Friday, October 05, 2018

History of My Reading: Primary Group

Anderson House. Photo courtesy of Chip Evans, who also lived there.
Apart from my English 103 course, essentially an independent studies to write a paper, I had four actual courses(plus phys ed)  the first semester of my freshman year at Knox College, in the fall of 1964.

That included an eight o'clock class, the only one I took in those four years. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a morning person.  But I was arising early enough to hear the only program my radio could muster on the local Galesburg station: the Farm Report.  It was not, as I remember, a report on farm techniques and news affecting local crops.  What I recall, washing my face and brushing my teeth at the iron-stained wash basin in my third floor Anderson House room, was a daily drone of stock market prices.  Hog futures featured prominently.

That and the sound of chainsaws in the distance, felling the last of the diseased elms on and around campus, form my memories of those early mornings.

Prof. John L. Stipp
 I don't recall which course that 8 o'clock was, although judging from my mid-term grades I'd bet on Western Civ with Prof. John Stipp.  Ramrod straight and entering the classroom in something like a cape, professor Stipp reminded me a bit of Bishop Sheen and his inexplicable hit TV show in the 1950s.  Also oddly the model of what I'd imagined a university professor would be.

He was formal and well-spoken, dryly humorous, exacting and a bit dramatic.  I didn't know until recently of his work on Nazi Germany.  But in a couple of years from that fall he would be among the faculty leaders in speaking out against the Vietnam war.

I have no memory of what this book
looked like in 1964.  Maybe this.
In this course he was rigorous, teaching from a widely used textbook he'd co-authored (and if memory serves, he donated royalties back to the college.)  For some of our classmates who majored in history he was an inspiration.  For the rest of us I suspect he was most famous--or infamous-- for his exams, and his unique multiple choice questions on which event in history happened third.

I don't remember anything about that textbook, or the form and content of the course. My only actual memory of this course involves another exam question.  It involved choosing the right sequence of parts.  I'd finished the exam and was taking it to the front of the room when another student somehow saw my paper and whispered that the answer was supposed to have three parts, not the five I'd written down (or something like that.)  I took it back to my seat and re-did the answer, then turned it in.

As he returned the corrected exams at a subsequent class, Prof. Stipp in his most magisterial tone pronounced the (to me) immortal words: "I am sure I will endear Mr. Kowinski to the rest of you by announcing that he was the only one in the class to answer [that question] correctly."

Nevertheless, my final grade for the semester was B-.  Though an improvement over the C- at midterms, I got a better final grade in PE.

That first semester I was also taking Spanish 101 (the low-level horror of that experience I described in this earlier post), and Math 121, about which I recall very little.  The young professor Ron Hourston taught it.  I remember he seemed nervous but likable, and clearly very smart.  I did surprisingly well the first half of the semester (I got a B on the only test, and nobody got an A) but in the end I barely passed the course.

Something like these pinstripes in the 1940 film "The Philadelphia Story"
The course I remember best--and the one I enjoyed most at the time--was Sociology 201.  It was taught by a tall young professor, Michael La Sorte.  I recall him striding in a kind of controlled lope across the front of the room, back and forth in front of the blackboard as he talked, and I especially remember his suits.

 The typical men's suit of the mid-60s can be seen in any photo of President Kennedy: form-fitting, soft shoulder, two-button, short jacket with fairly narrow lapels and uncuffed trousers.  I was fascinated with La Sorte's suits because I hadn't seen anything like them outside of 1940s Hollywood movies:  loose fitting pants with cuffs, oversized long jackets with padded shoulders and wide lapels, often double-breasted.

Once when he was talking about the characteristic dress of certain immigrant subcultures (Latino and Italian) in big cities,  he mentioned the "zoot suit."   As he described it he glanced at himself and added, "I guess that's what this is."  His weren't quite that elaborate but I always had the feeling that his suits were inherited, perhaps from his father, and this was his first teaching job.  (It was in fact his first year at Knox.)


Anyway, the course was interesting, and I learned a lot from its textbook: Society by Ely Chinoy.  It remained so clear in my memory that I immediately recognized a copy when I came upon one more recently: it's the second, 1967 edition (ours was from 1961) but it has the same cover and seems basically familiar.

It was my academic introduction to such concepts as social stratification, cultures and subcultures.  It pertained to my previous interest in books about the relationships of the individual and society, and political power.  But it also brought me further along in recognizing the role of ethnic and status distinctions, of which I was only vaguely aware, and mostly ignorant.

That was partly due to my previous education. I was educated in Catholic schools to fix my identity on two things: being Catholic (first and foremost) and being an American.  I'm sure my classmates were smarter about other distinctions, but I literally could not recognize so much as an Irish name (unless it started with Mc), let alone a Jewish one. I didn't even consciously know Polish names (all I knew was that, like my own, they were long and made people uncomfortable) or even Italian names, beyond the Italian American culture I partly grew up in. I guess I had some awareness but in my time and place, Italian American culture was shared by everybody.  Big figures in the culture included Joe DiMaggio, Rocky Graziano, Frank Sinatra.  There were Italian language hit records.  Even Rosemary Clooney sang Italian songs.

I gradually learned more from Knox classmates.  One of the first I remember meeting outside Anderson House was Neil Gaston.  He told funny stories that also elucidated status assumptions.  I knew nothing about prep schools, or the relative social standing of various Chicago high schools and suburbs.  Or how snobbish pretension could be undermined by a jacket with a Penney's label.

Early in my freshman year I also met Holly Sue Thompson of Morton Grove and her friend Edie Haptonstahl, who lived with her large family not far from the Knox campus.  Perhaps they were both in my Sociology class, but I'm pretty sure Edie was, because I recall her referring to the three of us as our "primary group," a concept from the Chinoy text, defined as "characterized by intimate face-to-face association and cooperation."  We went around together for those first months.  I got some home-cooked meals at Edie's, to supplement the food service fare.

As for that sociology class, my final paper was about a book, Alienation and Freedom: The Factory Worker and His Industry by Robert Blauner, new from University of Chicago Press that year.

 Alienation was a hot topic then, though not everyone defined it the same way.  Scholars worried that industrial workers, subject to the tedium of repetitive jobs in noisy and sometimes unhealthy and dangerous workplaces, felt powerless, bored and angry.  That's when industrial jobs were plentiful and seemed like they'd last forever.  Now that many of those jobs are gone, together with their relatively high pay and security, there's nostalgia about them, and their alienating effects forgotten.

Chaplin in "Modern Times" expressed
industrial alienation in now iconic images
The book studies workers in 16 industrial job settings.  The most attention is paid to an automated chemical plant, and this is what I remember about the book: that these workers, who had little to do but trouble-shoot the automated machinery, were the least alienated, because they were the most involved in what they were doing, and in the process as a whole. (Automation was another hot topic, leading to much discussion later in the 1960s about the Guaranteed Annual Income as a way to safeguard against the effects of widespread unemployment due to machines taking over human jobs. That discussion, moribund for 40 years or so, is alive again.)

In my paper I was supposed to summarize and illustrate the data and findings, and offer my judgment. I was skeptical that automation was going to lessen or end worker alienation, or would prove to be more fulfilling.  I felt that the "freedom" it promised was illusory, and fragile at best.

Since I enjoyed this eye-opening class, I've since wondered why I didn't take another sociology course.  Maybe doing the actual science seemed dull--designing and evaluating questionnaires, etc.  Or more likely, I wanted to keep exploring different fields, and never got back to it.

As for Michael La Sorte, he became part of the Knox "brain drain" of younger professors that was so controversial in later semesters. He wound up at the State University of New York at Brockport, and authored a book I wish I'd known about at the time: La Merica: Images Of Italian Greenhorn Experience, published in 1985, just a month after my The Malling of America (some reviews of which identified me as a "sociologist," which I had never claimed to be.)

I certainly have responded in recent years to the ethnic stereotyping of Italian Americans as Mafia goons (as in the collection of Italian love songs--which dominated American cultures in the 40s and 50s--as Mob Hits.)  Since retiring, "Mike La Sorte" continues to write about such subjects.

Outside of course work, I recall a few books I read that first semester, introduced to me by classmates.  Ted Szostkowski, who lived in the room next to mine at Anderson House, recommended A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., a novel spanning centuries concerning the slow rise and abrupt fall again of civilization after a 20th century nuclear holocaust. Perhaps we'd been talking about science fiction, for Miller was an accomplished author of science fiction stories published in the pulp magazines, including the linked stories that he turned into this novel.

An underground cult novel as well as supposed genre fiction at the time I read it, A Canticle For Leibowitz (first published in 1959) has since become one of the most highly praised American science fiction novels and post-atomic novels.  There weren't courses in science fiction then, at Knox or almost anywhere else, and certainly not doctoral dissertations, but this novel has since been taught and written about extensively. Re-reading it now, I can see why.

For many readers the world in which the novel takes places is unfamiliar: largely the Roman Catholic Church structure revived out of the ashes of an incinerated civilization and a long Dark Age.  Much of the book takes place in a monastery in the desert Southwest of the "Albertian Order of Leibowitz" which is dedicated to preserving the last fragments of knowledge that survived the destructive frenzy of "the Simplification."  (The desert landscape would become familiar in subsequent apocalyptic novels and movies.)

However, I was familiar with the traditional structure and vocabulary of the Church that dominates this novel, though even by the mid-1960s this was itself changing rapidly.  Miller's future Church for example used Latin, as was traditional until the early 1960s, when the vernacular languages were becoming the official ones.  Most of my education had been in the traditional Church.  For at that time Catholic school students studied the structure, history and government of the Church and Church doctrine at least as intensely as studying the U.S. government and its founding documents and arguments.

Miller's use of this language and institutional structure, right down to the logic of degrees of sin, was elaborate and intricate, even if his purpose was ironic: to show that the response to the post-nuclear Dark Age of the Simplification was identical to the response to the first Dark Ages and barbarian invasions, in which ancient knowledge and literacy itself were preserved by monks in European monasteries.

That humanity managed to start from almost nothing (in the book's first section, the last scraps of technical manuals were completely misunderstood, and turned into holy books) to reinvent science and eventually the nuclear weapons with which it destroys civilization again, did not make me feel my investment in reading the book was immediately rewarded.  Of course this is the essential battle, in science fiction as elsewhere, between the fate of being captive in cycles of self-destruction, and the possibility of learning enough and applying courage to change enough to escape those fatal repetitions.

The book recognizes this, and the religious imagery adds richness to the insight and the ambiguity.  Especially in the middle section, it bears on the role of science, a discussion opened for us in the "two cultures" debate.  Miller places the proto-scientist in the role of Pontius Pilate, who washes his hands of responsibility, while taking his livelihood and power from the rulers he knows are hell-bent towards societal self-destruction.  (There's also a mischievous suggestion that Lazurus, having been raised from the dead by Christ, stays alive forever.)

Ted recommended another book I read that semester. I must have mentioned John Updike's short stories, or perhaps he saw the two volumes I had, The Same Door and Pigeon Feathers. Plus I was eagerly reading Updike's new stories as they came out in the New Yorker.  I hadn't yet read any of his novels (although there were only three by 1964.  Eventually there would be 22.)

Ted recommended Updike's latest novel, The Centaur, which by then was in paperback.  It is the story of a central Pennsylvania small town schoolteacher, told through a particular version of the Chiron myth in Greek mythology.  The teacher, Updike said in his Paris Review interview, is based on his father.

There is a certain magic in the opening scene, in which myth and reality interpenetrate.  There is plenty of the surprising and vivid imagery of everyday life that became associated with Updike.  For instance: "Doc Appleton removed the stethoscope from around his neck and laid it on his desk, where it writhed and then subsided like a slain rubber serpent."  The choice of words and the rhythm of the sentence are part of what made Updike's writing special, and made him a model for me.

I was not yet ready for this book as a whole--as the length and density of A Canticle for Lebowitz also challenged my reading energies and ability to fend off the hormonal impatience of youth long enough to stay in the pages.  But each attempt and each experience helped make the next easier and more natural, and soon I would be shown tools to help me.

I did move on to Updike's second novel and the one that first made him famous, Rabbit, Run.  It was something new, not only to me but to at least popular literature.  For the time it was fast-paced, and used pop culture more readily and effectively than other writers.  Though the present tense became a trademark of the 1980s minimalist fictionists, Updike wrote Rabbit, Run that way in 1960.  By the late 60s, Updike would get a never wholly deserved reputation as a conservative stylist.  But he burst on the scene as something of an experimental writer, and in some ways remained one.

Re-reading Rabbit, Run I was surprised as how tawdry its world and its characters now seemed.  But I do recall that its lovemaking scenes were among the first--if not the very first--that I'd read: somewhat educational and eventually, in part, useful.  As a writer, Updike would continue to be a guidepost for me, especially in the next few years.

I'd also written verse in high school and had been exposed to a range of poets in our literature anthologies.  On my own I had gravitated towards certain poems by Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy I found in my uncle's college anthology.

I'm not entirely sure this happened in that first semester, but I'm pretty sure it was Holly Thompson who introduced me to the Selected Poems of  D.H. Lawrence.  I'd read some Lawrence short stories, and would read several of his novels, but I knew nothing of his verse.  Some of it was rhymed but other poems--such as "At A Loose End"--are short, astringent and tersely expressed, more like his prose.  I'd never read poems like that.

Towards the end of that first semester I began seeing Susan Lee Barry. I have fond memories of Sue, as I have of Holly--who were friends with each other and remained so for our allotted four years.  At some point, Sue was the first to explain to me the outline of human evolution--from tiny ground mammals, chased into the trees, and down from the trees again to the savannas.  I remember feeling sad that we ever left the trees.  I feel that even more now.

Fall had for me an unexpected series of events called Rush.  It was the period in which individual fraternities and sororities harvested first year students as new members.  I knew very little about fraternities, beyond the one Ricky Nelson had belonged to on Ozzie and Harriet.  I saw no reason to join one.

But in 1964 the Greek system was particularly controversial.  Stories and letters to the editor in the Knox Student leveled serious criticism, and revealed unappealing hostility from the Greek side.  Though nearly every classmate at Anderson House I knew of was eager to join a fraternity (and I recall being questioned as I showered in the second floor bathroom by a  classmate who couldn't understand why anyone wouldn't join), I soon learned that there were students in classes ahead of ours who were against the Greek system generally, and its influence on the campus.  They were known as Independents, or Indies.

Cecil Steed, Gary McCool
from Knox 1964-65 yearbook
I absorbed their arguments, and began to meet some of them.  Their arguments made sense to me, but the emotional clincher was learning that the the year before, the climactic weekend of Rush had been held as scheduled, even though it was the weekend that President Kennedy was assassinated, mourned and buried.  All of it together made me consciously an Indie.

It was probably then that I met some of the older students who would remain important to me for the rest of the year, and as long as they were there.  I definitely remember Mary Jacobson and Gary McCool (the intellectual Buddy Holly), George Bookless, Jay Matson and Cecil Steed from my first year.  I would get to know others in subsequent semesters.

But I'd already met some other older students, particularly women.  This was the aspect of Knox that was like a sudden Wonderland, an unexpected paradise: all of these lovely and intelligent young women, so varied and so new to my experience, all in one place, and with the relative freedom to see them, speak with them, and walk with them.  Without dreary games or too much self-consciousness.

Even the relative part of that freedom worked to my advantage that year.  This was the era of curfews for women living in dorms, as they were all required to do.  At Knox it was called Women's Hours.  I was among the students who campaigned over the next several years against women's hours, but that year, that semester, they worked to my advantage.

Curfews were staggered, so that on weeknights freshmen women had to be back in Whiting Hall by 11 p.m., sophomores and perhaps juniors had to be in their dorms by 11:30, and seniors by 12.  Or something like that.  So it was possible for me to see three women from different years in a single evening, and walk them each back to their dorm.  And there were evenings when I did just that.

Partly because I was socially and sexually naive and inexperienced,  but mostly because I was fascinated by the opportunity to know these young women without a lot of artificiality,  these exploratory evenings amounted to little more than coffee and conversation in the Gizmo (for instance with classmates Jill Crawford or Kathy Lydigsen, who remained friends in subsequent years), and/or a long walk.  I especially loved the walks.  The freedom and opportunity to walk with a young woman in the night air, along as yet unfamiliar streets and ways, was itself dazzling, especially combined with the charm and beauty of my companions.

I remember a moment, walking with Martha Hoagland--she was from some exotic place like Iowa or Nebraska--and the light on her long hair (unusual that year).   I was fascinated by the hazel eyes of Alix Metcalfe that fall, who left Knox the next year I believe, and who may still be a reader of this blog.

Maybe it was a Knox tradition anyway, since there wasn't a lot to do in Galesburg, but the evening walk became a staple of my social life in later years as well.  I remember walks with Judy Dugan (the wind in the trees in the cemetery), and with Mary Jacobson through Standish Park, and with Sue Werheim on a particularly chilly night, when Mary and Sue were roommates at Williston Hall.

These walks usually happened during the week, and were mostly not "dating."  But if the dorm we walked back to was Whiting Hall, there was the scene at curfew (especially on weekends) that I suspect would be impossible to believably describe to a student today.  The "passion parlor" exhibition of couples necking and writhing on couches (with at least one foot on the floor, that was the rule) while attendants at the front desk impassively ignored it all until closing time, was a shock to me when I first witnessed it, returning Holly or Sue to Whiting.  It was so ridiculous I vowed I would never participate.  But of course, before the year was out, I did.

I'm not sure what my fledgling social life has to do with books, except that it influenced me as a person and therefore as a reader. Books after all were among the topics we talked about. My acquaintances and friendships particularly with these older students did propel me into new experiences (and new reading.)  Books and ideas were at least as important as anything else in all these conversations.  "The college world is unbelievably unlike the real world," I wrote in a letter home.  "No one really has time for anything but honesty."

There are a few more notable memories from that first semester.  Early in the term, I was approached near the Gizmo counter by a skinny stranger, Dave Altman, who ambushed me with the demand, "Say WVKC!"  Somehow I understood the test--it was the proper pronunciation of "W."  I passed the test, and wound up with a radio show, then two, then got into the rotation to read the news for one of the two 15 minute news broadcasts.

This involved ripping news stories off the wire service teletype machine, rudely puncturing them on pegs by category, selecting and assembling them in some sort of priority, and either writing a script--though there usually wasn't time--or just reading them on the air, or improvising a combination.  Eventually I became aware that nobody I knew was actually listening to these broadcasts, and I compensated by doing David Brinkley imitations to amuse myself and the sound engineer.

In November, I participated in the WVKC election coverage, which went on deep into the night. Unfortunately our wire service reports were considerably behind in reporting returns, so much of our news came via Dave Altman, who stood outside in the rain listening to network news on his transistor radio, and ran back in with their new figures.  By midnight we were improvising wildly, and I remember describing western Pennsylvania politics while Mike Bourgo (silently) simulated playing a trombone in a marching band.

At Thanksgiving I was scheduled to help take food and clothing to a couple of former Knox students who were part of the (state of) Mississippi Project to register African American voters--this was just after Freedom Summer.  In the end my place was taken by one of these ex-students who'd returned for a brief visit, and was going back.  I think also they all had second thoughts about a freshman going along in what could potentially be a dangerous situation.  All the other students were seniors.  But they returned without incident.

There was also a tragedy on campus that fall, but I'll try to put it in a different context in a future post.

Meanwhile I was going to concerts and talks, and seeing foreign films and stage plays for pretty much the first time.  The CFA's new Harbach Theatre finally opened in December with Hamlet, starring Jim Eichelburger, directed by Kim Chase.  Who could forget that cast? Among them were history professor Gabe Jackson as a pedantic Polonius,  Russ Irish and Ric Newman as the supercilious Rosencranz and Gildenstern, and David Axlerod as the chatty gravedigger.

I was also learning the skills of being on my own for the first time, such as how to use a laundromat, and iron my own shirts (though I blush to recall I took advantage of Holly's good nature and asked her to iron a few for me.  She did a much better job than I did, though, and I pretty much gave it up. Permanent Press to the rescue!)

In all of this, I also experienced a fair amount of culture shock. The flat midwestern landscape had me yearning for the hills of home.  The continual buzz of campus life was exciting but also exhausting, and at a certain point it got to me that I never had a reliable hour alone.  I needed some quiet.

  A lot that happened was confusing, and despite the constant presence of others and the easy social moments, there were stretches of loneliness.  My feelings towards some back home became more sentimental, and letters were flying back to Pennsylvania, with the replies layering my mail slot outside the bookstore, or dropped on the black table across from the wide first floor stairs at Anderson House.

But I could count on one friendly voice at virtually every meal: a young man in an apron who was sometimes behind the counter serving the food, or who otherwise came around to the tables, and with a hand on my shoulder asked, "How's it going, scholar?"  His name was Ray Gadke.  His gentle, indiscriminate friendliness was odd but often a comfort.

This first semester was in many respects a kind of prologue.  The virtual revolution that constituted my college education began the next semester. For it was that spring that my education took a quantum leap into new worlds--populated with a lot of new books, of course.

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