(Buffalo Beat, 26 February 1999)                                                                                       go to Buffalo Report home page
Buffalo English:
Literary Glory Days at UB

by Bruce Jackson

the thin man
A thin man sat quite still at a grey metal desk, staring down at a lined yellow pad. I asked him where the main office was. He turned, looked at me for a moment, then erupted. "I'm not here to answer questions!" he screamed. "Why do all you people ask me questions? Why don't you all just leave me alone?" He slammed the door shut with his foot.

It was September 1967, my first day in the UB English department.

A man about my age came down the hall carrying a huge stack of books. I asked him the same question. He pointed through a corridor connecting the two long sheds on Bailey avenue that were the English department's home in those days. (The sheds were named Annex A and Annex B. No one knew what they were annexes of.) I thanked him and then asked him about the thin screaming man.

"Oh, that's John Wieners. You shouldn't talk to him. He just goes off if you talk to him."

"What does he teach?"

"Teach? Nothing. He's a poet. He's not a member of the department."

"What's he doing here? In a faculty office, I mean."

"Writing poems, I guess."

the hot center and the cutting edge
For at least a decade, the UB English department was the most interesting English department in the country. Other universities had the best English departments for history or criticism or philology or whatever. But UB was the only place where it all went on at once: hot-center and cutting-edge scholarship and creative writing, literary and film criticism, poem and play and novel writing, deep history and magazine journalism. There was a constant flow of fabulous visitors, some here for a day or week, some for a semester or year. The department was like a small college: 75 full-time faculty teaching literature and philosophy and film and art and folklore, writing about stuff and making stuff. Looking back on it from the end of the century, knowing what I now know about other English departments in other universities in those years, I can say there was not a better place to be.

It's not like that now. For a long time UB has drawn on its bragging rights to the Department but abandoned the responsibility of nourishing it. Faculty are down by a third and the infrastructure has all but vanished. Riding on reputation is like driving cross-country without putting oil in the crankcase: you can get away with it for a while, then you hear bad noises.

what Al Cook did
The UB English department was built by a man named Al Cook. My image of him is of a man in constant motion, forever talking or reading or writing. Al left Buffalo in the mid-seventies and went to Brown, but right up to when he died last year people talked about him as if he'd been part of the department until a few months ago. He was a presence, Al Cook was. I saw him over the years at academic meetings or when he came here for special events, like Fiedlerfest at UB a few years ago. He never seemed to change. Other people got older, paunchier, balder, slower, but Al Cook was always Al Cook. He transcended the physical. He was medium height, big in the chest, always scheming. Al was always my idea of what Odysseus looked like.

They must have had hiring committees and meetings during the three years of Al's chairmanship, but he seemed to make connections and hire people at will. I met him at a dinner in my next-to-last year at Harvard. Al said, "You're going to be looking for a job next year. Call me and maybe we can work out something for you at Buffalo." I suppose the look my face was one that Al had seen before. Academic jobs were plentiful in those days, I was at Harvard, and Buffalo was, well, Buffalo.

"We've hired Charles Olson, Leslie Fiedler, and John Logan," Al said. "Buffalo is more interesting than you think. Give me a call when you're ready, come and visit, we'll talk. Right?" I nodded.

I didn't. When the job cycle began the next year I got job offers from University Pennsylvania, UCLA and MIT. I forgot about Buffalo entirely. Al Cook called. "Have you taken a job yet?" I said I hadn't. He said, "Since I talked to you we hired C.L. Barber. Lionel Abel. John Barth. Robert Creeley."
                                           Ray Federman, Rene Girard, Al Cook. 1973.
I don't know how these names resonate for you in the spring of 1999. I can tell you that in the mid-sixties the list was breath-taking. Fiedler was the author of the most important book on American literature of the decade, Love and Death in the American Novel. It was written in such lucid English that you found it on the shelves of nonspecialists as well. Cesare Lombardi Barber (Joe to everyone who knew him) had written only one book in his academic career, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, but it was one of the most respected books on Shakespeare. John Logan had written Cycle for Mother Cabrini and Ghosts of the Heart. Lionel Abel had written the key book on midcentury drama: Metatheatre. John Barth, author of End of the Road, The Sot-Weed Factor and The Floating Opera, was like Bellow and Malamud: someone whose work we all read as soon as it came out. Just about everyone I knew in college and grad school owned a well-worn copy of Robert Creeley's For Love, and half the aspiring poets I knew spent their nights trying to mime his spare lines and never getting close.
                                                                                Robert Creeley, 1983
Charles Olson was the magister--a poet and scholar who had followers. I knew him from Call me Ishmael and The Maximus Poems. People had described him as a huge figure of a man, six-foot-six and big on the frame, a man who filled a room. I'd heard Olson stories the whole time I'd been at Harvard.

Olson was mythic before I got here and so he remained. I never set eyes on him. When I came for my interview he was on leave, "But he'll be back next year," they said. I got a fourth year on my grant at Harvard so the next year I only visited Buffalo once on a house-hunting expedition. Olson was still away at his place north of Boston they said, "But he'll be back next year." Then he died.

His friend Jack Clarke, another UB English department poet and visionary, told me, "But he knew it was coming for a year. He finished what he could, filed what he wanted to, got rid of the loose ends." Someone else told me that Jack was with Olson at the end and that Olson came out of a deep sleep or a coma, sat up, pointed with his right index finger, said, "So THAT'S it!" And died. I always meant to ask Jack if that was really what happened but I didn't and now it's too late because Jack died too.

Even before Al Cook got around to talking about the money (more than all the other offers), the job conditions (I could teach whatever I wanted), the perks (many), I was ready to sign anything he put in front of me. There just wasn't a better place to be.

being here
The names I've told you are just part of it. There were other writers and critics here, and more who came soon after, some to stay and some to visit: the critic Dwight MacDonald, the story-writer Donald Barthelme, the scholar Angus Fletcher, the poets Jerome Mazzarro and Irving Feldman and William Sylvester and Robert Hass, the novelist John Coetzee, the critic David Bazelon. And there were writers and artists and thinkers in other departments who were part of our community of words and ideas: Raymond Federman (who eventually shifted from French into English), René Girard, Michel Foucault, Olga Bernal, Eugenio Donato, Lucas Foss, Hélène Cixous, Warren Bennis, John Sullivan.
  Leslie Fiedler and Raymond Federman 1973
By the time I moved to Buffalo, Al Cook had finished his three years as chair and had been succeeded by Norman Holland, a psychoanalytic critic who also had a law degree and who had done his undergraduate work in engineering. I'd met Norman when I'd interviewed at MIT. After the conversation the man who'd taken me around said, "Don't worry, when you're here you won't have to talk to him." During that extra year at Harvard I got a letter from Norman saying he'd taken a job as chair of the UB English department, so we'd be colleagues after all.

Al had promised that I'd be promoted after I was here a year. Norman fulfilled Al's promise, but gave me no raise with the promotion; it was just a change in my rank from assistant to associate professor. I fronted him in the hallway about it. He said, "You said you wanted a promotion, you didn't say anything about a raise." I said some truly awful things, very loudly, after which Norman said, "I can see you're angry about this." Norman could say things like that. He was, as psychologists say, a man nearly without affect, which drove a lot of people quite crazy, not just me.

One time Norman asked if I'd photograph for him for the dust jacket of his new book. I went to his house and shot two rolls of film. Norman picked out a few he liked on the contact sheets and I made him several eight-by-ten prints. Some months later he came to my office and said "I have a present for you." He handed me the dust jacket of his new book, with my photograph on the back or on the flap. "I hear you have a new book coming out soon. Maybe when you get it we can exchange copies of our books." This time I couldn't even froth; I was just speechless.

Not longer after, someone who knew him really well and who heard me ranting about the dry promotion and empty dust jacket said, "It wasn't deliberate. Norman is very wealthy and he doesn't want people to know it so he never confronts what he thinks are money issues. That's why he only serves Kool-Aid at those afternoon departmental parties at his pool."

Before that year was out there was a departmental revolt because nothing was coming out of the chairman's office. A troika was appointed to run the department. Norman was still nominally chairman, but everything was managed by a man named Joe Riddle and two other people.

I thought the whole enterprise was falling apart: junior faculty were doing all the business and this rich guy with no affect sat in the chairman's office and smiled and did nothing. Warren Bennis, who was what we then called "provost" and what we now call "dean" of the School of Social Science and Administration told me to calm down. "As long as somebody's signing the papers, who's signing them and who sits in what office doesn't matter to you. Not in that department. Not with all that talent."

The thing I most remember about department meetings in those years was Lionel Abel talking with a thick red toothpick hanging from his mouth. Lionel's toothpicks were called Stim-u-dents and I always assumed he chewed on them to deal with a former cigarette habit, though he may just have had a jones for Stim-u-dents. The meetings were vigorous and engaged. I loved every one of them. A regular feature of nearly every meeting was Leslie Fielder waiting until the end of an argument by everyone else to say something eminently sensible, whereupon Lionel would say, his New York accent coming from way back in his palate and halfway up his nasal passage, "Lesssslee, that's the STOOOPedest thing I've ever hearrrrd." His Stim-u-dent would wiggle up and down.

The key thing about those years was the war in Southeast Asia. It touched nearly everything we did: how we taught our classes, the lives of our students, our conversations. You can't imagine now the antipathy between town and gown. For a time, hundreds of Buffalo policemen in riot gear occupied the Main Street campus. Forty-five faculty were arrested for demonstrating against the war in the administration building one Sunday morning when the building was empty of anyone save them. Tear-gas canisters were fired into stairwells of the old Norton Union (now part of the School of Dental Medicine) so they would enter the circulating air system of the entire building. A Buffalo police official went on one of television news programs and denied firing any tear gas anywhere on campus. Warren Bennis and I looked out the windows of the old WBFO studio on the second floor of Norton Union and watched them fire into a women's dormitory across the street while that interview was on the air; we followed it with a report on what we were seeing a hundred yards away. I have a photograph of the window over the front door of the Union riddled with holes from the blast of a police shotgun. A police official said the blast couldn't have been done by the police because the police on campus hadn't been issued shotguns, all they had were their sidearms and the teargas launchers. He didn't note that the teargas launchers were twelve-gauge pump shotguns.
Norton Student Union, 1970
Faculty argued on both sides of the war issue for years. I didn't realize it then, but that argument made us a community as nothing else has since. Even in arguing against one another, we met people we would not otherwise have met, engaged in conversations we would not otherwise have had, dealt with ethical issues that transcended the ordinary politics of the campus.

things we know for sure
In Godfather 2 Michael Corleone tells one of his henchmen, "If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us one thing, it is that you can kill anyone." More important things are also certain. The sun will rise. The sun will set. And nothing lasts. Nothing.

Joe Barber went to UC Santa Cruz and died a few years later. Eugenio Donato went to UC Riverside and killed himself a few years later. Bob Hass moved to Berkeley and later won a MacArthur and was named Poet Laureate of the United States. Jack Barth got so famous Johns Hopkins hired him to teach in the Writing Seminars and he went back to his beloved Maryland to sail and write more novels. Bill Sylvester and Lionel Abel retired. John Logan and Dwight MacDonald retired and died. Donald Barthelme died young. Al Cook died. John Coetzee went home to South Africa, wrote novels, won the Booker Prize. Jerry Mazzarro found the English department too grumpy, moved to Italian, and retired. David Bazelon retired. (David and I squabbled and groused at one another for years; not long ago, we met at a Guggenheim Foundation party in New York and spent much of the evening drinking the Foundation's booze and telling good-old-days-in-Buffalo stories). Ray Federman is retiring. René Girard went to Stanford and Angus Fletcher went to CUNY. Olga Bernal abandoned literature entirely, moved back to France and became a highly-acclaimed sculptor. Irving Feldman is still in the English department, he won a MacArthur, and I've never been able to have a conversation with him. Lucas Foss went to conduct symphonies elsewhere. Warren Bennis went to Cincinnati as president for a few years, then settled in as distinguished professor at USC. Bob Creeley is still here; he won the Bollingen Prize this year, the best poetry prize in America. And Leslie Fiedler is still here too, not giving classes any more, but still working with students, still writing all the time, still able to cut through the fog.

Martin Meyerson gave Al Cook a blank check and Al built a grand department with it, a department that was deservedly world-famous, one that was fun to grow up in. No college president nowadays could give anyone a blank check. In the Meyerson-Cook years, the state was still building SUNY and Rockefeller was pouring money into the system. There was money for research, students, promotions, hires, secretaries, hardware, travel, assistants, money for anything you could think of spending money on. I came here in the middle of that and I thought that was the way colleges were. I didn't know that UB in the 1960s and 1970s was anomalous, abnormal, freaky. Glorious and brilliant, but nonetheless anomalous, abnormal, freaky.

the good old days
The good old days. Oh, were they that good? Perhaps, perhaps not. We remember how we broke our leg, we don't remember what the broken leg felt like. Nature has been very kind to us in that regard. It lets us stay friends with the past.

UB now, I think, is too busy working on survival to be flourishing in the literary arts. The English department has made a few stellar hires--the ethnographer Dennis Tedlock, the poets Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe, the science-fiction writer Samuel Delany--but they don't come close to compensating for the losses. Charles Bernstein runs his Wednesdays at Four series on campus, but most literary visitors come to town through Hallwalls and Just Buffalo, off-campus organizations that didn't exist in the years I'm telling you about. All the UB humanities departments have taken savage budget hits in the past decade, and the current budget is tithing us for enrollment shortfalls in engineering and medicine. The most recent plan is for available development money to go into flashy hardware in the wet and hard sciences, not for human resources in the humanities.

Will UB have the imagination to do again what Martin Meyerson's blank check and Al Cook's freewheeling imagination did in the mid-sixties? Of course not. Some things you only get to do once. The more important question is, will the university have the imagination to do what's the right thing for the new century, to find people who can do that, the way Meyerson and Cook did what was right for this place in that other time? Will there ever again be in Albany a state administration that has a commitment to excellence in higher education? Will there be oil in the crankcase?

University officials talk endlessly about how hard the financial times are and say that's why they can't fund anything but the flashy hardware for the wet and hard sciences. I'm sure that's true, but I'm not convinced we can just say that and fold. We make choices. Great Britain started its Arts Council during the Blitz. The Nazis bombed British cities every day and while it was going on the Brits worked diligently to make music, theater, poetry and painting available to more and more people. Their notion was, if you just dig in and hide in your bunker, then the Nazis win. Screw the Nazis, the Brits said, we like music and we are going to have music. And they had music. Things happen when there's the imagination and courage to make music happen.

I've been tap dancing around the past here, but the past is only good for how it helps us see today and get ready for tomorrow. I keep thinking of the line from Kierkegaard that Jerome Groopman quoted in one of his wonderful medical stories in the New Yorker: "It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backward. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forward."

Bruce Jackson, Annex B, 1973 (Diane Christian)

copyright 1999 Bruce Jackson

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