Worth Remembering: Books by Some of My UW Professors

November 26th, 2011

Stumbling across the text of The Politics of Irish Literature, written by Malcolm Brown, who taught a survey of 20th century English novels I took in my sophomore year at the University of Washington, I was reminded of a number of my UW professors whose books qualify for a notice on this site.

My own copy of Politics has Dr. Brown’s autograph on the inside flap. Published by the University of Washington Press in 1972, it fared better than the average academic work. Reviewing for the London Evening Standard, Michael Foot wrote that, “Mr. Brown’s masterpiece has made me want to hire a nearby housetop and recite whole chunks to every passerby…,” and Sean O’Faolain called it, “A brilliant study … Reading it one feels about one the breath, warmth, and passions of the dead all come alive again.” You can find the full text of Politics and Brown’s equally well-regarded study of George Moore: A Reconsideration can be found online at www.astonisher.com, a site run by Brown’s son, Bruce.

I long ago devoted a Sources page to Roger Sales’ article, “Neglected Recent American Novels,”, from the Winter 1979 issue of The American Scholar. I took Sales’ nonfiction writing course in my junior year, and it remains the single most useful class I’ve ever had. Sales expected his students to turn in a piece of 3-5 pages on a set topic twice a week. His goal was, by sheer volume and frequency, to teach how to get from first to final draft in the shortest possible time. It’s a skill I rely upon almost every working day.

Sales’ most popular book–still in print after over 30 years–is Seattle: Past and Present, which has become the standard history of the city. His most influential book, Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E. B. White (Harvard Paperbacks) (1979), played a major role in bringing children’s literature into the academic curriculum and remains one of the best introductions to the subject.

Although he’d retired by the time I entered the University, Giovanni Costigan still occasionally delivered lecture series, and I had the privilege to attend one of his last, on “Makers of Modern History.” Costigan was something of a local legend for a famous 1971 debate he had with William F. Buckley on the Vietnam War. It filled the University’s Edmondson Pavilion to capacity and was broadcast on the UW’s PBS station. With his wild shock of snow-white hair, rich Irish brogue and feisty style, Costigan was quite a contrast to Buckley’s slicked-back hair and purring Eastern aristocratic tone, and even my deeply-Republican grandfather rated Costigan the winner in the end.

Costigan wrote several books, including a short biography of Freud that Colliers published in paperback in 1968 and a history of modern Ireland. Makers of Modern England: The Force of Individual Genius in History is probably the best example of Costigan’s writing. He was very much in the spirit of Thomas Carlyle and such masters of biographical sketches as Gamaliel Bradford and Stefan Zweig–perhaps not the style in favor today, but wonderful reading if you’re willing to have your historians pass judgment on their subject’s characters.

Another professor emeritus I had the honor to get to know was W. Stull Holt. I was taking a course on World War One from Dr. Donald Emerson, and for some reason my interest in the subject–and probably the fact that I was in officer training–led him to invite me to lunch with Holt one day. Holt–a former Chairman of the University’s History department and one-time head of the American Historical Assocation–had joined the American Ambulance Field Service in 1917 and served with John Dos Passos, e.e. cummings, and others on the Western Front. He enlisted in the American Army after the U.S. entered the war, trained as a pilot and bombardier, and flew with the 20th Aero Squadron.

Holt died in 1981. Almost 20 years later, his letters and diaries from the war were collected and published in The Great War at Home and Abroad: The World War I Diaries and Letters of W. Stull Holt, which is still in print from the Sunflower University Press. His best-known work as a historian, Treaties Defeated by the Senate: A Study of the Struggle Between President and Senate over the Conduct of Foreign Relations, is available as a reprint, but most of his other books, including a long series of histories of executive departments, are probably of limited interest.

Holt and Emerson first met in 1943, when Holt commanded a U.S. Army intelligence unit based in England that worked in liaison with the British M.I.9. Holt headed the team responsible for training American flight crews on escape and evasion, and worked to help Allied prisoners to escape from German P.O.W. camps. He once showed me some artifacts from that time, including playing cards with hidden maps and board games whose pieces could be assembled to form compasses and used to create forged identity documents.

While serving with Holt, Emerson was responsible for interrogating hundreds of Germans captured in fighting after D-Day, and became something of a specialist in dealing with former members of the S.S.. That experience may have helped years later when Emerson wrote his only published book, Metternich and the Political Police: Security and Subversion in the Hapsburg Monarchy (1815-1830). Although very much an academic work, it makes for chilling reading, as it demonstrates that the opening and censorship of private letters was routine–almost universal–and a primary instrument of state control back in Metternich’s time.

The last course in English I took at the UW was taught by Ivan Kolpacoff. At the time, I didn’t know much about his background, but several years later, I came across a copy of his 1967 novel, The Prisoners of Quai Dong, in the stacks of Moe’s bookstore in Berkeley. Prisoners deals with the interrogation and torture of Viet Cong prisoners by Americans in an isolated unit. Kolpacoff wrote the book without ever having set foot in Vietnam, but his account was effective and convincing, and earned the book prominent reviews in the New York Review of Books and New Republic. Irving Howe wrote of the novel, “It is completely absorbing; it focuses on a subject of large contemporary interest; it is compactly formed; and it is written with a verbal discipline that, in this moment of cultural yawp, seems remarkable.” Stanley Kauffmann found it, “The structure of the novel is simple, and therefore carefully designed. The artifice is not concealed: it is formal, innocent, classic. There is a purity in the form that perfectly fits the basic purpose of the book.” Although neither reviewer considered Prisoners to be on a par with The Red Badge of Courage, they both felt the book benefited from Kolpacoff’s lack of personal experience, in that it made his account all the more abstract and timeless. Given America’s recent experiences with Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and water-boarding, there might be an audience to interest a publisher in reissuing The Prisoners of Quai Dong.

My first course in English, by the way, was a survey of best-sellers, taught by Dr. Elinor Yaggy. She was a wonderful lecturer who loved to read out favorite passages in a booming voice that seemed as if she hoped to jam her enthusiasms into us by its sheer force. She actually managed to find something worth liking in the gawd-awful Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. She may also hold the record for the most successful book published by any of my professors, though I wouldn’t recommend it to any casual reader: her How to Write Your Term Paper went through at least four editions from Harper and Row and provided a valuable crutch to at least a generation’s worth of college students–including me.

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