When I was fifty-five years old I changed my life: I left my work in a New York literary agency and became a teacher in a small Indiana college. I left a city of eight million for a town of eight thousand. I left one of the most dynamic centers of music and literature and theatre and art in the world for a place where there wasn't even a full-time movie house. Where New York City had thousands of different restaurants, from elegant to homely, of every conceivable nationality and specialty, Greencastle, Indiana, had a place called the Double-Decker, where you could get meat and potatoes and stringbeans cooked with bacon. Wine and liquor were not served.
These deprivations didn't matter to me. I was exultant to have been able to get a teaching appointment at my age, with no experience, and without a Ph.D.
The paradox was that more than thirty years earlier, when I was graduating from Webster College in St. Louis, I had spurned a chance to be a teacher. I was offered a fellowship for graduate work at St. Louis University, with a teaching assistantship at Webster College. I could have taken a Master's degree and then a doctorate and entered the teaching profession as most professors do, at the beginning of adult life. I gave so little thought to this offer that it's hard to remember now exactly what my reasons were. I scarcely even considered it. I believe I thought college teaching, or any kind of teaching, looked stuffy and dull. The people whom I saw doing it, moreover, were mostly nuns. I knew I wasn't called to be a nun. The few lay people at our college seemed, in my foolish twenty-one-year-old eyes, dowdy, socially inept, and financially hard up, unable to succeed in a more glamorous profession.
Actually nearly everybody was hard up, for it was 1935, the middle of the depression. I didn't have any other job offer. Still I had my sights set on something more exciting, perhaps advertising. Or writing! I'd been writing all through college, and had even had a few modest publications. I'd been the editor of the literary magazine of course -- hasn't every writer? I had a sneaking idea that maybe I could actually sell stories and verse to magazines, and then proceed to novels and fame.
My parents were proud of my talent. They had no more idea than I did how small that talent was, and how much drive and iron determination were needed, even when the talent was great. They indulged me in the notion of staying home and writing for a while. I fixed up a studio for myself in the attic of our home, and to it I would retreat and turn out stories and verse which I hoped would get me started commercially. My father didn't press me to get a job, though he had six other children coming up behind me to educate. He was willing to let me try this out.
Of course I didn't think of any career, teaching or advertising or even writing as a total lifetime undertaking. I expected to marry, and in the days of my youth few women ever continued their careers after marriage. Writing, in fact, fitted in better with my scenario of a future as wife and mother than any other job. It was the kind of work one could do in intervals between wiping cute little noses and preparing succulent meals.
Looking back now at myself at twenty-one, I can see that all my ideas on marriage, writing, money, parenthood, and everything else I had any ideas on, were totally immature. I saw myself as a character in the kind of stories I was always reading in The Ladies Home Journal and The Delineator. So here I was, the budding young writer, with my attractive little studio in the attic, with its walls decorated with themes from some of my favorite symphonies (I was musical too!), preparing to establish myself (and support myself) as a writer.
I still have the little manuscript record book in which I noted every story and poem and essay I submitted. I was persistent. Here's a story called "Softie" which I submitted to twelve editors, and then revised and submitted to nine more. I have no idea what it was about. I kept the record but not the manuscripts. Here's one called "Your Friend, Sarah Bentley" which I submitted fifteen times. And here's one, "Escort of Distinction", which after nine submissions was actually accepted by a magazine called Extension and published in May 1940. They paid me $40 for it. Here's another called "A Bunch of Violets? which I submitted eight times beginning in 1935, and finally sold in 1939 to The Catholic World. Got $25 for it.
I wrote a good deal of light verse, and a little serious religious poetry. My record book shows that The Catholic World took a few of the serious poems, and also a couple of essays. The peak of my commercial success in those years came when I sold some humorous poems to The Saturday Evening Post. They paid $1.50 a line, and "Song of a Successful Secretary" had 56 lines! I thought I was on my way.
But the thick envelopes that brought my manuscripts back to me folded over rejection slips were much more frequent than the thin ones which signaled sales. The payments were meager, even for those days when a dollar was significant. After a year or so of dedication to my studio, I began to think I had better equip myself with some skill that was more in demand. I was already a competent typist, but I went to business school, hating every minute of it, to learn shorthand. I didn't want to be a secretary, I never wanted to be a secretary, but I just couldn't go on living off my father. I had made a half-hearted, naive try at getting a job in an advertising agency, but nothing came of it. I had nothing to offer, no experience, no business savvy, no aggressiveness about putting myself across as a clever writer. So it seemed that secretarial work was all there was. Even then I never looked back at that lost opportunity to become a teacher.
In fact one of my first jobs was that of secretary to the Dean of the Graduate School at St. Louis University. In the office of Father Thurber Smith, S.J., I had an extensive look at graduate students, teachers-to-be, and their life didn't look any more attractive to me then than it had a couple of years earlier when I could have joined their ranks. Many of them were priests or Jesuit scholastics, and these were of no interest to me whatever. (In those days priests and seminarians were inviolable.) There were lay graduate students too, both men and women, but they all seemed shabby, round-shouldered, and heavily serious. I never thought of shooting a flirtatious glance at a skinny, pipe-smoking candidate for a doctorate in English literature.
I was in love with a handsome medical student. Now that was a glamorous profession: men in white, emergency surgery, life and death decisions under the lights. Nurse, hand me the forceps! Oh, doctor, if it hadn't been for you... And I would be the perfect doctor's wife, never complaining about midnight calls or ruined dinner parties, always understanding, ready with a cup of hot cocoa when he came home after a grueling operation.
A doctor's wife, a mother, and a writer -- that was the way I saw my future. I took various short-term secretarial jobs to keep me in clothes and travel and pocket-money while I continued to write and circulate my stories and verse, patiently waiting for the new doctor to complete his residency and establish a practice.
World War II changed everything. Young men, including doctors, were drafted and sent to far places; munitions plants burgeoned; the depression was suddenly over; the value of money, meat, butter, cigarettes and a hundred other things radically shifted. Everything speeded up. Couples who had been placidly courting married in haste at ports of embarkation or during weekend passes. Romances flourished at USO canteens and service clubs. Some romances, like mine, broke under the strain of absence. But that's a story for another time. Right now I'm tracing the meandering path that led to my finally becoming a teacher.
I became part of the "war effort", as it was called, by joining the Navy. As a WAVE ensign I landed in Washington, D.C. in a personnel unit. I was called an Editorial Research Officer. The "research" part meant studying the work done by naval officers in various assignments, and the "editorial" part meant compiling all this information into a job manual which could be used by interviewers who were making the assignments. Young officers were pouring out of midshipman schools and training courses, and our group was charged with placing them on ships and bases. Officer Selection Unit, it was called, and it was composed mainly of interviewers who visited the training schools and talked to the graduates, and tested them, to find out what their aptitudes and talents were.
Many of these interviewers were psychologists with doctorates, who had chosen to be commissioned in the Navy rather than wait for the draft. They gave me a new idea of what graduate study could lead to. They weren't dreary library types. Some of them were quite dashing, and all of them, in their Navy uniforms with gold stripes on their sleeves, looked smart and successful.
Life in the Navy was an eye-opener for me in many ways. Even though I was by now thirty years old, I was remarkably inexperienced about the world. I had always gone to girls' schools, I had grown up in a milieu of Catholic family and Catholic friends where adultery, unwed pregnancies, and divorce were almost unheard of. Not that the Navy was a hotbed of license -- far from it. But I did see things and hear things and know people that had never come into my ken at home.
My Navy colleagues, these clever and articulate psychologists, seemed to me a sophisticated bunch, and I was rather pleased to find myself dealing with them confidently. I had my own apartment, too, which in those days, at least in my circles, was far less common than it is today. I wasn't afraid to go into a restaurant or a theatre alone, in my WAVE uniform. I would dash up to New York to the theatre or opera and come back on the slit-eyed special that the Pennsylvania Railroad ran at four on Monday morning. It was always filled with Army and Navy people who had stretched a weekend pass to the limit. The manifold possibilities of life began to open up before me while I was in the Navy. When the war ended and my Navy service was over, I was ready to test some of these possibilities. "Don't just go back to St. Louis," said one of my psychologist pals. "Now's the time to do something you really want to do."
I still had that urge to write, although I had done very little of it while I was in Washington. I decided that a job in publishing would suit a person like me, whose main interest was writing and books. The publishing world was then, as now, centered in New York. Now that I had visited that formidable city a few times, I was no longer afraid of it. To New York I went, and stayed in a friend's apartment while I looked around at the job market in publishing.
It was rather discouraging. I had interviews with editors at Good Housekeeping, at Little, Brown, at Scribner's, and at other places I've forgotten. Then I had an interview at Harold Ober Associates, a literary agency. I knew so little about the field that I wasn't even sure what a literary agency was, but when I understood its function I saw that it would be an ideal kind of work for me. Harold Ober and his two partners, Ivan von Auw and Dorothy Olding, were engaged in handling the business affairs of a large number of authors. There were names on their list of clients which dazzled me: John Gunther, for instance, and Agatha Christie. When they offered me the secretarial job for which I had applied, I accepted.
No, I still didn't want to be a secretary, but I didn't seem to have any claim to be anything else. I realized now, as I hadn't when I was younger, that one couldn't get a job as a copywriter in an advertising agency on the strength of a few little publications in obscure magazines; or become an editor in a publishing house simply by professing to love books. These were businesses with all sorts of particular skills and methods which one had to learn. So I was reconciled to being a secretary and learning the business of literary agency.
My job paid $50 a week. This was 1946. I soon got acquainted with some other young women in the same circumstances who had managed to hold onto an apartment on 49th Street and Third Avenue, and they were looking for a fourth tenant. I became the tenant. Apartments were terribly hard to find right after the war, for nothing had been built for years, and young people were pouring out of the services and getting married or taking new jobs or both. We considered ourselves lucky to have a big shabby place, which cost only $105 a month and was within walking distance of all four of our jobs. We were all making similar meager salaries, but by frugality in meals, home sewing, and boyfriends who obligingly took us out to dinner on weekends, we lived comfortably. All of us had been in some wartime service: two overseas with the Red Cross and the other two in the Navy, Thus we all had some experience in getting along with a variety of people, and we rubbed along better than most groups of roommates do. Betty and Jerry and Lillian and I lived together for almost five years, and even now, forty years later, we are still friends.
As to learning the business of a literary agency, I did. A literary agency is a small office where everyone who works there can see nearly everything that's going on. There were the three partners, the agents; a few secretaries, a switchboard operator, an accountant and her assistant, and a messenger who carried our manuscripts around town to editors, and did errands. I was secretary to Dorothy Olding, who handled most of the magazine material. It was my job to keep track of which magazine had each story, to check it in when it came back, and check it out when we offered it to another editor. I typed Miss Olding's correspondence, which consisted largely of letters to authors, telling them what she thought of their new work, and where she was offering their older work.
Of course I read the stories, avid to find out what these successful authors were writing and why they were able to sell their work when I hadn't been able to sell mine. But for a long time I never told my employers that I too was a writer. In fact I wouldn't have called myself a writer at that time, with so little success to point to. Besides, I feared that they would think I had sneakily taken the job in order to insinuate myself into their sponsorship.
But I did read the stories and articles we were trying to sell, and I read the magazines, which flowed across my desk in an enticing stream. There were many magazines in the late forties and early fifties, and they published a lot of fiction. The Saturday Evening Post was a weekly at that time, and it ran four short stories every week, plus a serial of about six parts. As the sixth installment of one serial was appearing, the first installment of another would begin, to keep the serial reader hooked. Collier's was another weekly which published about the same amount of fiction. This Week and Liberty were other weeklies. Then there were the monthlies: The American, Woman's Home Companion, Ladies Home Journal, McCall's, Today's Woman, Good Housekeeping -- all of them publishing four or five short stories an issue, plus serials and novelettes. Argosy, Esquire, Farm Journal, Country Gentleman all published fiction, slanted of course to their particular audiences. The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's published much more fiction then than now. There were also dozens of religious magazines, regional magazines, and Canadian magazines; and of course The New Yorker which, then as today, was considered by most writers the pinnacle of magazine publication.
Because of all these markets, plus the pulps, many of our writers made a good living on short stories. One I remember paid his rent with a monthly golf story for a golf magazine. There wasn't much literary prestige attached to publishing in magazines, although writers such as William Faulkner and Scott Fitzgerald did not scorn it, even after they had become famous novelists. There was a good deal of money in it. Some writers earned more from their stories in popular magazines than from their books.
By getting acquainted with what the magazines were buying and by reading the stories our authors were sending in, I began to have a sense of where we could sell these stories. Dorothy Olding frequently asked my opinion, and sometimes left to me the task of circulating the manuscripts. Gradually she turned over certain authors to me. I'd write to these authors, call them up, confer with them about manuscripts they had sent in or were in the process of writing. By the time I had been with Harold Ober Associates about four years I was what might have been called an apprentice agent or a junior agent, and Dorothy had hired another secretary.
Being a literary agent has something of the quality of being a writing coach or counselor -- that is, with some authors. There are, to be sure, authors who do not want any literary criticism or advice from their agents, but only superb business management. But many want an agent who, besides knowing the markets and negotiating skillfully, can also act as a sounding board for projected writing and an analyst of completed writing. They want, of course, large quantities of praise and encouragement. Even a writer who is on the whole successful can fall into troughs of despair: a story he is particularly proud of fails to sell; or he has a writer's block; or a rival author wins a prize; or a critic flays his work in a review. The writer's agent must console and hearten, suggest new ideas or strategies, listen, discuss, and above all apply a liberal salve of praise.
It's not hard to praise and encourage when you're genuinely enthusiastic about the work your client has just sent you. A much more delicate part of an agent's work is to explain any misgivings you have about a new manuscript in such a way as not to deflate the writer. Here I had a lot to learn. I made the mistake, more than once, of accepting at face value an author's declaration: "I want you to tell me exactly what you think." One author told my boss that he had had a writer's block for six months after hearing exactly what "that horrid Miss Christman thought." This shocked me terribly and brought home to me that nobody really wants to hear negative opinions about his creation. Negative judgments from an agent must be carefully balanced, or over-balanced, by favorable points, and must be used as a basis for constructive suggestions. A literary critic, on the other hand, having a duty to his readers, may be as deprecatory as his conscience demands. An agent's duty is to his client, and any objections he expresses to a work must be constructive. Some kinds of objections can't be constructive, and hence there is no point in even expressing them. "Your style is clumsy," for example, would be a totally nonconstructive objection. If an author has a clumsy style -- and some great authors have had -- he probably can't change it, and such a comment would only grieve and discourage him. In fact, he would probably get another agent.
I learned gradually, very gradually, how to judge manuscripts and how to discuss them with authors. I liked this part of my work and felt that in time I was able to do it rather well. I also liked the game of searching out the right publisher or editor for a particular manuscript, and the pursuit of market after market, if at first I didn't succeed. I was very persistent. It was satisfying to sell a story after trying ten or twelve different editors.
What I didn't like was bargaining. I never had that zest for making deals which in recent years has become so crucial in the publishing marketplace. In my days as an agent the bargaining was not nearly as fierce, for publishing was still a "gentlemanly" business. But nevertheless an agent's job has always been to obtain for her clients the greatest possible rewards for their creative work. A good agent will always push editors at every point for bigger prices and more favorable terms for the author. I always felt uncomfortable doing this. I never did it with the brisk, good-humored assurance that marked Dorothy Olding's negotiating. In me there was some fundamental inability to "think big." The phrase "assertiveness training" was thirty years in the future, but I could have used a course in it. (In my whole working life I have never once asked for a raise.)
So, with my various aptitudes and ineptitudes, I pursued this career in literary agency for more than twenty years. It didn't pay very well -- publishing jobs don't -- but it was ever so much more interesting than working in a bank or an insurance company. Moreover, it had some very exciting moments, for instance hiring a limousine and escorting Agatha Christie to Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn to visit the grave of her American grandfather. And seeing The Catcher in the Rye when it was still in manuscript form. Another advantage was that when I finally got around to admitting that I was a writer myself, I had the benefit of Dorothy Olding's literary advice and sponsorship for the stories I wrote. I didn't write many, but I sold nearly all of them to Liberty, The American, Extension, and The Reporter. And then there was living in New York -- such an exhilarating variety of art and culture and entertainment, and friends from many spheres.
There was, to be sure, personal trouble, even anguish. There was a man I loved long and deeply but could not marry. There were losses and conflicts. But these stories must be told at another time. Here I'm on the trail of my working life. In remembering some of the private stresses that went on outside the borders of my daily job, I'm struck with the way we do slog along at our jobs and professions while, sometimes, personal structures crash around us. In the midst of deaths, divorces, floods, runaway children, cancer, debt, and disgrace, men and women still go to their offices and lose themselves in work. Work has a wonderfully balancing effect.
I can't pinpoint the time when I began to think of another kind of work: teaching. The idea began to germinate some time in the late fifties, and it was watered by several little streams. One of these streams was the interest I felt in young people as I grew older myself. Young authors would occasionally come to our office with manuscripts they wanted us to read. We usually turned them gently away, as in fact we turned older authors too. We had all we could do to handle the large list of clients we already had. A literary agency is not indefinitely expandable. Everybody on our staff was fully occupied with reading the work of more than a hundred authors, selling their productions, keeping track of their financial affairs, advising them, entertaining them, consoling and encouraging them. We owed our time and our full attention to these writers who were paying our rent and our salaries.
But it saddened me to turn away young hopefuls. I wished there was time to read their manuscripts and confer with them, and perhaps help them toward publication. I thought how exciting it would be to discover a young talent at the very beginning of his career. It occurred to me that if I were a teacher I would have plenty of time to spend with young people who wanted to write. In fact it would be my duty, my delightful duty, to read them and encourage them.
Another stream that nourished my interest in teaching was a book I read, Gilbert Highet's The Art of Teaching. Did I just happen on it, or did I hunt it down because I was already leaning that way? I can't remember. But I do remember that Highet presented teaching as a high calling, the noble satisfactions of which far outweighed the meager financial rewards. (In the fifties, when Highet wrote, teaching was still terribly underpaid.) Financial rewards were irrelevant to me anyway. I wasn't making much money as a literary agent, but I thought working with books and authors made up for a tight budget.
Then about the same time, in the late fifties, I met a college teacher, Edward Fischer of Notre Dame, who came to New York from time to time to review movies for a column he wrote. He talked about his life of teaching, and encouraged me to think of such a life as possible for myself. Of course I knew I'd have to get some graduate degrees. I was dubious whether I would be able to struggle through graduate courses after being out of college nearly twenty-five years, and in fact whether any graduate school would accept those long-ago credits from Webster College. Was there a statute of limitations? Ed kept assuring me that it could all work out.
Another trickle of inspiration was, I think, the idealism of young people in the early sixties. I read with admiration of college students who went south to help with voter registration, volunteering their summers for this cause. In these first years of the Kennedy administration, before there was any thought of a Vietnam War, the young had a spirit of selflessness. They were eager to right the wrongs they saw about them. I thought it would be satisfying to teach such young idealists to express themselves well and thus improve their ability to change the world.
In September of 1962 I took the first step toward my new profession by enrolling in a graduate course at New York University, a course in the eighteenth-century novel. I'm not sure I remember the professor's name correctly but I think it was Gottlieb. I absolutely loved the course. It opened up to me writers I had never read, especially Fielding, and showed me the pleasures of careful and critical reading and writing. This was a two-semester course, and it hooked me on graduate school. The next year I had a course that was even more fascinating: Professor Gordon Ray's course in the Victorian novel, full of Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, and George Eliot. These NYU courses were held at night, I suppose because most graduate students in New York City were already teaching in high schools and couldn't come in the daytime. This suited me, too, because I was busy with literary agency until sundown.
So I continued to gather graduate credits for a sort of tentative future. I wasn't sure whether I would actually abandon my New York career for a life of teaching, or even whether I could ever get a teaching job, but I felt my life becoming richer for these courses. Even if nothing else ever came of them, I would not regret them. In a few years the credits added up to a master's degree, which turned out to be utterly trivial for the purposes of getting an academic job, and I found myself registering again: I was committing myself to a Ph.D. and that meant I was really serious, I was fifty-two years old.
I never opened my mouth in these classes. Graduate students terrified me. They knew so much that I didn't know, such as how to use the library to research their papers. They knew all the scholarly terms and could toss out "objective correlatives" and "great chains of being" and "triviums and quadriviums" with perfect aplomb. I could have learned from these students as well as from my professors, but I didn't realize that. Because I was never a full-time student, and because I was so much older than they, I didn't get acquainted. I came down on the subway from midtown Manhattan, and hurried home to my apartment after class to put my notes in order.
New York University Graduate School of Arts and Science was a huge place. The classes were always large, especially the twentieth-century literatures. No professor ever knew me by sight or called me by name, and this was partly my fault, for I never approached one for a conference. I was in awe of them. Even the director of my dissertation hardly knew me. By the time I got to the dissertation stage I was teaching at DePauw University and I wrote the dissertation at long distance. The whole graduate school experience was utterly impersonal; still I liked it. Besides the enrichment of reading and lectures, I learned something about how teachers do their work. I had a variety of different ones; I observed their styles and techniques and personalities, and stored up many a useful method.
As I grew more sure that I wanted to change my career, it occurred to me that before I burned my bridges I ought to try out teaching. I sought a part-time teaching job within or near New York City, something that would not require me to cut my ties with Harold Ober Associates. I found one at Saint Peter's College in Jersey City. This college had an innovative freshman writing program: all the sections were taught by people who wrote for a living. Most of them were newspaper writers, but there were a few who did other kinds of writing. Each of them taught only one section of about twelve freshmen once a week for two hours in the late afternoon. The director of the program, Jim Conniff, was willing to give me a chance.
Jim Conniff's crusade was to teach students to write plain, concise, direct prose instead of the flowery, pretentious kind which he believed most academics taught. His bête noir was the passive voice. He immediately sensitized me to the heaviness of this construction, which I suppose I had been using as freely as anyone, and I became almost as much its foe as Jim was.
On a January afternoon in 1967 I crossed on the PATH train to Jersey City to face my first class. I was terrified, I wondered what I had got myself into. When I found my classroom, and entered, I saw twelve male freshmen, looking as apprehensive as I felt. Saint Peter's had been an all-male school, and had only recently begun to admit a few girls. The classes were still heavily male.
The first thing I learned that day is what every teacher learns early: it takes an awful lot of material to fill an hour. And I had two hours to fill. Moreover you can't lecture to a writing class. Describing for an hour the qualities of good writing is not the way to get people to write well. Reading samples of good writing doesn't work either, except in small segments. Students must write, and then their sentences and paragraphs must be examined and analyzed by the teacher. Clumsy or incoherent sentences must be shown on the board, or on an overhead projector, or on xeroxed handouts, and the teacher must explain the faults, and everybody must attempt to correct them.
This was the way the working writers who taught at Saint Peter's handled their task. I visited some of their classes and watched them do it. A paragraph from one of the students on the board, and then the whole class grappling with how to improve it. Once I saw a class struggle for more than half an hour with a single sentence. A student had written about his father's experiences in World War II. "The Division ordered thirty-two men to die for their country," his sentence read. This sentence bothered the class. They knew there was something amiss but they were on the wrong track. They thought the flaw was in the word "ordered" and they kept trying alternatives like "commanded" and "directed." Then they tried substituting a human commander for "The Division." The discussion grew hot and every student got into it. Jack Hayes, whose full-time job was Manager of Information for Texaco, let them worry the sentence until they finally realized that the trouble was not in "ordered" but in "die." The Division ordered the soldiers to risk death, not to die. (As the account went on, most of the thirty-two did not die.)
I used this method regularly myself. I also used drills and exercises on the kinds of errors that were most common in student papers. I developed a lot of my drills from sentences taken out of current papers. Even now, when I pass out one of these still-useful exercises, I have a fleeting memory of the Saint Peter's College freshman who furnished the example. "I like brunettes with a blonde streak," wrote Carlos Cadalzo, and the class frowned at the sentence until they figured out that there was only one blonde streak for an indefinite number of brunettes.
I taught these late-afternoon courses at Saint Peter's for two years, and I enjoyed them so much that I was ready to take the plunge into full-time teaching. If I could! College teaching appointments weren't quite as scarce in 1968 as they are now, but I felt by no means sure that anyone would hire me. I was working on a Ph.D. but was still a long way from it; I was very old to begin a teaching career; and my only experience consisted of four or five courses at Saint Peter's. Still I was going to give it a hard try.
I got the Modern Language Association list of openings that comes out every November in advance of the big MLA meeting in December. (Oh yes, by this time I had garnered a few facts about how to search for a teaching job. New York University had a seminar on the subject for graduate students.) At the December meeting of MLA there is a "slave market" where job-seekers can be looked over by the representatives of colleges who have openings. That year, 1968, the MLA meeting was being held in New York, luckily for me. After I got the list of openings, I wrote letters to twelve English Departments, describing my qualifications as enticingly as I could. I thought twelve letters was a large number, but later I learned that job-seekers sometimes wrote as many as a hundred. I suppose it was not surprising that out of my twelve letters I got only three interviews. One of the interviewers had obviously already filled his job, and he was just going through polite motions. Another interviewer was from a very small, all-female junior college, which wasn't what I had hoped for.
The third interview was with Dr. Fred Bergmann, head of the English Department at DePauw University. I met him in a room at the Americana Hotel, where the MLA convention was being held. For some reason, I wasn't nervous. His listing in the MLA job catalogue had called for "a person who wants to teach writing." This described me perfectly, and I had begun my application by saying that I was such a person. (Most English professors do not want to teach writing, I found out later.) I felt calmly confident for this interview because it seemed that my desire and qualifications fitted his stated need.
We seemed to hit it off well. He was interested in my background as a literary agent. He understood what I had been doing and thought it would be relevant to the teaching of writing in college. DePauw had, and has, a strong writing program, and prides itself on turning out good writers. Dr. Bergmann accepted the fact that I didn't yet have a Ph.D., but wanted me to assure him that I would go ahead and get it if DePauw hired me. He didn't seem dismayed by the fact that I was fifty-five years old, but of course he knew that in advance from my application.
He told me that he had other candidates to interview, and that he would then go back to his college and confer with his colleagues on all of them. They would ask any candidate seriously being considered to come out to the campus for interviews with the dean, the faculty committee on hiring, and others. "We move very slowly and deliberately," he said. I was exhilarated by the meeting and had a strong feeling that I would hear from him.
I did. I went out to DePauw for a day of interviews. I was nervous this time. I had to meet all the members of the DePauw English Department, and I saw them sizing me up. Then I had to talk to the Dean. Then I had to meet individually with each member of the Faculty Committee, senior professors from various departments. It was a heavily scheduled day, interrupted by lunch which I was too tense to eat, and concluding with a drive around Greencastle to look at apartments which were available. During this drive, when Dr. Bergmann kept saying things like "You'd only be two blocks from the campus in this apartment," and "DePauw will pay part of your moving expenses," I began to feel that he was going to hire me. (I learned later that I was the favorite candidate of the English Department even before I had come to campus. Several of them were writers and they liked the idea of having a colleague who knew the publishing world.) A couple of days after I returned to New York I got that tremendous phone call which informed me that I had entered a new profession.
My New York friends were appalled. "Indiana" they cried unbelievingly. They couldn't imagine me happy in a hick town eight hundred miles from Bloomingdale's, Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum, and the theatres, restaurants, and movie houses of Manhattan. They wanted to know why I didn't teach at Columbia, or New York University, or even Brooklyn College. They didn't understand that I was lucky to get a college appointment anywhere, with my handicaps of age and inexperience.
Between farewell parties, I packed the furniture and household effects I had accumulated during my fifteen years in a Stuyvesant Town apartment, hoping they would fit into the little flat I had taken in Greencastle, on the second floor of an old house. In late August of 1969 I left New York and the publishing world behind and became a college professor -- well, an assistant professor.
I found myself in a new world where the year begins in September, where autumn is the most exciting season of the year. It was my first of twenty such Septembers.
© 2004 by Elizabeth Christman. All rights reserved.
<< ======= >>