A blue postcard from New Haven has arrived. Postmark October 20, ‘95. “Outstanding!” the card reads. “Yale College Class of 1970. 25th Reunion Gift Total $2,980,575. 54% of You Participated.” I did not attend the reunion, although I did make a small gift. Is 54 percent an impressive number, when it comes to reunions? I do a quick calculation and realize that if averaged across the entire class, each graduate gave close to $3,000. Revise that statement: I made a tiny gift.
A week ago I was asked by the department of drama at my home institution, the University of Maryland, to give a talk about the Sixties in conjunction with a production of Hair.I worked up some recollections under the title “The Draft: Fear and Loathing in New Haven.” As I walked to the lectern, I realized that most of those in the audience had not been born at the time the last American ground troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, in March 1973. Few in the crowd possessed any memories that could challenge my version of events; for them, the defining moment—the one where we remember where we were when we heard the news—will not be the John F. Kennedy assassination, but the O.J. Simpson verdict.
In the middle of my talk a colleague wandered in, a member of the Yale Class of 1973. In closing, I spoke of the anti-war movement “dwindling” after the explosive spring of 1970. Afterward, the colleague raised his hand, praised the talk, and then reminded me that history reduced to autobiography could become, as I had admitted, “personal” indeed. “I arrived at Yale the year you were leaving,” he said. “Just because you left doesn’t mean that we didn’t keep organizing and marching. I guess it’s a matter of where you happened to be standing.”
I had begun with a quote from Michael Herr, the last sentence from his brilliant Dispatches.” Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam,” he writes, “we’ve all been there.” Wherever we were standing—wherever we are standing, as the controversy over Bill Clinton’s maneuverings on the draft reveals—we all were also there.The war that so many of the young men in my generation did not fight continues to work its secret ministry, cruising like an iceberg through our dreams, informing our ambitions and our divorces, creating minor or major disagreements between the partisans who remember, waiting for the day when it will fully surface in an account adequate to the experience of that great and terrible time.
In 1966, I boarded a plane in Los Angeles and flew to New York. I was headed for New Haven, Connecticut to begin my freshman year at Yale. At 17 I had ventured no further east than Dallas, Texas, for the 1964 International Key Club Convention. That had been a sober, even uncanny trip, since it had put me in a Hilton Hotel only a few blocks from the Texas State Book Depository, a year after Roy Harvey Oswald had climbed its stairs and taken up his fatal station. I had traveled to Dallas by riding in a car; now I was flying, for the first time in my life. Traveling with me was the other student from my hometown of San Bernardino, California, who had been admitted to the Yale Class of 1970.
“So this is the famous class of 1970!”: with these words President Levin greeted the assembled class members who had managed to make it back a quarter of a century later. By “famous” he refers to the promise we once gave of exercising power in the world—and even of burning down the house. Yet in looking over the “biographies” in the Twenty-fifth Reunion Class Book, I am struck by how many of the contributors disdain public success or worldly power and seem to prize, instead, a kind of private happiness. The first entry, by an Abbott, begins as follows: “What has made me the happiest? First my family. . . .” Another classmate writes that “My greatest pleasure comes from my family.” These sentiments form the volume’s dominant refrain. My own entry begins with a memory of bodysurfing with my son at Nags Head and of the day of my second marriage, an event held on my college roommate’s Virginia farm. For a wild bunch slated to shake things up, we appear to have lived out, with an almost literal devotion, the maxim that the personal is political. The last sentence in the Class Book thus nicely complements the first. It is from a Zuckerman: “I miss the passion of the time in which we came of age.”
As who does not? They were awful, wonderful years, days of rage and summers of love. Those of us lucky enough to get into Yale were protected from their more extreme dangers by a largely benevolent institution, one that kept outflanking all but the most determined radicals among us. At the same time, as the old verities crumbled, we were initiated into the competitiveness and status-think that did and still does mark the lives of those who aspire to credentialing by the Ivy League. We saw the last of the old and the first of the new Yale.
By the fall of 1966, Yale stood on the cusp of the big change. My class of 1000 was the first admitted by the new Dean of Admissions, “Inky” Clark. Appointed in July 1965, he planned to open up Yale College through a carefully modulated profile of the desirable student. Legacies were to be granted fewer places at the table. Prep school applicants had to compete against a rising tide of high school graduates. Black students were at last heavily recruited; Kurt Schmoke, the future mayor of Baltimore, lived downstairs, and Skip Gates, author of The Signifying Monkey and New Yorker commentator on racial matters, was a class or two behind him. Our SAT scores were up; Verbal, 683; Mathematical, 697. But our weight was down, : at average of 154.9 lbs, we were the skinniest bunch since the class of 1951. At 5’ 9” and 125 lbs, I came in well under the averages; I was what we then called “wiry.” With us, the ageless types of athlete, gentleman, and scholar began to collapse into a notion of “roundedness”; Clark looked for students whose strengths were also extracurricular. Old standards of decorum had not entirely died, however; anyone wanting a B.A. still had to pass a posture test, judged by nude photos, and swim one hundred yards.
I had picked Yale over Harvard because of its residential college system, and I had chosen what I needed. Harvard had “houses” four to five hundred students strong; Yale’s 12 colleges were smaller, served better food—my particular college had been endowed with a fund for buying strawberries in the spring—and achieved, because of their courtyard designs, a greater spatial intimacy and coherence. Yale and Harvard had both offered me a full ride, along with a work study job. As a busboy in Berkeley College, I made $1. 25 an hour; we struck on Prom weekend in the spring of 1967 and won a 15-cent an hour raise. As a Yale National Scholar, I was paid out of funds donated by the Arthur P. Sloan Foundation, so General Motors put me through school. The only obligation in return was to verify myself as a reliable product during an annual lunch at Mory’s where, over the peach melba, I told the program officer that I was doing fine. In those days room, board, and tuition came to about $3000 a year, and, with the money I made during the term and the summers, I would graduate without a penny of debt.
The Yale I entered in 1966 required undergraduates to distribute course work between the humanities, the social, and the natural sciences. Yale College was still all-male. And the coat and tie rule still reigned at meals. The rule provoked the most dramatic protests of my freshman year; there were rumors of seniors coming to meals in a coat and tie—and nothing else. When I moved into Davenport College to begin my sophomore year, the rule was gone. As were the distributional requirements: it was suddenly clear that I could get through college without taking a single course in math and science. Raised on the permissive Dr. Spock, and soon to be trooping after him again, we were set adrift in a curricular sea of free choices.
About women, the issue seemed so apocalyptically distant as not to be a choice. Football half times reduced the much-touted Yale-Vassar merger into our Y marching slowing down into their V. Women were bused into New Haven from all over New England for Friday mixers, and, during my first year, put up in proper hotels. The opposite sex equalled the weekend. Little did I know that as a senior College Aide I would design a plan for housing the first contingent of women—20 strong—in the maze of Davenport’s entryways.
In those years all did not change utterly, nor was a terrible beauty born. We still cared, for instance, about traditional diversions like football. With Brian Dowling and Calvin Hill, the team was so good that Garry Trudeau, who lived across the Davenport courtyard, began drawing a comic strip about its exploits called “Bull Tales.” Yale was and probably always will be a conservative place, in part because it believes in a certain kind of remembering. In even the most apocalyptic moments, with the National Guard in the streets and tear gas on the Green, I never believed that the university was the enemy, or that the revolution had come. Perhaps because of President Kingman Brewster, and his “loose bag” approach to campus dissent, perhaps because of Chaplain William Sloane Coffin, and his exemplary self-martyrdom, perhaps because we already felt so indulged, taken-seriously, and free, Yale never exploded like Harvard or Columbia. I, in any case, did not fight the university itself, perhaps because by my second year there I had discovered that I wanted the career and rewards that only universities can give.
Three human ties formed at school would survive the upheavals of those years: the roommate, the soulmate, the wife-to-be. The roommate was Barney O’Meara, with whom I shared a suite after moving to Davenport. An Irish Catholic from St. Louis, Barney majored in electrical engineering and became, by his senior year, battalion commander of Naval ROTC. To wear the uniform a day a week, as he was required to do, took more gumption than did most marches in the street. A born tinker, Barney loved to fiddle with machines and could fix anything. At one point, we owned six vacuums. He took the motor from an Electrolux and built a spin art machine. Behind the cinder block bookcase he installed a light organ, ten spots keyed into the stereo that converted Mahler into color on the ceiling. He also built a hideaway in the cupola that topped off our wing of the college. The cupola had eight sides, so he sawed off the corners of two mattresses and made an octagonal bed that flipped back on itself to allow entrance through a trap door below. Barney and I would later drive our boys from Charlottesville to Los Angeles, and, on a beautiful day in May, in 1991, I was married, a second time, on his Rappahannock County farm.
Dennis Evans was the soulmate, at least when we bonded over poetry. He opted for the Intensive English major and I took the standard one. A Mormon by birth, he had first met me on the long rides out to the chapel in North Haven when I flirted with the Latter-Day-Saints as way of reproducing my tiny religious community back in California while also breaking with it. Dennis had the credentials of a Big Man On Campus: an all-Oregon quarterback with the looks to match, a quick smile and an easy laugh, a Beatles collection, a cheerleader girlfriend back home. He married Cathy after his junior year and moved her to a drafty cottage by the shore. Weekday mornings, on her way to teaching school, Cathy dropped him at the York Street gate. I’d wake to find him in our rocking chair, dozing or reading, his bag lunch already eaten. Dennis was no longer paying for room and board, so I’d go downstairs for an early lunch and smuggle him out a hamburger or a piece of cake.
I met Libby Recknagel in January of 1969, when I returned from a road trip to Vassar to find her ironing a shirt by my roommate’s bed. The roommate—he shared the suite of two bedrooms and a living room with Barney and myself—was a friend of her boyfriend. She had driven down to pay the boyfriend a surprise visit, but the next day’s party given in his honor she spent dancing with me. Those who tried to cut in did not succeed; the boyfriend, holed up with my roommate, never tried.
A bond originating in a moment of competition persisted, in part, because I had to fight to keep her love. By early spring the boyfriend had been eliminated and she had consented to go to bed with me. I accompanied her on the trip to get her first prescription of birth control pills. We comforted each other with our mutual inexperience; she began to spend weekends in our room, a pattern that exiled Barney to the couch. We kept dancing; at the Yale Prom Wilson Pickett came on just before midnight and rallied the exhausted crowd with a show of energy that culminated in the spectacle of a woman in a full-leg cast fragging across the lip of the stage.
If I was possessive, she was receptive. Libby’s ready smile accompanied a continual stream of exclamation.”Wowie-zowie” was a favorite locution. The enthusiasm attracted me because through it she expressed not only her feelings but mine. She also worked hard at her psychology courses and earned the grades that won her, in her last year at Mount Holyoke, a Phi Beta Kappa key.
The themes of my senior year at Yale, and especially of its bittersweet spring, were poetry and power. As an English major bent on graduate school, I polished off a senior project on Yeats while attending a seminar on his work taught by Harold Bloom. As a looming target of the draft, I watched the war news with apprehension and counted on the high number drawn for me in the draft lottery as protection against the attentions of my local board. “A golden age of poetry and power” was what Frost had forecast in the poem he wrote for Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961. Almost a decade later it had become well-nigh impossible to align the terms, to reconcile one’s role as a student with one’s duty as a citizen in the most powerful country in the world.
The story of my attempt to do so begins much further back than the space of this narrative will allow, so I might as well begin with the moment late in the fall of 1969 when, at Dennis’s urging, I accompanied him to a seminar taught by the man who was and probably still is the most notorious genius ever to teach in the English department at Yale.
“The greatest poverty is not to live/In a physical world”: those are the words I heard the professor read as I entered the room. I had never read the poem, or the poet, but they sounded like the lines for me.Coup defoudre, the French say. Blow to the heart.”The greatest poverty is not to live/In a physical world,” the poem maintained, “to feel that one’s desire/Is too difficult to tell from despair:”
Perhaps, After death, the non-physical people, in paradise, Itself non-physical, may, by chance, observe The green corn gleaming and experience The minor of what we feel.
It was the only moment in a career of sudden blows where the awareness of being affected was simultaneous with the moment it happened. Wallace Stevens and Harold Bloom are still inseparable in my mind, as I suppose they still are in Bloom’s.
I had never seen a sadder face; the circles under his eyes were deep. Bloom’s lower lip hung, or pouted, slightly out, as if drawing his features together were a vain effort. Eye-contact was fleeting; he was looking away. Bloom would enter class, put down his book, seat himself in his chair, and yank his sweater over his head. A plump, dishevelled body. Then he cupped both hands and pulled them slowly down over his face, as if trying to wake up, or repair a grief. The hair stirred up by all this stuck out in wisps around the heavy head. He rarely smiled, except at an irony; in our presence, he betrayed no lightness of being. His sense of rue could collapse into the lugubrious; a younger colleague reports standing next to Bloom at a urinal when the senior professor suddenly intoned: “You will wax and I will wane.”
Dennis and I were quickly hooked on Stevens as well as Bloom. Stevens appealed to me because I was looking for a poetry of the earth and he seemed to promise it.”What spirit have I,” he asked, “except it comes from the sun?” Life was coffee and oranges and the green freedom of a cockatoo on Sunday morning. Deer walk upon our mountains, and sweet berries ripen in the wilderness. Shall we not find in these comforts thoughts to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Of course Stevens argued also for another vision of things, one we found attested to in the proofs of the book Bloom was reviewing and Dennis managed to borrow. Helen Vendler’s On Extended Wings gave us Stevens as The Snow Man. Beneath his yes there was a no always being spoken. And, in reading the letters, the poet’s life did look a little unlived. A bond lawyer and insurance company vice-president. A house in the Hartford suburbs. One big vacation in his married life. A beautiful wife—she was the model for the Liberty Head dime—who in the photographs goes suddenly gray. Peter Brazeau interviewed a friend about Stevens and Elsie.”He treated her like ash,” the friend said. Foucault would go on to claim that the author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning, and rule such evidence out of bounds. But Bloom not only believed in authors, he also believed in using whatever worked to enable a strong reading. His teaching method was to go through poems slowly, from the top down, three or four to a class hour. The margins of permissible commentary stopped nowhere. That spring, while unpacking Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” Bloom remarked that the poem had been written in 1919 by Yeats after his reading in the papers that the Czar and his family had been shot. Bloom told us that the poet was aggrieved at the act. So the “blood-dimmed tide” becomes the murderous Russian horde, slaughter in its eye, and the poem’s revolutionary calling down of chaos becomes a dishevelment against which the reader is encouraged to react.
I had never sought out professors, outside of class; Bloom had befallen me, and I remained an auditor, unregistered and without a name, although from the day I entered the room I did not miss a single class. It was different with Leslie Brisman. In my last semester at Yale, the spring of 1970, I took his Milton course. He was the only teacher at Yale I actually got to know in a personal way, perhaps because he was lonely or because his first year was my last. Brisman was applied Bloom. He was thinner, younger, a little sad but less rueful, a Woody Allen compared to Bloom’s Zero Mostel. Brisman loved quotations; his speech and writing were a tissue of them. They expressed his filial piety, the sense of the already-said. The critic and his disciple were seen often together, and a graduate student reported once greeting the two men on the street as the eminence terrible and the enfant grise.
In April Leslie invited Libby and me to dinner. The corner of the living room housed a clavichord he had built. The meal was also homemade, but in his cooking he did not quote. For each of us arrived a pineapple half, hollowed out and filled with itself and cubes of sweet and sour pork, this topped with a chicken breast baked in wine. He served it with a standing loaf of bread over which had been melted what looked like an entire pound of cheddar cheese. At one point, after I had seconded some comment of Libby’s, his face spread into a huge grin and he said, “You must be very happy.” As the weather warmed we’d drive out to Chatfield Hollow with him, cooling our bodies in the still, green pond. Then we’d repair to his generous picnics, one of which began with a dip composed of shrimp, peanut butter, and sour cream.
In the light of Brisman’s attention I rapidly flowered, writing papers longer, more subtle, and assured. I was dazzled by Milton’s counterplot, the argument of his similes. My applications for graduate school already in the mail, Leslie asked whether he could write a letter for me. I thought it too late, but he was willing to try. He wrote one letter, to Berkeley, and it was the only place that accepted me. Harvard and Yale turned me down; my grades had been solid but not exceptional. Leslie was also the go-between, the man who, after graduation, passed on my name to an inquiring Bloom.
Senior year brought the first class of women and the moratorium against the war, with Allard Lowenstein and 40,000 protestors on the Green. Some nights later we bent toward a radio in our room and heard the birth dates in the first draft lottery being read out; the initial 130 birthdays picked looked likely to be called up. Few of us went down to the TV Room to actually witness the spectacle. But the evening was one spent within shouting distance of one hundred Davenport seniors, and, as the first dates were read out, we learned to wait in silence for the screams echoing through the entryways. “They’re bombing the courtyard,” Barney muttered, as the second couch fell past our window. Small fires broke out; glass could be heard breaking; we huddled in our cell-like rooms and endured the mass sentencing.
It divided us, that evening; there was no forgetting the noises we had made. I pulled number 235, and was free to move on to graduate school. Barney didn’t need to listen, although he had; he was headed for a mine sweeper in the Mekong Delta. A separated shoulder won him a discharge from the Navy in the spring, and a few months later he was working with Ralph Nader on auto safety in Washington, D.C.
Mayday came to Yale a month before the first of May. By the time the nation’s universities boiled over in one last surge of rage at the Asian war we had nearly spent ourselves in another cause. Since 1968, I had worked against the war. A book called Air War—Vietnamby one Frank Harvey and read in my sophomore year convinced me that the war was less about heroism than the desire to take effect at a distance. I campaigned for McCarthy in California and walked the suburbs of New Haven for Ribicoff, who had stood up to Mayor Daley in Chicago while his police cracked heads in the streets. The summer before my senior year I bought the blue Handbook for Conscientious Objectors and joined a study group taught by a Quaker under the Old Campus elms. I decided to apply for I-O status, which meant exemption from “both combatant and noncombatant training.” The form consisted of four questions centered around my “religious training and belief.” I began the application with these sentences:
I object to warfare, and to my personal participation in it, because it involves a system of institutionalized killing in which one must surrender personal responsibility for his actions to the state. I also object to warfare because it destroys environment that sustains life and shatters my solidarity with all men.
The first objection is a personal concern, the second a social one.
In proceeding to describe the connection between my childhood and my present beliefs, I fleshed out my case with quotations from Sartre, Camus, and Dostoevsky. On Sept.15, 1969, Local Board No.132 wrote back to say that “At the expiration of your present deferment, your complete file, including your SS Form 150, will be reviewed by the local board.”
Soon thereafter the draft lottery rendered my application moot, and virtually no one I knew well then or later actually saw combat in Vietnam. No names from the Class of 1970 appear on Woolsey Hall’s memorial to Yale’s Vietnam dead. The two veterans with whom I did become acquainted had constructed for themselves a kind of ramshackle peace. After two years of withstanding continual fire on a PT boat in the Mekong, one had married and moved to Berkeley to write love songs. The other had become a Lutheran minister. He told stories about a German Shepherd trained to nose ahead in order to trip any mine wires strung across the trail. Back home, he had adopted the hobby of collecting airline booze. His living room was filled with thousands of tiny containers ranged neatly in glassed-in cabinets. I asked about drinking the contents.”You can’t open them,” he answered.”The bottles only have value if the seals stay intact.”
But in April of that last college spring the war was not our first concern. A year earlier the body of a black man had been found in a nearby swamp. He had been a member of the New Haven branch of the Black Panther Party. Arrests had been made, informers located, and the charge of ordering the murder had been brought against the national chairman of the party, Bobby Seale. Scale had been arrested and extradited to New Haven; he was being held in a jail near the Green. By the spring of 1970 pre-trial motions had begun.
My morning’s walk to class took me out of Davenport’s front gate and left up York Street. It also meant running the gauntlet. The Panther Defense Committee had established a beachhead in front of the J. Press windows. Only a narrow strip of sidewalk remained between the rep ties and pink button-downs on one side and the oaths and waving papers on the other. Not a person I knew then thought or admitted to thinking that Seale was guilty, but the sense of a threat from some of his supporters also felt real. A rally had been proclaimed for the end of the month, and one voice spoke of “ending” the trial. Somewhere I saw a headline that read “Come to New Haven for a Burning on May Day.”
The city had come to the citadel; built like a fortress with moats and battlements, the Yale I knew was not the Yale of that day, an embattled armed camp. I was a liberal; I had tutored an inner city black student named Mike. When he came to visit my room, we played chess, painted with watercolors, or listened to music. He was particularly fond of a song called “Your Love is Like a Seesaw.” Racial justice was a cause I believed in and wanted to see embodied in specific, local acts. Yet I had never taken a course at Yale that had assigned a black author and, except for a day spent driving people to the polls, knew nothing about New Haven’s black neighborhoods. I was a liberal, but did it matter what I called myself when there was talk of 50,000 hostile strangers streaming into town? When words like “burning” and “Yale” got coupled on the page, my gut response was defensive.
Conversation took on a doomsday tone. “Maybe we could stack couches in the front gate,” someone ventured.
“What about the back—on Park Street?”
“They usually keep it locked. Besides, it would be a lot easier to attack from the front.”
“There are women living in that entryway—what about them?”
Those I spoke to veered between gallantry and paranoia as the weather of the cruelest month wore on. Unlike the days before the moratorium against the war, which I had helped to organize, I found myself out of any planning loop. Kurt Schmoke, a leader in the Black Student Alliance, lived downstairs. While I carried on with my life, despite the rumors and tremors, it was pretty clear to me that people like Kurt were so embroiled in defending and confronting Yale that they had long since stopped going to class.
On April 13 a rally was held in Woolsey Hall. I did not attend, but the captain of the New Haven Black Panther Party was quoted as follows: “White folks are even going to have to kill pigs or defend themselves against black folks. We’re going to turn Yale into a police state.” A day later Black Panthers David Hilliard and Emory Douglas were sentenced by Judge Mulvey to six months in prison for contempt; while in court they had been passing or reading a note from Seale. French playwright Jean Genet, on hand for this episode of radical theater, later claimed to have scuffled with the police on behalf of his “black comrades.”
A second meeting was held, in Harkness Hall. There was talk of getting guns, of cutting off New Haven’s water supply. A moratorium somehow got proposed. The air was full of magnolias and dread.
In the days following, the undergraduate population worked its way round to a simple strategy: open the gates. The courtyards would become campgrounds. I found myself as much in favor of this response as I had been in favor of the opposite. The first weekend of May was then known as College Weekend and had been traditionally devoted to picnics, plays, and drinking contests. In Davenport we met and voted to abolish College Weekend. The money set aside for the festivities would be used to buy food for the out-of-towners. The fare would be cheap but hearty: granola, salads, and brown rice.
On Tuesday, April 21, Hilliard and Douglas apologized to the judge and were released. A rally was quickly arranged at Ingalls Rink. The headline in the Yale Daily News read: “Mass Meeting Called for Tonight: Student Strike Imminent.” The rink had become the favored site for large gatherings; at the astonishing rally about the fate of ROTC, held a year before, more than 2000 undergraduates took part in a vote that, like the Harvard-Yale game of the previous fall, resulted in a tie.
Barney and I took the long walk up Prospect Street with the College Master and another faculty fellow and found seats in the crowded arena at the top of the bleachers.
Chaplain Coffin rose to speak against the violence; he had already urged that the charges against the Panthers be dropped. He spoke from a stage that rocked with tension: walking to the microphone, for the speakers that followed, was like walking the plank. There was a rustle in the crowd, and then Hilliard, surrounded by bodyguards, strode his way in. He took the mike and took back his apology to the judge. He began talking about someone charged with murdering a cop. The speech ended with the words “There ain’t nothing wrong with taking the life of a motherfucking pig.” I heard boos. The sound surprised me, but it did not come from me. It had come from the crowd of 4000, most of whom were white. I sat silent even as Hilliard, angered by the response, shot back his taunt—”I knew you motherfuckers were racist.”
At the back of the stage something was happening. A man was trying to make his way to the mike. As the bodyguards began beating on him the crowd sickened and surged. Black students standing nearby stopped the beating and the man was let through. He mumbled words that could not be heard, stood for long pauses. Something was said about “A small step for mankind.” The man tore up papers resting on the podium. At first I thought he had been dazed or hurt. Then it slowly became clear that he had nothing to say. We were living in a theater and he had wanted his 15 minutes of fame. He emptied his crazy mind until a professor managed to work him off the stage.
The rally broke up and we filed out sullenly. “What bullshit,” the Master muttered as we walked back down the hill. I felt ashamed at having listened and yet still urged on by the cause.”All that you want to do,” Hilliard had said near the end, “is to be entertained.”
Two days later the Yale faculty met to discuss the “strike” that had finally been voted in by 11 of the 12 residential colleges. This was the meeting that generated one of Spiro Agnew’s most carefully calculated putdowns: “I do not feel that students of Yale University can get a fair impression of their country under the tutelage of Kingman Brewster.” At the meeting Brewster had made his now-famous statement that “I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.” Brewster angered some and galvanized many, but it was Kurt Schmoke who really moved the crowd. In a very short statement, he reminded the faculty that “You are older than we are, and more experienced. We want guidance from you, moral leadership. On behalf of my fellow students, I beg you to give it to us.” The faculty responded by voting to “modify normal academic expectations.” For an undergraduate this meant that for the remainder of the term he or she was free to decide when and whether to go to class.
I had kept going, although by late April the seminar on Yeats had winnowed down to Harold Bloom and me. We comforted each other, just by showing up, but the act could not have meant for him what it did for me.
“As I get older,” he said one day, “I find that anger is a dominant emotion.” Bloom had long since come to oppose the opposition to the war. In the fall of 1969, when I first began attending his seminar, Bloom was 39 and I was 21. He had spent the previous year at Cornell, and it had changed him. During that year a group of black students had taken over the Cornell student union. They had been unarmed, but, after some fraternity types broke in, they had found guns. The photograph of their leaving, rifles in hand, won that year’s Pulitzer Prize. Bloom wrote a letter to the Cornell student newspaper about the incident. Whatever his politics had been before, when Bloom came back to Yale, they had been driven toward the right. We did not speak of such things, but they became clear as that fugitive spring wore on.
Word had it that after the faculty vote Bloom had called for the resignation of the dean. His commitment to poetry was so singleminded that he could not tolerate any act that directed attention away from it, even an act fully informed by that poetry. His was an inspired, a crazy devotion. But so was mine. I remember sitting alone with him in the classroom as he took the absent group through a poem by Yeats. I listened, managed to reply, there was a little give-and-take. We got through the time. Then the two of us went outside. He lingered for a moment, in front of Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, as if there were something he wanted to say. He wanted to commiserate with me, I think, and tried to, while I held back from saying that if I came for him and the poetry it did not lessen my hatred for racism and the war. The line I walked was one that wavered. I thought then that the university was not the enemy, and that to strike against it, when it had nurtured the very possibility of resistance, made little sense. But I was stirred and buoyed up by the strike as well. In the words of an editorial I had written for the Davenport Felon’s Head, about coeducation, I had “put my body where my beliefs were,” but that meant straddling a good distance. There was more shaking of his head, and then Bloom walked away.
A rally on the Green had been planned for Mayday, and, after the faculty vote, the colleges got down to the work of preparing for the crowds to come. Davenport was to be converted into a child care center. The work went forward in an air of practical concern, while around us the greater world indulged in an orgy of projection. The New York Times represented Yale as a threat to the justice system of the United States. Reverend Coffin was so angered by an editorial entitled “Murdering Justice” that he called James Reston and said, “Frankly, you’ve got a horses’s ass covering this thing up here.” Hells Angels had arrived in New Haven and were camped in a nearby park. Rifles had been stolen from a truck in North Branford; a fire broke out in the Law School library. The governor announced that the Connecticut National Guard would spend the weekend of May 1st on the streets of New Haven.
On Wednesday, April 29th, I joined a group of seniors in the courtyard for a pick-up softball game. I hit a single the first time up; it felt like any other college spring. When we took the field, I played second base. A man got to first and was advanced toward second by the next batter. As the throw came to me, I swung my right arm around to make the tag and the runner came straight across it. I picked myself up, finished the inning, and then, my arm aching, left the game.
At the Yale infirmary an intern pronounced me perfectly whole. In bed that night my arm began to throb, so, the next day I walked to the Yale-New Haven hospital for an X-ray. The bone in the forearm was fractured, and I walked back to Davenport in a full arm cast.
It had been announced that President Nixon was to give a major address on the war that night. We gathered around the television in the Common Room, as we had when he had defeated Humphrey, 18 months before.
That was the night on which Nixon first used the phrase “pitiful helpless giant.” He had been elected on the promise of a “secret plan” to end the war. Yet, once elected, he had begun declaring the war nearly over while still feeding it men. In mid-April of 1970 he had finally announced a withdrawal of 150,000 troops from Vietnam.
That withdrawal now necessitated, he revealed in his television address, a further escalation of the conflict. The previous day he had ordered troops into the country that bordered Vietnam on the west. “This is not an invasion of Cambodia,” he said. At the sound of those words, the room exploded. The rest of the speech was lost in a storm of abuse. It was just as well that we did not hear, as we boiled out onto the lawn, his closing claim that “Here in the United States, great universities are being systematically destroyed.”
It was the speech that set fire to a hundred campuses and caught up our local fight into a bigger cause. With Nixon’s words, the heat finally caught up with the light, and the explosion that had been happening all spring finally felt real. No one was shot or even badly hurt in the weekend’s skirmishes on the Green; 37 people were arrested. Only one of these was a Yale student. As John Taft reports, in Mayday at Yale, the student “had been taken into custody for sitting in a car in which another passenger was brandishing a loaded water pistol.” I sustained, I believe, the only broken bone. The hundreds of marshalls generated out of the student body and the black community kept the peace and washed the tear gas out of countless eyes. But in Ohio, and in Mississippi, the rifles were lowered and fired on students by young men who had joined a part of the army that was not supposed to have to fight. Thus an action “which started as an affair in support of the Black Panther defendants,” Pierson Master John Hersey wrote in Letter to the Alumni,“ended up more or less a memorial to the white Kent State dead.”
I missed all that; I had left town. On the morning of Mayday I was up early. Looking for a friend in the senior entryway, I stumbled on the college’s makeshift nursery, seven babies in as many cardboard boxes, some crying, some sleeping, and none so puzzled as the attending sophomore about the strange winds of history that had blown them there. I maneuvered my cast outside, exited the courtyard gate, and walked straight into the National Guard. The young men stood along the far side of York Street in a tightly spaced row. They held their rifles at an angle across their chests; their khakis camouflaged them against the tan, pseudo-gothic stone. Behind me the courtyard teemed with frisbees and strangers, bedrolls dotting the intermittent grass. I stood on the curb and waited for my ride to come; Dennis and Cathy had arranged for me to spend the weekend with them at their house on the shore. The inconvenience of a broken arm had shaded my ambivalence into a posture of prudent retreat. As I watched for the blue Volkswagen, I felt that I did not want to leave and knew, as well, that I would not change my plans.
I was married the day after commencement and without the use of my right arm. My parents, two of my three sisters, and my grandmother had come east for the ceremonies. Libby had been embraced by the family at our Christmas visit. After deplaning at Los Angeles she had picked up her knitting while we waited for the family to arrive.”Oh, good,” my mother said when she walked up, “she’s not sophisticated.” Mom insisted that an engagement ring be bought and went along to pick out and pay for the little diamond.
We held the wedding on the Mount Holyoke campus. My father scoured the woods around South Hadley and filled the chapel with hand-picked ivys and ferns. Dennis wrote and read a poem, Barney taped and played the music—Moussorgsky, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles—and my oldest friend, from San Bernardino, read something very short and then flew home for his own wedding in the shade of a California orange grove.
By two o’clock Libby had tired of the reception on the campus lawn and motioned to me that it was time to go. I took a gulp of punch and handed Dennis the empty silver cup. She was already moving fast, in the apricot dress that stopped above her knees. As I began to follow, the crowd came with us. When she broke into a run, I grabbed the elbow of my cast and pressed it hard against my chest. She reached the car and tried to start the engine until I crashed into the passenger side.”Get in!” she yelled, as I fumbled at the door. The rice fell around my head like angry hail. The engine wouldn’t start; Barney had rigged the distributor. There was a lull, and then all the engines started at once. Another race began, up and down the hot, narrow, tree-lined country roads. Libby drove bent forward toward the wheel; I was along for the ride. The sweat stood out on her upper lip; her dress rode up around her hips. At the Springfield rotary she shook the last of those behind. We raced off into our wedding night, but not before a stop at the A & W for a cold root beer.
I saw Bloom one more time before leaving Yale. Libby and I had spent the summer in New Haven before moving west to graduate school. She worked at Sykes-Libby Jewelers and I gave campus tours. On our last day in town we were crossing the intersection of York and Chapel Streets, at an angle toward the Taft Hotel. My right arm was still encased in the cast. Crossing directly at us, along the same diagonal, was Harold Bloom. He stopped us in the intersection to say good-bye. A few words were exchanged; he reached out to shake my hand. Then he seemed to notice the cast. He faltered, and grabbed my left hand, the hand sinister. Suddenly I realized that I knew him, but that he did not know me. We had never been formally introduced; he had never read my written work. A sense of lovely anonymity descended on me, and I stood there still, as he moved on. In the middle of the street, in the shadow of the room where Wallace Stevens had 20 years before written “An Ordinary Evening In New Haven,” I got the blessing and farewell from one of the fathers of my professional life, and he could not say my name.