In Mark Edmundson’s essay about his graduate-school days at Yale, there’s a passage that plucks my own chords of memory:
The Yale English-department faculty was mostly white, male, and bald or graying. They wore ties, tweed jackets, thick glasses, and sensible shoes. Some of them even smoked pipes. It was the most aggressively senior group of people that I had yet encountered.
The first time I saw more than a few of them together was at the introductory reception, a couple of days after my first meeting with the director. That day the department served sherry, which I had never seen, much less tasted. For solid refreshments, we got Dunkin’ Munchkins, tiny balls that were, the conceit ran, the punched-out centers of doughnuts. More than half a dozen graduate-faculty members clumped together in a tweedy circle, pretty much ignoring the students. The denizens of the Yale English department seemed about as interested in meeting us graduate students as they were in eating the Munchkins.
The reception was held in the graduate seminar room, which looked like the throne room for a monarch soon to be deposed. There was a grand table, lined with about 20 comfortable leather chairs. Up front was the lion’s seat, a regally worn piece of business, where—we all knew without being told—the graduate professor would install himself to hold court. (I knew that if I ambled over then and sat down in it, I’d be vaporized.) Behind the throne was a bookcase full of genteelly decomposing books, many of them related to the study of Old English. Above the books, I saw a shape that looked like a crude map of Australia but on closer examination proved to be a water stain.
Occasionally a brave grad student tried to edge into the tweed clump, but the clump subtly bunched, closed ranks, and left him outside. Eventually the student returned to us, hangdog.
I didn’t do grad school at Yale but rather at Virginia, just a few years after Edmundson; yet I know the experience. I think particularly of a day in, probably, 1983, when Stephen Greenblatt came to give a lecture for the English Department. Greenblatt was then only around forty, but already a full professor at Berkeley and a very fast-rising star in the academic firmament. The talk he gave was a version of what would become his most famous essay, “Shakespeare and the Exorcists,” and I certainly had never been, and probably have not since been, so bowled over by a lecture.
Perhaps my admiration was readable on my face. As the applause died down, James Nohrnberg, the immensely learned and deeply eccentric Spenserian of the faculty, leaned over to me and said, with an amiable grin, “Have you checked to see if you still have your wallet?” He then turned and ambled out of the room.
The rest of us withdrew to the Colonnade Club for a reception, where I thought I might get a chance to ask Greenblatt a question or two. (Such was my naïvete.) I found him in a corner of the room, surrounded by about a dozen betweeded or blue-blazered faculty members; I hovered uneasily around the edge of the group, hoping to catch his eye. And in fact I did: he nodded at me, smiled a bit, but then had to answer the next question that came from one closer to him in rank, status, and space. I waited, but one of the eminences surrounding him — I’m almost certain I remember who it was — noticed my presence, sneered, and closed the gap between him and his neighbor to make sure I could not intrude into the charmed circle. After a little while the whole phalanx ushered Greenblatt away to dinner and the rest of us crumpled and dispersed.
But I’ll always remember, gratefully, that he would have spoken to me — had he been allowed to.
(Now that I’ve told this story, let me recommend that you read Edmundson’s essay for what it’s really about: the power and the beauty of what used to be called “humane learning.”)