Monday, March 19, 2018

Random Literary References to the U of C and UUism

There are a handful of human institutions with which I have such a strong sense of personal identification that I seem to have an inner homing mechanism, the sole purpose of which is to seek out literary references to them. The University of Chicago is one. Unitarian Universalism is another. Whenever so much as a hint of a mention of either appears in something I am reading, it is as if the words were pre-highlighted, leaping off the page and demanding my attention. (It adds a certain pique too that the first word of each is so similar to start with -- leading to that microsecond's thrill in which my brain has processed the familiar and beloved shape of the word: Uni... but I haven't yet figured out which one it is. Unitarian? University? When, to my horror, it turns out to be something like, say, the University of Connecticut, the disappointment is keen).

The reason is not hard to fathom. Most of us are, at some level, ego-centric. And since we are unlikely to stumble upon direct references to ourselves by name in great works of literature, we settle for the next best thing -- references to some institution that we feel signifies an essential part of our being. I can only begin to imagine the thrills that must await Oxbridge graduates upon reading any work of English literature, or members of Congress curling up with gossipy Washington romans-a-clef. Since I am neither of those things, I must search a little farther and wider for my hit of "they-might-as-well-be-talking-about-me" dopamine. But that makes it all the more rewarding when I find it.

I suppose this game is perhaps best understood by analogy to one David Rakoff describes in an episode of This American Life: "Who's a Canadian?" He tells us he has acquired -- by instinct rather than design -- an almost encyclopedic knowledge of which famous people in this world are Canadian,  and which are not, because he has spent his whole life subconsciously seeking for evidence of Canadians in high places, achieving great things. To which Ira Glass replies that his family played a similar game growing up, except theirs was called "Who's a Jew?" To which David adds that he played that game as well. "So," he says --" can you imagine the double triumph if someone's a Canadian Jew?"

I'm trying to remember now if I've ever enjoyed so sweet a satisfaction as finding a combined reference to both the University of Chicago and Unitarian Universalism in the same breath. I'm sure such a thing exists, what with Meadville-Lombard coming in and out of the university's orbit at various times in its history, and with Clarence Darrow circling round the outskirts of both. I've no doubt that Richard Wright's time spent in the Chicago chapter of the John Reed Club introduced him to members of both these sinister and overlapping demimondes. But I can't say that I myself have located it yet.

This may be the great reward at the end of my quest. Until I find it, however, we'll have to content ourselves with some specific references to each.


To begin: in Richard Wright's Native Son, it seems the college that Bigger Thomas's wealthy radical murder victim attends is almost certainly the University of Chicago. When he inquires for directions to drive her there, he asks, "Is it that university-school out there on the Midway?" "Yes; that's the one," she replies. The one and only.

-->We know, from its appearance in a speech by Hannah Holborn Gray (deployed to much wonderful self-deprecating effect), the great A.J. Liebling quote about the University of Chicago from his book The Second City. He writes that -- under Robert Maynard Hutchins's prophetic ministry --- the university was fast becoming "the greatest magnet for neurotic juveniles since the Children's Crusade[.]" (He also refers to Fifty-Fifth Street, which still bisects campus, as "the University's equivalent of the Boulevard St.-Michel." This reads as an insult in all but content.)

--> Don't get me started on the fact that Philip Roth's alter ego Nathan Zuckerman actually went so far as to attend the College of the University of Chicago -- thanks in part to a letter of recommendation from Judge Leopold Wapter (although -- the ultimate value of the letter is somewhat in dispute, at least according to The Ghost Writer. The young Nathan appalls his mother in one scene by shouting: "Ma, I hate to suggest this, but it could be that the judge's famous letter, procured after great ass-kissing all around, had about as much effect on the University of Chicago as a letter about my qualifications from Rocky Graziano.")

Then of course Philip Roth actually went there in real life, at least for graduate school -- thus cementing the place in my teenage mind as a temple of my authorial hero worship.

And if I had my eye set on U of C for college rather than grad school -- and thus Philip Roth's life path was not the one I most precisely wished to emulate -- that of his first wife surely filled the gap. So what if their disastrous marriage is depicted by Roth as one of the most grotesque interpersonal hells ever created by two people? She was nevertheless a goddess in my high school pantheon for that one interchange in Roth's memoir The Facts, in a scene set during his time at U of C:

"They told me you were once an undergraduate here," says Roth, when they are first introduced.
"Not long enough for it to matter," she replies.

It certainly mattered to me!

--> Another fictive hero of my childhood -- the nerd icon Umbaugh from Jean Shepherd's college story, "A Fistful of Fig Newtons" -- the one who not only bests the jocks in the cookie-eating contest but quotes Jane Austen while doing so... well, as a kid, I payed little attention to what Shepherd tells us about this exemplar's later biography. I was merely focused at the time on his deft deployment of impressive vocabulary.

But, years later, I reread the story. And do you know in which institution Umbaugh eventually lands in his professional career? You guessed it. As a PBS announcer reveals in the opening scene, which frames the college anecdote, he has become: "the distinguished visiting lecturer at the University of Chicago..."

--> Of the real life literary personages who actually went to U of C, Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow, etc. have gotten enough play by now in alumni letters and promo materials that they can only produce a yawn -- at least in one so hyper-keyed to this subject as myself. Perhaps it's just that, as with any drug, this dopamine of recognition requires stronger and stronger doses over time to preserve its initial effect. So I begin to hunt for still more exotic authorial Chicago grads to cite, in the outer reaches of arcana. One discovers that Elizabeth Madox Roberts -- author of The Time of Man -- was a U of C student. So was Frank Yerby, for a time.

And so was James T. Farrell. This fact may be somewhat better known than the others-- but check this detail out: he apparently wrote a novel called My Days of Anger that is all about becoming a radical, rage-filled intellectual, and an aspiring writer, all while attending the University of Chicago.

It is as if Providence had set out to design a book perfectly calibrated -- from its title on down --to appeal to every one of the most obsessive fantasies of my high school self. And then cruelly withheld knowledge of its existence until I was older, and my own "Days of Anger" had somewhat subsided.


Alright -- now on to Unitarian Universalism. Here we find Jessica Mitford getting in several good and well-intentioned jibes, in various places. As someone who inspired the move toward simpler funerals across the U.S. and who attended civil rights protests, Mitford was bound to overlap with quite a few of the Us and the Us and the UUs. As she memorably described her followers in the funeral industry reform movement, after all, they were primarily: "Unitarians, Quakers, egg-heads and old farts." Which is still a pretty fair description of the likely attendees at any given peace vigil, say, in most parts of the country.

Then there is Mitford's story of attending a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in the Jim Crow South. The point of having white observers -- like Mitford and her other volunteers -- sign up to  accompany black civil rights workers into these diners was to provide some physical security, while also visibly modeling integration in their own persons -- a purpose that the Unitarians in Mitford's cohort enthusiastically embraced. Watching them, however, she finds that they enforce among the observers a different sort of segregation once they actually make it to the lunch counter: "What are you doing here?" says one: "This place is reserved for the Unitarians."

--> Clarence Darrow was no stranger to Unitarianism, as mentioned above. His father Amirus Darrow had gone so far as to study for the Unitarian ministry (he attended Meadville, before it moved to Chicago and became the Meadville-Lombard UU seminary it is today) -- before dropping out and becoming a furniture-maker and village atheist, due to his inability to reconcile his intellectual conscience to even the faintest shadow of divinity that then still clung to the Unitarian pulpit. Darrow notes in his autobiography, The Story of My Life, that by the time of his own adulthood, an out-and-out non-believer like his father could have made a passable Unitarian minister, bu things had been different back then. As Darrow recounts his parents' religious journey:
On one hill in Meadville stood Allegheny College, sponsored by the Methodist Church. On another elevation was a Unitarian seminary, and in the town was a Unitarian Church. Both my parents must have strayed to this church, for when my father's time had come to take a theological course he went to the Unitarian school in Meadville, on the other hill from the Methodist college, where he took his first degree. In due time he completed his theological course, but when he had finished his studies he found that he had lost his faith. Even the mild tenets of Unitarianism he could not accept. Unitarianism, then, was closer to Orthodoxy than it is to-day, or he might have been a clergyman and lived an easier life. [....] When it came my turn to be born and named, my parents had left the Unitarian faith behind and were sailing out on the open sea without a rudder or compass, and with no port in sight, and so I could not be named after any prominent Unitarian. 
Darrow also manages a good dig at Unitarians in his short essay on how to pick a jury. He recommends them as likely to have some instincts of sympathy for the defendant -- but he appends a word of caution: "As to Unitarians, Universalists, Congregationalists, Jews and other agnostics," he writes, "don't ask them too many questions; keep them anyhow, especially Jews and agnostics. It is best to inspect a Unitarian, or a Universalist, or a Congregationalist with some care, for they may be prohibitionists; but never the Jews and the real agnostics! And do not, please, accept a prohibitionist; he is too solemn and holy and dyspeptic. He knows your client would not have been indicted unless he were a drinking man, and anyone who drinks is guilty of something, probably much worse than he is charged with, although it is not set out in the indictment."

--> There are more. Pyle, the Harvard-educated "Quiet American" of the title of Graham Greene's novel, announces in one scene, "I'm a Unitarian." One strongly suspects that that other great over-idealistic bumbling American do-gooder of Graham Greene's novels -- Mr. Smith of The Comedians -- may be one as well. By 1955, Unitarians were perceived by at least one Catholic British novelist as well-meaning and well-read people who live primarily in Cambridge -- and ought to stay there.

--> They are also, apparently, prone to lamentable bloviation -- often of a stilted intellectual quality. As a particularly glaring example of what not to do in one's writing, Robert W. Bly offers in his Copywriter's Handbook a specimen -- mercifully unsourced -- of Unitarian rhetoric: "In his sermon, a Unitarian minister says: 'If I were God, my goal would be to maximize goodness, not to eternalize evil.'"

--> What else do we know about them, these Unitarians? Are they well-bred, in addition to being well-read? The example of Pyle would seem to suggest so. As would John Updike's reference to Unitarians in Roger's Version. Set in an unnamed New England Divinity School that is near to a place called "Prospect Street" and seems to be full of Tillichian quasi-atheists (so, gee, which Divinity School might that be, I wonder?), the narrator laments what he sees as the decline in the caliber of student the school -- and theological education in general -- manages to attract: "“The Admissions Committee, which once had but to sift lightly through ministerial candidates from the genteel, mainly Unitarian families of New England, now must yield to the applications of untamed creationists from Nebraska and Tennessee," he sniffs.

Updike knew something about "genteel, mainly Unitarian families of New England." His father-in-law was one Leslie Pennington-- Unitarian minister and one part of the conspiracy of right-leaning Harvard Club folks who ousted Stephen Fritchman from the masthead of the Christian Register (the main Unitarian periodical at the time) for his Communist sympathies. So it goes.

Put UChicago into the mix as well, however, and one quickly manages to puncture any WASP idyll that may be emerging from the discussion of Unitarianism so far.

U of C people are not "well-bred." They are convinced (with some justice, I think -- but then, I'm one of them)-- that they are smarter than the well-bred people. They are annoyed by the fact that the well-bred people still seem to run everything in this society -- and that they make such a big show of not working hard to do so in the meantime. U of C people chafe against their exclusion from the ranks of Ivy League WASP-hood, at the same time they look on it with contempt. This is the true meaning behind all those "If I wanted an 'A,' I would have gone to Harvard" T-shirts.

Put these two bedfellows together, then -- UUism and U of C -- put all these characters and authors listed thus far together -- and a picture starts to form. A picture of someone who is self-consciously bookish, with none of the graceful sense to hide one's attainments that the Ivy League people seem to have (somehow, without being told). Someone who blares out their learning in the form of extraneous and copious literary quotation, in the fear that someone might doubt it's there. Someone who lives in Cambridge or its immediate environs. Someone whose obsessive emotional allegiance throughout their life has been to a distinct brand of over-intellectualized Old Left radicalism. Someone who'd wear the label of village atheist with pride. Someone, that is, very much like the author of this post.

And this, again, is why my brain hunts so relentlessly -- and without bidding -- for those stray references to these two entities with their large initial Us. It is because... UU of C -- c'est moi.

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