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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

PROFILE

Optimist

By Roy M. Goodman

When Joseph Warren Beach was a grad student at Harvard almost fifty years ago, he was not sure whether he wanted to become a minister or a teacher. Although he can't recall just what influenced his final decision, it is not hard to guess. As a minister, Professor Beach could never have indulged regularly in his one great weakness--cheerful checkered and striped shirts.

The colorful shirts reveal much about this distinguished guest lecturer in American Literature. Who but the man with a highly developed and independent aesthetic sense could match those shirts so tastefully with a conservative business suit? Who but the straightforward and unpretentious man could wear them on a lecture platform before several hundred people and look so relaxed?

Perhaps Professor Beach developed the taste for these shirts during his pioneer years at college, in the lumberlands of Minnesota. When he graduated in 1900, he carried his luggage and Phi Beta Kappa Key to Cambridge, where he got his M.A. and Ph.D. under George Lyman Kittredge. After Harvard, he returned to Minnesota and became an assistant professor of English literature. By 1924, he was a full professor.

At first Professor Beach specialized in the 19th century. He wrote critical works on Meredith, Hardy, and Henry James. It was only in response to the request of a friend in the Philosophy Department at Minnesota that he moved into contemporary literature by writing a book called "The Twentieth Century Novel" in 1932. It was so well received that he has continued criticising modern American novels and poetry over since.

Although chiefly noted for his critical works, Beach has produced both poems, and a novel. His first published work was a book of sonnets written when he was only 23. Since then he has produced many other poems and one novel, called "The Glass Mountain." The most recent of his creative works is a book of poems called "Involuntary Witness." It will be published by Macmillan in a few weeks.

A great number of Professor Beach's poems describe people. Critics have called him a pessimist, but he insists that he really takes a bright view of human nature. He says that although his poems depict suffering and failure, they nevertheless are full of genial appreciation of the game of life. "Human beings have a moral residuum that makes them worthwhile, even though, like the pitchblende from which radium is extracted, they appear pretty worthless at times."

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