E O. Matthiessen: The Teacher As Creative Spirit

PrintPrintEmailEmail

And always, he taught. He was not Mr. Chips. He could be sour, obscure, petulant, and confusing; he could spend an hour arguing back and forth with himself, for teaching and learning never parted company in his mind. But when he was working well, he could change people’s lives. Alfred Kazin remembers him speaking on Eliot’s The Waste Land: “I have never seen a lecture audience so moved, so happily aware that it was in contact with a man at his best, and whose greatest urge was to share with us the things he loved. All that could be so wonderful in Matty flashed out upon our … group that afternoon, binding us together in rever-ence for the creative spirit, transcending our nominal political differences—and all through his love of the poem, through the solemnity, the dignity, the marvelous inwardness with which he read. He was really free that day. …”

But he was not often really free. Even his good friends rarely saw him relaxed, and when the painter Russell Cheney, with whom he shared a vacation house in Maine, died in 1945, Matthiessen lost his one truly close companion. His spirits revived briefly in 1947 when, teaching in Prague, he sensed a growing flow of amity between East and West; but within a year the communists had taken over and his friend Jan Masaryk was dead.

By the time the mean-spirited decade of the 1950's began, Harvard and his students seemed to have changed; he was forty-nine, and the institution to which he’d given his life and his fervor had turned cautious and chilly.

On the evening of April 1, 1950, he asked the desk clerk at the Manger Hotel in downtown Boston for “a nice airy room.” He was given one on the twelfth floor. There he wrote a note: “I am exhausted. … I can no longer believe that I can continue to be of use to my profession and my friends. I hope that my friends will be able to believe that I still love them in spite of this desperate act.

“Please notify … ,”and he named a few old friends. Spurred by the intense concern that had both tormented him and made it possible for him to be the teacher he was, he went back to the note and after “Please notify” inserted the words “but not until morning.” Then he turned toward the window and death.