Getting Even with Mark Van Doren

Much has been written, in CCT and elsewhere, about the deservedly Lionized teacher, scholar and poet Mark Van Doren. Here’s a recollection of an unusual encounter I had with him near the end of his long and distinguished career on Morningside Heights.

After nearly 40 years as a member of the English faculty, Professor Van Doren (who received his Ph.D. from Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1920) finally taught his last course — a perennial student favorite titled “The Narrative Art” — in fall 1959. The curriculum was simple: We met in class once a week, at which time Van Doren would return the previous week’s graded homework, give a lecture on that week’s reading and introduce the next week’s reading. The assignments encompassed a range of cultures, periods, formats and lengths. Most were entire books. What they had in common was that they were all forms of storytelling he held in especially high esteem. In general, the assignments proceeded in chronological order, from antiquity to the 20th century.

One of our first readings that year was a biblical excerpt, from the Book of Kings, featuring the story of King David and his son Absalom, wherein it is written that the father, lamenting the murder of his son by Joab’s henchmen, memorably exclaimed: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” [2 Samuel: 19:4].

Our assignment was to write something, anything, of any length or style — essay, poem, critique, parody, etc. — inspired by this reading, and to hand it in by the start of the next class, a week later.

As I descended the steps of Hamilton Hall and crossed Van Am Quad, a devious scheme began to form in my mind.

I regret to say that whatever I wrote in response to this assignment has long since been lost and forgotten. When the time came for our graded work to be returned, however, I was surprised to find that my paper was missing, as were those of several others in the class. Van Doren then explained that, owing to a spate of suspiciously slick course papers recently submitted by Columbia undergrads, he and other department members were taking special pains to make sure that such works were not being produced and sold to students by professional ghostwriters. Accordingly, he added, students whose papers were not returned should make an appointment to meet with him in his office at our earliest convenience to discuss the matter.

More bemused than upset, I dutifully made my appointment for a few days hence and went back to my studies, which included my reading of the next assignment in the course: The Castle, by Franz Kafka.

On the appointed day, I made my way to Van Doren’s office in Hamilton Hall and introduced myself as one of the presumed culprits. He greeted me noncommittally and gestured for me to sit down opposite him. He then looked me straight in the eye and asked, point blank: “Did you write this paper by yourself?” “Yes, I did,” I replied. Whereupon, with no further ado, he said, in words I’ll never forget: “Well, I guess I’ll have to take your word for it.”

As I walked out the door and back down the long, empty hallway, I became more upset than bemused. Was that it? No small talk about this or that? Not a hint of praise about my paper, however faint? Before long, my upset turned to anger, and I began to think about what I might do to return the favor.

And then it hit me: K.! I was just like K., the hapless protagonist in The Castle, which I had just finished reading. As I descended the steps of Hamilton Hall and crossed Van Am Quad, a devious scheme began to form in my mind. Like K., I had just met with an inscrutable denizen of a castle of sorts, the epitome of unresponsive, unaccountable authority, and I had been brushed aside like a fly! Before, I was just reading about the evils of an arbitrary, soul-stifling bureaucracy. Now, I was confronting it myself — complete with the crushing punchline: “Well, I guess I’ll have to take your word for it.”

I made straight for Butler Library, settled down in the main reading room, took out my yellow legal pad and started scribbling. By the time I stood up, late that evening, my screed completed, I felt much better, relieved of my anger and, I must confess, a bit giddy about what I had done. I turned in my wickedly barbed parody, mimicking K.’s humiliating ordeal, shortly thereafter and looked forward nervously to its effect.

When Van Doren arrived for the next class, he took a bunch of papers out of his briefcase and, as always, spread them out on the table in front of the lectern, for students to pick up after class. Then he did something astonishing. He announced that he owed someone in the room an apology. Referring to the issue of supposed ghostwriting, he explained that in expiation for his poor judgment, he would now read aloud a falsely suspected student’s paper on The Castle to the class, in full, which he did.

At the end of the class, I retrieved my paper, smiled at the brief, red-penciled comment at the top — “Revenge well taken!” — and left the room, beaming.

A great man, and then some — a real mensch.