaned forward as McAfee tunneled his fingers down inside the hair, the nails disappearing in the thick of it. McAf­ee’s hand next began probing, digging in to scratch, knead, absorb the scalp. His possessive­ness gave way to playful exploration: he flattened his palm and fingered tufts of hair between his wedging digits, pulling the hair up through his stained fingers and letting it fall back gracefully. Each of McAfee’s movements was entrancing, whether he was wreathing a patch of curls around his index finger and then slowly withdrawing it or stroking the willowy bang over the young man’s forehead or running thumb and forefinger along the scraggly hairs of his nape or burrowing into the cavity of each ear and pinching each lobe. In response, the young man craned his head to expose as many sides and angles as he could. He was such a willing partner.

Finally, McAfee returned his hand to patting, until the young man sat up and began to stretch. McAfee then put his own hand on his lap and sighed gently. The two men seemed spent. The young man thanked the poet who glanced at him, shy, taciturn. Playing the flip side of the Jo Stafford record, McAfee sat down beside the young man again, a tad closer.

At once, the roar of talk and drinking, which I had blocked out, returned. I got up and looked around. No one was watching them; no one, apparently, thought this unusual. I walked into the kitchen and put my beer on a counter between two men arguing about Keats. I went in the bathroom, turned on the light, sat on the toilet, then turned the light off. I wanted to huddle in the darkness and contemplate who had ravished whom, whether the young man was the muse and McAfee was touching him for inspiration, or McAfee was the muse himself, bestowing upon his charge the gift of rapture.

Later that night, I wandered through campus, the word YES bonging in my head like the bell in the student union tower. YES . . . YES . . . YES. This was what writers did. They sought such experiences in order to later write about them and, by writing about it myself, I would move a breath or two closer to becoming one of them. The whole spectacle, in the library auditorium and at McAfee’s apartment, suddenly reeled through me as though I had filmed it, rolling like Otto Preminger on a short train track with a motion picture cameraman, simulta­neously watching and constituting the action into existence. I saw it all, without seams, as an essay for Marquard.


I spent a week of afternoons and evenings perfecting the essay, chronicling the rough­housed ousting of DePock, the inspired readings of Dethrow and Dickey, my feeling welcomed at Mc­Afee’s apart­ment and McAfee’s seduction of the hand­some young man’s head. I knew it was an unusual essay in its personal point of view, naming names and places right before my very nose. It was unusual, too, in its episodic unravel­ing. As I wrote it, events, feelings, characters, places kept unwinding themselves from inside me like string whirls away from multiple skeins and onto a textile loom, emerging on the other side as fabric. I wondered: Was it even an essay, with so much piecemeal shape and story design? I didn’t know what to call McAfee’s adventure with the young man’s head; I didn’t know if the essay had meaning; I didn’t know what Mar­quard would make of it. I sensed, though, that he would admire my creativity and like a fellow-traveler refer me for revision ideas to Emerson or Hazlitt, incandescent tutors for life.

I typed at it all weekend in my dorm room; another football game and keg party kept the rowdies away. On Monday I gave Marquard the original copy while I kept the carbon. He was sur­prised. “I don’t often receive an essay this early in the week,” he said. “You want me to read it?”

“Yeah,” I said impatiently. I didn’t write it for any other reason, I thought.

“What would you like me to do with your essay? Read it or grade it?”

I wanted him to evaluate it but instead I answered, “Please just read it and maybe we can discuss it,” and he agreed to see me at nine a.m. Thursday.

Marquard’s office was in Arts and Sciences, a grotesquely plain three-story building, all-steel rectangles and windows, which had none of the White Campus’s shapely lines or roughened sandstone, no gargoyles perched on little shelves above arched entrance ways. He and the English Department were on the third floor, down a hallway bordered by more doors each displaying the names of a dozen instructors typed on a three-by-five card. I was early. I waited at Marquard’s door until he came out. When he did, he shook my hand and let me go in first.

He apologized, clearing the other chair of manila folders, his scarf and gloves. It wasn’t his office alone, he said—gray metal desk, stacks of green and brown cloth library books, sheaves of essays and exams—he had to share it with other instructors. When they moved into this building last year, the department, he said, was already larger than the space allotted. There was some privacy. In this large wing of maybe twenty bullpens, each cubby had plastic corrugated dividers attached on top of its metal walls. A soft buzz from other teachers talking to students charged the air.

I glanced at the blotter-covered desk: There was my essay. Marquard’s elbow rested upon it and when he moved his arm, I saw neither marks on words nor comments in the margin. He began paging through it, and I saw that he still had written nothing down. It must have enchant­ed him enough not even to consider a red-penned note. For a moment, we held quiet. He waited, I waited, and then suddenly I began swelling with dread: Under the merciless ­fluorescent light of the English department offices, he would start accusing me of rhetorical blunders.

Finally, he said, “I assume this is all true.”

I nodded quickly.

“I want to be careful about how I put this, Mr. Larson,” he said, lighting a cigarette. An ashtray of half-finished, broken-butt Pall Malls sat before him. Flecks of cigarette ash stippled the blotter. “There is so much here that needs . . . unpacking.”

My spine jellied but I stared at him.

“You probably don’t understand where I’m coming from, do you?” he said more to himself than me.

“What is it that’s wrong?” I asked.

“So McAfee likes to rub the heads of his young men, eh?”

“I think he’s a student in his poetry class, the advanced one.”

“Did you ask anyone who the fellow is, if he were, in fact, a student of Tom’s?” The use of McAfee’s first name brought an oppressive familiarity with it that made me think all teachers conspired against us, the freshmen, in particular.

I said no, I didn’t ask who the fellow was.

“What do you think McAfee would say if he read this?”

I said I didn’t think it was for McAfee to read.

“If not him, then who?”

“You,” I said. “I was trying to show you the truth of what I had witnessed. Can’t I write about such things?” I said, more like a sullen boy than a brave eighteen-year-old.

“You want the simplest answer I can give?” Marquard seemed testy, as if I had insulted him. “You can, and you can’t. You cannot just write about the world as it is and expect a, that anyone will want to read it and b, that those you write about will agree to be so easily, so obviously identified. Why did you use their real names?”

I wanted to reply that the names in Virginia Woolf’s essays were real. But I didn’t know that for a fact. “Their real names are their real names,” I said dumbly.

“If this were to be published, McAfee’s career could be ruined.”

I hadn’t considered publication let alone ruin.

“Why don’t you make this fiction?” Marquard asked.

“It didn’t occur to me,” I said, “that this was fiction. It was real. It was too perfectly real as it was. I mean isn’t fiction something that’s made up, and an essay based on what the writer knows?”

“Yes, that’s true—”

“You told us that in class—”

“I told you in class that essays have the truth of ideas and fiction has the truth of having lived those ideas, yes. I know.” He was thoughtful, sucked hard on the soggy cigarette end. Other teachers leading in students kept walking by us. I caught the eye of one instructor who looked embarrassed for Marquard having to explain all this to me. He went on. “Fiction may be based on fact, but you must protect people, living people, by changing their names, disguis­ing some of their characteristics, exaggerating their flaws or their virtues. Isn’t that what you want to do?”

I wanted to say no, that wasn’t what I wanted to do. But under the gun I wasn’t clear what I was after. My intention may have been to capture the poetry reading’s fine madness and contrast it with McAfee’s laconic sensibility, but Marquard was saying I had done something else, implied something far more dicey. I had portrayed a sort of homo-erotic encounter which, in my telling, had escaped me (I had only the vaguest notion that such attractions existed and they would never occur in public). While Marquard saw my portrait of McAfee as provocation, I saw it as a mere rape of the lock, more artistic stimulation than sexual gratification. I believed Mc­Afee’s artist-self initiated such experiences to beget their word-equivalents, and that was it, an idea far superior to sex. And yet, according to Marquard, sex in fact was the thing McAfee was after. Grasping this in the moment, I felt a duty to Mar­quard’s view of re-constituting the world, not exactly into fiction, but at least away from actuality. I was struggling, however, to understand what exactly the dilemma was with writing down what I had witnessed.

“I’m confused,” Marquard said, squinting at me intently, cocking his head. “These poets and their beatnik subculture, their desperation, their removal from the world you and I live in, their sanctimonious­ness, their theatrics, their existentialism, all of this hardly interests me. But you—you find it fascinating, don’t you? They’ve really hooked you, haven’t they?”

“It beats the basement floor of Atchison House.”

He laughed. “What about poetry? Do you write poetry?”

“When the mood strikes,” I replied. “But poetry’s another matter. Can’t we talk about the essay you’re writing, about the football player you failed?” Marquard recoiled as though I asked him about his weight. “How have you protected the individuals involved? Have you used their names?”

“I have protected them,” he said, “by not mentioning them. My essay concerns pedagogy and principle. It deals with how we do those students who play football a great disservice by passing them when they haven’t learned the material. College, like life, is hard enough to have to fake your way through it as a football hero.”

“So what’s the difference?” I asked. “Whether we mention what actually happened, or we stand back and look at it socially. Aren’t we trying to communi­cate the same thing?”

“The difference is, the essay concerns neither what happened nor what it suggests socially. Ultimately, it focuses upon you, the writer, and how whatever has occurred has affected you. The author and the author’s ego is always the essay’s true subject.”

I felt Marquard pushing me into the ring, where I might box with this new opponent, my supposed self-importance.

“Look,” he continued, “I won’t pull down what you’ve written. But neither will I prop it up. I encourage you to keep at it. But the essay needs time. Not the time in which the writer lives or the time where the event still resonates in the writer’s mind. But time, time passing, in many ways, a long time passing before the meaning can gel and the author can see its effect upon himself. In some ways, it’s like the time which you haven’t had yet. The poets and the poetry of this season will pass and mostly be forgot­ten. But you will remember them, even the minor ones. And what you remember will become much truer than what you experienced only one . . . week . . . ago.” These words he thrust at me, he also pulled back once they stuck. “This,” and he pointed to my essay, “belongs in your day book, under your pillow, in your diary, in a letter to your true love, whomever she may be. What it says right now is too much of what it can’t say. Someday that part of what it can’t say will begin to speak through you and then it will be written and read as the truth.”

We were both very quiet for a moment. He stubbed out a cigarette and lit another. Then he said he had other duties, and so handed me my essay and walked me to the door. I wondered whether his words, as mystical and personal as they felt, were the equivalent to McAfee’s hand on the young man’s head. Then, barely aware of the stairwell steps beneath my feet, suddenly I was that other young man, touched by my own master, an honor I thought only poets could bestow.


The following Monday, Marquard lectured his twenty-five freshmen on George Orwell’s “A Hanging.” His jacket off, tie loosened, shirt sleeves rolled, he used every bit of his body and voice to address us, gesturing wildly with his hands, stamping his feet, pointing at us fiercely, his animal assertion ­like a butterfly struggling out of its chrysalis. He paced and palmed the spine of the McCrimmon text like a bible, often exclaiming certainty to himself as he read Orwell’s vividly precise sentences, sometimes re-reading so the author’s conun­drums would resonate in our ears. “Listen to the language,” he said. “Hear the man’s mind in his sentenc­es! Notice how the ‘I’ here is everyone, the ears and eyes of everyone, the sensitive and confused government-official narrator, the frightened victim himself, the blind European, Eurasian and Burmese bureau­crats present at the scene, the superintendent as well as the underling. And that little dog, that pathetic yelping reminder of injustice, a symbol of the whole bleeding subjuga­tion of modern English history getting ready to fall off its mighty Trojan horse.” We students dared not stare at the textbook. We beheld Marquard’s eloquence, offered him trembling homage and fearful praise.

And then he asked, in another inspired cumulative sentence, whether we actually thought that the hanging Orwell describes so masterfully, so pitifully, had actually occurred in the way we had read it, that one morning among many similar mornings Orwell was present at just this parti­cular hanging, which culminated with the Eurasian boy telling a joke about condemned men just before the jailers awkwardly go off chatting and laughing, relieved as hell to eat their breakfast?

Do you believe,” Marquard pressed us, “that in order for Orwell to have written this essay, the incident he reports, in the eight minutes he says it took to hang this man, do you believe it had to have happened exactly the way he reports it?”

No one in the class spoke; we were too frightened to believe anything.

“Are you greater fools than even I thought possible?”

Still no one spoke. I felt the silence rise from the paralyzing belief that it was possible to be greater fools than we already were.

“Well, what do you have to say for yourselves?” he demanded. “Come on!”

If anyone in that class had a voice to speak with, it was me.

So I raised my hand.

And I spoke, saying in essence what Marquard had said to me, yet with my own words. I talked of the writer’s duty to the truth, to say what had happened as well as to respect the privacy of those who might be unfairly judged in the telling.

The class erupted then into discussion; ideas and responses took wing. If Orwell was using too much imagination in his tale, was he lying? No, he was writing fiction. But he calls it an essay. What happens, though, if all this did occur, but Orwell just rearranged the time and place for dramatic effect? If he did rearrange things, does that mean he is less trustworthy? When you re-create and do not tell your reader, you may lose your integrity. But your re-creation may serve a higher purpose, which is to make a point about integrity or, in this instance, the lack of it. And on and on we went until many of the usually mute students said what they thought, yes, no, maybe, I’m not sure. Marquard prodded us to go deeper, to argue, to cleave and clarify the paradoxes. At one point, he said that he wasn’t sure whether there were clear answers to our questions. But that didn’t matter. He said, “Your minds may never again have the passion they have at this moment, in this classroom.”

When the hour was over and I left the intellectual embrace of several students who stayed on to talk further, I walked out into the clouded November light, stepped onto the long middle path of the White Campus, noticed other solitary figures lost in their bedeviling thoughts, plying their way to another class or home, perhaps darting into the library—and then abruptly I stopped and beheld the overcast sky. I saw the poets and professors and students, the whole college, inside a glass ornament, and a great god was holding it up and watching us, his eye the light, his brea­thing the rhythm of sentences my mind kept creating. But as curious as this vision was, its allure could not sustain me. Nor could my textbooks, the library, or the elegant old buildings I had grown to love fulfill that need in me to know myself. These beings of sky and school formed the portal to a journey I had only just begun. And on this course Mar­quard got me going: That evening, following his great class on Orwell’s “A Hanging,” I returned to my dorm room and examined once more my essay, “A Night Out With the Poets,” as I had come to call it. I hoped one day to redo the piece, yet I didn’t know to what degree I could trust to memory what I was unable to trust in the first draft. So I chanced it. I tore up both copies of the essay and pitched them, sensing rightly that revising my work would be no different from the revision memory would make of my life.