Reprinted with permission from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences alumni Newsletter.
Remembering Harvard, 1949-1950
by Roger Lee Kenvin, AM '56, English and American literature and language
Roger Lee Kenvin received his master's from the Graduate School in 1956. He later went on to take an MFA and DFA in drama at Yale and began a long career teaching English and Theater at such institutions as Bowdoin College, Northeastern University, Le Rosey in Switzerland, Isabella Thoburn College in India, as well as Mary Washington College in Virginia, the University of Notre Dame and St. Mary's College, and California Polytechnic State University. He specialized in bringing dance and theater together and was the first chair of departments of theater and dance at Mary Washington College and California Polytechnic State University. He is also a writer, author of Krishnalight (1976), a play published in Calcutta, India, and three collections of short stories, The Gaffer and Seven Fables (1987), Harpo's Garden (1987), and The Cantabrigian Rowing Society's Saturday Night Bash (1998).
Before I arrived at the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in the fall of 1949, I tended to idealize it, believing it to be an Americanized combination of Oxford and Cambridge. Some of what I believed was true. Harvard was a stimulating, intellectual place and it had a more international student body than I had seen anywhere in the country. It also had a president, James Bryant Conant, whom I greatly admired and respected, and, although Cambridge seemed too hurly-burly and bustling for my Anglo tastes at first, it did have a pleasant river that meandered through it with a long green grassy bank on which one could sit and watch rowing sculls slide by in the water. And Dunster, Eliot, and Lowell's cupolas were a reasonable substitute for the "dreaming spires" of Thomas Hardy's vision with the prospect of urbane, civilized Boston in the distance.
This graceful ambiance was especially attractive because it wafted out of Harvard Yard and into Harvard Square and Cambridge itself, which made living and studying there remarkably fascinating for an migr from a small Maine town. I remember students in discussion in even the most mundane places like Albiani's or Hayes-Bickford's, not to mention hangouts like the Oxford Grill, Wursthaus, or Cronin's, or even in the more exotic venues like the One Hundred Club or Henry IV restaurant. Argument, conversation about ideas hung in the air over Harvard Square day and night. You could feel the buzz in the air, even as you stepped over drunks on Massachusetts Avenue on Saturday nights.
My interests were in English literature, particularly seventeenth century drama, and so this led to John Nash Douglas Bush's class on seventeenth century poetry. I savored his elegant, scholarly manner, the quiet patient way he scanned text and answered students' questions. I smiled at the way we were seated alphabetically in class. His son, Geoffrey, was a student in the class, and I was seated next to John Kerr, a young actor, whom I also saw one night in a Brattle Theater production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in which he played opposite Betty Field.
Herschel Clay Baker taught Restoration and 18th century drama. I remember his Texas drawl and the way he pronounced Yale -- like "Yawlie." A few years later, when Yale started its DFA program in drama, I transferred into it as one of its pioneer students, and Baker's valedictory was, "Have a good time at Yawlie."
Legendary teachers could be glimpsed on campus. Samual Eliot Morison, pink-cheeked and cheerful, looking for all the world like a living Gilbert Stuart painting. Harry Levin, brilliant, urgent, thin, darting in and out of buildings. Francis Peabody Magoun, my Anglo-Saxon teacher, tweedily striding the steps of Widener with a covey of students in his wake. (He was rumored never to have an office; you had to catch him on the fly.) F.S. Matthiesson, tall, aloof, soon to be involved in his own tragedy. Hyder Rollins, a delightful, chirpy Southern gentleman who taught English Romantic literature and had all his students critique one another's work.
But Cambridge-town, too, had its magic. Wonderful bookstores to plumb down, up, under, through. Quirky, mysterious ones like The Mandrake. Clothing shops too, like Duncan MacAndrew's, where I had Harris tweed jackets made, and the used clothing shop of Max Keezer at the outer fringe of the Harvard area, where hard-up students sold or bought their clothes. Bizarre architecture - the Lampoon Building with its crazy weathervane, Memorial Hall, Sever Hall, that great brick yawning maw; what did architectural students see in H.H. Richardson anyway!!?? And the serene New England Memorial Chapel in the middle of the Yard. The jiffy-built, wooden Brattle Theater, run by some brilliant graduates -- Albert Marre, Thayer David, Jan Farrand, and company. I saw Edmund Wilson's The Little Blue Light and Gertrude Stein's Yes Is for a Very Young Man there. Cyril Ritchard, Madge Elliot, Hermione Gingold, Claire Luce; Luise Rainer in a luminous performance as Nina in Chekhov's The Sea Gull. A treasury of the theater.
There were also readings and teas in the Longfellow-Craigie House. Visiting literary lights in and around Cambridge -- May Sarton, Robert Lowell, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, John Ciardi, Randall Jarrell, Richard Wilbur, and over in Boston, the great Serge Koussevitzky with his acolytes Lukas Foss and the young Leonard Bernstein making symphonic waves.
New to the campus in my time were the Houghton Rare Book Library and Lamont Library, which had a listening room where I first heard T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein on records in what seemed to me the epitome in academic luxury. And George Williamson came from the University of Chicago in the summer of 1950 to give a whole course on T.S. Eliot. What a treat for one like me who seemed to have been imprisoned in English literature from the 14th century to the 17th century at last to have something contemporary to study.
One could isolate oneself in traditional ivory tower splendor or plunge through the gate onto Massachusetts Avenue and the maelstrom of dizzy city life if one wished. Or one could board the red line of the MBTA at Harvard Square and sail through Central Square, Kendall Square, over into the Right Bank of Boston for the theater, restaurants, more bookstores, art galleries, Fenway Park, the museums, swan boats, esplanade concerts, Symphony Hall, the Exeter Theater for British films. Cambridge and Boston, put them together, and you could come up with an English-speaking Paris, in a manner of speaking.
I lived at first in a tall wooden house at 45 Winthrop Street (now demolished) and for the summer session moved to Hollis 16 in the Yard. I remember I wrote lots of bad poetry and prose at this time under the inspiration of my favorites, e.e. cummings, Gertrude Stein, and Dame Edith Sitwell. I even had the nerve to turn in one of my term papers in cumming's style. I recall B.J. Whiting glancing at me from behind his desk, muttering, "Ah, youth, youth," meaning, I took it, that he understood what was wrong with me. I left Harvard without finishing, then went to New York, worked in publishing for a while, got married, and took off for Paris and Switzerland where I taught for over two years. In 1956 I returned to finish. All that remained, I recall, was the language exam. I had argued that since I had studied Latin, Greek, French, and Spanish, I shouldn't have to undergo the torture of German. We finally compromised. I taught myself Italian, a beautiful language in my estimation, passed the exam, and received my AM degree in 1956.
So, my impressions of Harvard in 1949-50 are of total environment, still there, I might add, through all the years I've returned to Harvard, and still present in 1998. I'm constantly amazed at the strength of Harvard's vitality and vivacity. The serenity at the center remains inside the gates; something hallowed that way lies - a respect for learning and intellectual ferment, a real belief in veritas as a worthy goal for students and teachers alike and a respect for research and those who reach and try to extend the boundaries of learning. And, outside the gates, the exciting crucible of Cambridge and Boston, fascinating laboratories for Harvard students then and now.
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College