The Return of the English Major

W hen I entered Kenyon in the fall of 1969, the idea of majoring in English was perhaps not the farthest thing from my mind, but it was well down on the list of possibilities. Mathematics was my intended major, because I thought--or had been advised--that it would be good preparation for either architecture or medical school. If not math, I'd choose biology or chemistry, two of my favorite high-school subjects.

My performance in my first English course at Kenyon was certainly not the stuff of which majors are made, and for that I take full responsibility. I was assigned to Tony Bing's section of "Brit Lit," meeting in Philomathesian Hall. The room was a bit overwhelming for a public-school boy, but Bing was, for all his brilliance, an avuncular sort who was exceedingly popular with the students. That meant that, for all its size, Philo was full to overflowing. Some of us would have to go.

A few others and I were transferred into the altogether different section of "Brit Lit" led by Gerrit Roelofs. I was not happy with the change. Gerrit, too, was brilliant, but he was not avuncular; Gerrit was a human manifestation of the wrath of God. Frankly, Gerrit scared me. He was a large, passionate man with a booming voice and an earthshaking laugh. He put forth his opinions strongly, and although he was usually willing to consider other points of view, he did not suffer fools. I was a fool.

I was accustomed to getting A's in English without really working too hard at it. My first paper written for Gerrit came back emblazoned with a C and a crushing comment: "You write well enough, but you don't understand the material." (This is not from memory; I've kept the paper.) I still believe I tried hard, but the best I could eke out of the course was a C+. A marked man (at least in my mind), incapable of the subtlety of thought required for literary study, I no longer considered English a possible major, under any circumstances.

Then, in my sophomore year, something happened. More accurately, someone happened: Perry Lentz. A 1964 Kenyon graduate with a newly minted Ph.D., he had only recently begun his teaching career, but there was already a buzz on campus that his American literature survey was not to be missed. Although my schedule was now filled with biology and chemistry classes, I made room for one last crack at the English department.

From the class's first session--again in Philomathesian--I was spellbound. I can still identify the spot where I was sitting when I had my epiphany, when I knew that, whatever else I did, I would be a serious reader for life. For whatever reason--the subject matter, the obvious intensity of his love for his work, that wonderfully expressive voice of his, tinged with the accent and cadence of his native South, that so beautifully captures the yearning quality of so much American literature--Perry Lentz and I connected in the classroom in a way that Gerrit Roelofs and I never did.

When the end of the year rolled around and I had to declare a major I panicked. Until the last minute, I tried to figure outa way to combine English and biology or chemistry into a single major (how about a study of the writings of Charles Darwin?) in order to keep my postgraduate options open. In the end, though, the opportunity to be part of the Honors Program--with its junior seminar led by none other than Perry Lentz--was too much to resist.

In my junior and senior years, I greedily registered for every "Lentz class" I could fit into my schedule. (I've been told, although I'm not sure I believe it, that my "abuse of the system" was responsible for legislating a limitation on the number of seminars available to each major.) I was never more happily challenged in a Kenyon classroom (or professor's living room) than in those sessions of intense give-and-take between Perry Lentz and his students.

I couldn't get enough of the literature, either. My grades in my biology and chemistry classes began to suffer because I was staying up until all hours to read just another essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, just another chapter of The Sound and the Fury. When I got to graduate school--in English, as it turned out--I tried my best to emulate Perry's approach to literature, to convey the same kind of passion, to instill the same kind of excitement he did. It became clear that any talents I might have lay elsewhere.

Ironically, when I returned to Kenyon as public affairs director in July 1984, it was Gerrit Roelofs who first stopped by my office. From then until his untimely death in November 1985, he was an almost daily visitor, sometimes just to say hello, sometimes to offer a bawdy joke or a scurrilous anecdote from Kenyon's past, sometimes to weave the tale of a person or place from his seemingly inexhaustible supply of World War II experiences as a U.S. Navy flyer. I welcomed his company, but even more than that I welcomed the sense that perhaps he had realized and remembered how hard I had worked for him as a very raw freshman.

Of those English professors I was privileged to study with and learn from at Kenyon, only Bill Klein and Perry Lentz remain on the College's faculty. The great Galbraith Crump, now retired, divides his time between Charlottesville, Virginia, and the seaside village of Topsham in Devon, England. John Ward moved on several years ago to become vice president of Centre College in Kentucky; Gerald Duff, who has been in the administration and on the faculties of Rhodes and Goucher colleges since leaving Kenyon, was recently named academic dean and vice president for academic affairs at McKendree College in Illinois.

For all the fond memories of my undergraduate days in Ascension Hall, I believe the English department has only grown stronger as it has broadened its offerings and diversified its faculty. I envy today's students, who can work with creative writers such as Jennifer Clarvoe, Fred Kluge, Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, and David Lynn; who can read poetry with Phil Church, the work of African-American writers with Ted Mason, or Irish literature with Kim McMullen; who can study the Wordsworths with Jim Carson, Shakespeare with Adele Davidson, Borges withBill Klein, Swift with Deborah Laycock, Heaney with Ron Sharp, Dante with Tim Shutt, Cather with Judy Smith.

As my twenty-fifth reunion approaches, I wish I had the time to take a few more courses in my major, to refresh the critical skills honed at Kenyon and dulled by years of reading too much detective fiction and too many so-so contemporary novels. I think I'd like to start with a reprise of Perry Lentz's "American Literature."


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