Take Five with Bernie Weisberger '43

Bernie Weisberger ’43 is the author of more than 20 books and is the former associate editor of American Heritage magazine. He left Columbia after his junior year for Army duty, but had accumulated enough credits to graduate with the Class of ’43. He was sent overseas for duty in China-Burma-India Theater in WWII, where he translated Japanese military radio messages with the Signal Intelligence Service. He earned a graduate degree in history from the University of Chicago and has taught at Antioch, Wayne State University, the University of Chicago, the University of Rochester and Vassar.

Bernie Weisberger

Bernie Weisberger ’43

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

The term “unlicked cub” comes to mind. I was 17 years and one month old, living quietly with my mother and stepfather in Jackson Heights during the academic year, with very few friends my own age. But I spent summers with my grandparents in the small community of Hudson, N.Y., about 120 miles up the river for which it was named. There, with all that free time in an even smaller and more intimate Jewish community, I had a little more opportunity to learn social skills from my peers. My bookish isolation was such that when it came time to consider colleges, I applied only to Columbia without the least awareness that it was a competitive process and I might not get in. It was a given that I would not leave the city. Luckily I was ready to benefit by what Columbia offered, thanks to having graduated from one of the jewels of the city’s excellent public schools, Stuyvesant H.S.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I was a commuter, and what I remember most is commuting. They aren’t unpleasant memories — kids raised in the big town took for granted trips of 45 minutes to an hour (or longer) to get to places. It was as natural to them as it is, from what I hear, for farm boys and girls to drive tractors at 12. In my three years of traveling to the campus from various locations in Queens, I rose early to take the IRT Number 7 line to Times Square, where I would transfer to a northbound express to 96th St., and then to a local for three more stops to 116th and Broadway. The entire journey cost a nickel. If you had to stand the whole way, hanging on to a swaying strap by one hand and trying to thumb the pages of a book held in the other, it wasn’t terribly pleasant, especially on crowded and rainy or snowy days when everything smelled of wet wool and you could get poked by umbrellas. But when I felt especially self-indulgent, I would go upscale and spend a dime on a Fifth Avenue bus that ran from someplace in Queens into midtown Manhattan and proceeded up Broadway to Riverside Drive, thence northward to 116th, with the busy river on the east and the invitingly green park (in the spring and summer) on the west.

I would arrive on campus in the morning, take classes, eat lunch with friends in one of the inexpensive restaurants on Broadway, then return to Butler Library to study until around 4 p.m., when I went home to cook dinner for my working mother and myself, did homework and went to bed. Not very exciting, but satisfactory.

What class do you most remember and why?

This question hits pay dirt — it’s hard to pick a single one. I greatly enjoyed listening to Professor Dwight Miner [’26, GSAS’40] t talk to us about Western Civilization A (I use the course titles as I remember them) and I have fond memories of Professor William Frohock explicating French Romantic literature, both of them friendly and entertaining lecturers, but serious and demanding of our best. Two others are so memorable that I have to include both — Professors Gilbert Highet for my second semester of Humanities A, and Jacques Barzun [’27, GSAS’32] for European Thought and Culture in the 19th Century.

I need to say a preliminary word. The entire experience of the Core Curriculum was simply tremendous, and I insist to the present moment that the Core was my genuine education — all the rest was commentary once we had the basic tools. It taught us how to read and listen, to think critically, to form and defend opinions, and to learn from “the best that had been thought and written through the ages.”

Why do I remember those courses with Highet and Barzun? Without going into encyclopedic detail, simply that they carried the stamp of terrific teachers who were masters of their material, loved what they were doing and whose infectious personalities kept me anticipating each day’s class as an adventure.

Professor Highet was unforgettable. I would love to have heard him on the Greek plays that we read in the first semester, but in the second when I was assigned to his section, we started with Dante and ended with Tom Jones. Taking advantage of the fact that all the students were male, in an era when good manners demanded sheltering women from profanity and obscenity, Highet reveled in probing the bawdiness of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. When we got to Shakespeare, I still see him bursting into the classroom with a lusty “GOOD MORNING, gentlemen, today we’re going to talk about Hamlet, possibly the greatest play ever written,” as if it were a juicy melon of which we might all enjoy a slice. He compared characters in the plays of both Shakespeare and Molière to contemporary figures with zesty amusement and eye-opening insights.

And then there was Professor Barzun, the incomparable, the very essence of civilized and cultivated inquiry. He would lecture to us in his soft tone of voice, always while walking back and forth in the front of the lecture room, holding on to the lapels of his impeccably tailored suit jacket, emitting, in a steady and mellifluous voice, a stream of ideas which, to tell the truth, I wasn’t able to grasp immediately, even when reviewing my notes. What I do recall absolutely was his reading list, which featured books I had never heard of. The memoirs of Berlioz, of course, about whom I think he was then writing; something called Death’s Jest Book by Thomas Lovell Beddoes, both book and author of whom I had never heard before or since; Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth, likewise new to me — and these are only a sampling.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

Two, in fact. One was the undergraduate Browsing Room in Butler Library, where I would often go to study, but inevitably set aside the assignment in favor of picking some novel from the well-stocked shelves and losing myself for a couple of hours in one of the easy chairs provided. The other was the Music Library, which I think was housed elsewhere. During the year of Humanities B: Music and Art, I was hearing a great many selections from terrific symphonic music in the classroom and afterward I would go to the Music Library, check out a recording and its score, and follow through the whole work, and others as well. It was both a learning experience and a lot of fun to see as well as hear where various instruments and choirs of instruments came in and played with differing themes. Mainly, though, for me it was a place to combine study and entertainment of a kind, and to pass away a couple of delightful hours.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I wish I had taken at least a semester of college Latin to add to the four years of it that I studied in high school, just for fun, rather than going straight into more practical modern languages, French and German. And I wish I had worked harder in the four introductory science courses for generalists that I just scraped through, because I still respect and admire science — and still can’t manage to absorb its basics.