Murder in the Cathedral

Faculty Profile

The new maid at Eliot House entered the room cautiously. She had begun straightening an immense pile of letters and scraps when she spotted a middle-aged man, upcuded and apparently practicing yoga.

"Jesus Christ!" she exclaimed as maids are wont to do in a crisis.

The man moved not at all. "No, madam," he corrected gently, "just one of his loyal disciples, Arthur Darby Nock."

This anecdote, with minor variations, crops up whenever undergraduates swap professorial idiosyncrasies. Arthur Darbv Nock likes the story with but one reservation: it isn't true.

It is of little consequence, however, if this legend is nipped now. For every one exaggeration about Nock there are three varieties more unique.

A foremost authority on religion, murder mysteries, and shaggy dog stories, Nock is a professor in the noble and vanishing tradition. He is brilliant, kind, and studiously eccentric.

No one who has seen him fend off oncoming traffic along Mount Auburn can forget the picture of a dignified gentleman extending his umbrella like a rapier, challenging the automobile to ducl. The season is unimportant; Nock carries his umbrella on the clearest day.

To write off Nock as only a character would be to slight the real man. John Finley, Master of Eliot House, calls him a "walking bibliography," and "the T. S. Eliot of scholars." Nock's list of publications, degrees, and honors is even longer than the ever growing string of personal anecdotes about him.

But his personality, which attracts people first, does match his brilliance. His views are usually unusual, occasionally unorthodox in their orthodoxy.

Nock is, for example, a devout member of the Church of England and he startles his History of Religion 101b course each spring by edging to the door at the end of the last class before Easter. Just the the bell rings, he explodes, "I want you to know that I hold each and every one of you personally responsible for the death of our Saviour, Jesus Christ." Waving his umbrella a few times, Nock disappears out the door.

His loyalty to the Anglican Church makes Nock vehemently deny the yoga legend. "I have never practiced yoga nor played the flute as that person in Esquire wrote," Nock corrects. And indeed it is difficult to imagine flute music from Nock. His voice, a low rumble punctuated with periodic jovial blasts, would suit a rough rider.

There is little of the frontier in Nock's background, however. Born in England and educated at Trinity in Cambridge, he came to Harvard at the age of 27. He was appointed a full professor a year later in 1930, the youngest man ever given such a rank at Harvard. Nock is not sure why he came to America or why he stayed on at Harvard. "Life has a habit of making decisions for you. You hesitate and then you just do a thing, wot?"

In the twenty years since life made its decision, Nock has lived almost exclusively at Eliot House. "They knew I was going to occupy this room," Nock says, "so the shelving was all put in. I used to wander with Mr. Lowell and his dog about the foundations here. It was a gas works or something then."

When the Navy took over Eliot House during the second World War, Nock was the only person to refuse to move. "I couldn't go anywhere else," he confides, "look around you." On every side of the panelled rooms there are papers, books and the disarray of twenty productive years. It would require at least two decades more to sort through his volumes and the shopping bags crammed with random notations.

In front of his large fireplace is a mountain of blue books. University rules require that each test booklet is kept for one year after the examination. And so Nock stacks the books carefully and on the three hundred and sixty-fifth day, he sweeps the pile into the fire. Then he prepares for the next batch.

During the occupation, Nock was a little awed by the Nary. "They were much faster on the stairs," he remembers, "and that student voice on the loud speaker below it was beastly!" The Navy, however, was greatly awed by Arthur Darby Nock. Harrassed officers tried many manctivers to case Nock to civilian quarters, but they could not budge his resistance nor his thousands of books.

Master Finley recalls, "When the Navy fellows first came here, many looked like they had just come out of the S.S. Oklahoma boiler room. Nock would come up to these boys, whisper a little Latin phrase in their cars, and bob off down Dunster Street. The boys knew then that they were at Harvard."

Nock's associates, while delighted by his eccentricities, always stress his many kindnesses to those around him. His acquaintanceship with under-graduates is somewhat limited, but to the graduate and even the professor, he is always helpful. Personally, he counts the companionship of the Society of Fellows as extraordinarily valuable to him.

In his literary interests, Nock readily admits that he is not an intellectual reader. "I like murder mysteries," he says. "It is the one field on which women are superior to men."

The large step from outstanding scholar of religion to leading raconteur of shaggy dog stories is bridged somewhat by this interest in the mystery. It is still, a little surprising, however, to hear him conclude in his thick British accent: "And the spinster said, 'Oh, no, sir, my dog wasn't nearly as shaggy as that.'" A few words of the punch line may be lost when Nock laughs--a hearty blast followed by a creaky chuckle.

Nock's extensive travels are remembered as fragments of beautiful moments. "I remember dawns: a sunrise in Syria over the snows of Lebanon for example. Or the rainy, wretched, perfectly filthy day in Greece when we turned a corner and suddenly came upon the Acropolis for the first time. And--why, you wouldn't believe how good the Business School looks on particular mornings."

With travels East and West, books in his kitchen, and reams of brilliance in a shopping bag, Nock leads an active, many-sided life, ordered amid the helter-skelter. Choosing the scholar's monastic life, he has in his erratic, diverse way filled an essentially lonely pattern with lifelong friendships and warmth. For his active sense of humor extends beyond Little Audrey and limericks; it takes in his sealskin hat, his omnipresent umbrella, indeed, Arthur Darby Nock himself.