Portraits of Harvard Figures
Professor of History and Literature
Professor Francis Otto Matthiessen, of the department of History and Literature, weights eleven or twelve stone, measures some five foot eight, has brown eyes and lightish hair, is young, single and believes firmly in the possibilities of literature applied to life. As one of the gentlemen who writes the examinations for the field of History and Lit, he is the cause of much trepidation among the orthodox English literature tycoons; to others, to the majority, in fact, he has shone as the white hope of the department ever since being appointed. And to remain this to the English department for more than three semesters is a rare achievement for any man.
B.A. at Yale, at Harvard, Ph.D., at Oxford Rhodes scholar, these were the stages in the professor's progress, resulting in as completely educated a man as you are likely to meet walking between Garden Street and Jim's Place of a winter evening. From among such various tugs of influence and tradition, he has emerged with a balance and soundness rare in the professional student, and an eclectic view. Though he has a great and natural affection for his first Alma Mater, interesting himself much in its affairs as an alumnus, he considers that Harvard and the Harvard undergraduate far more developed intellectually than their counterparts at New Haven. From Oxford he returned without the customary preciosities; the way English is taught there he deems even worse than the Harvard methods. To realize what he managed to escape in the Graduate School, it is only necessary to hear one of his lectures.
Many, in and outside the field of English, meet up with Professor Matthiessen in that favorite course. Eng- lish 33. Those sophomores and juniors who gather twice weekly in Harvard 6 are soon aware that here definitely is not the usual experience of being lectured to. Envirioned by the usual paraphernalia of stuffiness, the large classroom and the elevated platform, Professor Matthiessen skirts the unnecessary, lightens the formidable and weighty, and breaks through to his audience with authentic and original views of the works at hand. Those who know what most lecturers could do to revolutionary ballads are grateful. His method in any of his courses is hard to explain in fast terms. It seems to be what it is by virtue of his realization that books should be a criticism of life. Most of the Harvard faculty seem to go on the working assumption that life is the criticism of books. Having endured the attrition of English and American teaching in literature, Matthiessen is anxious to do something better than most of it. And in his courses he is succeeding in this.
During the first two years of Eliot House's existence, its Head Tutor was Professor Matthiessen. In those years he was equally famous for his good China tea, his cat Pretzel, and the part of the Dutch skipper in the House play, which he played quite without fault (Cf. Dekker's "The Shoemaker's Holiday," Mermaid edition). Cats are great favorites with him; he has been known to spend five or ten minutes at a stretch gazing into the eyes of his tabby while it sits in his lap. Just love, apparently. Crayon-drawings of past cats in his life stood about the Head Tutor's rooms in Eliot House for the two years of his incumbency.
The catholicity of mind and attractiveness of manner which are striking in him as a teacher, come out further when one knows and can talk with him. It is his gift to be able to carry on discussions with the most diverse kinds of people, to have the most varied of friendships, and still completely to retain his own integrity. In London, before going up to Oxford, he was standing at a hotel desk when there came a hearty clap on his back and a voice blurted forth "HELLO, fellow Eli." This young bounder, an orchestra-leader, had passes for most of the fashionable night-clubs, and in his company Professor Matthiessen made the rounds. This was his first meeting with Rudy Vallee. At the other end of his range of acquaintances is Mr. T. S. Eliot, whose poetry he greatly admires. Among his more flamboyant memories he can count a canoe-ride in Kittery Bay with Eliot, the latter dressed in a derby and spats, with a cane. Incidentally, his house in Kittery he shares with the artist Russell Cheney, and he is himself no inconsiderable amateur of various arts. His strongest taste in painting is for the early Italians, El Groce, Cozanne and Pieasso; a truly modern roster