Looking Back, Gently by Irwin Shaw, '34

Irwin Shaw (1913-1984)

(Irwin Shaw, '34, is best remembered for a number of classic short stories written for the New Yorker Magazine in the 1930s and for his novels The Young Lions and Rich Man Poor Man. The following memories of Brooklyn College were originally published in the spring 1957 issue of Nocturne, the literary magazine of the School for General Studies.)


Recently, in London, I saw a play that had made a considerable success there, especially with the younger generation of theatre-goers. It was called Look Back In Anger, and the play lived up to its title in that it was harsh, ungracious, and full of savage jokes and passages in which the characters, all young people who had reached voting age after the war, did awful verbal damage to each other. The author, himself very young, made it plain that as far as he and his contemporaries were concerned, the world is a bitter place in which educated young men are condemned to live in a litter of broken hopes and lost ideals, the sole legacy left to them by the recent past. At one point the leading character states openly that the main cause for his discontent lies in the fact that all the wars have been fought, all the causes gained or betrayed, that the era of belief and idealism has vanished, never to return.

It is not only in England, of course, that this view of our time finds adherents among people under thirty. In France, since the war, the doctrine has had its powerful apostles and its devoted followers and in America a good deal of our more recent writing is along the same general line. In fact, when I read the books of the young men now on the way up, it seems to me that the chief overall effect, given the differences of talent, locale, and social position, is a long, anguished howl of recrimination against their elders. The world, it appears, is not to the liking of the young; there is blame to be placed and they place it fearlessly. The armament of the young is formidable—(Freud—”Mother went out every night, smelling strongly of perfume. Father was drunk by ten o’clock every morning. I was trained to the bathroom at a cruelly early age.” Marx— “The family is an instrument of oppression.” The Gospels—”The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons, even unto the third and fourth generation.”) —and the young use these heavy pieces with violent effect.
There seems to be a simple mathematical rule that one can formulate from reading the works of the Junior Rage School of writing: that is, the closer the writer is to the event he is describing, the angrier he sounds. It is a simple inverse ratio in which the temperature of the author increases as the span of his recollection decreases. Finally, I suppose, a young lady of 15 will come up with a book written about her life when she was fourteen and a half that will curl the pages with its fury.

383 Pearl Street in downtown Brooklyn, one of five buildings Brooklyn College rented from 1930-37. President Boylan's offices were on the corner of the second floor.
I am not suggesting, of course, that there is nothing to be angry about, especially if you're a young man, and above all, if you’re a young writer. How easy it would be, now, in December 1956, to compile a list, the most enormous list, even for a writer who is no longer young. But it is too easy for the roar of rage to drown out other voices stating other facts, too easy for the arguments of despair to drown out the reasons for hope. Finally, all the wars have not been fought— and there will never be a time in which there will be no new causes to be won and betrayed.

After this mollifying preliminary, which I, as a young man, would have taken contemptuously as a certain sign of softening of the will and hardening of the arteries of whoever wrote it, I shall attempt to look back through the shadows of nearly twenty-five years and try to remember what it was like when I paced the halls of the college, as full of complaint as the bitterest young novelist sounding off today in the depths of a Greenwich Village Bar.

First of all, the buildings themselves were not yet in existence. The school rooms were scattered throughout downtown Brooklyn in a half-dozen or so office buildings and converted factories, and the students moved among a crowd of lawyers, politicians, businessmen, and office-workers, angry young lumps of culture pushing their way, to the sound of automobile horns and trolley-gongs, through the drab, overwhelming tides of the philistines.

"The Nose" playing for the Brooklyn College Warriors
There were compensations, though, for our inconveniences. We had to dart through traffic to get from one class to another, and we had to ride in elevators crowded with shifty-eyed men talking about such low matters as mortgages and criminal nuisances, but the class in Elizabethan Drama Exclusive of Shakespeare was conducted by a little man with a clean bald head in a room whose windows looked out on the harbor of New York, with the Statue of Liberty rearing up out of the green water and the big ships coming and going, with their promise of a wider world than Brooklyn waiting for us in the future. There was also a burlesque house conveniently situated squarely in the center of everything, for students fatigued by the long hours of books and lectures. It is my one complaint against the memory of Fiorello La Guardia, whom I otherwise honor as our greatest mayor, that, along other more praiseworthy reforms, he did away with the bumps and grinds and comedians.

If you were in love and the softness of a spring afternoon became unbearable, you could cut classes with your girl and walk to the end of Montague Street, where there was a small, paved park high over the docks and the glittering bay. There is no place, I am sure, on all the melancholy, crowded plain of Flatbush, where two young people can cut a class with equal pleasure. The curriculum was manageable, too, and you could arrange to take all the same classes together, with a curious effect on your education.

The football team practiced in various public parks and abandoned lots, and it meant lugging duffle bags bulging with sweaty shoulder- and thigh-pads on long journeys by subway and trolley car. And the sport was so sternly amateur that there was no money to spare for such luxuries as protective masks. When my nose was broken I was given a rubber guard that had to be held in place by biting on a mouthpiece, which I had to pull out to call the signals and bang back haphazardly into place as I started my charge. The protection it afforded was only nominal, and it served as an advertisement of weakness and as a focal point for aggression on the part of our opponents, and I was knocked out three times in one afternoon in New London while wearing it. But at least we had a football team, and there was even a season when we won as many games as we lost.

I was dropped from school in my freshman year, because of ineptitude in Latin and calculus, and I accepted the dismissal as a certain augury of future success. I worked for sixteen dollars a week as a shipping clerk and dozed at night school and wormed my way back into the world of daylight education by taking the entrance examinations, one of the traumatic experiences of my life. I developed a lifelong antipathy to a French professor with sly, self-satisfied eyes, who dishonored me by implying that a paper I had written on Anatole France’s The Red Lily had been copied from some already published work of criticism, and who tried publicly to get me to confess the source of my supposed theft. Many years later, when I met him, now affable and welcoming, on Cape Cod, I berated myself because I was cowardly enough to shake his hand.
Shaw and the cast of his 1936 play Bury the Dead.

There were two instructors I particularly admired, one in the Department of English and the other in the Department of Speech, and neither of them, naturally, rose at all in the academic world. They were both thoughtful and generous men, and the English instructor took me to my first symphonic concert and introduced me to Look Homeward Angel and invited me to go with him to Princeton football games on our own off Saturdays. But I realize that my admiration for the two men was based mostly on the fact that they assured me that I would be a writer. The English instructor is dead now, after having been dropped from his post at the college for enlisting as a machine-gunner in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. I know it is unpopular now to remember how we felt in those days, but along with the glow of gratitude for Thomas Wolfe and the tickets to Carnegie Hall and the autumn afternoons in Palmer Stadium, there is an unalterable respect for the moment when my friend decided to make use of his Easter Holidays to voyage to the distant, premature guns of Spain.

I wrote a weekly column for the school paper, and contributed to the first and only issue of a literary magazine which was suppressed and confiscated by the authorities one hour after it went on sale because of my story. The story was officially held to be salacious and unfit for the eyes of young ladies and gentlemen being educated at the public expense. Like my expulsion, I took this as another sign of glory to come.
The Lion in Winter, 1981.


I entered all the various literary contests and never made off with anything better than third prize. I scorned the winners with the pure and special scorn of one young writer for another, and fortified myself in my suspicion of all official rewards for talent. Later on, during the war, when I remained a private for two and a half years, watching my contemporaries soar to bars and leaves and eagles, I had the unreasonable feeling that all army promotion boards had been recruited from the literary juries of my college years.

Our preoccupations then, were, I imagine, not very different from those of college students of today. They were the ordinary ones of love, sport, poetry, war, and money. Love, sport, and poetry cannot have changed very much, but our attitudes on war and money were special to our time. Since we were in the middle of the Depression, nobody had any money. Since we were young, and hopelessness comes easily to the young, we were all convinced that we would never have any money. The idea of the possibility of amelioration made us laugh sourly.

Since Hitler was on the rise, we lived familiarly with the idea of war. We expected it and we had a strong premonition that many of us would be killed in it. We wanted Hitler to be destroyed, but we were pacifists and agreed with all the foolish men whose policy left him in place and left us unprepared to defend ourselves. We approved of all the students in other colleges who attempted to bring an end to the ROTC and protested bitterly against an Army training manual which had a realistic description of how to use a bayonet.

When we went up to the platform to be given our degrees, we saw only disaster ahead of us. If anyone had suggested to us then that some twenty years later we would find us ourselves peacefully writing in a warm room, in a world that, despite all its problems and passions, was still a going concern, we would have dismissed him scornfully as a Pollyanna or a sinister agent for the National Association of Manufacturers. What can we suggest to you now?

*David Driscoll, Speech professor, and David McKelvey White, English professor. White would later quit the faculty to join what would be called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. He served as a model for Robert Jordan in Hemmingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. Returning home, he was the first president of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Bridgade. He died in 1946. His father was George White, governor of Ohio from 1931-1935.

**The literary magazine was The Odyssey, and Shaw's story "The Idyll" recounted the thoughts of two lovers as they lose their virginity. The story so infuriated President Boylan that he not only confiscated the entire print run, but he also sat Shaw down in his office and read the offending story out loud to its author, in order, according to Shaw, "to impress upon me the depravity of my act."

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