50 years ago today, I fell 24 feet to my death. On that June 1st, I died to my old self, a lazy, drunken lout, an ex-jock frat boy who had recently been expelled from Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on the grounds that I never attended class, was instead always drinking or sleeping or starting fights in bars–and was, therefore, “just not cut out for higher education,” as the Dean of Students put it during my exit interview. He solemnly echoed my high school counselor, who had explained to me in my senior year that I wasn’t “college material,” and had accordingly urged me to get with the building trades.
They were both right, and I say this as a tenured Professor of History who has spent the last 40 years teaching at public universities as well as small colleges and prisons, in four different states. I’m near retirement at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, having published six books–two more are in progress–written dozens of articles, lectured to thousands of undergraduates, attended many meetings, and, not least, started this little online magazine, POLITICS/LETTERS.
Still, the dean and the counselor were right, I wasn’t cut out for higher education. So how did I get there, and last this long?
Let’s start over, on June 1, 1970, on the fifth floor, the top floor, of an office building under construction in Oakbrook, Illinois–when I was part of the mason contractor’s crew, and where, having been expelled from college, I was just another working stiff, another expendable brute force in the lowest ranks of the building trades. I wasn’t doing anything that required skills or dexterity, like mixing mortar and laying block or brick, I was pushing molten concrete around with a shovel, readying it for the mason’s bull float.
We were leveling concrete on the third floor when, close to finishing, one of my bosses ordered me up to the fifth floor, there to dismantle the rolling scaffolds and place their parts near the ladders for tomorrow’s cleanup. I was happy to oblige because shovel work is grueling, and up on the fifth floor you could see forever, all the way to Chicago.
First thing I did was pick up one edge of a 3X3 plywood plank to push it out of my way. I walked into the air. The plywood had covered a square hole in the floor that was soon to be filled with heating and cooling ducts.
It was a long way down. My body somehow flattened out–suddenly I was horizontal–as if I were reclining in a weightless atmosphere. So I had all the time I needed to assess my boots, my jeans, my job, my life, and to decide that they all needed replacements. I guess that’s what it means to see your life flash before your eyes as you’re about to die, you realize your wardrobe is inappropriate for the occasion, and then you imagine a life that would require another.
You also realize, in slower motion, that there were things you wanted to do with your life, but now that you’re about to be dead, they seem trivial. That novel you knew you’d write, that poem, sure, you can now recite them from memory, but nobody will ever read them. It’s not regret that seizes you at this moment, it’s more like wonder, or confusion, so you ask–you have enough time, believe me–what brought you to this dangerous moment, and there’s neither judgement nor hope in your answer because now the end has come. You’re finally a realist.
I turned as I fell because I was trying to look down, hoping not to be skewered by rebar, and I finally landed on my right side, arm tucked under my ribcage. That’s why I never lost consciousness: my head hit the fourth floor, but glancingly, upside it, after the rest of me had landed. It hurt, but not as much as everything else did. I looked up and saw the square hole in the fifth floor, the space I had walked into, and I thought, “I must be alive, I can see the sky.” A silly, romantic conceit. Nobody knew where I was on the spectrum of alive or dead, not me, not yet.
The sound I made when I landed was a death rattle as rendered by those huge Marshall amps you still see behind every band in concert. Every ounce of air in my body was expelled at that moment. Every particle of my past was, too, although I didn’t know it at the time. I knew I must have died, but I felt alive. Not that I could say so, not yet.
As I turned groaning onto my left side, the boss who’d ordered me upstairs knelt and offered comforting words: “What the fuck, man, how did you do this, how did you get here?” I was wondering the same thing, of course, but it had already dawned on me that nobody would expect me to show up for work the next day, so, fully conscious of what might have been, I could laugh about my itinerary, from the fifth to the fourth floor, but also from this day forward. And then I could speak. “Fuck if I know, Guy”–that was his real name–“there’s a hole in the floor up there.”
My right leg was totally purple by the time they got me to the emergency room at Elmhurst Memorial Hospital, where my mother and sister would soon go to die of cancer. So was my right arm. I couldn’t move either limb. Was I paralyzed? No, I could move my left foot and hand, although everything in between was numb. But my teeth hurt so much that I knew without a mirror that they were broken stubs. I answered the routine medical questions without opening my mouth. “Yes” sounded like “Ussh.” It tasted like blood.
My elbow was shattered, the doctors said, but everything else seemed, miraculously, intact. They would operate within the hour, repair the joint with metal screws, and keep me overnight at least. One of my bosses was there in the emergency room. As I remember, so was my father. Where was my mother?
I stayed in the hospital for three nights. My girlfriend visited, as did friends who brought six-packs, and that boss from the mason contractor. I was most touched by his solicitude. I had nothing to do except read and drink beer, also ingest pain-killers—some things never change—so I churned my way through Catch-22. The experience was something like reading The Fountainheadtwo years earlier: here was a forged license to think yourself apart, so far apart that your abstention from the norms of everyday life, even civilized behavior, was not just sanctioned but sanctified.
Is that what I wanted? Now here I was with time and pain and drugs enough to ask myself that question. What did I want to be when I grew up? Bricklayer or novelist, working-class hero or bruit in a suit? It felt like a real choice back then. Turns out it was.
That boss showed up, unannounced, at my father’s house one night. I was still in the elbow sling, hadn’t even started collecting workman’s compensation. The man offered a $1300 settlement to preempt any lawsuit for damages—the super on the job, he explained, had complained about the plywood covers on those square holes as a safety hazard—and my father enthusiastically recommended acceptance.
I wasn’t so sure. But I went along.
I’m glad I did. I took the $1300 and rented an apartment for nine months in DeKalb, Illinois, where my application for admittance to Northern Illinois University had been accepted. I figured I’d go back to college—it had to be better than working construction or pumping gas or mopping hospital floors—but if the professors were pretentious morons, as they had been at the previous place, I’d just hole up in my apartment and write a novel. Give it three weeks, I told myself, see what happens.
That old self died again when I went to the first day of class. These people knew what they were talking about. Listening to them felt like falling off a cliff, or, to be less apocalyptic about it, like falling 24 feet and surviving, knowing that they would catch me. The rest is history.
Northern Illinois University was (and is) a land-grant college founded by late-19th-century acts of Congress (1862, 1887), then animated by the notion that higher education was essential to nation-building. Reconstruction, they called it. This state university is (and was) a public institution created to bring modern methods of science, including social science, to bear on social questions–which meant educating educators, the teachers. Once upon a time, those teachers in training were almost all women who would mold the future by bringing the world into the kindergarten and the classroom.
In short, NIU was a “normal school”–a teachers’ college–whose stated mission was pedagogy until deep into the 20thcentury, when it became a Research I institution, officially in 1962. Thereafter, the place exploded. New colleges, new programs, more students, more faculty. A lot more faculty: between 1965 and 1970, colleges and universities hired more professors than had been hired in the entire previous history of American higher education–same amplitude at NIU. By the time I arrived in February 1971, for example, the undergraduate student body was roughly 22,000, and PhD programs were already well-established in History, English, Sociology, and Chemistry. The History Department had around 40 faculty members and could afford to pay 75 graduate teaching assistants every semester to meet student demand for courses. History was by far the most popular major among all those undergraduates.
What happened here, in the middle of nowhere? How did a “normal school” evolve into a PhD-granting institution that scooped me up from the bottom of the social hierarchy–I was then a crippled, unemployed construction worker–and eventually deposited me in the higher circles of higher education–I am now a tenured radical at Rutgers University?
The short answer is the “great transformation of higher education” as imagined by Clark Kerr, the Chancellor of the University of California, the man who designed the three-tier system (university, state college, community college) that still maps the baccalaureate landscape. He wanted to make higher education accessible to every high school graduate–the future of democracy depended on it, he thought, as did the outcome of the Cold War (these were the same thing in his mind)–so the immediate goal was a vast expansion of the means of knowledge production: more institutions, more faculty, easier access, many more students.
In 1960, only 13% of high school graduates went on to college of some kind; by 1970, a majority did. How did that happen? Public funding, pure and simple, a state-driven effort to enforce social mobility and create a fully-employed, well-educated workforce–for these were the best retorts to the Soviet Union’s critique of American capitalism. Between 1960 and 1980, not coincidentally, education as such became the basic industry of the USA–not steel, not automobiles, not widgets, but education. As you read this, you can be sure that the largest single proportion of the labor force in your state is composed of students, faculty, and staff in your schools. (Not for long, in view of the recent cuts to public education imposed by hysterical state legislatures.)
I was swept up in this great transformation, as was everybody else in that singular moment–whether they went to college or not. In the 1970s, when the majority of high school graduates finally did go to college of some kind, the university became the indispensable integer in the contested formula we call the USA. As Daniel Bell had predicted in his studies of “post-industrial society,” it became the indefatigable source of new ideas and fresh controversies, of new technologies and unimaginable futures, not to mention the front line of what we know in retrospect as the culture wars.
Having been swept up and spit out by this great transformation, I am also its obsolete product, since higher education as we knew it is on the verge of extinction. In the last ten years, undergraduate enrollment in the humanities at public universities like Rutgers has fallen by roughly 60% (the same goes for History majors). Once the origin of the university as such, then the core of the curriculum–think of all those History majors at NIU, ca. 1971–the humanities are now adjuncts, in every sense, to vocational training in business administration and computer science. I got in while the gettin’ was good, when higher education came of age, and I’m gettin’ out when the goin’ is good, when the university lies in ruins. But I can’t say my timing was good because my career in academe was an accident.
There I was, a mere lout, a sullen, drunken fool, a middle-class kid who had fallen too far, but I was now carrying enough accidental money to rent an apartment next to a state university. And there I was again, admitted into the mysteries of higher education at the point of production, where the professors designed and delivered the products–knowledge, insight, foresight. I still hear my boss: “What the fuck, man, how did you do this, how did you get here?”
It was a good match, me and NIU. I was an English major–always wanted to be a writer–but I was steered into History courses by the English department, which believed that literature was one dimension of everyday life, where time flows and context matters. So my first semester, I took three literature courses–Milton, Chaucer, the American Novel–and two History courses, Asia Since 1500 (!) and England 1750 to Present. Every course was a revelation because the professors were so clearly and deeply in love with what they were teaching, and with their performance, the teaching itself. They wanted us to know how important this subject matter was, to them and to the world elsewhere. But they weren’t cute or cloying or even earnest, they went about their task with the utmost seriousness, knowing we’d catch on and catch up.
The enormous guy who taught Chaucer, for example, was a former offensive tackle at the University of Missouri, where he stayed to get a PhD in medieval literature. We spent the first three weeks of the course learning to read and properly pronounce Middle English–as many hard edges as soft sibilants in that territory, where Germanic and Romantic languages collided, so a key word in The Canterbury Tales, “knight,” sounded like k-neesh-ta. The strange dude who taught the American Novel with a French accent was a Belgian ex-pat who lectured the entire class period, every meeting–no questions, no discussion, just historical context and close readings of the texts. He was a welcome relief from my previous professors of English, who wanted more than anything to know what their students felt about the reading at hand. The dandy who taught us to love “Samson Agonistes” as well as “Paradise Lost”–he wore colorful bow ties and pants pressed to the point of knife edges–was a newly-minted Princeton PhD who thought Milton was a God. He convinced me.
It was refreshing, even exciting, to watch people who knew they had something to teach us, who had the confidence to tell us what to think, and how.
The History department was a different trip. It had been cobbled together in the 1960s by recruitment of blacklisted Marxists, Communists, and other political flotsam from the 1950s. They had degrees from all the right places, Yale, Princeton, Berkeley, Michigan, Hopkins, and Wisconsin, but until they got to Northern–the older ones, anyway–they had typically been marooned in high schools or working for a living outside of education altogether.
The masterminds and antipodes of this recruitment strategy were Alfred F. Young and C.H. George, two men who couldn’t have been more different. Al was an old-school enthusiast, a Popular Front/Henry Wallace ultra-liberal who admired Marxism and its local practitioners, but never got around to taking it up as a social theory or historical method. He was too busy perfecting and promoting the techniques of the “new social history”–history “from the bottom up,” as its partisans characterized it.
C.H. was a WASP patrician who had summered in France as a boy and then returned as an infantryman in World War II, wanting for political reasons–he was a fellow traveler of the CPUSA–to fight the fascists face to face, and he did, all the way to Dachau. He was a devout Marxist, by which I mean that everything he said or wrote in public was determined by a quasi-religious devotion to the doctrine. Equipped with a Princeton PhD, he was coaching basketball in a Colorado high school when he got his first tenure-track job at Pitt.
In any event, the Marxists ran the department–they built it, hire by hire, and they set the intellectual tone of the place. My mentors, Martin J. Sklar and Carl P. Parrini, were both Wisconsin alumni, former members of the Labor Youth League, former students of William Appleman Williams, and still steeped in Marxism of every kind, from Telos to Science & Society. In the 1970s, outside of the Ivy League anyway, this situation wasn’t as unusual as it might now sound, at least in History departments. In every field, the Marxists led the way. Not incidentally, they would make the turn to women’s history toward the end of the decade.
But the main event for me was Professor Marvin S. Rosen, a Brooklyn-born misfit who would change my life just by paying close attention–which, in Marvin’s idiom, meant begging, or rather offering, to fuck me or blow me, every day. He and I had nothing in common except the feeling that we didn’t belong on this prairie–he was queer, I was straight, he was Jewish, I was not, he was a charismatic teacher with a huge undergraduate following, I was a lonely ex-jock who still hoped to be a novelist.
And yet he “discovered” me, brought me into his social circles, watched and tended me as if I were a rare cactus, green, stout, silent, and prickly. I used to think he civilized me, but maybe “socialized” is the less-loaded word. Either way, I owe him my life. Without his intervention, I’d be a broken-down hod carrier, or a retired janitor–or a failed novelist.
Marvin was the most bestial human being I’ve ever met outside my profoundly feral mother, but that’s probably just a way of saying he was charismatic–always driven by “animal spirits,” he was a restless, charming, hilarious man with boundless sexual appetites, especially when armed with alcohol. I loved him for it.
After Spring Break, March 1971, Marvin handed back out journals–an informal record of reading and thinking, the semester’s entire assignment. Mine was the last name he called, and then he recoiled when I reached for the thing. “You don’t look anything like I thought you would,” he said, in front of the whole class, about 100 people. I didn’t say anything because I’d heard it before from teachers who’d pegged me, not unreasonably, as a dumb jock. What do you say in response, “I’m not as stupid as I look”?
“I wish I had written this,” he said loudly to the class, holding up my journal, and then to me: “Where did you come from?”
“Right down the road,” I said, more angry than embarrassed.
He handed me the journal, grudgingly I thought. “We need to talk,” he said. “Let’s take a walk, right now.”
We wandered all over campus that afternoon. I felt like a Martian or an illegal immigrant because Marvin kept asking the same question, as if he doubted his own judgement: “Where did you come from?” I explained my accidental arrival in his classroom by way of my recent past–getting expelled from Carthage College, breaking bones in a fall on a construction site, deciding to spend the settlement on my higher education.
Nothing satisfied him, he was downright suspicious until I said, “Look, I’m not Natty Bumppo . . . I didn’t come from nowhere, and this isn’t anybody’s frontier.” I gestured lamely at students reclining around a man-made pond on the old campus. I was just then reading James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie, in my American Novel course, so I could talk the talk, remove myself from the here and now by literary reference. Marvin squinted at me, but then he laughed, he got the joke, the interrogation was over.
Later that evening we had our first real conversation, over dinner at his apartment. It ended this way:
“You want to go to bed?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, like, let’s fuck!”
“Jesus Christ, Marvin, we just met, what are you, a queer?
“Well of course I am, how did you miss that?”
“Ah jeez, I gotta go, thanks for dinner, but this, no, this isn’t, I can’t, no, I gotta go.”
Ever since, Marvin appears to me in dreams and in daylight as the irrepressible Id who animated the rest of my waking life–the disciplined teacher who demanded everything of me, the ridiculous man-child who wanted everything, including my body, and the irreverent intellectual who steered me toward a life of the mind.
We never stopped speaking across the semiotic divide of our different sexualities, not until he killed himself on the third try, having barricaded himself in his garage and turned on the engine of the car he could barely drive. By then he had retired from teaching and finally written a huge book, his first, on the making of the English bourgeoisie. It was a necessary book, but totally boring except to academic nerds interested in the portfolios of Restoration parliaments. He couldn’t get it published, not even with my help, and he had no students left to seduce. He was as good as dead.
I became his student, friend, and reality principle because, without a job, without a hope, barely believing I’d get to tomorrow, I walked into his office in February 1971 and asked for special permission to take his over-enrolled course on English history.
Two bearded guys in berets and fatigues were lounging in this small space, and because they looked at me with bemused disdain–I was wearing jeans, a T-shirt, a parka, and a floppy felt hat straight out of Appalachia, I was headed for something I had never seen–I thought, “Give me a chance and I’ll kill you both,” but what I remember most is thinking, “Christ, this is the ugliest man I have ever seen.”
He was a skinny, crouching figure, hunched over his desk like some stranded reptile ready to jump the aquarium’s moat, with a pockmarked face and glasses that were askew because the weight of the massive combover displaced one stem of the frames. I was already smitten.
Marvin said, “You look smart.” He smiled–his teeth were jagged yellow edges–and said, “Sure, come to class tomorrow.”
Marvin was a working class punk born and raised in Brooklyn who got fucked by his uncle when he was 11 years old and liked it; that’s how he discovered his sexual identity. His mother moved him to LA in 1953, where he realized his remarkable intelligence, went to junior college and then UC-Berkeley. He eventually enrolled in graduate school, there to study American history with Kenneth Stampp, but he couldn’t bear the stoic idiocy of the field–who could, who can?–so he switched to English history. He wrote one article on the creation of a market for writing in the late 18thcentury; it got him tenure at NIU, in those days almost anything could.
Marvin collected people he could teach, mostly undergraduates like me, whether about sex or wine or food or Marx or Freud. He sheltered them, too, in his two-bedroom apartment, and then in the house he bought on Annie Glidden Road. He paid for the repair of their teeth and, if necessary, their souls. He never imposed: he persuaded.
Before he learned to drive, long after I left DeKalb, Marvin hired me as his chauffeur–the early bargain was that I would resist his sexual entreaties but talk about anything he wanted to, Marx to be sure, but it was always more likely we’d be discussing a novel on our way to whatever destination he’d decided on that day. He kept saying he’d run through all the good books, and demanded, on those grounds, to know what I was reading. So we talked about Lenin, Chaucer, Roth, Kesey, Lasch, Updike, Wright, Mitchell, Winstanley, Shelley . . . .
We rarely talked about music, though, because he didn’t get rock ‘n roll except as the soundtrack he used to attract undergraduates’ attention. He wasn’t a big fan of opera–that was for fags, he said. But we eventually discovered, and bonded over, a mutual love of musical theater, the worst Broadway kind. We sang through “The Music Man” on our way to and from Chicago, where we’d have lunch in the gay bars of New Town, his old neighborhood, before he followed C.H.’s lead and moved to DeKalb.
He wrongly believed that he could learn from me, because in me he saw the makings of a man he could never be. He thought of himself as an exile in his own country–an ugly working-class Jew, an improbable professor, a queer, a Marxist, a Bolshevik–and he thought of me as someone who had sprung fully armed from the heartland, a handsome (his word, not mine) ex-jock who had never been estranged from his own time and place. He wanted to know how I had been buoyed by what he had barely survived, the cruelties of American culture. In that sense, our relationship was a classic love story, a case of mistaken identity.
For it is of course true that I had been one of the cool kids, part of the popular crowd. I was a jock, always a drunkard, and could pick up girls from out of town. High school was a breeze, not a trauma; college was a bore except for the parties. But it is also true that I had decided to be a writer when I was seven years old. My secret life, my genuine self, was always located in “literature”–in the stories, poems, and novels I read and tried to write. I hadn’t survived American culture, I had lived it in and as fiction.
But Marvin drew me out of my parochial past–I was still an inch away from working construction the rest of my life–and I detained him on his way to Hell–he was always an inch away from suicide, although I’ve never known anyone so full of life. He did finally kill himself, over my objections, but I escaped the sentence my life, my work experience, had imposed on me.
Marvin and I both knew I was playing Eliza Doolittle’s part, and we also knew there was no happy ending. I’d outgrow him, and he’d find another crop of students to cultivate. But I never did outgrow him. I never learned to be less vulgar, more discreet, more “smooth below the belt,” as he put it. You could say I was raised by wolves, and Marvin was always at the head of the pack.