Golden Years: Politically Incorrect In The Heyday

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During the Ivy heyday, before the Free Speech Movement, discourse on college campuses was largely the opposite of today. Pro-establishment speech was politically correct, while anti-establishment speech was incorrect. Richard Press reminds us that while the tables have turned, there has always been speech that is discouraged.

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Professor Herb West delivered his farewell address on May 28, 1964, in historic 105 Dartmouth Hall to over a thousand students who gave him a seven-minute standing ovation. Part of the football marching band was seated in the balcony with trumpets, tuba and drum ready to blare the Dartmouth fight song after the talk, as if he had scored a winning touchdown.

Duane Landreth, ‘63, recalls finishing his last term working part-time as a waiter at the Hanover Inn, serving Professor West a scotch and soda just as he was beginning to deliver the farewell speech. “When I presented him the highball,” he said, “a hush fell over the crowd. They wouldn’t have done this for the President.”

Herbert Faulkner West, beloved professor of Comparative Literature for 44 years at Dartmouth College, lambasted the college administration for what he regarded as restrictions to free speech. When the college radio station rebroadcast his farewell address the following day, significent portions were censored out. “I am not muzzled, I have freedom to say what I think,” he said in a later class newsletter. “But only in the classroom. It isn’t only the truth, it is what kind of public relations it is going to build up. This is to me a kind of motto for a soap factory and not for a college dedicated to free expression of the truth.”

Many Big Green brethren took Herb West’s Comp Lit classes because of its reputation as a “gut.” Yet decades of students were also inspired by his keen wit and offbeat subject matter, engaging them in works considered too avant-garde by the intellectual mainstream elite. He dissected James Joyce, TE Lawrence, Henry Miller, Christoper Isherwood, F. Scott Fitzgerald — all of them “drunks, fornicators and fags.”

Fellow iconoclast HL Mencken donated manuscript copies of his autobiography to the Dartmouth Library based on his friendship with Herb West. In late December, 1940, Herb was having a drink with writer Budd Schulberg at the Hanover Inn. Two years prior, Schulberg had accompanied F. Scott Fitzgerald on a trip to Hanover for work on a film script about the Dartmouth Winter Carnival. It turned into a drunken escapade that knocked Fitzgerald off the wagon and began his death spiral that later served Schulberg as the inspiration for his post-World War II novel “The Disenchanted.” West was engaged in casual conversation with his former student when he looked up from his glass and said, “Isn’t it too bad about F. Scott Fitzgerald?” Schulberg had heard about Fitzgerald’s death from Herb West.

Herb’s religious skepticism is best recalled anecdotally by his son. An incident that occurred with his dad’s close call after a heart attack in his late forties. One day in intensive care, he heard Father Hodder, the Hanover Episcopal priest, making his hospital rounds. Herb grabbed some lilies out of a vase, clasped them to his chest, and closed his eyes. When Father Hodder entered the room, he took in the scene and fled.

Herb West was a man for all seasons who loved scotch and skiing on the Hanover Plain. His winter advice: “Every student coming to Dartmouth should learn to ski or else miss one of the greatest advantages the college possesses.” When he was a student in the winter of 1921-1922, he and several classmates survived the Vale of Temp Ski Jump on a toboggan.

Herb dressed professorily sloppy in nondescript wrinkled suits bought on sale at Campion’s campus emporium, always worn with a tattered LL Bean tartan buttondown shirt and forever-stained tie. As a courtesy to me, he occasionally visited the traveling J.Press road show exhibit upstairs from the Dartmouth Co-op. He once purchased a Dartmouth Green Blazer, and I instructed the salesman to include a set of Dartmouth blazer buttons and an Indian tie gratis on condition he inform the professor the gift was not intended bribery by young Press for a decent grade in Comp Lit.

Half a dozen of my 1959 class buddies regularly trooped every couple of weeks to his home several blocks south of Main Street, bringing along a quart of Haig & Haig. We were greeted at the door by his elegant Swedish wife, whom he met in Weimar Berlin. Mrs. West understood her husband’s quirks and quickly departed after leading us into the thousand-edition Westholm rare book library with a tray of Ritz crackers, a mound of Vermont Cheddar Cheese and cold veggies, with her husband comfortably ensconced in a deep leather chair awaiting our literary locker room binge.

Dear Old Dartmouth, bless her name. — RICHARD PRESS

8 Comments on "Golden Years: Politically Incorrect In The Heyday"

  1. G. Bruce Boyer | October 17, 2015 at 11:48 am |

    I don’t see how I can pay a greater compliment to Mr. Press’s memoir than to say he makes me wish I had taken H. F. West’s course. But that’s the beauty of having studied with a wonderful teacher, isn’t it, you learn more than the subject of the course.

  2. Though both may be controversial, I assume Mr. Press meant “D.H.” Lawrence not T.E.

  3. @B. Reese

    No, he had “of Lawrence of Arabia” in his draft but I removed it, figuring everyone would know TE. Though come to think of it, I don’t know which of the three he was.

  4. Richard Press | October 17, 2015 at 4:23 pm |

    Also works for DH Lawrence included in West’s Comp Lit.

  5. G. Bruce Boyer | October 18, 2015 at 11:14 am |

    Mr. Reese may be unaware that T. E. Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” used to be considered a literary masterpiece and was in fact on many college reading lists. Courses on the English novel usually included D. H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers”. Let us assume that Mr. Press is a careful writer and means what he says.

  6. Here’s what threw me, though: I was an English major and took as many Comp LIt courses as I could (then went briefly to grad school in Comp Lit). The department was devoted to non-English language literature, yet RVP mentions only English-language writers. Was there a difference between Comp Lit and English at the time?

  7. Richard Press | October 18, 2015 at 12:05 pm |

    Herb West’s Comp Lit at Dartmouth ran the gamut from the 1920s Berlin of Bertold Brecht, Scottish Highlands of writer, politician, adventurer Robert Bontine Cunningham Graham, Middle East writer/traveller Gertrude Bell, Look Homeward Angel’s North Carolina of Thomas Wolfe , Cape Cod Outermost House writer/naturalist Henry Beston, longtime New England friend Robert Frost. A veritable cornucopia of the written word expanding the borders of Comparative Literature.

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