Looking Back, Gently by Irwin Shaw, '34
(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.)
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.
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.
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.
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."