The Cambridge Scene

It's the sort of thing you read about in psychological novels. Morris was a young man out of the West who came to Harvard because he wanted to be a writer, and the Cambridge community had spawned its share of the literati--from T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound to Conrad Aiken. The spectrum appeared to be wide enough for Morris--hero of the high school avant-garde. And he brought plenty of yellow paper with him.

The first thing Morris discovered was that Harvard was an Academy of Form. This fact reflected itself in his General Education composition course, and, later, in the English Department. The understanding of form and technique--the craft, as Percy Lubbock has it of fiction--was the primary concern of all Harvard and had been for three centuries.

Such a preoccupation with form stemmed from Harvard's belief in education as a discipline of the mind--a pencil-sharpener supplying precision to the basic materials.

Morris was vaguely disturbed by all this brooding on craft. He was disturbed by the intellectual exercises of imitating ancient forms by the thriceweekly traipses through the scholastic limbo of image-source and word derivation. Of course Morris was an egotist, and he awoke occasionally at midnight with the ugly thought: "What if I'm being disciplined out of existence?"

For the preservation of his self-respect, Morris evolved a theory of literary evolution. It wasn't a new one, but it served as a tranquilizer during those long introspective sessions over cold tea at the Bick. The theory went like this: that Harvard was an alien place. staffed with immobile minds, sealed with several centuries of strict tradition, garlanded with unalterable standards, and cast in a peculiarly rigid social structure. In short, the Cambridge strata were well-rutted and different. Morris as one of the eager young men from elsewhere appeared in such a society and became immediately, and noticeably, uncomfortable.


As a Creative Artist, Morris had several alternatives: one, to adopt and adjust to the new standards two, to change the old ones; or three, to protest. Since the first two were impossible for Morris, he started shouting (discreetly, late in the night, at a typewriter). Morris was one with Thomas Wolfe, Eugene O'Neill, and all the other neurotics who never really adjusted to Harvard, as contrasted with James Gould Cozzens, Eliot, Edward Arlington Robinson, and George Santayana--the crew of the Cambridge chambered nautilus, the Brattle Street spiritus mundi.

All Morris had to do was convince his tutor.

At this stage of the game he ran into the Cult of Henry James. James, the Novelist's Novelist, is the fair-haired favorite in these parts. Almost totally unread elsewhere in America, James finds his audience in privately endowed universities and their reading lists. Even at the Summer School, James is the great brooding deity casting delicate thunderbolts at America's literary nomads.

James is the Dean of the Anatomical School of Literature--the Neo-Sophistry which views poetry and prose as a connected skeleton. The curriculum is not particularly concerned with what the skeleton has to say, what it thinks about, or, indeed, if it's starving to death. It's bone-structure, marrow, and stomach-muscle, the physiology of literature.

Now Morris believed that "authority" was important. And he had premonitions about "style," and "character development" and intricate word relationships. But Morris liked to believe he was a 3-D thinker, and there were other dimensions. He persisted in the quaint notion that a writer should say something, that exercises and elaborate form and consistent technique were the tuxedo; there was the matter of filling the clothes up with something.

Morris, after long hours in Lamont, hazarded the heresy that James never really did say anything that needed saying, and even if he'd tried, the style would have been in the way. Of course, Morris was a bit naive. He hadn't translated literature into an ontological entity, and terms like "rendition" seemed little more than post facto price tags on genius. Morris, an aristocrat beneath the talcum powder, objected to the idea of fiction which has been the kept woman of the bourgeoise, the Critics. And James was really a critic writing handbooks.

Mark Twain's classic rules for fiction, reflected Morris in a rare burst of pedantry, included: "Employ a simple and straightforward style," "Eschew surplusage," and "Accomplish something and arrive somewhere." Why, then, did English courses of every variety let James creep in through the trap door under the lectern? Why, on the other hand, did most courses on American literature ignore Thomas Wolfe?

A university has to have categories, and labels (alphabetized), and orderly arrangements of the paraphernalia of culture. And James not only fitted in, but brought along a system with him. Wolfe, of course, was a little long in some directions and too thin in others, to reconcile with the filing cabinet. Morris took it all as a moral lesson, and went about looking for stones and leaves and unlocked doors.

That was until he ran into his allies. You see, there were other people who didn't like Henry James. Those People who hang around Schoenhof's in the daytime and well-lit Wigg windows at night (in this sublimating summer age), who scrawl bits of free verse on toilet paper tissue and pursue the Muse enthusiastically. Like the grimy fellow who whispered over his Haffenreffer malt liquor: "How could James know about life? You heard about the bicycle accident he had when he was young? Well ..."

Morris had to stick to his beliefs despite Harvard's Lost Generation. The whole thing was a good deal like discovering that yogurt is milk with more bacteria and the Communists are against child-labor. But Morris did survive, and now edits a little magazine. Sic semper tyrannus.