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People of the Book 101: In the Classroom with Ernest Samuels

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November 21, 2013

Overcoming Academic Elitism

by David Bittner Lionel Trilling (1905-1975), the American literary lion who along with his wife Diana belonged to the famous group of “New York Intellectuals” and frequent Partisan Review contributors, is usually remembered as being the first Jewish full professor of English at a major American university, Columbia, in New York. In the early 1900s, a Jew might hope to be hired as a professor of mathematics or natural sciences, which were considered universal languages. But to teach American literature or history, it was considered necessary to have a long American lineage and an “American soul.” Edgar Lee Masters made the elitist argument by embellishing on a comment Vachel Lindsay made in the preface to his book, Going to the Stars. Lindsay had written, “The log cabin means Nancy Hanks [Abraham Lincoln's mother] and the log cabin means Andrew Jackson.” Masters commented, “What can this mean to people who have neither seen a log cabin or had ancestors who were born or lived in one? My grandmother Masters was born in one near Nashville, Tennessee, and lived in one in her early married life in Illinois, and her grandmother before her was born in a log cabin in North Carolina” (Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, A Poet in America, 1935). Even the great luminary Ludwig Lewisohn was advised, as a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia in 1904, that the day would never come when a Jew would be appointed an English professor at an American university. Lewisohn, who had been raised as a Methodist by his assimilationist German-immigrant parents, quit the English Ph.D. program in disgust, converted back to Judaism, and ultimately became one of the founding professors of Brandeis University in 1948. photo06While we would never wish to criticize Lewisohn for bolting from the Columbia U. of his day, there was another American Jew, a native Chicagoan, who bravely made waves, like Trilling, and at almost the same time, in the northwest and midwest. After initially practicing law with his brother, and then teaching Business English at Bryant and Stratton College in Chicago, this man, Ernest Samuels (1903-1996), was hired to teach English at the State College of Washington-Pullman (1937-38), and then, in 1942, to teach English at Northwestern University in the affluent Chicago suburb of Evanston. He was made a full professor at Northwestern in 1954, only six years after Trilling won the honor at Columbia. Samuels taught at Northwestern until 1971. By all rights, he should share the distinction, along with Trilling, of shattering exclusive hiring practices in U.S. college English departments. Among kudos received by Samuels over his long career were a Fulbright Scholar award and two Guggenheim awards, the Francis Parkman Prize and the Bancroft Prize, and, in 1965, the Pulitzer Prize for the third and final volume of his definitive biography of Henry Adams, titled Henry Adams: The Major Phase. Samuels’ widow, Jayne Newcomer Samuels, only recently (November 2) died in Evanston at age 100. In several interviews with me this year by telephone and e-mail, she provided details about her husband’s career at Northwestern. Although Samuels was hired during wartime, she said, there was never any question about his retention once peace came: Instructors were returning from military service as expected, but returning soldiers were applying to be students in larger numbers, and that made it necessary to hire more instructors. The university kept Samuels on as one of these necessary additional instructors. The fact that Samuels had recently earned his doctorate increased his value as an addition to the N.U. faculty. Still, said Mrs. Samuels, Northwestern did not have room to accept all those applying to be students, and that was how Kendall College, a small two-year liberal arts college in Evanston, got some excellent students. Mrs. Samuels worked at Kendall for twenty-four years, variously as an instructor in English and as an administrator. Regarding the question of anti-Semitism, she said that although she and her husband experienced no discrimination professionally or socially in the English department, it was said that if the preceding English department chairman had still been in office, her husband would never have been hired. “That this is very likely true,” said Mrs. Samuels, “is supported by what I know is true. That chairman became the university’s president, and in that position he expressed his objection to ‘so many Jews,’ six at the time, I think, having been hired.” She reported her husband was told at the State College of Washington that he was the first Jew ever hired to teach there. It was at the state College of Washington that the Samuels met in 1937. Mrs. Samuels, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Grinnell College in Iowa, also graduated with honors in English and received a teaching fellowship at the State College of Washington. There she earned her M.A. in English. The couple married in 1938, then moved to Chicago where Ernest Samuels studied for three years at the University of Chicago to get his Ph.D. in English. She assisted her husband with the research and editing of his landmark three-volume biography of Henry Adams and two-volume biography of noted art critic and historian Bernard Berenson. It was Berenson upon whom Herman Wouk based the character of Aaron Jastrow in his novels, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. The Berenson biography begins with a 14-page chapter on Berenson’s Lithuanian-Jewish childhood that can only be described as done in loving detail. Though not an observant Jew, Samuels seems to have at least related to Judaism as a heritage. In a letter to his mother, Mary Kaplan Samuels, written as a young married man, he refers to the Samuels family’s “dear old seder,” and Mrs. Jayne Samuels warmly recalled Passover as a special “family time.” “It was held first at Ernest’s parents’ home," she told me, "and then at that of various family members, including, in later times, ours. We used a short version, and Ernest’s father would later go to a quiet spot and read the entire Haggadah in Hebrew. Before much was made of Khanike, the family dined together on Christmas, treating it as simply a holiday.” It is with just such loving detail that I have attempted this portrait of Mr. Samuels as I knew him the spring quarter of 1970, when I took his course in American Literature, 1870-1914. I was a Northwestern freshman at the time, and university policy was to discourage freshmen from taking upper-level courses. Out of some vain ambition, I think, I wheedled my way into this course meant for upperclassmen. I did not yet know of Samuels, by name or reputation. Not only that, but at this time of my life, I did not know the difference between Henry James and Harry James. I probably thought “Henry” was Harry James’s formal name. I quickly learned better. The course syllabus included five novels and two short stories by Henry James. In an almost deserted classroom of towering old University Hall, I found a young teaching assistant enrolling students in English courses. I told him I wanted to take this certain upper-level course although I was just a freshman. He said, encouragingly, “Did you get over 700 on your SAT’s?” I told him, truthfully, “I did on the verbal.” He started to prepare an enrollment form. After waiting a decent interval of a few moments, I stated my exact score, “701.” (This has just been one of my funny but true little claims to fame in life, like my distinctions of becoming a bar mitsve on Leap Year Day and having my pidyon haben fall on April Fool’s Day.) The teaching assistant smiled but kept on writing. I was in! — about to become a student of a pioneering American Jewish educator. On the first day of Samuels’ class, when I saw him for the first time, his name and physiognomy made me think he was probably Jewish. But his Brahmin manner of speech did not seem to fit the profile. He spoke such correct English that I wondered if he had benefited from elocution lessons in his youth. “Well,” I thought to myself, “Samuels can be an English name, too, and the Romans were in ancient Britain. Maybe that’s where he gets a Roman nose from.” His political stance, which might have provided some clue about his ethnicity, was also hard to pin down. The rumor in Latham House, the old dorm where I lived, was that Professor Samuels was quite conservative. These were days of student protest and urban unrest. Clement Haynsworth and Harrold Carswell, two “strict constructionists,” Southern judges whom President Nixon had appointed to the Supreme Court, had both been rejected by the Senate in dramatic, down-to-the-wire, roll-call votes. Things were so “hot” on college campuses that Democrats such as myself were shy about owning their party affiliation because it sounded so stodgy compared to the voguish radicalism of the day. I think we were all what Spiro Agnew, famous for his inventive expressions, lumped together as “radiclibs.” “Stodgy,” then, was just how Samuels sounded one day when he commented on some brouhaha over another professor and his wife whom the student press had called “fascists.” “Actually,” said Professor Samuels, “they’re very liberal. Voting Democrats.” His emphasis on the word “voting” caused a ripple of laughter in the classroom. I, with mingled Democratic and “radical” sympathies, tittered, too. Also at Latham House, a junior English major said he heard that Mr. Samuels had made a very disparaging comment about “leftist students” at a recent faculty meeting. We were already pretty far into the quarter and I felt that I knew Samuels a little by this time, so I told him, privately, after class what this boy had said. He laughed and said, “Oh, that’s terrible! And this remark was attributed to me?” One day in class, the issue of anti-Semitism came up. We were reading The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton. One of the characters in the novel is a Jewish stockbroker named Simon Rosedale, described as being of “the blond Jewish type” and a social climber. He pursues a socialite named Lily Bart, who spurns Rosedale until she loses her financial security and comes crawling to him — by which time he’s having none of her. The ending of the novel is actually very sad as Lily takes her life with a drug overdose. A girl raised her hand to inquire about the reasons for Rosedale’s unpopularity in New York society. This girl had some theories of her own, which she began to state. Professor Samuels, without exactly interrupting the girl, said simply and with a bit of impatience, “They don’t like him because he’s a Jew.” There was a momentary, slightly awkward silence in the classroom. I don’t know how other students may have been struck by his crisp wording, but his use of the old-fashioned, blunt predicate nominative, “Jew,” instead of the softer predicate adjective, “Jewish,” made me wonder again about his own background. As H.L. Mencken said in his book, The American Language, the word “Jewish,” when used in conjunction with a word like boy, girl, man, woman, or people, is a euphemism often favored by Jews. (A pertinent situation is described In Bech: A Book, by John Updike. Updike’s hero, a fictional Jewish author named Henry Bech, is challenged on his use of the word “Negress” in print. Bech claims that the word “Jewess” does not offend him. But he has not told the truth. The word makes him “wince.”) Since that young time of my life, I have come to appreciate the gravity that the simple word “Jew” may have. I am thinking now about such things as Pope’s famous couplet, “This is the Jew / That Shakespeare drew,” said in appreciation of seeing an Irish actor’s precedent-setting portrayal of Shylock as a sympathetic character. Another example, in Leon Uris’s novel, Exodus, is the moving request made on Passover night by British Brigadier Bruce Sutherland, the formerly closeted product of a mixed marriage. “If you will not be offended,” Sutherland says, “I am the oldest male Jew present. May I tell the seder?” Joan Benny, daughter of the late comedian Jack Benny, told me in an interview how out of place she felt as “the only Jewess” at her boyfriend’s exclusive New York club, of which he was the token Jewish member. Bravo, Joan! I believe now that Samuels’ choice of the word “Jew” was made in the right spirit. One day in class I made quite a gaffe. We were now reading Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser. Carrie Meeber, the title character, was an ingénue from Wisconsin whose star was rising in New York, where she was making her way as an actress. Professor Samuels asked what criticism a minor character named Ames had made of Carrie over dinner in a restaurant one evening. (Ames let Carrie know that she was reading too many dime novels, including Dora Thorne, by Charlotte Mary Brame.) I raised my hand to answer the question: “He told her she was reading crummy stuff.” No sooner were the words out of my mouth and laughter beginning to erupt in the classroom than I tried to retract my answer. “Uh, I mean poor literature.” But it was too late! As the class roared with laughter, Professor Samuels said, “No! ‘Crummy stuff!' Is that ‘crummy’ spelled with one 'm' or two?” But I was sure they were laughing with, and not at me. Another day, his turn came to bow good-naturedly before the slight sarcasm of a student. The Portrait of a Lady, one of Henry James’s “middle period” masterpieces, was under discussion by the class. Samuels had engaged a boy in mild debate over the significance of the heroine’s name, “Isabel Archer.” After several sallies had failed to convince our professor, the boy said, cagily, “Maybe she had curvature of the spine.” That really cracked up Mr. Samuels! It was a little while before he could stop laughing. Another time he was discussing literary humor, including the difference between sarcasm and irony. He asked for definitions. I raised my hand to quote the famous epigram, “Horace ambles, Juvenal gallops.” “That’s one,” he said. After a few other students had contributed their ideas, Samuels said, teasingly, “Which would it be if I said, ‘My, aren’t you all intelligent students!’” Here was more proof that his laughter at me had been nothing personal. Samuels just knew his place as leader and ours as followers. If only I had thought faster when he made fun of my unsophisticated answer to his question about Sister Carrie, I might have said, “But, Mr. Samuels, if you think that’s bad, I used to think Henry James played the trumpet.” I am happy to say that I may have left Professor Samuels with a somewhat better impression of my scholastic ability. We were reading A Modern Instance, by William Dean Howells, the first major American novel to deal with divorce. In one of his lectures on this saga of the doomed couple, Bartley and Marcia Hubbard, Samuels said Howells had missed his opportunity to suggest the similarity of Marcia to Medea, the Greek mythological princess who killed her own two sons rather than see them live as slaves to the cruel Jason the Argonaut. Replaying his last comment in my mind, I suddenly raised my hand like a shot and said, “Oh, Mr. Samuels? Did you say Marcia doesn’t think about killing her child?” He nodded. I said, “Oh, no, I think she does. I’m quite sure I saw that." After class, I located the sentence for him: “Wringing her hands and moaning over the sleeping little one, a hideous impulse made her mind reel; she wished to look if Bartley had left his pistol in its place. A cry for help against herself broke from her; she dropped upon her knees.” After taking a few moments to read the passage, Samuels said, “Oh, very good!” He seemed genuinely appreciative of my little “find.” I received a B in his course, a generous grade for a freshman who was terribly disorganized at that time of his life. I went to his office to see exactly how I’d done on the final exam and was pleased to see he’d given my several character sketches a B+. Owing to poor budgeting of my time, I had actually completed only four of the five character sketches required. There were also two essay questions and I had time to complete only one of them. I think he had rakhmones for me, and more respect for a struggling beginner who at least did his homework than for some students who were trying to get by on plot summaries in Master Plots. It remains to me, now, to debunk (in a style that might make my teacher Ernest Samuels proud) Edgar Lee Masters’ horrible stereotype about log-cabin-lovers, and the whole notion it engenders that Americanism and eclecticism are mutually exclusive. First of all, it might be pointed out that Abraham Lincoln, our most famous log cabin-dweller and one of the best friends the Jewish people has ever had in the White House, made his first acquaintance with Jews as a boy when Jewish peddlers came around selling their household notions and dry goods to pioneer families like his in the Kentucky wilderness. Two of their customers were the tragic Nancy Hanks and then Sarah Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s step-mother, whom Lincoln called his “best friend.” Both women were the mistresses of log cabin homes improved by these Jewish peddlers’ wares! Another important thing to know is that Masters misrepresented Lindsay’s use of the log cabin as a symbol. The log cabin meant even more to Lindsay than Nancy Hanks and Andrew Jackson. Besides using it as an historical symbol, Lindsay used the log cabin as a contemporary symbol of the vastness of America’s national parks and forests. Lindsay’s focus, that is, was also on conservation and ecology. “When man reaches these places," he said (in Going to the Stars, 1926), "he is in log-cabin conditions again.” The log cabin was a living symbol for Lindsay. Masters even misrepresented the log cabin’s historical meaning to Lindsay. He didn’t quote Lindsay fully on the matter of the estimable Nancy Hanks. Lindsay actually added, as anyone would expect him to in some form or other, that Nancy Hanks endured log cabin life “with little Abraham Lincoln held against her heart.” Masters conveniently omitted Lindsay’s reference to Abraham Lincoln because Masters was a Copperhead Democrat and a harsh critic of Lincoln. It might also be worth noting that in 1903 (coincidentally the year of Ernest Samuels’ birth), Nancy Hanks’ grandson, Robert Todd Lincoln, was not to be found “roughing it” in any log cabin or sod house, but began construction on “Hildene,” a mansion in Manchester, Vermont, that he designed as a dream home for his wife. The 8,000 square-foot showplace was lived in by Lincoln descendants until 1975. In 1960, I, the author, as a 9-year-old boy on vacation with my parents in Canada, watched with awe and pride as my mother taught herself how to use the wood-burning stove in a primitive cabin on Lake Kenora, Ontario! Where, then, did the pioneer spirit burn brighter—on the cascading staircases of “Hildene” or the kitchen hearth at Kenora? In Miss Lonelyhearts, by Nathanael West (the pen name of Nathan Weinstein) — a novel I studied in college with a youngish Jewish instructor named Alfred Appel — there is a delightful description of the soul as something which is sought by the “three major faiths.” West called the soul a “flitting bird” which “the Catholic hunts with bread and wine, the Hebrew with a golden ruler, the Protestant on leaden feet with leaden words, the Buddhist with gestures . . .” What better description than “leaden words” could there be for Masters’ log cabin “formula”? As a Protestant, Masters was lapsed, but like a lot of people in the same boat, when he lost his religion, he retained his prejudices. Wherever Professor Samuels is now — such as that “better place” envisioned by Daisy Miller’s little brother Randolph in Daisy Miller — I hope he knows he has been remembered for his rightful place in the annals of American education and American-Jewish history. In the several months that it has taken for this article to evolve, I have seen the name of Ernest Samuels invoked several times on Scarriet, a four-year-old poetry and culture blog. That he remains in the memory of his countrymen of all faiths and backgrounds is clear from a little couplet composed by a Scarriet blogger who identifies himself as “Noochness.” He wrote, concisely, “Ernest Samuels, no mere clerk, / Focused on Henry Adams’ work.” David Bittner has been in Jewish journalism for more than thirty years. He wrote full-time for the now defunct Palm Beach Jewish World (1984-1991) and then for another seven years for the Jewish Journal in South Florida (1991-1998). He has a B.A. in journalism from the University of Wisconsin and an M.A. in English from Florida Atlantic University.