Charles Van Doren

It was the opinion of many undergraduates that looking through the window slats at someone’s national humiliation was not a moral way to earn a living, much less to further one’s career. That episode, I think, suggests why Robert Redford was overly glib in his handling of the Van Dorens in his movie Quiz Show, whose appearance, some twenty years ago, reminded me of events that, until the movie, I had remembered with sadness rather than anger.

Gabe Pressman, then as for a very long time after that a reporter for WNBC-TV, came up to Columbia University in 1959 to interview undergraduates, of whom I was one, about Charles Van Doren and the quiz show scandals. Pressman was surprised to see how protective the students were of Van Doren. Pressman said that it was his job to cover the story. It was the opinion of many undergraduates that looking through the window slats at someone's national humiliation was not a moral way to earn a living, much less to further one's career. That episode, I think, suggests why Robert Redford was overly glib in his handling of the Van Dorens in his movie Quiz Show, whose appearance, some twenty years ago, reminded me of events that, until the movie, I had remembered with sadness rather than anger.

Charles Van Doren was my teacher in the first class I ever had at Columbia College. He strode into the room, not having to announce his name, and then, I still remember, looked at each of us for an extended moment to associate our faces with the names he was writing down on his seating chart. I do not know whether that display of his thinking process was only theatrical or also genuine, practiced like his television performances or also his natural way of learning and being. Any actor, then or now, would admire this gift for externalization.

The taking of the roll completed, Van Doren administered a quiz on the Iliad and began discussion of the book with a question: "What is god-like about the Homeric gods?" The question took by surprise both those of us who thought ourselves literary sophisticates and those who did not. He began each subsequent session with a question that was similar to that initial one in that it proposed we take as problematic an aspect of a book that a cursory reading would not notice as constituting a problem. He also threw undergraduates off balance by announcing a doctrine about paper writing that I have tried for a lifetime to unlearn: Don't make your main point at the beginning, but work your way to it by the end.

Van Doren seemed to care about the books and not the mechanics of education, however much, in fact, he did attend to the mechanics of teaching as the backstage preparations that make the teaching performance work. I went up to him, one week, to ask for "clarification" about one of the multiple choice questions on a quiz. These quizzes were not very important, just a device to get students to do the very heavy reading that was required, but I had been brought up to think of grades as money. Every little advantage helped. Van Doren gave me a withering look, and told me to return to my seat. The sense he conveyed that there were more important things than grades put me in my place and told me how people in elite colleges behaved, though I still do not know if his implicit advice was a good moral guide. What is cultural sophistication if it cannot be measured by grades-- or fame or position or even monetary prizes? I still hope there is something sturdier about education than Simone Weil's view that it is like grace.

Not every student or colleague was so taken with Van Doren's cockiness. A senior mathematics major who had finally gotten around to taking Columbia’s rightly praised Freshman Humanities course so as to complete his undergraduate requirements told me that he thought Van Doren was showing off the mathematics he had studied at the Sorbonne. Van Doren had corrected the use of the term "isomorphism" by the senior in his three page answer to a question assigned to all of us: "What is reality?"

I must have had some of the doubts that there was some posturing going on here-- or at least that Van Doren seemed to most approve of my work when I was engaged in a bit of posturing of my own. My own answer to the question about reality made use of what I thought was a somewhat canned replay of Camus' version of existentialism. I felt glad that I had gotten him to like what I had written because I had fooled him into providing a better response than he had given to that earlier paper that addressed the reality of God as a question of what you mean by the term “God”. That had earned me the already alluded to remark, made to the class as a whole, about how to write a paper. I switched sections in midyear, sly enough to tell Van Doren that I was doing so only because of a course conflict. Such remarks by students, I now know, having been a teacher for forty years, do make a teacher feel better, even if they are not quite believed.

Well, Van Doren was a young teacher, just as I was a young student, and the question of who was more the poseur shows just how complicated the teacher-student relationship can and perhaps must become as the two parties struggle against one another to each define their legitimate authority: the teacher over knowledge, and the student over the formation of his or her own soul. Many of Van Doren's views of teaching and learning were borrowed from his own father, then the grand old man of the same English Department in which Charles was an instructor. Mark Van Doren was not so much a Protestant as a bit of a mystic, a person who saw nature alive not only in rural Connecticut but in the people walking the streets of Manhattan. He saw grace in every act done gracefully and graciously. Van Doren senior, along with Moses Hadas and some other senior Columbia faculty members, were of a generation that came after the generation of text editors and before the generation of those who practiced literary criticism as a form of scholarship. They were commentators on literature, their lectures and books filled with apercus about Shakespeare or the good life, and their names known to a middle brow audience through radio and other devices which were used to cross the cultural barrier between the learned and those who wished to gain some learning or simply appreciated and were charmed by those who were learned, a role that didn’t work out very well for the younger Van Doren because too much had changed in the relation between the media and the learned. Among other things, the learned were no longer respected by the media in that they couldn’t figure out a way to use them that prized learning rather than information retrieval.

The next year, I took Mark Van Doren's course on the epic, which the wags said was only worth taking if you wanted to write one. Having no such ambition, I was nonetheless enchanted by his Dr. Johnson like quips, including the no doubt long practiced throwaway line that losing a copy of his heavily annotated copy of a Bible was like losing a lifetime companion, since the copy had included the layered observations of many years. Such remarks impress an undergraduate as fresh, and no doubt ought to. Mark Van Doren also offered an admonition which his son had heeded the previous year: a teacher ought never to ask a question for which he knows the answer, a standard I regularly failed to meet when I became a teacher.

The lectures were filled with multiple moments of suddenly realized texts. The elder Van Doren introduced me to the idea that the stories of David’s rise to and use of power and his relation to his children could be thought of as a unified epic about family passions, a point, Van Doren said, which had not escaped the William Faulkner who wrote Absalom, Absalom. Van Doren also said, I still remember, because I did not taking notes in class so that I would not miss the flavor and the charm of how he constructed his observations into a lecture, that The Castle reminded him of a meeting of the New York City Board of Estimate and so we should not underrate Kafka's power for accurate social as well as psychological description. Van Doren thought Milton, whom he did not assign, was too perfect, in contrast to Cervantes, whom he praised for composing an epic in which the characters were allowed to defecate. I had read the memoirs his wife had recently published about life with the professor and I wrote a final exam which praised Van Doren as living out what I took to be the Cervantes ideal, to turn life into art.

And yet I was concerned that we were not both taken in by one another's glibness. Mark Van Doren was much taken with a piece I did for him on what 1 and 2 Samuel meant to me as a non-believing Jew. I thought I had merely succeeded in fooling another Van Doren with a bit of posturing. The reality of my relation to Judaism was much more complex than what I had presented. This brief success of mine is also worth noting as a way to defend the Van Dorens against Redford's insinuation of anti-Semitism. The bit of philo-Semitism that the elder Van Doren showed towards me may have been a way to cover up a bit of anti-Semitism, but such complexities of artifice would make performance artists of us all, a view I do not share, though I am not unmindful that the sociologist/anthropologist Erving Goffman, whose works I admire and regularly taught, does think of all human behavior as a set of presentations. I prefer to think that Goffman is probably only right about the fact that we are all aware but not willing to admit except behind giggles the extent to which we consciously plan to make ourselves presentable as students and scholars, as friends and as public figures. And if that is so, there is no need to point a finger at another person for posturing as that person's way of claiming a handle on a certain way of being.

Despite my sophomoric concerns about phoniness, there was much that I was prepared to learn from Mark Van Doren's view of literature. He offered the kind of wisdom that could be learned from books and so could fill out and reflect the experience of someone who considered himself, however glib, a most callow youth. Wisdom, it seemed to me and still does, was different from the ability to be a scientist or a scholar. It did not depend on elaborate formulae or disciplines difficult to master, for then it would be for the restricted few, and, second, I had even by that time known quite a few people who were very sharp but did not seem to me at all wise. Van Doren suggested that wisdom was a kind of studied attentiveness, an intellectually cultivated set of emotions, which could lead to a life that was good in both senses of that word: satisfying and moral. That could be the way for those of us not blessed with extraordinary gifts and who could not accept a conventional religion which, I thought then and think today, could not meet the tests of an ordinary intelligence that asked honest questions. Literature might do that job for me as it had done the job, as Matthew Arnold predicted, for hosts of upwardly mobile people, some of whom had found their way onto the Columbia faculty, Van Doren included, since he and his extraordinary siblings had been born on a farm in Tennessee, and much of his early reading got done while he was serving in a soft post during World War I.

After the last class of the term, the last that Mark Van Doren ever taught, the packed lecture hall gave him a standing ovation that lasted for another ten minutes after he finally left the room. I still cannot think of a higher tribute that a teacher can receive. There were no cameras present. His son was not so fortunate, cameras continuing to cover and expand his public obloquy long after Nixon, who sinned so much more greatly and was so much sooner publicly forgiven.

The question still unanswered is what Charles Van Doren had done so wrong in acting on television as if he were someone who knew the answers. Who had he betrayed: his father? His profession? His own self? Clearly, he had misled the public, but it is to be remembered that he was never accused of any illegality. That is why it took the subterfuge of a congressional hearing to make the district attorney's inquiries public. Jack Barry, the host and producer of Twenty-One, was able to return to the air after a decent interval. The other quiz show contestants who collaborated with the program producers went on with their careers, such as they were. But Frank Hogan, the Manhattan DA, saw fit to join with the decision of the Columbia University Board of Trustees of which he was a member to review the contract of one lowly instructor and find him unsuitable to continue as a teacher of the young. The day of that trustees meeting was, I believe, the day Gabe Pressman showed up on campus. What was this great moral failing that was unknown to statute law?

The failing of Van Doren was that he so easily played into the temper of his times. Fifties culture was preoccupied with embarrassment and shame that resulted from the revealing of secrets. Willy Loman had his secrets; the hero of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit had his secrets; every patient on a psychoanalyst’s couch had many a secret. Social life was a long attempt to keep your secrets under wraps. Van Doren had his secret revealed. It was that he had betrayed the god of knowledge for the god of fame, a choice many an ordinary person would have been happy to make, and therefore Van Doren was the more to be condemned for it. Everybody is entitled to berate the person who sells out precisely because no one wants to buy the souls of most of us. To that extent, Redford got the matter right. The sin against knowledge is notoriety. That may be only a very minor sin in that Van Doren allowed the dark arts of television to make a faker of a man who, after all, was a person of considerable knowledge so that television might convince viewers that he seemed to be what he indeed was. A similar problem was the contemporaneous issue of how to sell Crest toothpaste amidst the noise of competing brands each of whose claims to be superior was discounted by the public, when Crest was, in fact, a superior brand because it had the scientific evidence to show it was a superior cavity fighter. How do you show the truth to be true? The answer for Jack Barry was that you fake it.

Van Doren was and is understood as someone caught between mass cult dreams of knowledge as iterative answers that have monetary value and mid cult pretensions to make a little bit of culture available to the masses. But I think of him as having trafficked in a not serious sort of fame for the minor pleasures that provided, and engaged in fakery because that is the coin of that realm, only to discover that people, for a brief cultural moment, took it all very seriously, as if professors took a vow to shun worldly pleasures, and so he alone was tried for mass media witchcraft. Like Tertullian, who wrote against the pagans before going on to become one, he was the one who was required to resist temptation.

I was a student, during my junior year, in the last class Charles Van Doren taught at Columbia. It was a colloquium in great books jointly taught with Moses Hadas, the distinguished classicist, who was also given to the kind of remarks that I have come to think of as the Columbia school of criticism, and which also included Meyer Schapiro and Lionel Trilling. That school advanced a kind of practical knowledge of what particular books or works of art accomplish, what it is that they allow their authors to express that might have come out differently if it had been shaped differently. Hadas talked about the art of cookbooks, and what kind of person could write Leonardo's notebooks, and why shouldn't Abelard give Heloise instruction on how to run a convent, now that their romance was over? Literature is so various in its forms, includes so many forms we do not even think of as literature, because people need forms to convey themselves, what are their "true" or at least "truer" selves.

Van Doren strode into class that evening after his then well reported week away from Columbia hiking and considering what he would tell the congressional committee. He and I engaged in a discussion of Pindar, during which he insisted that I was reading too much modern philosophy into it, straining too hard to find a deep meaning for poems written to commemorate sports events. And then he was gone, to become an emblem of the moral faults of his time. I, for one, having learnt some lessons well, will not buy the theory that events showed him more flawed than most as an intellectual, an American, a human being. Character is not all. Things just got out of hand.

As either Van Doren might have said to introduce students to the paradox that always needs unpacking, the situation was both more and less complex than Robert Redford saw it. It is more complex because the issue between the Van Dorens and the world that perceived them was not snobbery nor anti-Semitism nor intellectuality nor even to be phony rather than genuine. It is simpler than the story told by the press as that was glibly restated by Redford, which was that Charles Van Doren’s fall was somehow just because he was the sacrificial lamb for a television culture ever more committed to the glib and easy. The message may simply be a literary and therefore a real one: history itself as well as the artists and historians who make their living by making use of other people’s lives, has a way of not only turning tragedy into farce, as Marx famously said, but also turning farce into melodrama.