Somewhere during Freedom Sumer in 1964 I met Frank Millspaugh and we dreamed up the idea of starting a Pacific radio station in Tougaloo, Mississippi, home to a successful African-American college since 1869. Frank was the quintessential Midwestern: modest, got things done without a fuss, was average height, average looking, average dressed and had a wicked sense of humor. Although he seemed never to call attention to himself, he always had a drop dead beautiful and brilliant girl friend (and wife!).
Frank had worked for the National Student Association. There were rumors even back then, that NSA’s international program was riddled with government agents — rumors that were confirmed in 1967 when a series of articles appeared in Ramparts Magazine and later filtered into the mainstream press. (see Karen Paget’s terrific book, Patriotic Betrayal for a thorough and heart-breaking account of innocence betrayed). Frank worked for SDS domestically, and in any event his droll sense of humor and thoughtful progressive agenda were far too nuanced for agency operatives. I mention this to recall the sense of paranoia we were already feeling in 1966. People warned me to be careful what I said round Frank.
Frank and I put together a proposal with other Freedom Sumer veterans, but despite a nationwide fund-raising campaign we could never attract enough money to pull it off. Frank went on to become one of WBAI’s most successful stations managers, running the station through much of the 1970s.
An unexpected solution to my employment problem appeared after a lecture to students at Bennington College in Vermont. Bennington was looking for an English professor. Students suggest I apply. I wrote a letter emphasizing the Reed method of student-engaged teaching. To my surprise, I got a job in the English Department. Critic Stanley Edgar Hyman was our department chairman, Writer Bernard Malamud and poet Howard Nemerov were among Bennington’s distinguished faculty.
Bennington paid beginning faculty less than students spent on tuition, but it was a job. My family stayed in New York City where my then wife had a job. I moved into a tiny two room house across the Vermont border in much less expensive New York State and began the teaching career that I had anticipated when I went to graduate school ten years earlier.
First year teaching was a tremendous amount of work, studying the Oxford English Dictionary and numerous biographies and critical texts into the wee hours of the morning to stay ahead of my students, but it kept my mind off politics and thwarted ambitions. I taught an Introduction to Literature course for freshman, the English novel from Defoe to Conrad, with an emphasis on Wuthering Heights and the Gothic novels of Monk Lewis (The Monk) and Mary Shelly (Frankenstein). The young women loved them. I ended with Conrad’s Nostromo, a wonderful book that bored my Bennington students. In American literature we read Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter and Melville’s Moby Dick.
My next door neighbor in Vermont was a single man with a few cows and chickens and a small vegetable plot. His favorite drink, which seemed to work for him at almost any time of the day or night, was gin and milk. We frequently drank together in the evenings, in the farm stillness, animals quieting and the bats coming out as dusk changed to dark and a million stars curved overhead. After the excitement of New York and the anti-war movement, my life of scholarship, routine and loneliness moved slowly.