Take Five with Jay Neugeboren ’59


Michael B Friedman ’64

Jay Neugeboren ’59 is the author of 22 books, including five prize-winning novels (The Stolen Jew; Before My Life Began; 1940, Poli; The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company), two prize-winning books of nonfiction (Imagining Robert; Transforming Madness) and four collections of award-winning stories. His stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic Monthly, Columbia Magazine, Psychiatric Services, GQ, Esquire, The American Scholar, Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories, and in more than 50 anthologies. Two screenplays for PBS (The Hollow Boy, Imagining Robert) have won awards, and he has been honored with fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Neugeboren has taught at Stanford University, Indiana University, The University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the University of Freiburg (Germany); he now lives in New York City where he teaches part-time in the School of the Arts’ Graduate Writing Program. From 1964 to 1966, he taught “Freshman Composition” at the College; his office on the fourth floor of Hamilton had been shared by two legendary professors, Mark Van Doren GSAS 1921 and Charles Van Doren GSAS’59, when he was an undergrad.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

When I arrived at Columbia in fall 1955, I had no idea of who I was or what I wanted to be. I was a 17-year-old kid from Brooklyn who loved the Dodgers, had never been west of New Jersey and had never flown in an airplane. I was eager to please people and oh so happy to be far from home, even if “far” meant an hour each way on the IRT. Under “career ambitions,” I listed architecture (I knew zilch about architecture but put it down because I could draw well and was good at math), theater (in high school I’d been an actor at the New York City radio station, WNYE-FM, playing Tom Sawyer, Hans Brinker and Young Abe Lincoln), and advertising (my father thought I’d be good at it). My parents, who couldn’t afford to send me to a private or out-of-town college, pleaded with me to go to Brooklyn College, which was free, so that I wouldn’t have to “suffer” by working my way through Columbia, and where, in my mother’s words, I “could be a big fish in a little pond instead of a little fish in a big pond.” I don’t recall knowing much about Columbia, and had applied because my guidance counselor at Erasmus Hall H.S. told me to apply. The happy news was that I was probably one of the last generations of students who could afford to go to Columbia — tuition and fees, my freshman year, were $816 — by working summers and part-time during the school year.

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

I lived at home with my parents and younger brother Robert in a small two-bedroom apartment. When I typed papers for classes, and when, beginning at the end of my sophomore year, I began writing fiction (I completed two novels during my undergrad years), I’d work at the kitchen table after everyone was asleep, my typewriter on towels to cushion its sounds. I stayed on campus as late as I could each weekday, reading in the library and/or playing three-man basketball in the University Hall third-floor gym. I loved, especially, being in the Glee Club, and practicing two afternoons a week in a studio in the basement of Low Library.

I was happy when I was on campus, happy when — in class, in Butler Hall, on the subway, at home — I was reading and writing, and happy to be part of a world where literature and ideas — and the history of literature and ideas — were central to education and to a good life! Because this was so, my deepest desire — to be a writer — surfaced, and I began, madly, writing fiction. At Columbia, I found myself living in a world that was magical and magically nurturing — a place where my professors and classmates conspired to make me believe there was no worthier ambition than that of becoming a writer.

What class do you most remember and why?

My good fortune was to have some of Columbia’s most celebrated professors teach my Core Curriculum courses: Donald Frame GSAS’41, the translator and reigning expert on Montaigne, for Humanities; Jack Beeson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, for my required music course; Joseph Rothschild ’52, GSAS’52, a renowned authority on the history and politics of Eastern Europe, for Contemporary Civilization; Otis Fellows SW’87, a preeminent expert on Diderot, for basic French; Charles Van Doren for freshman composition, and later Mark Van Doren for poetry; Howard McP. Davis for Italian Renaissance Painting; Tom Flanagan ’49 and Louis Simpson ’49, GSAS’59 for the literature of the Romantic movement and Victorian period ...

And then, during my junior and senior years, best of all: Colloquium, where with 11 other students and two professors—Andrew Chiappe ’33, GSAS’39 and Martin Ostwald GSAS’52 the first year, F.W. Dupee and George Kline ’47, GSAS’50 the second year— we read, discussed and wrote about the great books of Western civilization, from Homer to Dostoevsky and William James. The classes were a joy, as were the times we gathered at The West End after the evening seminar, where I delighted in drinking and talking with my classmates.

Columbia had no “creative writing” classes back then, but during my senior year I signed up for a one-on-one independent study with Richard Chase GSAS'46 whom I met with once a week to talk about a novel I was writing. A generous mentor, Professor Chase recommended the novel to his publisher. His publisher was not as enthusiastic as he was. Nor were the publishers to whom Charles Van Doren recommended the two novels I completed while an undergrad. I would write six more unpublished books before Houghton Mifflin accepted my novel Big Man for publication.

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

Two spots: the practice room in the bowels of Low Library, and a small, handsomely appointed reading room adjacent to the main reading room in Butler Library where I discovered writers who were not taught in any of my courses — Evelyn Waugh, D.H. Lawrence, Anton Chekhov, Willa Cather, H.L. Mencken, Graham Greene. Late afternoon and early evening, I would sit in this lovely book-lined room — I usually had it to myself — and read for as long as I could so as to delay heading home to Brooklyn.

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

I’d defy my mother and go out for the lightweight (155-pound) football team in my sophomore year. When, my senior year, I finally lived away from home — in a fifth-floor walk-up on West 107th Street with my friend Arnie Offner ’59 — I went out for and, a dream come true, made the team.