Monday, May 24, 2021

the last book I ever read (Philip Roth: The Biography, excerpt five)

from Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey:

The highlight of Roth’s undergraduate career was “The Seminar”—Martin’s two-semester, invitation-only honors course that covered the entirety of English literature “from its beginnings to the present,” or from Beowulf to Stephen Spender, as things stood then. For nine credit hours per semester (the equivalent of three regular courses) the workload was immense: Students had to read one or two books a week, as well as fifty pages in Albert Baugh’s Literary History of England, an underlined copy of which Roth would forever keep on the library table of his Connecticut living room. Because of Baugh, he liked to say, “I still know who Barnaby Goodge is and what Tottle’s Miscellany is and am the only person on West Seventy-ninth who has read Ralph Roister Doister.” Some of his other reading included Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, a lot of Shakespeare (four plays, the sonnets, “The Phoenix and the Turtle”), Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy, the major Romantics, at least one novel from Trollope’s Barchester series, Thomas Huxley, selected passages from Ulysses, and more. Students wrote a lot, too: at least one weekly critical paper and a summary of the assigned Baugh pages, all of it “scrutinized for accuracy and for common sense by Miss Martin.”

The class of eight students met for three hours every Thursday afternoon, either in the Vaughan Literature Building library, or in Miss Martin’s living room on South Front Street. Sitting beside the fireplace in the latter, Roth would admire the old rugs and floorboards, the vast shelves of books, and look forward to his own “life of reading books and writing about them”—and, of course, talking about them. Discussions often got heated, as students sought to impress Miss Martin with their superperceptive sniping at “unsubstantiated” opinions, or criticism that was merely “subjective.” As Roth recalled, “She herself had no more animus than a radar screen locating objects in space: what Mildred Martin located were our weakness of observation and expression. Nothing imperfect flew by her unnoted. She was the first of my scrupulous editors—the sternest, the most relentless, the best.” In 1991, during a videotaped chat with Roth, Martin still remembered the excitement of that particular seminar class—her best ever, she thought, along with the 1948-49 group that included Wheatcroft—and laughed about the time Roth and Minton had become so exercised over a line in Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” that they stood shouting at each other while “Tasch was egging you on.”

No comments:

Post a Comment