Arts & Culture

Life stories of your Yale professors

Book review

Ben Yagoda ’75 teaches at the University of Delaware. His most recent book is Memoir: A History.

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In the university where I work, professors who retire have the option of requesting emeritus status. If it is granted, a world of wonders awaits them. I quote a paragraph from the faculty handbook:

The names of emeritus faculty are carried in the University catalog. In addition they are invited to all convocations and formal exercises, and they continue to have faculty privileges at the University library.

There is no second paragraph. In my own department, a couple of the emeriti share a small office. The rest are pretty much only seen at the annual holiday gathering and at retirement parties. Oh, and in framed mug shots in our common-room gallery of retired and/or deceased colleagues.

I fear that this sort of thanks-and-see-ya treatment is the norm at American colleges and universities. So good on Yale for establishing, six years ago, a center for emeritus scholars. Located on the second and third floors of the Visitors' Center on Elm Street, it contains offices, a library, a kitchen, and a seminar room, in which take place lunchtime lectures, panel discussions, art exhibitions, a film series, and a series of Monday evening talks by the emeriti about their personal intellectual histories.

The first batch of these talks has now been compiled into a book called Intellectual Trajectories. I will list the names of the contributors, some of whom all but the youngest alumni will remember or at least recognize: David E. Apter, Wendell Bell, Jerome A. Berson, Marie Borroff ’56PhD, Walter Cahn, Robert Dahl ’40PhD, David Brion Davis ’51PhD, Kai Erikson, Charles W. Forman, Arthur Galston, Robert Gifford, John Hollander, Ernest I. Kohorn, Howard Lamar ’51PhD, Joseph LaPalombara, Bernard Lytton, John Middleton, Robert Shulman, John Simon ’56, ’63PhD, Howard Spiro, Alan Trachtenberg, and Robert Wheeler ’55PhD.

You don’t need extraordinary powers of observation to be struck by the fact that all but one of the given names are male. The exception belongs to Marie Borroff, a distinguished scholar of Middle English, who in her own essay shows an equanimity that must have been helpful in 1960, when she and historian Mary Wright in History became the first female professors ever in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In fact, she doesn't even address the issue until directly asked about it in a question-and-answer session (included with the essay): “I knew I was an exception, but somehow most of the time I was pretty much oblivious to that fact. I suppose I was leading the life of the mind, and I was preparing my classes and trying to go forward with my scholarly writing, and the classes were very exciting places where intense intellectual encounters took place between me and the top-quality undergraduates you teach at Yale.”

There is one notable area of similarity between her and almost all of her male colleagues: a perspective that extends well beyond their particular discipline to seemingly unrelated passions and interests. The musically gifted Borroff was studying to be a professional pianist, until she discovered she “didn’t have enough Sitzfleisch (literally, ‘sit-flesh’).” But she plays for pleasure, and in addition is an accomplished poet, with one published collection of verse.

Such multidisciplinarity abounds. Robert G. Wheeler studied “the behavior of electrons in lower-dimensional systems and other topics related to microelectronics technology.” (I quote because I do not comprehend.) But his science got him interested in the process by which the Chinese traditionally made porcelain, and that in turn led him to a second career as an affiliate of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, where he continues to spend fruitful hours tracking down the provenance of oriental objects. Howard Spiro, a professor of gastroenterology, was prompted by his research into the placebo response to “think in a more focused way about the physician-patient relationship and about the ‘healing’ that it could bring.” This led him to write a book called The Power of Hope and to found the medical school’s still-thriving Program for Humanities in Medicine.

It is surely relevant that Wheeler, Spiro, and, in fact, three-quarters of the males represented here served in the military, most of them during World War II. Some state explicitly that spending two or more years cheek by jowl with fellow Americans of all stripes had a profound effect on their character. One infers this was true of all of them. (Walter Cahn, an art history professor, did not serve in the armed forces but hardly had a sheltered upbringing. A Jewish native of Germany, he was smuggled to France in 1940. “In the final years of the war,” he writes, “we moved frequently from one hiding place to another, changing identity papers and assumed names whenever danger dictated.”)

Joseph LaPalombara, the Arnold Wolfers Professor of Political Science and Management, was exempted from the draft for physical reasons. But he tells us in an engaging essay that growing up poor and Italian in prewar Chicago provided a virtual graduate education in American civic politics:

In my neighborhood, we believed that the treatment persons were accorded by public authorities was highly correlated with income. . . . America's social scientists who have written, sometimes brilliantly, about the so-called culture of poverty seem to me not to have made nearly enough of this particular dimension of urban life, or the high levels of alienation it produces.

Intellectual Trajectories is no high-speed thriller, but it’s an enjoyable read; among the other shared qualities of this generation of scholars is the ability to write well for a general audience. They inhabited a salutary period in American academics, between the closed-door gentility and enlightened amateurism of the prewar era and the sometimes grim professionalism of the post-draft current time, when theory rules and each discipline talks mainly to itself. It is always dangerous to invoke a Golden Age—and though this group includes Jews, an Italian American, and that lone woman, professors of color are glaringly absent. But this book evokes a legitimate nostalgia for a time in the not-too-distant past when the academic gaze took in the wide world.  

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