Delivered by John Hollander (CC 1950) at the Bicentennial Dinner of the Philolexian Society, April 11, 2002:

"I'm not a historian, but rather a poet; and as Sir Philip Sidney reminds us, historians start at the beginning, but poets 'thrust into the middest of things'. (They're also, said Socrates, liars, but I'll not dwell on that). And so I won't start -- and here I'll risk being thought of as using the ancient rhetorical ploy of raising a question by saying that you're not going to raise it -- I won't start from any sort of beginning, whether with the birth of literary and debating societies at American universities in the later eighteenth century; the foundation of our own in 1802; or the subsequent birth at Columbia, four years later, of an organization called Peithologian -- or those obedient to the cause of the word (and you'll note that the first and major commitment to loving the word properly preceded the mere obedience to it). But I will indeed start, as Sidney directs, in medias res , with the beginning of my relation to the society, hoping that my recollections will somehow manage to be more about what Philolexian when I was at Columbia than merely about what I was or am now.

"But perhaps I should say something about what it was like to be an undergraduate in the College in the later 1940s. Most of my classmates were veterans of WWII; for those of us who had come straight from school, it was like going to college in a class full of older brothers. During the previous years, organized literary activity on campus had become slightly unravelled -- the Jester and Columbia Review were combined in a single periodical, for example. I had become editor of the Review as a sophomore, by a kind of weird default, and I hastened to enlist older brothers to advise and help me -- Louis Simpson and Daniel Hoffman and Herbert Gold and Norman Kelvin, who later emerged as writers and scholars of distinction -- and they kept everything from being a disaster at first. It was at that time that I heard from a few older friends that they had at one time or another a few years back been members of a literary society called Philolexian. What I gathered from my elders Theodore Hoffman, Walter Wager, Robert Gutman, Richard Lincoln, Byron Dobell the subsequently celebrated composer Seymour Shifrin was that said society had been of a rather feckless sort.

  1. "The Director of King's Crown activities (as those of an extra-curricular non-athletic were -- and are they still? -- called) told some of us was that there was an endowed award which needed giving. The funding of the Philolexian Prize had been for many years tied up in a dedicated annual or biennial (I forget which) award of a plaster cast of Houdon's bust of George Washington, with its huge lower jaw which -- I was told -- our first president had gradually acquired through the effects of his massive wooden dentures. The designated achievement meriting the award of said plaster bust was -- and how appropriate, we gleefully acknowledged, to a plaster bust of Washington -- a patriotic oration. It had apparently not been awarded in any recent memory and, if only because of the rise of modernism alone, oratory whether patriotic or not had become marginalized as phony until proved innocent. Like a plaster bust.

"It appeared that the endowed funds could, under the then present circumstances (nobody knew how to go about getting the plaster casts done, the mold having been lost, etc.) be dispensed as monetary awards. And so in the spring of 1947 our first Boar's Head Poetry Contest was held, and the winner's awards showed up on the University's books as "Philolexian Prizes"; I shall return to these shortly. But the awards having been made, and what we hoped was an annual precedent established, the group of people associated with the Columbia Review and the humor magazine Jester felt that the organization itself should in all decency be resuscitated. On the other hand, those in the small circle of friends involved in the resuscitation who had the deepest love of and commitment to literature had come to the mildly Nietzschean view that solemnity and seriousness were frequently enemies (that funny/solemn and serious/frivolous were indeed the correct oppositions) and we all had a distrust approaching scorn of fraternal organizations of any sort. The only prior records of the doings of Philolexian we could discover were some very sporadic minutes that had been kept of a few very sporadic meetings over the previous couple of years. The only excerpt from them I can now recall was something like the following [I should add that John Crossett had presided at the meeting and Allen Ginsberg had been the recording secretary]. Someone at the meeting had asked what the function and purposes of Philolexian really were; "Mr. Ginsberg observed that there was always someone at each Philolexian meeting who asked what the purpose of the society was. Mr. Crossett was not impressed." Being the recipients of such a legacy provided sufficient authority for a needed spirit of ironic and even comic self-regard with which to embark on our becoming Philolexian without as far as I know any laying-on of hands.

"The disposition of the moneys having been the first amd primary order of business, it seemed obvious that by far the most important question that remained did not touch on any of the following matters: [1] The aims and purpose of Philoilexian; [2] The nature of its subsequent membership; [3] The schedule and duration of meetings; [4] The agendas of such meetings; [5] Possible other activities and so forth. Indeed, what seemed absolutely essential at the outset was for each of us to possess a Philolexian pin, with its eloquent rising sun proclaiming -- or, perhaps more properly, humming, muttering, giggling (each of us would probably, if asked, have suggested a different verb) -- the canonical "SURGAM" ["SURGAM!!" or "SURGAM???" or "SURGAM."]. Strangers to such objects as class rings, Eagle Scout badges, athletic trophies and the like, we learned that they could be supplied, from a rough description, by a firm called Dieges and Clust (I learned only recently that, with offices all overt the country, they had been known as "the Tiffany's of Customized Jewelry" -- who better? I'm afraid that I lost mine -- along with my Phi Beta Kappa key and other such small bits of presumably honorary gold -- ages ago, else I should present it to the society). It may be significant about the nature of Philolexian at that time -- a half-serious association of a few friends who were non-joiners of anything by nature -- that I remember more of the arrival of the pins, and the occasions on which the prize money was spent, than what went on in our very occasional meetings. More having already been said of the pins than should have been, I can recall that, with the cooperation of Columbia Review we held a series of annual poetry competitions for the Boar's Head Poetry prizes, judged by members of the faculty -- Mark Van Doren, Lionel Trilling, Andrew Chiappe, F.W. Dupee, among others. All of the entrants read their poems at a reading late in the spring term, and a distinguished outsider attended and gave a brief talk at the occasion. For the first one, in the spring of 1947, at which Allen Ginsberg was one of the two prize winners, W.H. Auden was our guest. [He and the others I'll name all came for free and were given only drinks and a dinner at the faculty club -- attendance at which, for us few undergraduates who had put the evening together, was something of a low-voltage thrill at the time.] In the next few years, the visiting dignitaries were Stephen Spender, R.P. Blackmur, William Carlos Williams and John Berryman. I particularly remember the occasion of Blackmur's visit for several reasons: Blackmur arrived for dinner somewhat drunk and bringing with him a friend he ran into at Penn Station and brought along to dinner. It was indeed a former member of Philolexian, Robert Giroux, who was at Harcourt, Brace at the beginning of his celebrated career as one of the finest literary editors in American publishing. I also first met, and got to read poems by, Richard Howard, because Donald Friedman and I had combined to write a batch of bogus poems under a pseudonym and submitted them, along with the other, legitimate entries, for Blackmur's scrutiny and comment. (He pointedly ignored them until, when pressed to say something, said that they seemed to have been written by a rather confused young man who had been reading a good deal of Hart Crane.) And I have been reminded that Mark Van Doren was acutely unpleased by the whole prank.

"But an actual oratorical contest was indeed held in, if I remember correctly, 1949. The winner was Donald Friedman, a just-retired professor of English at Berkeley, who told me on the phone from Berkeley a few days ago that he couldn't for the life of him remember the subject of his own prize-winning oration, but he is sure that it was not prima facie patriotic and not even political. Subsequently, another oratorical contest was held a couple of years later. But by this time, the Korean War, on the one hand, and the rise of hysterical political correctness of a right-wing sort on the other, had begun to render conceptions of patriotism not so much silly as deeply problematic. The now-distinguished poet and translator Richard Howard, Robert Gottlieb, the celebrated editor (of The New Yorker and at Alfred A. Knopf (and more recently critic of ballet, popular song and other matters), and Richard Wald (always a fine journalist and most recently an executive at ABC News) all competed quite openly with patriotic orations, the contest being judged that year by Jacques Barzun. Richard Howard reminds me that his oration was entitled 'The Idea of Experience' -- and I suppose that so acutely Emersonian a topic could perhaps be construed as quintessentially American. But Robert Gottlieb presented the winning oration -- and the occasion was very well attended -- on the very concrete but very literary-critical subject of Henry James' attitudes to Hawthorne. But I think that all present felt this to be something like -- in the language of William James' famous essay on athletics as 'the moral equivalent of war' -- the moral equivalent of patriotism. But nobody I know recalls a subsequent oration.

"One never-to-be-repeated anomalous event of our first year was an attempt to raise some money for Philolexian and the Columbia Review , jointly, by sponsoring a modern dance recital in what was then Brander Matthews theatre. One of us had a friend who had a friend at a dance group which needed a venue to perform a series of new works, and as a result of our sponsorship and ability to book the hall and sell and take tickets at the event, the recital came to pass. We only raised a little money, but I remember going to a rehearsal where I met two of the composers to whose work dances were composed, Milton Babbitt and Ned Rorem, with whom I became close years later. I'm sorry that I can't recall much more about the dance itself save that it was one or another of the several sorts of Martha Graham offshoots of those decades. I consulted one friend (again, the memorious Donald Friedman) about the event, but he could only report (and I quote):

" What sticks most gluily in my mind is taking tickets at the door, and looking up to find the girl I had had a mad crush on in middle school, now the fiancee of one of our classmates, a pudgy, blond, marcelled pre-med.

"But some of the best literary minds and sensibilities among us during those years were indeed pre-meds but acutely un-marcelled -- I think of Gerry Weissmann, who was both poet and painter then and is now a most distinguished medical researcher and teacher, and Philip Aisen, likewise, who as an undergraduate was an original and penetrating critic of modern literature. In our years, most of us ended up as writers, historians, philosophers, and, of course, lawyers, but there were also quite a few doctors, not to speak of professors of literature and at least one dean of Columbia College.

"It would only be a few years later, in the term 1951-52, that anything like regular meetings of a literary group took place in Richard Howard's room, in what is now a Columbia dormitory but was then an SRO on the corner of 113th street and Broadway more-than-euphemistically called The Yorkshire Residence Club (several of us lived there, but Richard had the grandest room). Admittedly modelled on the French poet Mallarmes' famous Tuesday afternoon salons, Richard's Friday afternoons were a kind of open house, where tea was served (from his mother's wonderful Lustreware tea set, if I rightly remember), and the palaver that filled the air there for a couple of years was not only of literature but of art and music as well. Many Philolexian members of that vintage attended regularly or sporadically. But by the end of 1952 our generation has dispersed in various directions. And although I would hear vague rumors about Philolexian from time to time, I was not surprised that it faded away totally in the early 1960s.

"But its rebirth and subsequent active life are your story rather than -- for whatever it may have been worth -- mine. Whatever discontinuities in the nature of Philolexian we may observe between then and now (let alone over the previous century and a half) of letter and spirit, form and function, ceremony and belief, any institution in modern life that has survived for two centuries without noticeably having contributed to human misery can surely celebrate its bicentennial without embarrassment."


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