Although I spent eight years studying English at Stony Brook University, where I was an undergraduate from 1974 to 1978 and a Ph.D. student until 1983, I was never a good fit in academia. None of my professors was engaged in an activity that seemed even remotely appealing: If they weren’t eagerly annotating doodles and smudges in the margins of medieval psalters, they were overanalyzing some obscure 17th-century poem. Most ominous of all, every new faculty hire seemed to belong to some cockamamie new critical school that had nothing to do with loving books, which was why I’d signed up for literary study in the first place.
Two professors proved the exception and my salvation—although one of them also proved my near-downfall. Both wrote for general-audience magazines and literary quarterlies, which people actually read, rather than for academic journals. For this reason, both were looked down upon by their more strictly scholarly colleagues, who professed to consider them insufficiently serious, but whose condescension I soon recognized as rooted mostly in envy.
The first of these two professors was Louis Simpson (1923–2012), the witty, frequently caustic Pulitzer Prize–winning poet and New York Times bestselling critic, who when he taught modern literature, invariably conveyed brilliant insights, sounding all the while as if he was just talking casually to his friends.
The other was John Thompson, known as Jack.
I first took a graduate seminar with him on Hemingway and Fitzgerald, then a second on the poets Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, and Robert Lowell (all four of whom became the subjects of my dissertation), and a third on Henry James. Thompson was like nothing else in that, or perhaps any, English Department. Before ever taking a course with him, I’d heard that on the mornings of the days he had classes, he could be seen in his office, the door open, tossing back paper cups of white wine at his desk, and inviting pretty girls, as they passed by, to join him for a drink. The wine also turned up at my first seminar with him: He’d come in with it and during the seminar would make regular trips back to his office, across the corridor, to refill his cup.
“I’m going to teach you kids how grown-ups talk about literature,” Jack growled on the first day of our first seminar. This, it turned out, meant no theories, no ideology, no politics. Those who had come ready to take notes were visibly at a loss. Those who wanted a formal lecture or some kind of rigorous back-and-forth about deep symbols or plot structure were uncomfortable. Not that Jack didn’t take literature seriously. On the contrary: That was the whole point. He revered it, and he knew that many of his colleagues didn’t. They were careerists, drudges, footnoters, smudge annotators. He was a man of letters, a literary intellectual. Like Simpson, although with less success, he’d published poetry, a long time earlier. Then, in 1984, a poem by Jack called “Ending on Paumanok” (Paumanok being a Native American name for Long Island) appeared in the New York Review of Books. It begins:
Ending on fishy Paumanok where I will die
Not forgotten, nor praised as a perfect father,
O Camerados, birds of a pinioned feather,
Flock for me once on that American day.
He’d also written erudite essays for the New York Review and the Hudson Review and COMMENTARY, about big cultural and social questions. For him, literature wasn’t made for a man to dissect cold-bloodedly but for a man to take into himself and gauge its impact on his soul.
Everybody knew that he was, or had been, in the CIA. According to Frances Stonor Saunders’s 1999 book Who Paid the Piper?, Jack became executive director of the Farfield Foundation, a CIA front that funded cultural projects, at the recommendation of his Columbia University colleague Lionel Trilling (Jack had begun teaching at Columbia in 1949). In 1964, under the auspices of the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, Jack went to Germany to take part in the Berlin Festwochen, along with such luminaries as Günter Grass and W.H. Auden; later, according to the book editor Jason Epstein, Jack “became obsessed with saving Africans from the Russians, and he traveled there a lot.”
In our seminars, he affected a tough-guy manner: He had something of a swagger, spoke in a gruff voice, and liked to wisecrack and use profanity. Now and then, to be sure, when he talked about books he loved, his voice would choke up and the look in his eyes would soften, and it was clear that under the surface bluster there was deep feeling that, for some reason, he felt a need to cover up. (I was struck when I read, years later, this comment in a memoir he wrote of the Grand Rapids, Michigan, family in which he grew up: “What I had to hide, what I had to hide so hard it almost killed me, was that I loved them.”) Although he wasn’t terribly old when I knew him—he was in his sixties then, about the same age, strange as it is to think, that I am now—he seemed a figure from the past, a man who’d suffered some immense loss and who saw himself as living, now, in a long grim twilight.
Most of my fellow Ph.D. students were thrown by Jack’s irreverent manner and off-color humor, which I recognized as, in large part anyway, a means of giving the finger to the stodgier and more pretentious and inauthentic aspects of the academy, as well as its reflexive leftism. Nor could they see any value in his free-wheeling approach to teaching. So it was that in the third seminar I took with him, the one on Henry James, all but two of the eight or 10 students who’d signed up for it dropped out by the third week. That left me and my friend S.
Jack was delighted. Now that there were just three of us, we didn’t have to meet in a classroom. Instead, we piled into his beat-up old station wagon—which, he told us proudly, had belonged to his late Kenyon College housemate and lifelong friend Robert Lowell—and drove to a hotel in nearby Port Jefferson, where we’d grab a table at the bar and talk about Henry James over mugs of beer. Later in the term, we met at Jack’s ramshackle house in Wading River, where we made pots of stew and polished off massive bottles of the cheapest wine.
To Jack, S. and I weren’t just his students. When he discovered that S., unlike me, didn’t have a car, he gave him a set of keys to his beloved station wagon. He even gave him keys to the Wading River house, so he could take girls there on weekends when Jack was at his Manhattan apartment with his wife. As the term wore on, Jack seemed to view us more and more with the eyes of a father. It was only much later that I learned that his son, Peter—named for another old Kenyon housemate, the beautifully gifted Tennessee writer Peter Taylor—had died in a car accident a few years earlier at the age of 19.
AT SOME point I hunted down Jack’s books in the university library. Both are small gems. The Founding of English Metre (1961) is a pioneering study of metrics. The Talking Girl and Other Poems (1968) is a collection of 14 short verses (plus a translation of Virgil’s first eclogue) that displays an easy command of different forms and styles and voices. And I sought out his literary and cultural journalism in the back issues of periodicals. I was impressed but wasn’t able to find enough of his magazine work to get a clear sense of his oeuvre. So I was pleased to discover recently that his essays, reviews, and other short uncollected writings were brought together two years ago, in two large volumes, by his daughter, Louise Thompson, and Ruth Losack, under the title Straws in the Wind.1
Among the writings included in Straws in the Wind are several substantial essays on social and cultural issues, consistently trenchant reviews of new novels by John Updike, V.S. Naipaul, Iris Murdoch, and dozens of others, plus important obituaries of Trilling and Lowell. Jack’s running theme is that literature has undergone a steep decline since the glory days of high modernism. “Why do we not care more about poetry?” Jack asks at the beginning of a review of no fewer than 22 new poetry collections. In another poetry review, he wonders “why it is that essays really are, these days, more interesting than poems?” He’s not just down on poetry. “When you pick up a magazine,” he asks in a notice of the O. Henry Prize Stories, “do you turn to the short story? What is it doing there, anyway? It looks as boring as a poem, and probably is.”
Nor does he omit to knock novels. Reviewing Rabbit, Run, Jack complains: “It is tedious to read so many pages of sheer fiction. After a while, the reader may begin to wonder, Why doesn’t he simply say it?” In a 1968 review, he prefigures the charge leveled in Tom Wolfe’s 2000 essay “My Three Stooges” that the American novel, in a time of wonders that should inspire any real writer to think big, has become anemic and claustrophobic. “Thinking of the scores of books of fiction of the past year, of American fiction of the past twenty years,” he wrote in 1968, “the old ghosts rise once more: Hemingway and Faulkner….there hath passed away…some bit of glory from the earth.” He said much the same at the first meeting of that Hemingway and Fitzgerald seminar: “For all their faults, these two guys we’re studying are the first and last of the greats.”
For Jack, it wasn’t just literature that had declined, it was culture in general and, even more broadly, civilization. Even as he was engaged, at the Farfield Foundation, in fighting on the Cold War’s cultural front, in his essays he was already declaring defeat. A major essay, “The End of Culture?” (COMMENTARY, December 1969), begins: “Art, the arts, ‘high culture,’ has lost its hold on us.” His explanation: “As artists became conscious of their own techniques, technique itself became their subject; there was a gorgeous brief consuming efflorescence, a pyrotechnical explosion; and then it was over.”
And the downfall went beyond even culture. “If 1971 is the future of 1961,” he wrote, who wants futures?” In one piece after another, he took a jaundiced view of the Washington political establishment, expressing disdain for the purported complacency of the Eisenhower years, and revulsion at “the sight of a huge power like ourselves crushing a tiny peasant race” in Vietnam. Saunders notes that Jack, in one edition of the Dictionary of American Professors, identified his politics as “Radical.” (And this at a time when he was secretly working for the CIA!) Haunted by remorse, he ascribed his feelings to his fellow countrymen, writing in 1969 that Americans “are riddled with guilt about our poverty and about our riches, about our victories in war and our defeats, about crime and about our punishment of it: about smoking, drinking, all our addictions, about sex.”
And what about sex? At one meeting of our Henry James seminar, when S. mentioned that he’d met a former English Department professor for dinner, Jack said: “Oh yeah, him. The queer. Are you queer too?” S. answered quite insistently that he was not. Jack shrugged. “It’s okay with me if you’re queer,” he said laconically, “so long as you’re ashamed of it.” At that point I was out of the closet to only a half dozen or so people in the world, so I said, simply: “That’s an interesting way of looking at it.” In reply to which Jack said, “Well, what other way is there of looking at it? Being queer is a bum rap.” Whereupon he told us about a friend of his, a prominent member of the New York intellectual crowd, who had a wife and family but who, according to Jack, routinely went trolling for male sex partners somewhere along the Manhattan waterfront, all the while consumed by self-hatred. Jack felt sympathy for him as the victim of a tragic fate.
In a 1967 essay on Paul Goodman, Jack pronounced his books on social issues “superb” but disapproved of his publishing a frank memoir of his life as a gay man. In a 1969 piece for COMMENTARY, Jack dismissed a popular book of the day, Barbara, by Frank Newman—which apparently sought to normalize homosexual activity—as “faggot chic” and “homosexual propaganda.” Observing that it’s normal for men to joke about sex, including about being gay, and that this is a part of the way men bond with one another, Jack argued that one reason why books like Barbara are dangerous is that they represent a threat to this camaraderie, because they seek to exploit that element of male bonding to push homosexuality on normal men and thereby legitimize it.
Reading this, I was reminded of one time when S. and I stayed late at Jack’s house. Insisting that we were too drunk to drive back to campus, he ordered us to spend the night in his basement. When he came downstairs and saw us standing there, two pale, skinny youths in white briefs who were just a bit older than his son had been when he died in that car accident, Jack said, “Well, good night, faggots!” His feeling for us, it seemed, was too tender not to be swatted away with that jocular accusation.
Arguably, the best thing Jack ever wrote was “The Vacancies of August,” an essay that first appeared in the November 1966 issue of COMMENTARY and that I first encountered in The Open Form, an anthology of great essays edited by Alfred Kazin. On one level, it’s a rambling account of a summer vacation in Greece; on another level, it’s a profound meditation on mortality. It ends as follows:
August, les vacances, the vacation, is over now, so much of it already forgotten, people and places I’ve not even mentioned. At last I can see and quickly tell what it means. It is the time between. It is the vacancy we fill nowadays by being tourists, by living somewhere else ourselves and seeing how others live and have lived their lives, well-managed or ill, lucky or unlucky. We don’t have to build small, calculated, difficult, beautiful cities anymore to live in. We can go anywhere in this vacant space we have, the emptiness that lies here for each of us for not so many days. It is only what’s between the nothing we had before we were born and that other nothing we shall all have soon enough.
EVENTUALLY, the Henry James seminar ended, and when the three of us got together for one last time in Wading River, Jack told us that he’d mailed my final paper to Peter Taylor. It was the highest of compliments.
And then the time came for my orals examination. Now, when you’re a Ph.D. student in English, nothing is more important than your orals. It’s make or break. You’ve been studying for a year, reading and re-reading hundreds of texts from three different periods or genres, memorizing hundreds of dates and other bits of information, and formulating your own critical responses to the works in question. Then one day you sit around a table with four professors who spend several hours battering you with questions about the writers on your list. My professors told me beforehand that they were not only sure I’d pass, but that they expected to be able to pass me with distinction, which is rare.
In retrospect, I was insane to have included Jack on my orals committee. It was morning, but he came in drunk—drunker, perhaps, than I’d ever seen him—and with his usual cup of wine. Just as he’d done during our seminars, he kept leaving the room to refill his cup. In doing so, he’d leave the door open, and as the person closest to the door, I’d get up and close it even as I was answering a question about Whitman or O’Neill or Dreiser. At one point, Professor H., who was black, asked me something about the novelist Richard Wright, who of course was also black. I began to reply, but Jack interrupted. Waving his hand dismissively, he said, “Bruce doesn’t have to know anything about”—and then he used the N-word.
This was far beyond even Jack’s usual conduct. Even then, in 1982, it was incendiary. A chill went through me. The rest of us all looked at one another, stunned. What had gotten into the man? Jack was no racist. Far from it. He’d told S. and me how he’d risked his life—even crawled under barbed wire—to save a black activist from the South African authorities. In a near-reverential 1968 review of James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, Jack had reflected at length on the cruelty of race prejudice and wrote that “although much of the worst is still to come, I think the heart has gone out of racism.”
But now he’d said that word. And the only reason why everybody didn’t get up and walk out, or belt him, was that this was an orals exam, and stopping the proceedings cold could create all kinds of problems. The other professors soldiered on as long as they could. Soon enough, however, Jack himself called an end the proceedings: “Why should we waste any more of his time? It’s obvious he knows his stuff.” Professor H. sent me to his office so he and his colleagues could deliberate, and a few minutes later he joined me there. He told me I’d passed—but not with distinction, because we hadn’t gone on long enough for that. Justifiably outraged at Jack’s racist outburst, he added, with deadly seriousness, that if I was seen having any further contact whatsoever with Jack, I’d be drummed out of the Ph.D. program.
I never again spoke with Jack. Shortly thereafter, he was forced into retirement. I heard through the grapevine that, according to him, he’d gotten drunk on the morning of my orals because he felt so close to me, and had such respect for me, that he couldn’t bring himself to sit in judgment of me. I also heard that he was hurt by my failure to contact him.
I don’t know if either of these things was true. All I know is that in the weeks and months after my orals, I thought a lot about what he’d done and I concluded that the dreadful mismatch between Jack and academia, which had manifested itself over the years in an ever-growing self-destructiveness, had, on that day, been brought to a horrible climax.
In the event, I wrote my dissertation as quickly as I could, worried that if I lingered over it I’d lose all motivation, give up on the degree, and waste all the work I’d done to earn it. When, after I did receive my Ph.D., I got a phone call from the English Department generously offering me a teaching job, I said no, thank you, almost before the caller could finish making the offer. Precarious as it sounded, I’d opted—without even putting much conscious thought into it, but knowing full well that I was in for a precarious ride—for a career outside of the academy. I would be a writer, pure and simple—or, to use a label that I hate, but that would inevitably be used to identify me, a New York intellectual. Jack Thompson was the first one I’d ever known.
1 Straws in the Wind, by John Thompson, ed. by Louise Thompson and Ruth Losack, privately printed. Thompson and Losack also issued Jack’s previously unpublished short novel/memoir, Things to Put Away.
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