Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Memoirists: Alvin Kernan

The household chores here sometimes include scraping  paint, a messy and in summer a hot task Perhaps advances in technology have changed this, but once the junior seamen of every navy spent a great deal of time at such work. Paint not only looks good, it protects the surfaces it covers, yet it lasts only so long before it fails. On ships, particularly those exposed to salt water, it fails more quickly than on most inland surfaces.

The young Alvin Kernan encountered this task when he arrived at the USS Hornet in Pearl Harbor, being assigned at once to chip paint off the anchor chain and repaint it. Once the war started, he spent many hours scraping paint off the metal surfaces inside the ship; Pearl Harbor and early battles had taught the Navy that burning paint produces toxic fumes.

Kernan was exemplary of a generation of young men who came from families that were poor or of modest means, and who having survived the war went through college on the GI Bill. Not all of them got so far as Kernan did--professor and administrator at Yale and then Princeton. Yet one of the best of my teachers in college was a farm boy in Texas before he was a signalman in the Navy, and another had flown a B-17.

Nor did that many of them write about their experiences. Kernan wrote two excellent memoirs: Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket's Odyssey in World War II, and a memoir of his academic career, In Plato's Cave.

Kernan saw about as much of the war in the Pacific as one man could. He saw Pearl Harbor the day after the attack. He watched Doolittle's B-25s fly off for their raid, armed torpedo bombers at Midway and watched some of them return. He was on the USS Hornet when it was sunk in the Solomon Islands, and was nearly shot down at Tarawa. For a night action in the Marianas, he received a Navy Cross. His pictures of life on shore--at Pearl Harbor, on home leave in Wyoming, or enjoying Polish hospitality in Milwaukee while on pass from Great Lakes Naval Training Center--are also memorable. I gave a copy of Crossing the Line to an uncle who had served on carriers during and after World War II; he thought very well of it.

After the war, Kernan made his way through Williams, Oxford, and Yale. Somebody told him that Yale gave him tenure because the department thought that he would make a good administrator--one sees in this that he had learned from his Navy service to understand systems. Yet he was a good critic and sound scholar. It sounds as if he was an excellent teacher, if one that could be hard on the unprepared or careless; he gave a student in his composition class a -16 on a paper, having marked him off four points per misspelling. In the early days, he writes, "What, are you stupid?" was an acceptable gambit in the classroom.

Kernan saw the New Criticism at the peak of its influence, when Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks were on the Yale faculty. He saw it fade, considering one of his books to be after its time. As an administrator he helped to bring co-education to Yale, though not quite in the way Kingman Brewster imagined, by absorbing Vassar. He also dealt with federal and state officials when the Black Panther trials were on and rioting seemed likely. Having taught A. Bartlett Giamatti, he watched the presidency of Yale wear Giamatti down.

I am no authority on the academic life, having seen it only from the outside and from a level not up to Yale or Princeton's. Kernan's picture of it strikes me as plausible, consistent with what I observed or guessed. In Plato's Cave is as worth reading as Crossing the Line, and gains from being read with it.

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