I was a Teaching Fellow at Harvard in the spring of 1955 running three senior honor seminars, one in the Aeneid, one in Euripides’ Alcestis, and one in something that I can no longer remember. It was some Latin text, possibly something of Ovid. I still had little interest in Latin, the students in this group struck me as sluggish, I was overworked and definitely underpaid ($400 for the lot, that is six contact hours as they describe it a week), and that class has vanished from my mind. The other two were a joy, the first because of the very bright, inquisitive students who compelled me to think more seriously about Virgil than I had done before and really laying the groundwork for my much later writing about the poet, the second because I was given the chance to think through one of Euripides’ more problematic dramas from which I extracted my first published article.
In the spring of 1955 I was appointed an Instructor in Classics at Wheaton College in Norton MA ( a small liberal arts college for women) for the 1955-56 academic year at $3000 a year. Hired to teach five courses a week, normal for small institutions in those days, I taught Beginning Greek, and various upper level Greek language courses where we read a text, Homer, for instance, or Plato’s Crito, or a tragedy, and no doubt--I forget now--some Latin courses. I also taught Greek Literature in English Translation in the fall term, and a year long lecture course in Classical Civilization. This last was the most popular course of the department because my predecessor, Ted Doyle, was an attractive lecturer who had developed a following. I was a disaster at it. First, I knew next to nothing about ancient history and had to study nightly to keep ahead of my students. Then, I had no notion of how to separate out what was important for a bunch of young girls to know and what could be eliminated. Coming directly from graduate school I was afraid that I would leave out something truly important--as though my students would know the difference. I could not seem to understand that my graduate school colleagues and my graduate school professors did not constitute my audience. I ground on day after day, fact after fact. And then I was depressed at the death of my wife which had happened two weeks before term began. Those poor girls must have gone crazy; they certainly did not sign up for second semester. And I was forced to confront my own ineptitude in the lecture hall. At least my contract was renewed since my other courses had gone extremely well, and I began to learn ancient history in more detail.
In the spring of 1956 I was invited to come to Yale University as an Instructor of Classics for the 1956-57 academic year at $3750 a year. The appointment had come about in an amusing way. Job interviews or at least tentative contacts for job prospects in this profession take place at the annual meeting of the American Philological Association where three days of talks are presented in a variety of rooms, while the real reasons most attend are worked out over cocktails, or the restaurant tables, or up in the hotel bedrooms. The chair at Yale had asked the man who had directed my dissertation about prospects for a Yale appointment, and he had assembled former graduate students of his at a dinner with the Yale man without letting us in on the strategy. One of these students was recently returned from two years in Europe and was on the job market, but rather than present him alone and vulnerable, he was being set in a group just as shrewd match makers do when introducing a young male and female to each other. The event went contrary to expectation however, since the Yale chair, Frank Brown, who happened to be sitting next to me and I got into a warm friendly argument that led him to write a few days later asking me to Yale for an interview, and I got the job. The Yale years were lots of fun professionally. I was one of eleven junior faculty whose range of talents, interests, and personality quirks made for constant stimulation. That was fortunate since this was before the days that Yale began to admit many public school graduates and before they had dropped the stringent quotas on Jewish applicants or had begun to admit girls. It was like a grand fraternity house. The boys were uniformly tall, handsome, blonde, well born, usually quite wealthy, and only very, very occasionally interested in learning anything. Weekends the girls from Vassar came down in droves and Saturday night the campus was awash in vomit as the unlucky victims of their dates’ efforts to get them drunk enough to “go all the way” emptied their stomachs. Of course, my portrait of the Yale students is exaggerated. There was an honors program into which bright freshman students could enroll called Directed Studies. I was lucky to teach a section Directed Studies: Literature I, together with young men from the other literature departments, and thus began my immersion in New Criticism which was so prominent a part of Yale. These were the days of Cleanth Brooks, William Wimsatt, René Wellek, and a host of others whose former students were now teaching with me in the Directed Studies Program. In classics the reading of literature had been mostly philological and historical so I was being radicalized in an important way.
My closest friend at Yale, really an elder brother if not father figure, was Ted Doyle. He had been a bit ahead of me in graduate school; his interests-epigraphy and archeology-meant that we would not meet in class although I imagine by the time I arrived he was well finished with that. Ted was a great procrastinator, not getting around to writing up his dissertation until certainly thirteen or fourteen years had passed since he entered the program. It was his position at Wheaton College that I was taking since he was going on to Yale. By coincidence on August 26th 1955 my wife and I who had moved from Cambridge to an apartment near Wheaton College were back in Harvard Square on some last minute errands in “civilization,” when we ran across Ted. He and I knew each other really only by sight; of course our shared Wheaton connection made us stop and exchange pleasantries. This led to an offer to drink a beer. Several beers later we were new best friends, the three of us, determined to meet again at the first opportunity, in Cambridge or in New Haven. Three days later my wife died, and that singular Friday afternoon meeting was perhaps the catalyst two years later for the great kindness and warmth with which Ted welcomed me and my second wife to New Haven. Certainly he offset the natural harshness and emotional distance one encounters in an all male faculty as a junior colleague in a great, pompous, traditional institution such as Yale University. It was Harvard all over again, only I was coming in with the genuine admiration of the chairman who remembering our dinner party joust with relish, used to invite me out to lunch (never done with junior faculty unless to tell them that their contract would not be renewed) and my wife and myself to dinner (her architecture degree and physical beauty appealed greatly to this amateur student of architecture). And we had the warmest of family friends in Ted Doyle. I learned so much about the art of teaching as well as the academic profession from him, how to get along with colleagues, when to be honest, when to fake it, how to be popular yet serious, oh, so many many things. He introduced me to Trollope’s Barchester Towers as a manual of style and behavior in the academic world where advancement, certainly in those days, was as much a result of personal interaction as any externally recognized merit. I well remember my wife and I being invited on a Sunday to a senior faculty member’s “garden party/picnic” for the department; children and all, there would be some seventy or so people if most of them attended. Ted counseled us to leave the children at home, a smart maneuver since the event was played out on two different levels. Outdoors the children and of course their parents, in sum the junior faculty, enjoyed hot dogs, watermelon, soda pop, cold beer and games racing over the lawn, while indoors the senior faculty and those others who were childless, Ted and ourselves for instance, drank cocktails, ate from a sideboard of ham, cheeses, and shrimp, and worked at having the merriest and most compelling conversations with those who mattered. It was the party at Ullathorne as Trollope so vittilly described it, all over again. In our personal relationship he worked a great transformation on my ignorant Protestant soul. Indeed, I was an atheist, but raised an Episcopalian in a world where the only Catholics one encountered were working in the kitchen or viewed with alarm as they walked with their “many, too many” [my mother] children to church on Sunday. Ted introduced me to Catholic novelists such as Graham Green, or activists such as Dorothy Day. He taught me the liturgy and some of the teachings of the Church fathers. He was not the least concerned to convert me; he rather much wanted to share with me a world view which was his. It of course simply deepened my understanding of classical antiquity since Roman Catholicism is so obviously a continuation of paganism as Protestantism is not. In these days when the Church seems to me at variance with everything I hold true and good in the world, I like to remember sitting talking with Ted in the great blue cloud of his pipe smoke. There was a dark side to Ted, as there is to most of us, which came out when he had been drinking too much which grew increasingly sadly enough to be the case over the years. He was a fellow from a working class Irish background in Lynn Massachusetts who went into classics at Boston University and then over to Harvard in the graduate program. His professors most of them had that Boston Brahmin prejudice against the Irish, in fact, the field of classics nationwide shared it, and Ted endured his share of humiliation and slurs particularly when he went out on the job market and was informed that he was not ‘suitable’ for whatever place he was applying to. The other lacerating experience of his life was the time from when he landed in the Anzio beachhead and went on up through Italy and into Germany; I remember him describing going to Mass in a church, ice cold in the winter, and therefore a temporary morgue, with corpses stacked up against the walls while the service took place in the center, the sweet smell of death competing with the sacramental incense. Or one night at table when he and Doris Pearson, wife to Lionel Pearson at Stanford, herself an army nurse, the two of them drunkenly and horribly remembering the screams, the rivers of blood in the sand, the doctors operating in an improvised surgical station on the beach at Anzio.
Ted Doyle is important for this narrative in another way. In 1959 he was invited to Stanford University, and we, my wife and I, were desolate at losing him. His reports of sunny California made us all the more left out and forgotten back in the snows of Connecticut. Then he reported that the Stanford classics department intended to add another junior member. When Frank Brown hired me at Yale, he declared firmly as he did to each new arrival that there was no chance for a tenured appointment in the department because there were too many senior faculty too far from retirement age (retirement was once upon a time mandatory, as it should be now). The rule of university hiring is “seven years up [to tenure] or out.” Over the next two years I watched some of my colleagues who had also been told this truth at their hiring react with shock, disappointment, and depression when at the end of their sixth year they received the official letter of their termination at the end of the next. Their last year seemed like the march to the scaffold somehow. Since I made up my mind that I would certainly go before that seventh year, I was excited at the news from Stanford. I should however have listened carefully to Frank Brown with whom I shared the news, whose reaction was a dubious assessment of the Stanford departmental chair and the firm pronouncement that having taught at Yale would secure me a far better appointment down the road than Stanford. There then occurred a bizarre turn of events: Ted actually brokered the new appointment. The chair, Brooks Otis, was new at the job, new to presiding over a growing department in a major university, having spent the last decade or so in some backwater small undergraduate college (his translation to this new position was owed we all felt to his having been at Harvard with the new dean of the college who either wanted to rescue his old chum from obscurity and penury, or recognizing that they were both from the genuine WASP aristocracy of this country wanted to raise Otis to his proper social level as far as academia could provide these things). For whatever reason Otis was not inclined to go to the meetings to interview candidates nor to fly back East to look over the new crop at the Ivies, and he let himself be talked into hiring Ted’s choice, namely myself. What passed for a job interview was a lengthy telephone call between Otis and myself, after which I was offered the job and I took it with a three year contract as Assistant Professor at $5500 a year. We sold our house, a converted barn on two acres of land abutting a forest preserve in Woodbridge Connecticut for no more than what we had paid for it (it was a grim real estate market) losing the rather large sum of money that my parents-in-law had given us to renovate it. Moving a wife, two children, and buying a house in California were made possible by my finally being old enough to tap into a small legacy from my father who had died in 1936. The house we bought was a large comfortable modern place, a kind of glass box rip-off of Mies van der Rohe on a cul-de-sac, not the sort of thing that newly minted assistant professors generally owned. I bring these things up to show that in those days the reason that private universities seemed to be overly populated by WASPs with old money was because the salaries were generally too small for persons to maintain themselves and a family without some outside income. It was only in the sixties that university salaries soared and the faculty began to diversify.
The disastrous consequence of the telephone interview was that when Professor Otis and I met face to face we took an instant and intense dislike to each other which it would have been much better to have sensed earlier on. I considered him an intellectual and emotional fraud. If he was not reminding us in that marbles in the mouth Beacon Hill accent that he had been born on Chestnut Street on the Hill, he was piously reminding us that we “should do the Christian thing” (whenever it was something that played to his advantage) or reminding us of his impeccable liberal credentials while at the same time inquiring whether one or another of our colleagues might be Jewish. He, I believe, thought me impossibly vulgar and ill-educated. He winced when I laughed my loud laugh, or brought up any connection between popular American culture and ancient literature, or gushed in my fruity way over the students, or most of all when I annually went to him with a vigorous request for a large pay rise. I am sure he thought I was Jewish. He, I might add, is not the only person in academia to have held me to be impossibly vulgar, so I have to concede there must be something to it. The senior classics faculty did not as a group take to me probably for the same reason. And then I was such a mystifying mixture of 1) pseudo-Iowa farmboy innocent, 2) fruitcake, 3) queen, and 4) old fashioned family man, father of eventually four, that persons dealing with me had trouble with categories. God knows I was arrogant about my talent for teaching which by this time was rather well honed, and I put it to good use immediately at Stanford-along side the ever popular Ted-with the result that the undergraduate enrollments in Latin and Greek language courses soared to unprecedented levels. We two had done the same at Yale as a matter of fact, and here at Stanford we were getting over sixty in Beginning Greek where in most institutions three or four would be considered a bumper crop. The sixty I might add were, apart from a few dim-witted future seminarians, some of the best and brightest of the undergraduates. Stanford with a new administration determined to lose the reputation of California’s country club for rich kids was committed to becoming “the Harvard of the West.” That is why they were hiring all these young faculty from the Ivies, and energetically recruiting from East Coast prep schools. The preppies already knew about classics, loved the tone Ted and I were setting and came in droves to major in the subject. It was the new chic. Combined with long hair, rock and roll, skin tight levis with no underwear and all that dope, ancient Greek literature could be mighty enticing and utterly intoxicating itself.
My students taught me as much as I gave them simply from the sharp questions they asked both in the literature courses in Greek and the lecture courses in Homer and Greek tragedy. They started me thinking in ways that would come to fruition in the books I was soon about to start writing. Because I was close enough to them in age, they gave me advice and information in a direct way, just as they shared the details of their young lives. So, even though I was confined to the life of a father of four, I still felt connected. Those were glorious years, and, of course the party had to come to an end. It was probably really over almost when it started-the moment the secretary showed me the office I was to share and I realized that, contrary to expectation, I would have to keep a study in our house because of my large library. I simmered over this until in the middle of my very first year I lurched over to Professor Otis’ home one night and made such a scene-drunken tears and lamentation-at having to share and thus not be able to house my library on campus as he had promised in the famous phone call interview (false promises of course being routine in such transactions) that his wife forced him to go to the dean who in his kindly and impulsive way simply set me up with a very grand space he had available in the decanal suite of offices.. No doubt my doom was sealed that night; in any case, when in 1963-64 I was in Rome on a year’s leave of absence (during which I started asking around about positions back East and Otis, I am sure, realized the sheer bliss of having me gone), he wrote to say that he did not feel able to support me for tenure two years hence. Apart from the humiliation-getting turned down for tenure in those days being far more monumental a fall than with the considerably more cynical job seekers today-both my wife and I yearned to return East, she to pick up her career as an architect, me to live in something other than a company town where all talk turned to the doings of the institution, both of us to be in the land of film, theater, and sidewalks. Living in Rome with four children taught us that children can manage very well in a city. In my inquiries I learned that Boston University would have an opening two years hence, that they were looking for someone to take on the chairman’s job. We both loved Boston, but Boston University???? In those days Boston University languished in obscurity and humiliation across the Charles River from its illustrious rivals, not to mention Brandeis, Boston and Wellesley colleges in the immediate hinterlands. Its student body was mostly the commuting children of local first generation ethnics proud to see their children advance to a level of education no one in the family had ever known or rejects of the admissions offices of the other local institutions who, however bitter, were determined to share somehow in the mystique of Harvard Square. There was still a third category which provided the classics department with some of the best students I have known in my entire career. These were drop-outs from the Ivies or other first rate institutions nation-wide who had their own ideas of getting an education and gravitated to the youth culture that has always made metropolitan Boston radically different from any other major American city. They came to classics because classes were small enough to have close relations with their teachers who were in any case real professors and not graduate students, because the faculty I began to assemble as chair were young and enough brilliant and zany for me to feel comfortable with, because they had wanted to find a turn-on that would rival the crazy drug filled culture that their peers were in the process of creating. The Monterey Festival had come and gone, Woodstock was just down the road.
For six years I had more fun and learned more from students than I thought possible. One group with whom I read Apollonius’ Argonautica inspired me with their observations into planning a book length study on the poem; another group encouraged me to rethink yet again everything I had said in two decades of lectures on Virgil’s Aeneid. Then in my capacity as chair I awarded myself an early sabbatical and children in tow took off for another year in Rome. When I returned, Boston University had installed John Silber as the new president who, the trustees hoped, would finally turn things around and make the institution a real partner and rival to the rest of the Boston educational community. Much has been written of this controversial man. It was not a happy association for me. But, as they say, “never complain, never explain.” I accepted as gracefully as someone with a prima donna temperament can the appointment of a list of candidates Silber had known at Texas many of them with reputations in the field as large as their egos. Of course, there was the concomitant departure of the junior faculty I had assembled. I resigned as chair before I could be asked to step down. I accepted as settled fact that I would be isolated, not consulted, rarely spoken to, these being the commonplace methods in academia of forcing out senior faculty whose tenure guarantees their job. Commotions in my personal life required that I remain in metropolitan Boston. I had already turned down a professorship at Brandeis two years earlier because I was having so much fun at Boston University. Girls who turn down guys for a date don’t get asked again. I figured people managed to survive in Germany in the forties, in Russia for decades. I could do the same, and the positive side of it was that not being asked to serve on committees, not being asked to meetings, I rarely had to mingle with persons I found exceedingly distasteful. I could more or less lead the quiet life of Mr. Harding in Bartchester Towers.. At least I had the pleasure of another sabbatical, this time in Athens at the American School in 1978-79, and a year’s leave as Blegen Distinguished Visiting Research Professor of Classics at Vassar College in 1982-83.
Still the situation in the department rankled and left me depressed, so that it was a bolt from heaven when in autumn of 1985 I received a telephone call from Luis Losada, the chair at Lehman College up in the Bronx, part of the City University of New York system, asking me if I would consider an appointment as Distinguished Professor of Classics at Lehman and the Graduate School. “Think it over,” he said, to which I replied a split second later “I have, and my answer is yes.”
I spent the last decade in New York City dividing my time between teaching undergraduates at the Lehman College campus and after 1991 acting as executive officer of the classics program of the City University Graduate Center, where eventually I oversaw a consortium of CUNY, Fordham University, and New York University. The students at Lehman were Latinos for the most part, first or second generation New Yorkers with varying degrees of command of English and often with abysmal college preparation, newly arrived immigrants-from Russia or Albania principally-together with long established Bronx Italians, and a few Jews and Irish, most of whom had left the borough as it turned Spanish. Teaching a freshman humanities division course at Lehman was a shock to me since I had never encountered students insufficiently socialized into the ways of higher education that they “acted out” like high school students. Still among the obvious dreck were youngsters of incredible abilities whose life experience and street smarts made them aware of the nuances of serious literature in a way that the cosseted middle class or upper middle class suburbanite students of my previous experience could never manage. Most often I taught in the honors program in which serious and superior students, usually with dramatic learning deficits, grappled with material that challenged their intellect and imagination to the limit. Of so many courses from which again I learned it seems to me more from my students than they from me was one entitled “American Film 1930-1950.” Because I held the chair of Distinguished Professor I could teach damn near anything that pleased me, and when I discovered in talking with a group of bright students that they had never seen a black and white film I knew that this definitely had to be rectified. Their weekly papers were a revelation. Coming as almost everyone of them did from a foreign culture and being mostly in their early twenties, they had no direct experience of these films or the world they represented. Each week they experienced another sociological revelation. “Scarface” was easy, perhaps, but “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” or “Follow the Fleet” or “Double Indemnity” challenged their interpretive imaginations to the utmost and I was the lucky reader of their thoughts. They were direct and personal in a way that a student from a first rate suburban high school would never be. It was like children whose art is so wonderful before they learn how to draw and paint in school. Two papers stand out for this breathtaking innocent direction. A nursing student aged forty from Barbados started typing her papers in capital letters and when I asked why, she said that she noticed I squinted slightly and wanted to reduce the pressure on my eyes. At another time when I told her that she was a superior writer and that she should consider an English major and then go on to law school for which as a woman of color she would get every conceivable grant, she laughed and replied “Professor Beye, no one in my family back home even wears shoes. I will leave law to my children’s generation.” A Nigerian man who wrote a paper filled with errors of grammar, style, and thought, much corrected by me, a week later handed in one which was flawless in every detail and obviously copied directly from another text. When I challenged him, he admitted it without hesitation, declaring gently with a kindly expression on his face that he had done so in order to spare me the tedium of reading another original paper from him! Two students with whom I became really friendly were the young manager/owner of a pizza parlor who arrived in America at fourteen speaking no English and managed to earn a degree and a teacher’s credential before he was done, and a six foot tall dashing handsome gay Irish cop who would stop his car and dish out advice in the perfect paternal style whenever he spied a youngster trying to run across the street in traffic or who when driving me home one night through Central Park reassured me that I had nothing to fear from possible crime on our dark route by opening his glove compartment to show me the loaded guns lying there.
Teaching at the graduate school gave me a chance to reread and comment on my favorite Greek texts in a series of seminars plus a final course in the Aeneid about which I had in mind to write a book. Most of the time, however, was spent on administrative detail which because it was not going to lead to an expansion or change in the department’s program failed to satisfy or interest me. My failed appetite made me realize that I had been in the game too long. It was abundantly clear that this estimation was shared by my colleagues who met my announcement that I would step down at sixty five with scarcely masked delight. Sic transit gloria mundi.