A Summer’s Wait

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Mark Van Doren, who died in 1972, was one of America’s most distinguished poets, critics, and educators. He was born on a farm at Hope, Illinois, in 1894, and upon graduation from the University of Illinois in 1914 went to Columbia University (where he later was to teach literature for many years) to pursue graduate study. In the spring of 1917, with America finally involved in the Great War, he returned to his family home in Urbana, Illinois, and registered for the draft. In midsummer he was indeed drafted, and served in the Army until December, 1918. Finding it difficult to concentrate on literary scholarship, immediately after the war, he wrote what he called “a plain account of all that I can remember” about the period between June, 1917, when he went back to Illinois to await the call, and his discharge nineteen months later.

This thoughtful and elegantly written memoir has never been published, although it exemplifies many of the literary characteristics for which Mark Van Doren later became famous. AMERICAN HERITAGE is pleased to present the following excerpt from it, by permission of Dorothy Van Doren, the poet’s widow; the account begins just after he was registered for the draft on June 5, 1917.

That done, I had nothing besides my own conscience to live with for a matter of about two months, as the drawing was not to be made until late July or early August. It had been decided that I should spend the summer on Frank’s farm at Villa Grove. I went down immediately, having put my books away and stored my notes on Dryden, already voluminous, among the rafters in the attic of the house on Oregon Street, and placed myself in Frank’s hands. It very soon became apparent that the farm at Villa Grove was better supplied with labor than was necessary. In a time of peace Dad would never have considered the presences of Frank, Paul, Owin Soard, Walter (Owin’s future brother-in-law), and me to be indispensable on 307 acres; under existing circumstances Dad must have seen further that any plea he might wish to make to the district Board for my exemption as an indispensable farm hand would necessarily appear absurd to anyone who would take the trouble to count the hands at Villa Grove. All this he never definitely expressed, but I am sure it was in his thoughts. In a few days he drove down and announced that I was to go with him to the farm at Hope, where the corn was in desperate need of more attention than the two men there could give it. Bidding goodbye to Grace and Frank and Paul, and to the farm on which as a boy I had spent so many summers and with which I had been happily engaged in renewing my acquaintance, I went with Dad back to Urbana, and the next morning out to Hope.