Riding my bicycle as I do for twenty-five miles every possible day, I have little doubt that one motive which has brought me to this discipline, so unlikely for one like myself who has little regard for athleticism, is my memory of Prof. Sherman Paul. During the sixties many intellectuals were in sympathy with my distaste for sports and exercise of all sorts, but Paul, whom I knew at the University of Illinois when I was an undergraduate and at Iowa during graduate school, used to swim laps every morning at a community pool before donning a suit over the whitest of white shirts and lecturing on campus, always looking healthy and well-turned out. He made no point of this activity; it was simply part of a sensible life to him, and ultimately even I was impressed.
I never studied American literature, so I took no classes with him except for, during my sophomore year (1964-5), when I did the two semester survey of the subject required of English majors. I remember his literary approach, but, even more vividly, the day he halted class to denounce me and my friend Ray Miller for coming to class wearing jeans. “You disrespect me, the institution, and the field of study,” he claimed. “At Harvard,” he recounted, “on an exceedingly hot summer day, I once took off my suit coat in the library and hung it on the back of my chair. Within minutes I was knocked on the head by the cane of Samuel Eliot Morison who let me know I was flouting decorum in a way that would simply not do in Cambridge.” With his deep belief in the potential of Whitmanic radical democracy, Paul doubtless felt that the land grant University of Illinois was failing to strive after the highest standards if it did not insist on similar practices. “Professors had style in those days,” he continued, “as did students.” A few years later, he commented ruefully that the entire class faced him in denim. “I used to be able to read people’s socio-economic class at a glance,” he said, “now I have to wait until they talk.”
The year I studied with Sherman Paul was the year of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley and its briefer epigone the Filthy Speech Movement, both of which the genteel Prof. Paul admired. With the same competitive impulse with which he had invoked Harvard’s dress code, he asked us, “Why doesn’t something like that get organized here? If this can happen in California, it can in Illinois.” Those who find some discontinuity between these suggestions should have a look at photographs of the free speech demonstrators over fifty years ago. Virtually all the men among the student body including the demonstrators wear sport coats and most of them narrow ties as well, odd-looking now. To Paul the dignity of intellectual work was wholly consistent with the thinker’s obligation to stir things up and challenge the powers that be. Identified throughout his career with what Paul Rosenfeld long before Earth Day or Green parties called the “green tradition” in American literature, he was a learned radical.
I recall the day he asked each student to bring to the next meeting a definition of literature, a task that seemed simple until I began writing. What does, in fact, distinguish the aesthetic text from all others? I now have an answer, but it took some years of study to develop. I might trace my investigations of what now strikes me as a very significant and controversial issue to the stimulation of that classroom exercise.
I have always thought that every teacher, from preschool through dissertation committees, teaches not only subject matter but also how to engage with the work of the mind in an energetic, effective, elegant, and meaningful manner. Though I doubtless could have gone much further into Hawthorne and Emerson under his tutelage, I learned a great deal from Sherman Paul on that larger humane topic of how to live, so significant for anyone who pursues the humanities, yet so rarely acknowledged.