Remembering John McCormick
No summary of John McCormick's professional and personal accomplishments seems adequate to describe the man, whose commanding presence and generous nature inspired generations of students in the U.S. and abroad to become better scholars and teachers. His vision of comparative literature, one stressing the importance of understanding literature as a cultural and cross-cultural product and influence, appears in brief summaries of literary periods included in A Syllabus of Comparative Literature and, more significantly, in his many books and essays concerning Romanticism, European literary imagination, politics, and philosophy. That much I could figure out from documents and publications when I was a new comparative-literature graduate student at Rutgers University, studying full-time and working part-time for the program in 1979-80. One of my tasks was to pack up John McCormick's books and papers for the program's move to College Avenue during the year he spent in Spain continuing research on his biography of George Santayana. I heard that a ship caught fire and he escaped with only his life and passport. When he returned to teaching in fall 1980, I was on a less dramatic sabbatical of my own devising, "awarded" after I completed half of my coursework for the Ph.D. and could not figure out what kind of job the degree might bring. My sabbatical was short lived because low-wage work, even in San Diego, was less palatable than lonely sojourns in Alexander Library during which I tried to write something interesting, anything, in my research papers. Upon returning to Rutgers in January 1981, I met Professor McCormick and enrolled in his course, which required one to do the utmost to analyze texts. He demanded that students know American and European literary history and to read many works of literature before stepping into the classroom, requirements that were daunting, despite my undergraduate training at St. John's College, "the Great Books" school. Professor McCormick's critical observations on presentations and writing made me realize that scholarship and teaching mattered. I could not have asked for a more intimidating or perfect teacher. Assisting him later with a little library research and the organization of some material for his Santayana biography made it possible for me to understand how one prepares to write and publish. As one of his last Ph.D. students, I wanted to write the best thesis I could before he retired and moved to England in 1987. I was quite pleased when he told me, after my defense, that he thought it was a good start, although only a first step, toward producing a publishable book. His rigorous standards of scholarship and his personal courtesy combined to make John McCormick much admired and unforgettable, as colleagues and many other students attest.
Carol Colatrella is Professor in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture and Co-Director of the Georgia Tech Center for the Study of Women, Science, and Technology in the Georgia Institute of Technology.
A Europhile American Scholar
John McCormick's eventful life was influenced to an exceptional degree by the vast turmoil of the twentieth century. Born in 1918 in Minnesota, he grew up in a family where memories of fighting in World War I and in the Spanish-American War were strong. His youth coincided with the Great Depression, which ruined his father and impoverished his extended family. He had lost his mother to the influenza epidemic that followed the First World War. When he was fourteen, survival for the young McCormick took the form of working in fairgrounds, riding the rails from town to town and taking any jobs that would allow him to scrape along. He ended up in New Orleans, where he shipped aboard a rusting freighter as a deck-hand. Two of his voyages took him to Civil-War Spain, bringing weapons and ammunition for the Loyalists, and awakening his awareness of political convulsions in Europe. Perseverance and a few dollars got him back to Minnesota, to the State University and a degree. Then America's declaration of war caused him to volunteer for the U.S. Navy, where he spent five years, mostly in command of anti-submarine vessels, escorting convoys in the Atlantic and the Pacific, on the alert for months at a time, with rare moments of violent action.
At the end of the war, John McCormick, like so many other veterans, had his prospects transformed by that most enlightened piece of American legislation, the G.I. Bill, which allowed former servicemen to attend university, all fees paid. John went to Harvard, where he completed a doctorate under the noted Americanist Perry Miller. Life thereafter was a sequence of opportunities and improvements. He joined the staff of the newly-founded Salzburg Seminar, which had been set up to offer Europeans some contact with American intellectual life, and then moved to teach American literature at universities in still-devastated Berlin. There he met Mairi MacInnes, the English poet and author. They married, forming a partnership that seemed to friends as natural and resilient as something preordained. (His first marriage had disintegrated during the war.) They returned to Berlin in 1954, when John was offered the newly-established chair in American Studies at the Free University. These German years, when they helped to revive liberal values in a country long unaccustomed to unfettered enquiry and debate, left an indelible mark on them both.
In 1959, McCormick was enticed back to America, where he later took up a chair at Rutgers University in New Jersey. There he had a long and productive career as a scholar in Comparative Literature. But John's temperament was not of the kind to be content with the predictable routines of academic life. When he spent a year in Mexico City as a visiting professor, he became fascinated by bull-fighting, gradually coming to understand that it is both a sport and an art form, a unique expression of the Spanish psyche. Determined to experience the mystery of toreo, he received instruction, and appeared in the plaza de toros just before his year in Mexico was up, killing his bull. Eventually he wrote a book on the subject.
John McCormick's attraction to Spanish ways of thinking was most evident in his long engagement with the writings of George Santayana, the Boston-based philosopher of Spanish origin. It was in matters of religious belief that he had the greatest effect on John, for Santayana had positioned himself as a sort of Catholic atheist, who went to services more as an admirer than as a believer, and maintained that religious doctrines do not refer to matters of fact, since they are poetic, the work of the imagination, and not a product of revelation. John's biography of Santayana will remain his most enduring work.
Retiring from Rutgers when he felt the cultural gap between himself and his students was becoming unbridgeable, he decided to move with Mairi to England in 1987, settling in a fine Georgian house near Hovingham in North Yorkshire. There they offered hospitality to old friends and new, and integrated themselves into social circles in and around York. Both John and Mairi found their new setting conducive to writing, and both produced engaging memoirs of their varied lives, John's entitled Seagoing, and Mairi's Clearances.
Courteous and well-dressed, John McCormick would have struck new acquaintances as an English gentleman with a soft American accent. He had a kindly manner, but there was toughness in his character resulting from his early experiences, and it showed through in his conversation. He could appear stern and skeptical in his views. For all the comfortable circumstances of his later life, he never lost his anger against the follies of the world, especially the follies of politicians. He used irony as it is meant to be used, as an instrument of civilized judgment, and no one left his company without feeling recharged, knowing that they had met a remarkable man.
He is survived by Mairi and their children Peter, Fergus, and Antoinette, and a son, Jonathan, from his first marriage.
Graham Parry is Emeritus Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of York, and a friend of John McCormick's since the early 1970s.
An American in Berlin
I first met John McCormick in the summer of 1958 when, as a third-year student, I won a fellowship for a year's study at the Freie Universitaet in West Berlin, ten years after it had been founded as the West's answer to the Communist take-over of the existing university in what was then Soviet-occupied East Berlin. McCormick had come in 1954 to fill a newly established chair in American Literature at the new university's English department. He stayed in West Berlin until 1959 when he thought it was time for him to go back to the United States - to Rutgers where he was glad to return to what he considered his true field: Comparative Literature. During his eight years in Berlin, he formed the intellectual lives of a group of young men and women of whom many later became professors of American literature at German universities. (It was because of him that I did not return to West Germany once my fellowship was over.)
As an "Americanist" John McCormick was also a convinced comparatist - specialization in national matters seemed provincial to him. His first lecture I attended was on the modern novel, and although it dealt with Henry James, Dos Passos and Faulkner, it also focused on Flaubert, Joyce and André Malraux, perhaps his favorite modern author since Malraux came closest to representing his ideal: the man of letters as a man of action. His Melville seminar made me change majors: from a student of German I became a student of American literature. It also convinced me once and for all that literature was a matter to which one might well dedicate one's life. McCormick was a charismatic teacher, stern but witty and ironic, who challenged his students to make use of their critical intelligence and rely on their own analytical ingenuity. (He believed in a general obligation to deal with one's life creatively.) Therefore he hated the historicizing, subjectivity-denying, objectivity-demanding scientific jargon of the German university. (These were pre-revolutionary times: the traditional and, in part, still Nazi-tainted habits and structures of German academia were yet intact.) He demanded subjective judgment - the assumption of a well-founded critical position - even when discussing canonical texts. His impatience with those who did not seriously engage themselves in the object of their study may have made him appear authoritarian at times, but he met all who accepted the conditions of his teaching with equal respect: intellectual debates were led in democratic openness. He despised pomposity, and in contrast to many of his German colleagues he championed directness of statement, clarity, and fairness. During the war, he had been commander of a mine-sweeper - a position that later surely influenced his sense of academic duty as well as his dealings with people for whom he felt responsible. (However, it made conflicts with the anti-authoritarian student movement of the late sixties and early seventies almost inevitable.)
He was nevertheless a romantic himself - a restless spirit and intellectual adventurer who came to dislike the cultural inertia of the fifties in Germany. "The Frozen Country," an essay he published in the Partisan Review of 1959, was, at that time at least, the sum of his Berlin years - a rather bitter good-bye present that some of his colleagues resented since they, with good reason, felt they had been attacked. According to legend it was he who took down the red flag from the Brandenburg gate during the revolt of East Berlin workers on June 17, 1953, a legend he smilingly but rigorously denied. When I met him again in 1962 in Mexico City - he, a guest professor there, I, in my last months as a Fulbright-fellow to the US - he was thinking about a book on bullfighting that would correct the romantic distortions of Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon. Aiming at a more professional approach, he decided to gain expertise in bullfighting himself in order to give the book an authenticity he missed in Hemingway's. (Bullfighting: Art, Technique & Spanish Society came out in 1967.) The aura of the unusual continued to mark his life. His great biographical study, George Santayana (1987), had to be written again from memory since the original manuscript was lost when the Greek ferry he travelled on sank in the Mediterranean.
I felt extremely fortunate to meet him again - more than 25 years later - when he came to his old Berlin institute (by then quite changed) for a lecture on philosophy and literature: wise, ironic, mild, yet still provocative. I subsequently visited him several times in Yorkshire where he had retired with his wife, Mairi McInnes. Being with him made me feel like a student again: Although the signs of physical frailty increased, there were yet his keen and inquisitive eyes, demanding you account for yourself, and bespeaking curiosity in life and its creative possibilities. In his late eighties, "faced with the pains and indignities of old age," that interest gradually diminished. The years he had spent in Berlin were, he once remarked, despite everything, among his best. He was the very best of teachers, exemplary in his intellectual honesty and dedication, demanding of others what he demanded of himself .
Heinz Ickstadt , an emeritus professor of American literature at the Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universitaet, Berlin, studied with John McCormick in the late fifties in Berlin.
Audrey, my wife, and I first met John and Mairi McCormick in 1956 in besieged West Berlin, then garrisoned by American, British and French troops.
The divided city's autobahn access routes to West Germany were being intermittently disrupted by the Russians. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was seeking to compel the Allied powers to withdraw and sign a treaty recognizing Berlin as the capital of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). I was chief correspondent of The Associated Press and Audrey was pursuing her sculpting interests at West Berlin's arts center, the Hochschule fur Bilden Kunst, and freelancing as a photo journalist. John was teaching at the Free University as director of the Amerika Institute. He also was writing for Western publications on the heroic stand of the West Berliners and the plight of East Germans fleeing Communist domination. Mairi, a young beautiful Englishwoman, was at his side lending support, and writing exquisite poetry. Typically, John, who early on had made his commitment to democracy by hauling supplies for Republican fighters in the Spanish civil war, was devoting much of his time at the Free University to teaching and befriending students who had fled East Germany.
Friendship with the McCormicks enriched our lives. Our backgrounds were very different. We had come as journalists from reporting on the wars in China and Indochina, and on Cold War diplomacy in London. The McCormicks brought us into another world, that of European, particularly Spanish, culture. John shared his vivid life experiences—from wartime patrol boat commander to matador to professor of comparative literature and writer of his brilliant books. The enrichment continued through years of close friendship as the McCormicks visited our home in Scarsdale, New York, and we enjoyed their cottage in Yorkshire. In searching for a quotation for the epilogue to my memoir, On the Front Lines of the Cold War, I returned to John's Santayana biography and found it in paraphrase: "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." John gave so much to all of us.
Seymour Topping is Emeritus Professor of International Journalism at Columbia University, and former Administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes and Managing Editor of The New York Times.
When I first met John McCormick, he was a philosopher who served as professor of comparative literature, and I was likewise a philosopher hiding out as a professor of sociology and political science, both of us at Rutgers University. So it is fair to say that we became friends from the start, with a common regard for major issues, and a suspicion of dominant cultural persuasion. It is probably the case that we also shared a belief that the essay was the most comfortable way to conduct intellectual work.
The major inspiration for John's sense of style was George Santayana. And while he shared with Santayana a skeptical Catholicism, McCormick was vigorously pro-Republican and anti-clerical during the Spanish Civil War. This set him apart from the political views of the late Santayana. Still, his biography of that master of combining style with issues of substance has yet to be equaled. It was the first of nine books written by John (and in one case, the edited work of Francis Fergusson—again an essayist of no mean talent) that were produced by Transaction Publishers, described in the official language of the university as one of two authorized publishers at Rutgers. John enjoyed being in the company of Thorstein Veblen, Bernard Campbell, Walter Laqueur, Arthur Schlesinger, Thomas Szasz, and Bernard Paris, among others. It was about the only company that he could feel at home in.
John was not much for grand theorizing. Rather he lived in a counter-cultural world in which the life of the mind intertwined with the life of the body. It was in such a context that he wrote his memoir Seagoing, and a thinly veiled study of Spanish society that focused on bullfighting, in which he attempted to correct the Hemingway vision of this life as a sport. His work Versions of Censorship, a collaboration with Mairi MacInnes, was less a study of legal norms than a defense of the practice of writing that went to the edge of convention and beyond. His work did not aim to shock or to score points, but to entertain and enlighten. The sub-title of Another Music is Polemics and Pleasures. It is the sort of subtitle offered by a scholar who is worldly and conversant with a literature that matters rather than an ideology that ensnares.
McCormick was a professor in the best sense of that word: someone who professes as well as informs, and in doing so engages the student to do likewise—not by instruction but rather by involvement. One of the distinct advantages of being "old fashioned" is that you never quite go out of fashion. While John had family in the United States, he settled in York, England, with Mairi MacInnes, a writer and poet of first rank. John wrote of her with great feeling. Indeed, toward the closing years of his life, Mairi wrote on John's behalf. This was perhaps the strongest indication that the end was near.
But the words "the end was near" refer only to passing of the man, not the cultural life he helped retain and passed on to others. The British Telegraph caught something in saying of him in a rare obituary notice that McCormick "dressed like an English country gentleman and even qualified as a matador." Perhaps it should be added that he wrote like a gentleman for a decent literature and fought like a military officer for a moral life. We are all the richer for having had him in our midst—at least for a while.
Irving Horowitz is Hannah Arendt Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Political Science, Rutgers University.
Remembering John McCormick - Sailor, Scholar, Gypsy, Writer, Bullfighter
Yeats would have embraced the contradictions of the man and the writer John McCormick, of whom I write personally because he took everything personally—words, ideas, people, literature, art, cooking, religion, sports, shoes. Nothing was taken for granted. Nothing had meaning until it was examined, contradicted, and lived.
I met him first in 1949 at Harvard, where he was finishing his PhD in Comparative Literature, an upstart subject that challenged the reign of English Literature. At the same time, with his impeccable Harris tweeds and pipe, John seemed to be the very model of a modern English gentleman. His soft half-swallowed voice, which I strained to hear, was utterly at odds with his authoritative, witty, provocative statements. In my California innocence, I mistook him for a Boston Brahmin.
Such personal contradictions multiplied as John explored Europe and the Far East in the decades that followed. But I didn't significantly meet him again until John had brought his distinguished career in Comparative Literature and his second wife, the brilliant English poet Mairi MacInnes, to Rutgers in New Jersey. My then-husband, Paul, who was teaching in the Rutgers English Department, commuted to New Brunswick from nearby Princeton. John, on the other hand, commuted from Maine. He was restoring a farm house there and not about to move.
Not until John brought his growing family to a farm outside Princeton did I discover his domestic skills. He was the only married man I knew who not only carved but often cooked the roast, and who baked bread regularly once a week. It was excellent bread. He could also put up a roof, take down a wall, build a staircase and then preside at the family Sunday dinner table where wine and conversation flowed.
So many dinners. Such passionate argument. To talk was to argue because to argue was to take a position and stand up for it, sometimes literally, after which you might storm out the door. I remember his departure one evening from a dinner table in the midst of an argument over the Vietnam War. I don't remember who was arguing what. But I do remember the force of John's fury as he said in an ominously quiet voice, "I'm leaving."
His sense of decorum was, nonetheless, as intense as his pronouncements were---often—outrageous. "I'm going to hang myself," he'd say, greeting you at the door. He so relished taking you by surprise that it was no surprise he should live to be 91. It was no surprise that he had ridden rails as a kid in the Midwest, subdued bulls as a middle-aged matador in Mexico, walked the moors as a retired professor in Yorkshire.
He was so American in all his contraries---contentious and compassionate, conservative and rebellious. He was an eternal questor and survivor, one who understood, as the biographer of Santayana, the power of contingency. John who had commanded a gunboat in World War II survived a shipwreck in the Mediterranean some 40 years later. In a life he called Seagoing, he embraced the irony.
Betty Fussell is a non-fiction author, essayist, and journalist. She is the author of eleven books ranging from movie history to food history to memoir, including The Story of Corn and My Kitchen Wars.
A Personal Memoir of John McCormick
I first met John McCormick in the autumn of 1987, after his arrival in England following his retirement from Rutgers. He and Mairi came to our house in York, when our son was about three months old; they brought a beautiful little toy of a fisherman dangling a fish from a line. It worked by cantilever: you stood the fisherman on the edge of a table and he kept his balance while the fish jumped below. Perhaps it symbolised John's stance towards the place to which he had recently come. He wore his adopted English tweeds and brogues with a twinkle in his eye, and he always kept that ironic if affectionate expatriate distance from his new country, where he expressed pleasure but also mild surprise to find himself in his final years. Not that an inveterate voyager such as John should have been amazed that he was once more 'abroad'. Of his many books one of the most enchanting is his memoir Seagoing, which includes a wonderful chapter on the city of York. In it he gives a fine account of the life of the town and of its inhabitants going about their business and, in their leisure moments, raucously engaging in play.
When he chose (to Mairi's surprise and delight) to retire to England, to the scene of her schooldays in North Yorkshire, it wasn't without a certain satisfaction that he finally shook the dust of New Jersey from his feet. He assured me more than once that he had had no wish to linger on at the fringe as an increasingly ghostly figure. ("I saw McCormick in the bank today." "What—still alive?") But John was too young to retire at 70. In her poem "I look for you everywhere" in The House on Ridge Road, Mairi gives a wonderful impression of him emerging from the swimming pool in their house in Princeton a couple of years before they left:
Five laps of the same measure,
surging with steady, uniform stroke,
and you are limber, you emerge,
the water streams off your grizzled beard.
John maintained that steady rhythm in everything he did for as long as he possibly could. While they lived in Scackleton, about fifteen miles north of York, John worked on his magisterial biography of Santayana, often interrupting his intellectual labours to perform tasks like tiling the floor of the kitchen single-handedly. He was the perfect amateur bricoleur, sometimes to Mairi's despair.
A gentleman of the old school, John insisted on form. He always stood when a lady entered the room, and on first acquaintance would address people as 'Mr' or 'Mrs.' Such insistence on etiquette could land him in trouble. When, during the Scackleton era, he wrote to a local farmer (over some matter of territorial infringement), John addressed the man as 'Dear Jones.' The farmer accosted him, incensed over the omission of his title, but John pointed out that he was merely treating him with the courtesy that the English gentry had traditionally accorded each other. It didn't quite wash.
As John became frailer, he and Mairi took the decision to move to York, where they became our close neighbours, and even closer friends. My wife and I would often go round and have a glass of wine with them and discuss just about everything, not least literature: Proust, Nabokov, Bellow, Lowell, Berryman, and Richard Wilbur, some of whom he had known personally. John was thoughtful in his assessments but not afraid of being forthright, and he could be outrageous in his pronouncements when the mood seized him. On one dinner occasion, he got embroiled with a fellow guest on the subject of Samuel Beckett, for whom he had little regard. Things got heated but John, who was the instigator of the debate, refused to give way. However, such instances of testiness were comparatively rare; in my experience of him John was invariably a warm and generous member of the company.
John was a devout Catholic in his youth but abandoned the church because of its misdemeanors. He became, in the manner of Santayana, a 'Catholic atheist.' He even seemingly irrationally continued to observe Lent, 'just to show the bastards.' I was half convinced that he would take the last rites, especially after reading his unpublished novel, A Vacancy in the Vatican, which is a satire on the papacy, and makes interesting reading at the present time. It also reads like the work of a deeply religious man; his eyes twinkled again when I told him this. He didn't in the event call in the priest; he died with Mairi at his bedside, and that was enough.
John Roe is Professor of English & Related Literature at the University of York, UK. He has an MA from Cambridge and a PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard.
Memorial Note for John O. McCormick
E. Ann Kaplan
It's hard to believe in John's non-being. His fierce intellect, lust for adventure and emotional independence often seemed like a life force unable to be quenched as it has now been, to our loss.
I first met John when I joined the innovative Comparative Literature Ph.D Program at Rutgers in 1963. The new department was John's brainchild—and in its interdisciplinary inclusion of major texts from across the West was an eye-opener for me after my narrow F.R. Leavis-style training in British Literature at Birmingham University. John was Chair at the time and remained in charge until I had completed my degree. I have to say that even to a young English woman used to intimidating Professors in the English University, John's academic demeanor was not the kind to put one at ease. Yet this is precisely what made him a terrific mentor: I constantly felt challenged to do better, to think harder, to move beyond clichés and stereotypes or easy answers. John wanted us to challenge him, to make him think. I recall him telling one class that we had sometimes bored him, but occasionally we surprised him. Of course, this latter comment pleased us while we were chagrined by the former statement. John was a tough task-master.
But he was also incredibly supportive of me. One example is when, in 1968, as I began writing my dissertation, my daughter was born. I had not dared tell him that I was pregnant because in those days motherhood and intellectual life were not seen to belong together. I didn't know how I could complete the dissertation taking care of my daughter full-time. John managed to get funds for me to have a baby-sitter two days a week so that I could write. I don't know what strings he pulled since there was nothing like maternity leave or any provision for combining motherhood and work at the time: the Feminist Movement had barely started addressing such public issues about sexism in the workplace. Yet John got the funds somehow, and I was able to complete the MSS.
Long after I left Rutgers, we continued to stay loosely in touch by mail, exchanging cards and notes from time to time. At least once, my husband and I visited John and Mairi in their Yorkshire house. John met us at the door in his faultless tweeds looking like a Landed Squire—somewhat to the surprise of my American husband. He was an amazing dinner host, offering drinks and conversation alike, while Mairi delivered excellent food and her own special brand of talk. During that visit, we learned that John and Mairi were both writing their memoirs, which I subsequently read with great interest: the disparity in their ways of writing and topics taken up is worth a book on its own. I recall that we decided at the time to exchange books we were all writing. I know John never quite forgave me for moving from comparative literature into comparative cinema, but I hope he read what I sent.
I recently found the last note I had received from John about two years ago. He told me he was writing a novel, and to please stay in touch. My research leaves and personal life unfortunately made it impossible for me to do so, and at least a year went by without my sending a card. This is something I now very much regret. John was a major formative influence on my intellectual life. I will miss his caustic wit and challenging presence that had pushed me to think harder.
E. Ann Kaplan is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies at Stony Brook University, where she also founded and directs the Humanities Institute. She is also President of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.
I think that all the people in my class in the Comparative Literature department were proud that John McCormick was our chairman. He wore tweeds; he smoked a pipe; he had a successful beard. He was married to the distinguished poet Mairi McCormick, and they invited us over to their house and fed us things that we had never seen before, such as green salads with walnuts in them.
While often courtly, John was also capable of astonishing severity. Many of us were frightened of him. He could pour scorn on anyone (me, once) who claimed to have gotten to the end of the book when this was not the case. With another woman, who gave a stupid answer to a question of his, he called into doubt - in front of the class - her competence to continue in the department. Sometimes he would almost snarl at us. (Mairi McCormick, in her memoir Clearances, of 2002, said that he had a cycling depressive illness.) Lordly as he seemed, he was careful not to claim any sort of exalted background. Once, in class, a woman suggested that his judgments issued from fine breeding. He answered that his father was an unsuccessful salesman and that he, John, ran off to sea at the age of fifteen.
Though he was in a literature department, John seemed more interested in philosophy, or at least ideas, than in the purely literary properties of the books we studied. He loved Proust; he made fun of Dickens and Hemingway. His best course was "Methods," the department's introductory course, where we learned that there were different methods of approaching literature, and what they were. We read Jungian books, Communist books, new-critical books. (French theory came later; he deplored it.) In "Methods" he could be his best self, analyzing modes of thought.
He was old-school, in the demands he made on us, in the position of authority that he assumed, and in his certainty as to what we should read. Later, when I came to teach, I tried to be like him in these ways, or as much as the times would allow. After he retired, I remained friends with him and Mairi. I saw them perhaps once a year, when they visited New York. John became gentler, sweeter, and I was sorry about that.
Joan Acocella has written for The New Yorker since 1992 and became the magazine's dance critic in 1998. She has also written several books on dance, literature, and psychology.
The single most vivid image I can still see of John McCormick goes back to 1960, when he and his wife Mairi lived in one of those well-tended old apartments in Manhattan, on West 18th Street, I think. As I see it, John is seated comfortably in an armchair within reach of his stereo system. Without saying a word, he has just put a 33 1/3 LP record on the turntable and placed the arm at the beginning. From the speakers comes a man's baritone voice, first talking and then singing the blues over a piano accompaniment and a noticeable foot-tapping picked up by a not very well-placed mike. The music sounds very familiar, but I can't quite give it a name. John smiles and says "Jelly Roll Morton, the Library of Congress recordings." And that's where the image is fixed—rather more like a very short film that ends with a frozen frame than a snapshot.
Everything else about that encounter fades away—I can't even remember if I ever asked John how he got a hold of those recordings. Morton, one of the great New Orleans composers and pianists, made them in 1939 for an oral history project conducted by Alan Lomax in the Library of Congress, but they were not put on the market as a set of 78 RPM records until the late 1940s and went out of print almost immediately. The Riverside LP set that John had met the same fate in the 1950s. By 1960, I had at least one LP of Morton's commercial studio recordings with the band he called the Red Hot Peppers and had read the book Mister Jelly Roll, based largely on the Library of Congress interviews, so I knew all about the legendary recordings but had never heard any part of them. John knew I would understand the importance of what I had just heard, and I could tell it gave him great pleasure to give me my first earful of that treasury of American music—always the teacher, even in an informal moment like that one.
I could not have known it then, at the beginning of a very long relationship, but that one small incident has come to stand for the many ways in which John could sense an interest, an enthusiasm that was worth encouraging in a student. He was not in the business of recruiting disciples. Instead, he excelled in helping each of us to find our own field of interest and to articulate that in our own voice. He often expressed his discomfort with the term "comparative literature" because he felt it was far too limiting—it's not just about literature, he would say, and would rather call it something like "comparative studies," so that it clearly made room for many different, interdisciplinary approaches to literature.
As fate would have it, years after the afternoon when we listened to a small part of Jelly Roll Morton's Library of Congress interviews, I wrote my book Dead Man Blues: Jelly Roll Morton Way out West, based in large part on those very interviews. And while I can't say that afternoon led directly to the book, I can certainly say that when John encouraged me to find ways to bring music and literature together, he got me going in that direction. Needless to say, when Federal Express brought me the package with advance copies of the book, the first thing I did was send a copy to John, with a note reminding him of that afternoon in New York.
Phil Pastras is Assistant Professor of English, Pasadena City College.
If it weren't for John McCormick I don't think I would have gotten a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Rutgers. After leaving Yale University in 1962, where for one year I attended graduate school in English, I had a wide variety of jobs. In January 1965 I returned to graduate school at Rutgers, mainly because I wanted to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam. I left Yale because I was bored with sitting in classrooms and writing papers. Now I was sitting in classrooms and writing papers again.
Taking John's course--it was a survey of different methods of literary criticism--I gradually reconciled myself to being back in graduate school. He was a lucid teacher with a dry wit who could talk knowledgeably about the literature of several countries. I also was impressed with his career. I learned that he had seen action in World War II and that he had mastered the art of bullfighting. I felt that he was a man of the world who happened to be a professor. We often chatted after class. I remember having conversations with him about Camus and Orwell. He was amused by my work experience; I had been a clerk for the New York Times, a reporter for the Bergen Record, and a proofreader for the National Enquirer. I did not take another course with John--I think he was on sabbatical for one year--but two years later I chose him as my thesis advisor.
Sadly, after I left Rutgers I lost touch with John for almost three decades. I renewed our acquaintance after learning that John was a good friend of George Core, the editor of the Sewanee Review, which I began writing for in the late 1990s. Core gave me John's address and we began a regular correspondence. We talked about our respective writing projects and about the books we were reading. In one letter I told him that I was having trouble finishing Don Quixote; he said I should read it in the original. (In an earlier letter he made the same point about reading Proust.) After our correspondence began, I began reading John's work. I had already read his fascinating book on bullfighting, The Complete Aficionado, though I disliked the only bullfight I had seen in Barcelona in the early 1960s. I also read his superb biography of George Santayana, which will long be the definitive biography of the philosopher.
A few years later I read his memoir, Seagoing, which talks about John's difficult early life, including his religious doubts. "There was a lot to get through if I was going to order my semi-beliefs and prejudices, for my thoughts were like migrating birds blown out of formation by heavy winds." Like many ex-Catholics I've met, John had a strong respect for tradition. "I think often of a fellow Catholic atheist who, upon hearing of papal reforms remarked, 'I want the Church I left to stay exactly as it was when I left it."'
Two years ago George Core asked me to review a collection of John's essays. I was anxious about the assignment. What if I disliked the essays? Fortunately, I liked most of them, so I could write an honest review. I noted the wide range of his interests. There was an essay on the Berlin Uprising of 1953, which he witnessed; an essay on Ezra Pound's repeated attempts to befriend Santayana (Santayana found Pound bewildering, even maddening); an essay on old age that was tough-minded but also genial.
I hoped some day to see John in England, but I never did see him again. Our politics were somewhat different, but I'm sure we would have had a fine time together because we would have engaged in good-natured raillery. John's lack of solemnity is evident in all his work, but especially in Seafaring. He quotes a woman who said that "to debate the existence of God is like eating soup with a fork." At the end of the book he offers a brief anecdote about death. When a neighbor asked a woman whose husband recently died "how she was getting along after her loss, she answered, 'Of course, I miss him very much, but it is lovely to have the closet space.'"
John's gloss on this remark is: "Heartless perhaps, pragmatic indeed, resistant to the tragic view of life, but neither mystical nor sentimental, and reassuringly honest. Must we ask for more?"
Stephen Miller's most recent books are Conversation: A History of a Declining Art and The Peculiar Life of Sundays.
An Epochal Figure
John was an epochal figure in my life as a student. No one I had ever met before, and scarcely anyone I have met since, combined intellect and passion in such a compelling way. For years and years--even now--he was, is, as an editor I know once put it, "one of the few good voices in my head." He set a standard for scholarship, for criticism, for life, that I have kept as my marker ever since. He was a great master and certainly a major mentor in my life. But when we read Emerson together, when we read Proust together, when we read Malcolm Lowry together, he was the best literary comrade a student might have. It's not only the love of literature itself--and its importance in life--that he imprinted on me. He extended me, a then woozy-minded kid from North Jersey with vague literary aspirations, kindness after kindness without ever wavering from his own fierce and deeply held convictions. He changed my life.
Alan Cheuse is a novelist, essayist, and journalist. He teaches in the MFA program at George Mason University, and reviews books for NPR's evening news-magazine All Things Considered. His latest novel is Song of Slaves in the Desert (2011).
The Pedagogy of Professor Ahab
I know Captain Ahab well; I've sailed with him as mate years ago; I know what he is—a good man—not a pious, good man, like Bildad, but a swearing good man...I know that he was never very jolly...he's been a kind of moody—desperate moody, and savage sometimes; but that will all pass off. And once for all, let me tell thee and assure thee, young man, it's better to sail with a moody good captain than a laughing bad one...
In an age of relentless assessment and evaluation, how much is missed of the long-term, long-lived learning that comes from study with and study of a difficult master. Grounded in history, John O. McCormick's approach to literature consisted not merely of methodology, but of a personal ethos of impassioned commitment. His influence has been not so much direct—he was too unusual, and perhaps too fearsome, to be emulated—but he embodied a kind of intellectual fire that allowed, even empowered, many of us to find our own professional and methodological paths.
A seminar in the novel. We read Don Quixote, and there was the stern and serious Professor McCormick moving between forceful arguments for the first European novel form and deep amusement at Quixote's romantic delusions (he even laughed in recounting the story of an unfortunate undergraduate who constructed an assigned exam dialogue between Rastignac and Julien Sorel from the misapprehension that Rastignac was Don Quixote's horse). But what he communicated was the nobility of the quest and a belief in imaginative redemption, two values that he fiercely defended in literary works. Not as be-alls and end-alls; he was too sophisticated to offer a simplistic humanistic defense. Our seminar conversations moved among intellectual history, aesthetics, and the Romantic focus on an individual metaphysics. For Professor McCormick, Quixote's delusions did not lose their grandeur despite his tormented final recognitions of them, but instead became emblematic of the individual power to create, tying for John that imaginative creation to belief and a proto-Kantian morality. In all the many rereadings of this novel provided by later theory, this ethos remains: one can read, and find dignity in, the humanity of Quixote's visions and pains. Technical literary merit was the beginning; human reality was the end.
It was Le rouge et le noir not Don Quixote that featured a hero John seemed to find exemplary, however. The varied realisms of Cervantes and Flaubert each missed the mark for him; Stendhal provided the touchstone of a historically-based Romanticism, and Julien Sorel the pinnacle of a self-defining, defiant hero. Madame de Rênal mixed human weakness and feminine ideal, and Julien's passion was not delusional in the way of Quixote or the "female Quixote" Emma Bovary: it was real, materially and historically situated, and it was generative of a self and a creed. It was historical and individual accuracy that John valued in Stendhal. Unhappy with my analysis of La Chartreuse de Parme, John challenged me by asking if I had ever been in battle (no, though I did grow up in working-class New Jersey). "Well," he said huffily, "I have. And this is what it was like." The consonance of history and self was a consistent value he strove to teach.
I came to understand the concept of a literary sensibility by listening to and observing John—what prompted his intellectual interest, but what also gave him personal pleasure and philosophical satisfaction. At the time I suspected him of an unexamined bias in his treatment of George Eliot (in one of my first papers, he crossed out my reference to "Austen" and wrote, "Miss or Jane, please"), for while he acknowledged admiringly the historical realism of Middlemarch and the romantic liberation of Dorothea with her Will, he saw the book as somehow not modern, lacking in complexity in its treatment of consciousness. Now I see how that book failed to evoke in him the feeling that he required of a sense of greatness, an experiential capaciousness that transcends material history and quotidian travails. I disagree with him intellectually, but I value the lesson in seeing a text through competing sensibilities and a rejection of "objective" standards. To his further pedagogical credit, we ended this course with Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow; could an author be more antithetical to John's taste? His disdain for the book was matched by his critical attention to it, and his pursuit of literary analysis encompassed hostile as well as fervent passions.
There was much more, from Die Leiden des Jungens Werthers to Doktor Faustus (and, of course, Moby-Dick), and in all of it John taught from his commitment to rigorous analysis and individual belief. This often made him difficult, in many senses of the term. But he embodied the claim that one may not admire a text, may not like it, but one must engage with it anyway. I argue with him in my head even still. And I thank him for his model of intellectual freedom, and his ethos of intellectual responsibility.
Jeanne Gunner is Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Education and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Chapman University in Orange, CA.