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50 Years in RISD’s English Department

11/29/2010

English Professor Mike Fink

The late RISD President John Frazier welcomed me to his office in the late summer of 1957, saying, “Why don’t you help us with the formation of the English Department? Come aboard while you pursue graduate courses uphill at Brown.” The department head, like my printmaker uncle Herbert L. Fink a World War II veteran, dwelt across from the College Building in Athenaeum Row. Edwin I. Lamont, known as “Monty,” often entertained his staff, his studio colleagues, school administrators and Benefit Street neighbors, in his elegant, hospitable, but tight quarters with its lively hearth, shelves of Asian porcelains and high-spirited Boston terrier. The low fire glowed and flickered against the Chinese red walls.   

Another instructor who had fought in WWII, George Sullivan, with his colleague/wife Janet Wright Sullivan, brought to the English curriculum a focus upon poetry, the genre so intrinsic to the academic world of the mid-20th century. In the age of New Criticism and of Anxiety, verse demanded a close reading of metaphorical language and structure.

A large oval table with inlaid borders, battered and chipped, moved with our nomadic department from building to building and room to room. With different evaluation standards, we would meet and share papers composed by freshmen. George and Janet wanted the students to write as if they were drawing in the Waterman Building. Janet and I team-taught a section. The emphasis on descriptive rendering was highly disciplined. There was a “zen” mystique aspect to the consideration of how a paragraph had to be shaped.
A sentence was a living entity like a sketch.   

The Sullivans entertained at their charming residence at a Poe house on Benefit Street and later, on Congdon Street. Janet was a displaced southerner, an emigree from New Orleans. George grew up in New Bedford, MA. They had met in the master’s program at Brown, and brought their faculty and scholar friends to their salon.

Professor Israel M. Kapstein, the first Jewish English teacher at Brown, also taught some classes at RISD. When I studied with him during my first sojourn in our department, he said encouraging, kindly, cheerful, respectful, useful and admiring things about the challenges and opportunities posed by our disciples. During a recent show at the RISD Museum celebrating 350 years of Jewish culture in America, Kapstein’s daughter Judith acknowledged her father’s contribution to the creation of an English Department at RISD. She recalled that the salary of an English teacher, both at Brown and RISD, was such that one had to live quite frugally and that the purchase of a house was out of the question. The Sullivan place on Congdon was a masterpiece of physical, moral and intellectual effort. George laid the brick walkways by hand and Janet restored the antique furniture.

The Late 1950s

In the second year of my service a new instructor joined our small group. Armed with a fresh AMT degree, Wes Troy, the daughter of a Maine physician and the wife of the book editor at The Providence Journal, brought a special concern with the problems of dyslexic students. At the time, there were differing definitions of the nature of “slow” learners in the arena of words. Did one skill drive out another, like nestlings pushing one another out of a nest? Does the cunning of the hand (with its thumb) compete with that of the tongue? If you can make something, does that mean you can’t write about it? If you can talk, or say, perhaps you can’t show, or sketch? Wes believed that a chat over tea, one on one in her office/salon, could help certain students. She was a superb stylist, an excellent editor, a fine reader. Her hospitality and patience were not undemanding and her kindliness was not permissiveness. She added something irreplaceable and invaluable. She began the diversity culture within her own personality, which refuted elite intimidation. Everybody felt safe and unthreatened but also encouraged to explore and express. I respected her, loved her, miss her still.  

Her husband, George Troy, sent me books to review, choosing animal tales, translations of new French novels and the memoirs of Jewish authors. He cautioned me to chop my sentences into small salads; they went on too long. I had taught too much Samuel Johnson and Henry James in World Lit, so I learned journalism from writing for the Providence Journal’s book page.

Another pioneer around our oval conference table was Al Cohn, a native Rhode Islander. He came to us from Emerson College in Boston and crafted courses in playwrighting and production. He amazed us with his success in getting our shy studio stutterers to memorize and perform long soliloquies and speeches by George Bernard Shaw and William Shakespeare, and then, second semester, the absurdist dada scripts of Ionesco, Albee and Beckett – before they were understood, applauded and appreciated by local audiences. Bald Soprano scored a surprise hit at our auditorium. Al was a compact red-headed elf – a bald soprano himself. He could dominate with wit and whimsy, but also had the authority of one who genuinely and deeply loved his art.   

You might find Stan Haste at the piano tickling the ivory keys into some Dixieland melody at our museum holiday gatherings, or a downtown spot. Stan’s connection to the formation of the English faculty cannot be brushed aside. He offered an early elective when most of us shared the identical prescribed texts for common required coverage. He did seminars on James Joyce and the history of popular music. Stan also edited the alumni magazine and won numerous prizes for its form and content, which were free from propaganda and promotion. He dedicated the pages to the work of students, graduates and instructors. I had spent the summer of 1961 in Jerusalem during the Eichmann trial. George Troy had asked me to cover the mood of that moment, and Stan enlisted me to submit an account of the bar mitzvah of the new nation. I was still trapped in the “assimilationist” reluctance to deal with religious issues in public. When my article appeared in print, I feared it might make trouble. The 1950s was an age of restraint, silence, even repression. But Stan’s support for my piece was a stroke of luck. President John Frazier sent me a letter congratulating me – and he even found some extra money in his budget to give me a surprise raise!

The 1960s – 80s

I was often asked to recommend new faculty. Along came somebody quite extraordinary, out of my Brown graduate group days. Philip Bailey was a brilliant personality who did not have a driver’s license. His world was tight, petite, pedestrian. It soared swiftly, nevertheless, in the realms of literature. His devotion to its delights inspired all who came to his salon or his classroom. He “invented” a course on children’s literature: he could read a Grimm tale and dig out its inner life and innate wit. His electives were popular, but never common or accessible. And yet, in the freshman composition requirements we were proud to maintain and sustain, he agreed with the prevailing Sullivan approach and credo.

The first assignment was to describe a familiar object, without naming it and without measuring it in factual terms. Then, the class would draw the object as best and accurately as possible. Students could bring the object in their pocket or bag but only display it after the experiment. The syllabus was based on Freshman Foundation set-ups, still lifes and figures. In the 1960s rejection of authority I made so bold as to use nude models – male and female – for the very first 8 AM class. Truth to tell, it spelled trouble for me. A new division chair took me to task. “That’s not an English class!” was the complaint/rebuke.

My influences – from Yale, the Sorbonne and Harvard – were both consistent and divergent. Yale emphasized the New Criticism with its proud rejection of the common touch. Paris celebrated liberation, mixed with grim responsibility. Harvard opened its doors to refugees, exiles, immigrants: how can you give a language – with its magic powers – to the rootless?

As RISD moved from its vocational origins and practical purposes toward a vision that could attract the nation and the globe, new faculty came to campus: C. Fenno Hoffman from MIT – that powerhouse of brains – taught the classics and served as department head and division chair. Like his predecessors, he had also served in the military. Fenno was unafraid to leap out of a plane and float earthward in a parachute. In his formal jackets, shirts and ties, he looked like the epitome of our plan to upgrade RISD from a “school” to a “college,” yet Professor Hoffman had many facets to his style and character. Fenno never used his prestige or powers against anyone in his area. Throughout the turmoil of those Vietnam-era semesters, he struck some as a conservative presence, but was less conservative than he seemed.

Hardu Keck MFA 64 PT, the late provost,  Foundation Studies chairman and painter, started his RISD career in the English Department. He brought a painterly touch to our perception of the role of words. His speeches and memos as a long-time RISD administrator bore the stamp of our best values. 

To launch the Cinema Club, retired film faculty member Bob Jungels, the late painter and professor Richard Merkin MFA 64 PT and I used to select our favorite films from 16 mm cans to show in Memorial Hall. We brought such luminaries as Pauline Kael to elevate our tastes and pass judgment.

Jamie Shreve is another former instructor whose interests lay in the scientific realms of evolution and geography – and also, in ballet. He would “dance” punctuation – pirouette a question mark, hop and pop an exclamation point, shuffle a comma. Believe it or not, a colleague condemned these performances as if they indicated a lack of seriousness. He went on to become a reasonably prominent reporter and scholar about Eve, the primal mother of us all. His scientific poetry and poetic science, like the essays of Loren Eiseley, won praise in the pages of The New York Times.

It came as a relief to escape from anthology and great books to paperbacks of complete texts and instructors' freedom but for some those heavy cloth-bound volumes were treasure chests. We could show how the popular arts – the flicks and funnies – derived their power from myth and saga, soliloquy and sermon. Copies of those survey tomes (which I recently installed on the shelves of the faculty lounge in the old RISD library) bear the signatures of teachers who used them. Gwendolyn Bowers, who gave me a Victorian print of a fine lady with a plumed bonnet, bustle, parasol and pet, also bequeathed her books to the department library. We mixed Maugham and Thurber, Shaw and Williams, Hardy and Frost, Jeffers and James. Perhaps the most influential among the Americans was Thoreau, for its regionalism, its resistance, its concrete and yet spiritual diction. Find your voice and place. Discover with your own hands. The fact that his family had made pencils from nearby graphite mines added some irony to the mix.    

I spent the last year of the 1970s in Rome teaching in the European Honors Program with Hardu Keck.  My wand as department chief was handed to Phil Bailey. In spite of his leadership and hospitality, his own contract was not renewed and he retired to his home in Maine. A yearbook was dedicated to his RISD career, saluting his combination of scholarly and playful endeavors.   

The 1990s – today

The Providence Athenaeum – just across Benefit Street – held the original Audubon bird prints. It seemed that our single block told in brick and stone the story of the nation – nay, the progress of humanity.

Tom Chandler taught poetry and published his own poems. I especially remember the portrait of a pair of shoes worn by an immigrant relation who had walked across Europe and then settled nearby and made shoes in a factory. Like Jonathan Highfield’s marvelous narrative verse version of a dinner at his home: He raised and sacrificed the capon, prepared it and served it in and with wine, in honor of a recently widowed guest...and then disposed of the remains. His reading seemed to sum up the human condition, there before the audience at the Ewing Center. Poetry at RISD is not the venting of opinion or the vaunting of erudition, but an art form at an academy of art. Chandler later became the poet laureate of Rhode Island, and still publishes and praises the poetry of others in the Providence Journal.

Wintersession afforded for many of us the opportunity to go beyond the Thoreauvian. We could take our disciples to places in which we had studied, found fellow writers, pursued research. Our alumni magazine, now under the editorship of Liisa Silander, has reported on many of these sojourns. In my first stint as department head, I hired Catharine Seigel and was impressed not only by her thesis on Conrad Aiken but also by her interest in Ireland. She built courses in poetry and theatre, the political history of Ireland and a nostalgia for the American culture of the 1960s, the beat poets and playwrights with their love of the road itself – like the tinkers of Eire. When she retired, she passed on the syllabus of her course on the literature of the Bible.

 Amanda Berry pioneered the acknowledgment of the gay/lesbian movement among the arts. She was with us for only a spell, but she initiated an issue in theory and curriculum long overdue. Nicole Merolla has created course on environmental letters, also a great contribution to the breadth and scope of the department.

I was on the search committee for Susan Vander Closter and was especially interested in her work on Vladimir Nabokov, whose writings were so jeweled, so foreign, so elegant. Our students sometimes seek too directly to get to the point – the bottom – of ideas. It seemed promising to discover and encourage an interest in the form, the turn of phrase, a layer, a privacy of perception, even eccentricity for its own sake. Susan seemed to me to promise an alternative to the impatience for “change.” I also served on the search for Patricia Barbeito. She made the term “post-colonial” meaningful, at a time not dissimilar to the FDR years of my boyhood, when the “good neighbor policy” touched all the arts – from music to cinema.

When the English Department’s presence was still quite minor, there was less distinction between full- and part-time faculty. Some who came and went left imprints upon the mosaic of the pathway from past to present. Others have remained and established permanent electives. We still have a trio of Annies: Ferrante, Hood and Harriman. Ann Ferrante guides her students through the places where American literature was born; Walden Pond is a pilgrimage, an ecological warning, and a reminder. Ann Hood and Ann Harleman are enormously valuable writers who make the department a resource for RISD’s entire artistic community.
 
Our recent acting Liberal Arts division chair, Alexander Gourlay, bears a special note. Once upon a time before the advent of that flat, square gypsy ball – the computer, I mean, ordinateur in French – our design disciples learned penmanship, calligraphy. It is so deeply gratifying, following the passing of the late great RISD calligrapher Lane Smith, to find Sandy Gourlay teaching an English course on handwriting with a pen and with ink. And yet, some among us (me for certain) feel gratitude for his patient skill in helping us to master – justement – the magic of the computer! On the other hand, I have joined Jan Baker, a professor of Graphic Design, in teaching book arts during the summer. RISD has many varied advantages for the teacher of words.


tags: English, Graphic Design, Literary Arts + Studies

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A figure modeling class from 1916.