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E O. Matthiessen: The Teacher As Creative Spirit

July 2024
4min read

He went at his lectures obliquely, backtracking, leaving broken sentences scattered behind him. He assembled his arguments in such a seemingly haphazard way that occasionally one of his Harvard students would fret, “You can’t take good notes on Matthiessen’s lectures.” But again and again those of his students who had larger interests than tidy notebooks said he was the best teacher they had ever had. He taught literature, and he taught it tensely, angrily, exultantly. To him, ideas were things too spiky and potent to demean by folding them into the pat delivery of the “popular” professor. “When he gave a speech or lecture,” wrote one of his friends, “he not only spoke his whole mind but also engaged emotions which most people reserve for home.” And at his funeral, his colleague John Rackliffe saw “the sensitive, thoughtful, and grief-torn faces of students who had really learned and were still learning- ten, fifteen, or twenty years later—from Matthiessen.”

Francis Otto Matthiessen’s powerful ability to teach was the natural outgrowth of a ferocious desire to learn. He came to Yale in 1919, a seventeen-year-old boy fresh from a very brief stint in the Canadian Royal Air Force. Despite belonging to a wealthy Illinois manufacturing family, he chose to think of himself chiefly as a “small-town boy.”

He felt fortunate in his limitations. If you came to Yale from a tonish prep school, he said, “You wore the right Brooks suit, your soft white shirt had a buttoned-down collar, and you did nothing—except possibly drinking—to excess. But if you came … as I did, from a small prep school … you had the giddy sensation of a limitless domain opening out before you. ” He had no idea of what he wanted to study, though he inclined vaguely toward math. Instead, he wound up in an English literature course taught by Bob French, a man forthright and vigorous enough to convince Matthiessen that he wanted to teach literature too. French’s “candor and devotion were [his] model.”

Yale changed his life in another way: searching desperately for a bearable book on the reading list of a stupefying required economics course, he lit on The Acquisitive Society . Richard Tawney’s ideas on human equality and the evils of capitalism “have remained more living for me than anything else, except Shakespeare, that I read at college.” Matthiessen would be a pugnacious and unwavering socialist for the rest of his days.

He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a Rhodes scholarship that sent him to New College, Oxford, where he took a B. Litt, in English in 1925. This smalltown boy had a Yankee contempt for the British: he found their manners irritating, their stuffiness enraging. Then and later he regarded direct and simple expression as one of the primary human necessities. It is a gauge of his breadth of mind that he was able to see past his strong prejudices to comprehend and illuminate the work of such thoroughly Anglicized creatures as Henry James and T. S. Eliot.

He came home from England to enter Harvard, where he roared through the rest of his graduate work, taking his M.A. in 1926 and his Ph.D. the next year. He went back to Yale and taught for a couple of years, but Harvard’s tutorial system appealed to him strongly, and in 1929 he accepted a post there as an instructor. He never left.

Possessed of a relentless and demanding energy, he wrote and edited a dozen books, among them the first substantial study of Eliot, a series of volumes on James that were crucial in reviving that writer’s reputation, and his great 1941 opus, American Renaissance , a book that enriched and deepened the entire discipline of the study of American literature. Like his other writings, it was, according to Malcom Cowley, “a search for a usable tradition in American literature.” In it Matthiessen sought the English wellsprings of our foremost mid-nineteenth-century writers—Melville’s debt to Shakespeare, for instance, and Emerson’s to Coleridge—while at the same time showing how their books mirrored their own era, that the reformist fervor of the 1840's glitters in the great works of the 1850's. “Litera-ture,” he wrote, “can teach us the cultural continuity between the present and the past, and can thus give scope and dignity to our small lives. It can teach us also the union that has existed in great cultures between the one and the many, between the individual and society.”

Just as he believed that books cannot be severed from their cultural context, so did he feel that the academic should not be shut away from the larger world. All the time he was working, he was formidably active politically. He was a leader in the Harvard Teachers’ Union—he never ceased trying to bring about closer ties between scholars and workers—in the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union, the Progressive party, and so many others that when the House Un-American Activities Committee came to turn its baleful light his way, it found him to be the member of no less than twenty-nine peccant organizations.

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.

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