AFTER lunch one summer with my grandmother, years ago at her Connecticut farmhouse, she asked me to retrieve an inconsequential item from a closet in my grandfather’s study, and something else caught my eye. At first it didn’t look like much: a set of three slim ledgers with marbleized covers, perhaps a journal of expenses or a record of household bills. But in it were pages and pages of names, methodically scribed in pen and ink.
I had found a roster of my grandfather’s students over the more than 40 years he had taught at Columbia University, each name with a grade meticulously recorded next to it. At the top of each page was the year and course title — “The Narrative Art,” “The Poetry of Thomas Hardy,” “Literature Humanities,” “Shakespeare.”
There were hundreds of names. I recognized many: Allen Ginsberg, Jack (or as my grandfather wrote, John) Kerouac, Lionel Trilling, Thomas Merton, Herman Wouk, Clifton Fadiman, Arthur Sulzberger, Louis Simpson, Whittaker Chambers, John Hollander, Richard Howard, Robert Giroux, Robert A. M. Stern, Jacques Barzun, Robert Lax. The list went on and on, and what a list!
What I had in my hands was a singular piece of history, a collection of men (Columbia didn’t admit women at that time) who had helped shape the American literary canon for a better part of the 20th century. They had all studied under Mark Van Doren, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, literary editor of The Nation and legendary professor (though he would never have approved of that adjective).
I was reminded of the grade books earlier this year when I decided to take my 11-year-old twins to an evening basketball game at Columbia, my alma mater. We arrived early, so I took them on an impromptu tour of Hamilton Hall, where my grandfather had taught.
In Room 606, I pretended to give a haughty lecture at the blackboard. The children giggled. We sat in the ancient crescent-armed chairs, soaking up the timelessness of an empty classroom — a poignant moment in which we were back in the very place where my grandfather had influenced so many students.
“As the early winter twilight crept over the Columbia campus,” the critic Alfred Kazin once wrote, “Van Doren’s craggy face looked as if he expected the sun to come out because he was teaching Virgil.”
I WAS 10 when Grandpa Mark passed away, now 35 years ago. In 1993 I made a short film in which I asked my grandfather’s former students to describe their teacher’s gift.
Kazin told me one anecdote: Seminar over, the students would follow their professor out of the classroom, conversing as he crossed the campus. Down into the subway they would go, even onto the train, not stopping until they reached the entrance to his townhouse in Greenwich Village. Finally, their professor, genially and perhaps reluctantly, would say, “Well, that’s it, boys, I’ve got to call it a day,” and then he would close the door, leaving those impressionable young men dazed on the sidewalk, wondering how they had landed so far from Morningside Heights.
Kazin’s story is inspiring for what it says about the students as well as the teacher. My grandfather maintained bonds with students that lasted long after they graduated, and they in turn revered him.
I visited Allen Ginsberg at his Lower East Side tenement apartment. He remembered how, as a sophomore, he had rushed breathless into my grandfather’s office describing a “vision” he had just had of the poet William Blake. Professor Van Doren was empathetic, as if it were completely natural for a young poet to have such an illumination.
He was far more judgmental when the young Ginsberg got into trouble as an accomplice in a petty robbery. It might do him good to “hear the clank of iron” in jail, his teacher said, and might even make him a better writer. In recounting this to me, Ginsberg said with a chuckle, “How could he say this to a poet!?”
In his 1948 memoir, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” Thomas Merton wrote about how my grandfather would arrive at the lecture hall, already deep in thought, and open the class with a single question, staring pensively out the massive windows, wondering if the answer might mystically appear. When a response came forth from his class, he came to life.
“Mark’s questions were very good and if you tried to answer them intelligently,” Merton wrote, “you found yourself saying excellent things that you did not know you knew, and that you had not, in fact, known before. He had ‘educed’ them from you by this question.”
Mark Van Doren believed that young people were intuitively capable of grasping even the most complex literature. After all, as he wrote in his autobiography, any student, by the time he has turned 18, has already experienced the deepest emotions of any Shakespeare play: he has fallen in love and been heartbroken, felt jealous, murderous and vengeful. Dostoyevsky and Sophocles have nothing over him in this respect.
The professor kept corresponding with these college youths years later, suggesting career paths, critiquing their manuscripts, promoting their work — even writing poems about them. “Death of a Monk (T. M.)” was written shortly after Merton’s death. He contacted publishers about promising students, encouraging Kerouac to publish “The Town and the City.” Kerouac quit the football team after getting an A in “Shakespeare.” (It should be noted that though the ledgers show my grandfather was a tough grader, those who would go on to make a literary impression on the world also did so in his classroom.)
My grandfather was instrumental in getting John Berryman (an A- student, by the way) a post as a professor at the University of Minnesota and consoled him in his depression, though he was unable to prevent his suicide.
And when Lionel Trilling, who had received an A+ for his paper on Restoration drama, was seeking a tenured professorship at Columbia, Mark championed him despite the anti-Semitic tenor of the day.
I continue to come across former students, though the list has dwindled with time. Sometimes, I look them up in those old grade books and send them a copy of the page they appear on. They are often touched, amazed he kept such records. Some prefer to leave their old marks, even if good, in the past.
My grandfather stopped teaching some 50 years ago, but his legacy at Columbia is preserved with a yearly award to outstanding teachers, a humanities chair in his name and even a crew shell, which was christened with a verse he wrote. Recently there has been a reissue of his book “Shakespeare,” based on his lectures and edited by the Columbia poet David Lehman.
But these are only parts of a much larger, intensely relevant legacy. In an age when higher education is threatened with a relentless technology that threatens to dispense with human beings altogether, Professor Van Doren exemplified a tradition of inquiry that celebrates personal interaction as the path to a meaningful education — one shaped by spontaneity, emotion and, yes, reverence.
When so moved, I peruse the grade books and imagine a moment when what he called “that third thing” — the subject itself, transcending both educator and student — came alive.