As I approach retirement as a professor, I keep remembering an afternoon I spent with Marjorie Nicolson, “Miss Nicky,” as she used to be called when she was head of graduate studies in English at Columbia. After she retired in 1962, she lived on and off in Butler, a university-owned residential hotel across the street from Philosophy Hall, where she had presided so long and so famously during the department’s golden age following World War II. I visited her in Butler a number of times. She had guided my doctoral dissertation, and I kept in touch with her over the years.
Lately, the memory of one of our last meetings has become especially vivid for me, possibly the very last one before she went off to a nursing home in Yonkers, New York, there slowly to lose touch with her past until she died. During that visit I became aware of her intense discomfort about being retired. She complained particularly about the swinishness of one of her former colleagues. She had always been blunt about persons we knew but she had never before, in similarly relaxed circumstances, Scotch in hand, spoken so bitterly about others or about the profession. She seemed to have been brooding about her career.
Miss Nicky’s melancholy sense of retirement was consistent with similarly strong feelings about retirement that I have encountered over the years. Joseph Wood Krutch, another of my Columbia teachers, retired to Arizona, there to write several celebrated books on the landscape. He stopped once in Albuquerque to get an honorary degree at the University of New Mexico, where I was then teaching, and I was assigned as his host. We drove about the countryside, pausing now and then as he got out of the car to examine an unfamiliar plant. We reminisced, of course, about Columbia. He sadly remembered certain colleagues and students in his last years there as arrogant and cliquish, dismissive and even contemptuous of him and his work, both of which had fallen out of fashion. He expressed a courteous but firm skepticism when I tried to assure him that he was wrong about some of the persons he referred to.
One man I knew simply vanished on retirement. He walked out of our building at the University of Maryland late in May after handing in his grades for the semester, the final ones of his career, without saying goodbye, not even to the secretaries, never, so far as anyone knew, to be heard from again in the department. He was seen years after, it was reported, on a downtown street in Washington. Over the years, other professors ignored invitations to retirement ceremonies without so much as a sorry, thank you.
The original burden of Miss Nicky’s complaint was encompassingly broad, about retirement in general, although after a while she went into more and more personal detail. She lamented being unable to continue contributing her experience and wisdom on some formalized basis. She had spent her life in teaching and administration. Reading and research alone were not enough to satisfy her, even though she had kept up her contacts in the profession, knew current scholarship and criticism, and talked longingly of resuming her work on the papers of the great historian of ideas, Arthur O. Lovejoy, which she carried around with her. From time to time she had returned to teaching and administration, at Columbia, Princeton, and the West Coast, full-and part time, for a semester or longer, sometimes without compensation, as when she took over the duties of Louis Landa at Princeton when he became seriously ill. But all that was sporadic, marginal.
That afternoon in her tiny quarters she still retained a full grasp of her sharp intelligence and her exquisite judgment, a memory awesome in its minuteness, and, not least, her unique and acute sensitivity to academic currents and traditions. The continued if informal reliance on her by major university departments and by personages throughout the profession, in the endowments, and in publishing testified to the professional presence she still exerted.
The one detail that she fiercely recalled about her retirement was the way her successor as head, whom she had helped select, swiftly emptied out her office on the very day he was formally named (when she happened to be away), piling up her books, papers, and personal items in the hall outside, not even cursorily apologizing when she ran into him the next day amid the ruins. For him, his appointment meant canceling her from his universe. For her, the behavior was a sign of the new generation’s attitude toward her in retirement.
What exasperated her most, though, I would say, was the simple waste of her vast expertise. A specialist on, among other subjects, literary accounts of voyages to the moon, for example, she expressed annoyance that reporters did not know enough to talk with her in preparing their reports of man’s first landing there. She chafed at seeing administrative wheels being reinvented over and over without anyone ever pausing in the tinkering to call on her experience. She fretted that while the then president of Columbia showed enough awareness of her, after she had been mugged in the neighborhood, to assign a campus policeman to accompany her on walks, he never consulted her on any managerial problem.
That afternoon with Miss Nicky assumes its sharpness as I find myself confronting the prospect of my own retirement, now a closer and closer reality. I wonder whether what troubled Miss Nicky, and some of the other professors I have known, is the intensity of remorse that rises at this critical period, immediately pre- and post-retirement, specifically over having taken the road of academic life in the first place. Here, near the end of the road, as we look back to the fork that might have led us elsewhere, as we look to the left and right and regard those who made alternate choices, we suffer the sudden, terrible bile of late insight. We come to the end of a vocation that called on us totally, year-’round, night and day, as we continued our endless reading and ruminating, prepared classes and papers, worked out problems in sleep, brooded over the psychological and moral troubles of students and colleagues, made notes on holidays. With almost vengeful resentment, we recall among our fellows the self-serving mandarins, carpetbaggers, bootlickers, piratical freebooters, timeservers, crass careerists, coxcombs, illiterates and semi-literates.
Even the mildest mannered and most sunnily endowed who ever gave themselves authentically to teaching and study may feel in some way betrayed, cheated, as they come to the time of summing up. Those who find themselves shedding a long enchantment about the profession probably feel worst. Most reluctantly they conclude that they may have led an essentially hollow life, that they have dumbly led “with uncessant care . . . the lonely, slighted shepherd’s trade.” They do not accept Milton’s defiant but perhaps, finally, essentially callow justification, expressed in his first great poem while trying to absorb the early death in a shipwreck of a talented classmate, that “fame” is enough “spur” for dedication to a noble if unrewarding career. They are quietly astonished to discover, as Peggy Lee put it in her song, that that’s all there was, very little more than the shepherd’s trade itself, and that we must take that realization alone as “the fair Guerdon,” the glittering prize. We realize that many among us have only been like Ibsen’s Tesman and Lovborg, Chekhov’s Serebriakof, and those other futile and clownish professorial ne’er-do-wells in the fiction of David Lodge, Mary McCarthy, Randall Jarrell, Howard Jacobson. At most and at least, we no longer have to deceive ourselves about what there is.
Miss Nicky was a high-school teacher early in her career; before she assumed her duties at Columbia, she had been dean at Smith College. She seemed always to have been a teacher, scholar, administrator, an academic personage. I do not imagine that she ever thought about some other professional path not taken. But I think of choices I had and never took seriously, of cautions given me, of apprehensions about academic life I put aside. I call to mind another afternoon, talking with Lionel Trilling in his spare office in Hamilton Hall. I was in a seminar he was giving, and we had discovered we had friends in common at COMMENTARY, for which I had then begun writing. He wondered why I wanted a doctorate. He was gently amused at my starry-eyed vision of the academic life and said a few wry and oblique words about my idealizing some sorry realities. I remember Ralph Gordon, who taught poetry so brilliantly and sensitively at City College and often spoke in allusive, resonating phrases, reminding me once that one must be like fine steel to survive in the profession.
Much of the richness of Miss Nicky’s accomplishment must have derived from her lifelong singleness of purpose, her early, unambiguous sense of vocation. By contrast, I think of another Columbia professor, an often funny standup comic in his lecture classes, who used to say in seminar that he got into English and the academic life by accident, during the Depression, as anyone might have, that he might as easily have found himself in business, and that he could never understand those of his colleagues and students who took the study of literature so “seriously.” He approached his field as a staked claim to be mined strictly for academic profit. I think, too, of persons, some with Ph.D.’s, who left the profession for law, advertising, publishing. One got a Master’s degree in social work against the day he might become fed up with being a professor of English.
Ironically, just those aspects of the academic life that at the moment irritate me—especially the widespread abuse of tenure and the equally widespread hostility of junior toward senior faculty—derive from exactly those that once seemed so inviting. The comforting shelter of tenure that allows malfeasance and nonfeasance to flourish also encourages originality and confident private dedication to fulfill themselves. The license to be iconoclastic in the pursuit of discovery and creation may well stimulate among novitiates a bumptious neglect of amenity. I shudder when I recall the idle, smart challenges I offered to so many of my teachers: the very mellowness and tolerance of their responses may well have been among the hidden voices that guided me into my adult vocation. Surely I was the oblivious recipient of more kindness and generosity than I have lately been able to feel toward my more offending junior colleagues.
Perhaps all this is not really to the point. I can easily imagine that anyone coming to the end of any career has more negative than positive feelings, even when a sense of relief must be great, as it happens not to be with me. We put stop to an identity. Like the runner who gives himself totally to the race and cannot just come to a sharp halt at the finish line, hit by a brick wall, we keep on running, less and less vigorously, to be sure, and we circle back. Unlike those who have had happy, expectant visions of retirement, hoping at last to do things put aside for years, hoping simply to unload the pressures of agendas, I do not wish to abandon teaching or give up my participation in academic routine. I find myself discomfited and surprised by a rising gorge, which I had been so surprised to find surprising in Miss Nicky. I summon up too many memories. I suppose, though, more to the point is whether we feel at the finish that the race was worth running. Of course it was, although I cannot right now altogether say why.