What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
Having grown up in New York City, I hadn’t really given Columbia much thought when initially applying to colleges, though my parents had both been on the faculty of P&S and my father very much wanted me to attend the College. To me it was just another stop on the Broadway local, and a rather grimy one at that. So naturally not heeding my father’s advice, I attended Vassar for my first year, which was very good academically but rather over-the-top socially, and I thought: I can’t take four years of this. Back to New York City it was, and this time, in fall 1975, I fell in love with Columbia — with the Core Curriculum and with the students, who were so engaged by their professors and their studies that we’d be arguing the merits of a certain lecture on Shakespeare or Wordsworth or Freud from the moment we walked out of Hamilton Hall or Schermerhorn until sometimes late at night.
I imagine I was rather full of myself, like many undergraduate men, but Columbia did a wonderful job of cutting me down to size. I remember taking the celebrated “Colloquium in 19th & 20th Century Literature” not long after Lionel Trilling ’25, GSAS’38 had died; his aura was still very much present in Hamilton Hall. The colloquium was then taught by Rufus Mathewson SIPA’48, GSAS’55, a professor of Russian and Slavic studies, and the brilliant and affable Michael Wood. The reading list was wonderfully challenging — a book a week, from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky all the way down to Pynchon’s V — and I remember thinking at one of the very first gatherings that there were quite a few students here who knew a lot more than I did — in fact, they were incredibly well-read — which fired both my curiosity and my competitive instincts.
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
I lived off campus, so I felt delightfully mature. Though a literature major, I was quite serious about jazz piano, and studied with a wonderful old bebop player, Tony Aless, in Midtown. Evenings would be spent with friends, of course — more specifically, a Barnard girlfriend — or perhaps going down to the Village Vanguard to listen to Bill Evans or McCoy Tyner, or to Max’s Kansas City during the heyday of punk in the mid-1970s. Much has been written subsequently about how dangerous the city was back then, but with the exception of the summer of the Son of Sam in 1977, it never felt that way to me. Instead, it was a luxury to have the city at your doorstep and this world-class institution up on a hill in Morningside Heights.
What class do you most remember and why?
There was not one standout class; there were at least three: Ted Tayler’s brilliant course on Shakespeare, Steven Marcus ’48, GSAS’61’s revelatory class on 19th-century Romantic poetry and Willard Gaylin PS’56’s eye-opening course on psychoanalysis, which steeped us in Freudian thought and language. Tayler and Marcus made such an impression that when I applied to graduate school, I applied to one only — GSAS — and they were the thesis advisors for my M.A. in English and comparative literature.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?
I have several favorite spots at Columbia: the Low Library steps on a beautiful spring day, where we would watch — and, of course, comment on — students as life streamed by; Hamilton Hall, where I took so many memorable classes; the stacks of Butler Library, which revealed their secrets after slow, steady research, and were a quiet oasis from the world outside.
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
What would I do over if given the chance? Everything! In retrospect, I regret not having had the chance to study with Elizabeth Hardwick in her writing course; I know she would have been a fierce — and useful — critic of my work, as Malcolm Cowley would prove to be. That regret aside, Columbia was a life-changing experience for me, as it was for so many fellow students. It prepared me extraordinarily well for a career in publishing, inspired me in my own writing, and it can’t be pure coincidence that my wife, Emily Bestler BC’83, GSAS’84, is a Barnard and Columbia graduate, and that my son, Graham ’19, will graduate from the College in May.