In Review: April 7, 1999

The education of Alvin Kernan
A battle-scarred veteran recalls the culture wars

In Plato's Cave
Alvin Kernan
Yale University Press, $25

Alvin Kernan, a former dean of the Graduate School and an emeritus professor of English, is a veteran of both real war and culture war. He described the former in Crossing the Line (1995), his compelling memoir about life as a Navy enlisted man aboard aircraft carriers in the Pacific during World War II. In Plato's Cave, which carries on where that earlier narrative left off, recounts his more than 40 years in academic life. This intellectual biography is largely about the clash of cultures and world views as universities passed through the crucible of the 1960s and 1970s. Like real war, this conflict also left scars.

Kernan takes his title from the philosopher's metaphor: men in a cave trying to discern reality from shadows flickering on a wall. In the winter of 1946, the recently discharged author left his home in Wyoming to attend college on the G.I. Bill, convinced that if one were to read "the right books and listen to the right people, think in the most intense and logical fashion...all the darkness of Plato's cave of illusions would burn away in the bright light of understanding."

Thus began a journey of discovery through academe as a student, professor, or administrator at Columbia, Williams, Oxford, Yale, and Princeton. Shaped by books and teachers but most of all by experience, Kernan's sense of reality evolved over a career that witnessed "seismic changes in American higher education." At the start of his journey, university administrations ruled by fiat, and their faculties assumed the existence of an objective, discoverable truth. At the end, the old model had given way to a new order, one that was democratic rather than authoritarian and skeptical about what the human mind can really know.

Within this framework Kernan spins a tale that is richly anecdotal, even gossipy. He offers telling vignettes and full-blown portraits of a cast of characters whose paths he's crossed, among them the affable Kingman Brewster, the wise Bartlett Giamatti, the irrepressible Harold Bloom, the dyspeptic Lillian Hellman, and the charmingly amoral Paul de Man, the discredited dean of deconstruction.

The author's scholarly specialty is satire, and his descriptions of the knaves and fools that inhabit even the most august institutions are almost Swiftian. A cheeky Everyman named Smithers pops up here and there, often in the form of a graduate student with an inflated sense of entitlement.

It is one such Smithers who confronts the author after Kernan has written him an honest but less than flattering recommendation for a teaching post. The incident occurred in 1973, Kernan's last year at Yale, a school that had been rocked to its foundations by the political tsunamis of the Vietnam era. Yale's problems were exacerbated by a protracted budget crisis and hostile town-gown relations that reached their nadir during the trial in New Haven of Black Panther Bobby Seale. As associate provost, Kernan was a front-line officer at a university in a state of virtual siege. Burned out and clinically depressed, he had recently suffered a heart attack. Smithers, he recalls, "found me in my office after I had returned from the hospital; he came up to the desk, looked me in the eye, and said, 'I wish you had died.' I replied without thinking, 'But I didn't, and I'll live to piss on your grave.'"

The story is a measure of just how uncivil campus discourse had become, at least at Yale, and Kernan was soon off to Princeton. Here he found more Smitherses but also relative peace. Yet Princeton, too, reflected the new way of doing things. The university lawyer "was replacing the deans as the arbiter of student discipline, and 'due process' as established by the courts ...was replacing the inadequate rule books." The new dean soon made enemies among the faculty, and he uses his memoir to settle a few scores.

In 1977, Kernan resigned his deanship and returned full-time to scholarship, but it offered no reprieve from the changes sweeping academia. He quotes an old friend: "If you want to know what is actually disturbing a university, visit its English department." Literary studies, writes Kernan, have become "the Northern Ireland and Bosnia of the great culture war that has been fought out in the universities since the end of World War II." Kernan has much to say about the turmoil in Princeton's English department as it struggled, not always successfully, to hold on to its traditional values while embracing postmodern ideas and multiculturalism.

Kernan admits his "heart is with the old academic order." He is philosophical about the changes he has witnessed, reflecting as they do larger, and he believes mostly positive, currents in society. But he notes that education "by its very nature -- the transfer of knowledge from those who know to those who don't -- is ineradicably authoritarian to some degree." He takes solace that "a few elite universities and colleges" (Princeton presumably among them) "continue to occupy the top of an educational hierarchy that stubbornly will not altogether level."

-- J.I. Merritt '66


"A long walk after lunch"
An excerpt from In Plato's Cave:

In the fall of 1973 I took up a new position as the dean of the graduate school at Princeton and learned some things I didn't know about academic tribes. A friend who taught at Stanford saw the move from one Ivy to another as no real move at all, no more than the 150 miles between New Haven and Princeton; but that is a long 150 miles....

Tigers and Bulldogs are totemic animals, and all colleges and universities are still tribes in which loyalty to and identification with the group are paramount values. All outsiders are viewed with suspicion at Princeton, even by its many Nobel laureates, particularly if they come from the hated rival tribe, Yale. At Yale it is OK to come from Princeton -- it doesn't really matter that much, it's considered a natural step up -- but you are likely to run into problems if you come from Harvard, and vice versa. At Princeton it is all right to come from Harvard, and vice versa, but not from Yale. There are many ways of describing the differences among the Ivy Big Three, but no one did it better than Bart Giamatti, soon to become the president of Yale, who told the following cautionary tale. If things went badly at Harvard, a national committee would be impaneled to discuss why Harvard was not first and how much money needed to be spent to make it first. At Yale, the faculty would meet, the professors would blame themselves, confess their failings, and vow to work harder. At Princeton, two men would go for a long walk after lunch.

There is much truth to this little story, at least as much as in the theory that each of these institutions bears indelibly in all its parts the stamp of its dominant religion, Unitarianism at Harvard, Congregationalism at Yale, and Presbyterianism at Princeton. What it may tell you is that things move more indirectly, perhaps even a bit more shiftily at Princeton, where the term "pre-bicker," originally used in connection with selection of eating club members, has great meaning, and a stranger like myself had better step cautiously and circumspectly.

Presenting the concerto in stellar essays


The Concerto: A Listener's Guide
Michael Steinberg '49 *51
Oxford, $35

No writer on classical music, past or present, is more distinguished than Michael Steinberg '49 *51. His trenchant criticism in the Boston Globe and the Saturday Review and his erudite but unintimidating essays on the masterworks of the orchestral and symphonic repertories have delighted and enlightened generations of concertgoers and record collectors, this reviewer included, and the nearly three decades worth of program annotations that he has written for orchestras around the U.S., including the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the San Francisco Symphony, have now begun to reach an even wider audience, thanks to the long-overdue anthologies of his writings that the Oxford University Press has at last begun to publish.

The Concerto: A Listener's Guide is the second such volume to appear. (A similar collection, The Symphony: A Listener's Guide, was published in 1995.) The title is, to be blunt, a bit misleading, because this invaluable and useful tome is no entry-level book. Nor is the book a complete or even a representative guide to the vast body of compositions that either bear the title "concerto" or are important compositions for solo instruments with orchestral accompaniment. Instead, Steinberg's book is a carefully revised and expanded gathering of nearly 120 annotations written over a span of a quarter of a century. A more accurate title for this collection would be The Concerto: A Selective Guide for the Enthusiastic Listener.

Once readers are aware of the raison d'être for the anthology, however, the omissions no longer seem capricious or willful. The omissions are significant nevertheless, and they are significant enough to prevent the book from being the only such guide that knowledgeable classical music buffs will want to have in their libraries. There is, for instance, no thumbnail description of the concerto as a form, nor is there any history of its origins and development. Apart from Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, his famous D Minor Clavier Concerto, and his ever-popular Concerto for Two Violins, no Baroque concerti grossi or solo concertos are included. One longs, for example, to read Steinberg's analysis of and observations on the Corelli, Torelli, Albinoni, and Geminiani concerti grossi, the Vivaldi Four Seasons and L'estro armonico, and the Handel Organ Concertos, Concerti Grossi, Op. 3, and the Twelve Grand Concertos, Op. 6, but these essays, if he has ever written them, are not to be found in this volume.

And the lacunae are significant in other areas, too. None of the Haydn concertos is included. One searches in vain for essays on such "mainstream" repertory pieces as the SaintSaëns B Minor Cello Concerto, the Lalo Cello Concerto, the Dvorak Violin and Piano Concertos, the Franck Variations Symphoniques, the Poulenc Organ Concerto, the Richard Strauss Don Quixote, and the Weber Concertstück. There are frustrating gaps in the essays on the concertos by major composers. Only one of the Mozart Horn Concertos is discussed, and neither of his flute concertos is examined. (Steinberg does, however, give Mozart's middle name, correctly, as Amadè, not Amadeus, for which he is to be thanked profusely.) The Bartók Second Violin Concerto is the subject of an especially rewarding essay, but the early First Concerto (admittedly not a major item in the repertory) is only mentioned in passing.

Conversely, if one did not understand how this anthology came to be, the inclusion of such arguably "marginal" compositions (at least to a book of this kind) as the Oration for Cello and Orchestra of Frank Bridge, the piano concertos of Max Reger and George Perle, the violin concertos of John Adams, Erich Korngold, William Schuman, and Roger Sessions, and the Nobody Knows De Trouble I See for Trumpet and Orchestra of Bernd Alois Zimmermann might seem equally capricious and willful.

But such cavils are churlish nitpicking and reflect unfairly on Steinberg's carefully researched, superbly thought out, and brilliantly written essays. Each page of this colorful book confirms the depth and breadth of his knowledge, understanding, sensitivity, perspicacity, and aesthetic integrity. Even the footnotes, and there are many, make for rewarding and entertaining reading.

There is no doubt that Steinberg has read extensively about music and listened extensively to music, making him both well read and well listened; in fact, it is unlikely that anyone in the field, past or present (and that includes the great Donald Francis Tovey, who is one of Steinberg's acknowledged role models as a critic and annotator), was, or is, better read or better listened. Those who aspire to write on classical music or to be music critics, therefore, would do well to study this book carefully. The essays on the Berg Violin Concerto, the Elgar Violin Concerto, and the Grieg Piano Concerto are models that all of us who toil in the same vineyards should emulate.

Steinberg deserves our particular gratitude for carefully considering and reflecting on recorded performances that come from the composers themselves or from members of their immediate circles. Rare is the writer on music today who will take the time, as Steinberg does, to listen to and comment on Sir Edward Elgar's and Sergei Prokofiev's recordings of their own concertos or Percy Grainger's recordings of the Grieg Piano Concerto. Few critics or performers today, sadly, seem to be aware that such resources exist and are available for study and listening enjoyment, and the standard of performance and interpretation in our day would rise sharply if more musicians and commentators followed Steinberg's laudable example.

There are the inevitable typos and tiny factual errors, of course, but the lilliputian booboos and rare apparent oversights are teenytiny scars that, to paraphrase another distinguished music critic of our century, Harold C. Schonberg, one willingly accepts like the damage on the surface of a Rembrandt panel. A serious and frustrating defect, however, is the absence of an index, which would make this remarkable book a more effective research tool.

-- Teri Noel Towe '70

Teri Towe is an estates lawyer, writer, and classical record producer and a former classical music director of WPRB.

Tenderloin district and Sail 2000

Bringing new meaning to the phrase "online community," the site managed by Christopher Mohr '88 for San Francisco's Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp ( shows the old buildings the agency renovates into affordable low-income housing, tells the stories of the organization and the neighborhood, and gives information about TNDC's on-site social workers, job training, and after-school programs. Visitors can also learn how to donate or volunteer, and view photos from the Celebrity Pool Toss fundraiser, at which actor Robin Williams and others took a dunking for charity. The site is easy and encouraging to navigate, though "up one level" links on the pages would be helpful. Perhaps as the residents grow increasingly computer-savvy, the site could expand to post community news or residents' résumés for potential employers.

At the homepage for Sail 2000 (, you can buy a virtual yacht, meet some international competitors, and set sail online. The Sail 2000 yacht racing simulator business team includes Grant McCardell '80, Chase Caro '81, and Erica Pochaczevsky '86. According to the site, the program for the PC simulates America's Cup boat design and International Sailing Federation rules, and includes realistic weather and sounds. Visitors who own the software can also get technical information and upgrades, meet a racing buddy on the site's registry, and compete against each other over the Internet in the online lobby. I was confused at first and thought that I could test-drive a demo program; you can't, but you can get previews of some bright, detailed screen captures from the game.

-- Snow Tempest '98

Clarvoe plays two in New York


Few young American playwrights can boast the distinction of having two plays running simultaneously at theaters in New York. For that matter, not many playwrights of any vintage -- from O'Neill to Albee -- are able to make such a heady claim.

Anthony Clarvoe '81 saw two of his works produced this season, one a revival of a play originally staged in 1992 and the other a premiere at the Signature Theatre, a repertory company that encourages promising authors in midcareer. Clarvoe is the kind of playwright Signature wants to support, and for good reason.

The earlier piece, Let's Play Two, appeared at Altered Stages for three weeks during February. Presented by Incite Productions, the work is a dialogue with original backup music from a keyboard and bass. Clarvoe uses baseball as a way of getting to the playful as well as the serious sides of two people destined for each other from the opening scene. For his title he goes back to an Ernie Banks comment: "It's a great day for a ball game. Let's play two!"

Grace is the serious and responsible half who shows up for work and takes part in the weddings of friends -- always a bridesmaid, never (at least so far) a bride. She's haunted by the awareness that if she quits her job, a long line of people will be waiting to take her place. Phil, on the other hand, has little interest in holding down a serious position and regards a 10-day friendship as a meaningful love affair. A naive charmer, he calls himself "The Kid" while narrating his every move in the excited tones of a baseball announcer.

What brings them together is a series of road trips in an open car. They share a puppy love of baseball and a willingness to make mutual concessions. It's a study in pairs: a doubleheader, the Minnesota Twins, and a couple of attractive young people with quirky but compatible ways. "Of course I can make a commitment," Phil says. "I'm a baseball fan!"

Walking Off the Roof is a more complicated drama that demonstrates a maturity of purpose and technique. Working with new dramatic tension, Clarvoe deepens his approach to the subject of commitment. But in this case, we're talking serious deception.

Clarvoe developed the play over several months as part of Signature's Residency II Pilot Program, a project that involves the playwright in all aspects of the creative process including design, casting, and workshops. The program has paid off for both author and company. An ensemble of four actors, working with the playwright and director, have hammered out the proper direction for a dark treatment of contemporary love, adultery, infidelity, and the pain of living in the world.

Humor, which figured in Let's Play Two, has disappeared, and the overriding tone in Walking Off the Roof is one of distrust and suspicion. And none of the characters are very likeable. Of course, they don't have to be; this is grim stuff. A suggestion of reconciliation comes when one of the couples simply decides, after all, not to walk off the roof. In Let's Play Two, Phil's car acts as a unifying symbol of movement and progress in the couple's relationship. A large unmade bed becomes the central image in Walking Off the Roof; it's a messy arena for sexual and emotional interaction and a constant reminder of betrayal.

Clarvoe has an ear for contemporary speech. Toward the end of Walking Off the Roof, the central character, an advertising executive named Brett, talks about his life and work. Beginning as a straight monologue, the speech becomes a series of staccato defenses, an outpouring of pain and frustration. It's a horrifying piece of fury directed at both the business world and himself.

-- Don Harrell

Short takes

The Memoirs of an Artillery Forward Observer, 1944-1945, by James Russell Major *49 (Sunflower University Press, $18.95) -- The late Russell Major, an emeritus professor of early modern European history at Emory, became a historian to make sense of the war he found himself in the middle of, more than 50 years ago. Although a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, Major describes his youthful self as a "bookish recluse" who hardly fit any martial stereotype, and his lack of a sense of direction and a tendency to daydream were serious impediments to his job of directing precise artillery fire. Yet like thousands of other ordinary Americans who fought across France and Germany in the final year of World War II, he overcame his limitations and served with valor and distinction. His sympathies lie with the line infantrymen who bore the brunt of the fighting under appalling conditions, and he regards George Patton, in whose Third Army he served, as "by far the best American general of the war -- one of the few things that Hitler and his generals did agree on."

-- J.I. Merritt '66

Writing for Design Professionals: A Guide to Writing Successful Proposals, Letters, Brochures, Portfolios, Reports, Presentations, and Job Applications for Architects, Engineers, and Interior Designers, by Stephen A. Kliment *57 (Norton, $36.50) -- Since the title and subtitle pretty well explain what this book is about, I can only add that its content grew out of Kliment's many years as an architect, teacher, and consultant. This useful book is unerring in its advice to keep all communications materials to the point, and the many samples serve to make crystal clear Kliment's directives. There's also a section on how to write a book review, which I consulted as I wrote this.

-- Lolly O'Brien

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