October 5, 2005: Perspective
By Philip M. Weinstein ’62
Philip M. Weinstein ’62 is the Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor of English at Swarthmore College.
The resonant debts are often those you discover years later, when those you would thank are no longer there. As an English professor for 35 years, I look back to my undergraduate years at Princeton as the time when, all unknowing, my to-be-professional identity was in the making. A reciprocal drama took place. A number of brilliant men engaged, two to three times a week, in the illumination — unpredictable and mesmerizing — of English and American literature. While doing so, they endorsed my fledgling participation, somehow intimating that, in time, I too might perform a version of their magic. Thus a callow freshman left Princeton four years later, marked irreversibly by the practice of three mentors, and headed for a lifetime of college teaching. I was hooked.
What made those three professors — Lawrance Thompson, Laurence Holland, and Richard Ludwig — mentors whose example I never tire of imagining and seeking to imitate?
Larry Thompson was the most charismatic teacher I knew at Princeton. As a sophomore I took his course on the English novel; I had the good luck to be in his precept as well. His dry, New England wit and his cutting intelligence fueled lectures I still recall. (Of Laurence Sterne’s intricate mockeries in Tristram Shandy, Thompson remarked: “He sidles up to his target like a terrier approaching a fresh rock, circles it slyly two or three times, looks around, then pisses.”) His way with British fiction was stunning. I remember how, in precept, he took on the F-word in Lady Chatterley’s Lover as though it were simply what it was: a word everyone in that precept was familiar with, a word deserving no fanfare one way or the other. This instance has remained with me as a model of how to move effectively through linguistically troubled waters. I was half besotted by his charm and intensity, and I pressed my twin brother and classmate, Arnold, not to miss his courses. (“You rascals!” Thompson beamed at us when we visited him together in his office, and he discovered that we were two rather than one.) Years later, I was to back off from his imposing authority, as I began to learn that a teacher’s greatest gifts contain, as well, his characteristic blind spots. But I never called into question the quickness — at once physical and intellectual — of his engagement with literature.
Larry Holland was a different proposition. Personally more intricate than Thompson, he was the poetic/theoretical genius of the department (omitting R.P. Blackmur, a case apart). He was also impenetrably reticent — this as much a pedagogic device as a personality trait: Years later he told me that he would actually bite his tongue rather than bail us out during precept discussions of Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens. Holland was in the awkward position of being Thompson’s junior colleague yet his intellectual peer; they precepted for each other’s courses. Good friends (yet without sharing a single trait), the two of them represented Princeton’s commitment to American literature and culture for more than two decades.
Holland’s lectures were the most stimulating that I have ever encountered. I remember the timbre of his voice every time I give a formal lecture, as I fantasize myself sounding like him. He would help you find your way through the maze of his sustained musings by providing a handout of pertinent citations. Although I cannot echo his eloquence, I have at least, for the past 30 years, faithfully provided a handout of provocative citations for each of my lectures!
Of my three mentors, Dick Ludwig had — so it seems to me — the biggest heart and greatest fidelity to his students. His energy was unfailing. He would, as preceptor in the freshman Shakespeare course, ferociously scribble on the blackboard all the important issues that we might propose for a given play, then press us to align the major characters on one side or the other of the issue — a challenge we reveal- ingly failed to resolve as we gradually gathered that Hamlet and Lear were ... on both sides at the same time. (Thanks, Dick, for a lesson about the ambivalence of literature that never required using the word itself.) It was Ludwig who seduced me into majoring in the Special Program in the Humanities — a fateful choice inasmuch as the outrageously ambitious interdisciplinary thesis mandated by the program has remained the quixotic model for the half-dozen scholarly books I have written. Ludwig gave me detailed advice about going to Harvard after Princeton, then later about choosing a dissertation topic, and later again about accepting a job at Swarthmore. He was always capable of advising you as though he were you rather than — more typically and less helpfully — as though you were he.
As an English professor myself, I have drawn on memories and images of all three men to inspire me at times of possibility, and to sustain me at times of distress. The first two men died much too early — in the 1970s, still vigorous, their careers still in the making. By the time I had reached my 40s, only Ludwig was still alive. I tried to see him regularly, registering (with a mix of admiration and, increasingly, of pain) his gradual, gracious descent into old age. Virtually until the end, he was the incarnation of courtly intelligence and wit.
After Dick Ludwig died in 2003, I began to take the measure of my intellectual loss. I began to think about all three of them and to realize that they reveal something precious about Princeton’s teaching a little after mid-century. They were humanists in the sense (at once outdated and timeless) that, for them, the literary work — however elaborate it might be as a structure of words — spoke compellingly of life. The work as intricately wrought artifice manages, for that very reason, to intimate life’s pitfalls and possibilities as life itself cannot. As a fellow practitioner, I now see that my three mentors were able to illuminate literature so memorably because they never wavered in their belief in its value for life as well.
We who come after them cannot imitate them. Approaches to the humanities change; critical styles change with them. Yet my professional life as teacher and scholar is unthinkable without the prior professing of Larry Thompson, Larry Holland, and Dick Ludwig.