I met Professor John O. McCormick in the spring of 1978, during my junior year at Cook College of Rutgers University (now known as the College of Environmental and Biological Sciences), a school I had chosen with a plan to study natural-resource management and environmental law. In my first years, I was an environmental activist and the co-director of the Rutgers environmental group, the largest in the state at the time. But I had begun to drift toward other interests in languages, art history and literature, though my idealist-activist side made me at the same time skeptical of these pursuits. One semester John McCormick happened to teach a class in the European Novel at Douglass College, on the Cook College side of town, and I signed up with five or six others. It was a very small class with very big books (Moby-Dick, Middlemarch, Lost Illusions, Madame Bovary, Red and Black, Man without Qualities, The Power and the Glory, etc.). John's discussions of those books as a form of engagement with the world through ideas and as reflections on and of worldly experience impressed me deeply and made it possible for me to see literature and criticism as a positive embrace of the world rather than a flight from experience; his example allowed me to see literary criticism and writing in general as a form of action in the world. If I had not met John at that point, I would not have continued in that direction. I became an English major (only a recent possibility at agricultural Cook College) and was also able to take classes across town at Rutgers College with Denis Donoghue, Thomas R. Edwards, Paul Fussell, Richard Poirier, and the wonderful Julian Moynahan, who became my honors thesis advisor. But I still returned to Professor McCormick as a mentor for advice on the broader, worldly vistas of study in Comparative Literature. His simple advice that I acquire at least one foreign language "from floor to ceiling" propelled me after graduation to spend a year in Tübingen, Germany learning the language and reading the literature, from Der-Die-Das to Thomas Mann's Der Zauberberg, -- from 'floor to ceiling.'
After a year there and one year in CompLit at NYU (fully-funded but otherwise unsatisfactory), I returned, happily, to Rutgers to work with John in the Ph.D. program in Comparative Literature. He was always a reliable and careful, thorough reader, capable of bluntness: on one paper on Hölderlin, he told me, memorably, that my prose read "like marmelade" - I'm still not sure what he meant but I don't think it was about the sweetness: John surely thought that I, a suburban kid without world-historical experience in war or ocean adventure, needed a little harsh reality. He, in turn, was not displeased when I challenged him in seminar. After one frustrating session of lackluster oral reports, as we headed out of the room, he asked me what I thought; I told him I felt like throwing my chair out the window: he said the two of us together might have gotten the whole desk. Though spare with praise, he did write on the last chapter of my dissertation the positive phrase "good words," which by then I knew to appreciate to the fullest. One never risked an inflated ego with John. In contrast, at my dissertation defense, the outside reader, the gentle and generous Ralph Ley, expert in German Expressionism and then chair of the German department, startled me in opening the defense by saying that it was the best dissertation he had read in his 28 years at Rutgers (a nice beginning, I thought): at the end, in startling contrast, John came forward to shake my hand and said: "Let me be the first to call you Dr., --and the last. Anyone worth his salt does not use the title." A hard-earned but short-lived thrill! I don't use it to this day, except in Germany where it really counts for something.
During my Fulbright year working on my dissertation (again in Tübingen), I once had the occasion to dine at the home of Walter Jens, one of Germany's most famous postwar public intellectuals (and a professor of rhetoric and literature); he asked me whom I worked with in the U.S. When I said John McCormick, he replied that he knew of him from Berlin, and he added: "Ach, ein strenger Herr" (a stern taskmaster). John enjoyed the anecdote when I passed it along. As teacher, John had shaped a whole generation of Amerikanisten (professors of American literature) in Germany, and as critic, with his books in German on American poetry and the American novel, he introduced several generations of postwar Germans to American literature: I was pleased to discover his works in German as stock items on bookshelves among my German friends and colleagues.
Later, after my defense, with characteristic generosity from both him and Mairi, he told me to invite friends for a get-together he was having at his house in Princeton; it was a wonderful evening with professors and graduate students from the department. At one point, while I stood at the island in his kitchen getting a drink and looking out at the people poolside, he came over and said he wanted to tell me something. I had known him then 10 years and worked closely under him for the last five and now upon completion of my Ph.D., I readied myself for words of distilled wisdom that I could take with me wherever I might go: with an ironic glint in his eye, he said: "Don't marry until you've been to Italy."
As it turns out, my wife (from France, but luckily, half Italian!) and I were able to enjoy John and Mairi's gracious hospitality in their manor house outside York when we visited in 1995 with our three-year old daughter Alice. I was able to visit again and stay with the McCormicks in their townhouse when I later attended a conference in York. My bags got lost in Heathrow and, despite multiple reassurances from the airport, didn't arrive for days (in fact, not until Mairi called the airline and gave vent in local vernacular to indignation on my behalf). Comically, though much smaller than I, John loaned me a clean shirt for my talk, practically the shirt off his back. The fit was very short and tight, very disco: we had a good laugh.
We corresponded for years with some regularity, and, despite his crabbed script (which all who knew him will recall), his letters, like his published work, bristled with learning, wit and a broad understanding of world issues. They combinied a strict economy of expression, range of reference and profundity of implication, and were always for good tonic effect, as in the title (instead of Seagoing) he had first wanted to give to his memoirs: All's well that ends. Though I admire and share the fatalism of that remark, and respect the philosophical poise behind it --the knowledge of of life and death, and what lies between-- when I think of John, it's hard to share the sentiment. He was always tough-minded and clear-headed about such matters, and, among all his writings on different topics, which I continue to re-read, his beautifully wise essay "Another Music" on old age stands out. Like few others, he seems to have lived and thought through and consciously completed a very full life. He had a huge influence on my studies and life: I was able to dedicate my book Karl Krolow and the Poetics of Amnesia (2002) to him for his "advice and example," and to send him a copy. It was a privilege to know him and to have worked with him. It would be well to have him with us still.
About the Author
Neil H. Donahue is Professor of German and Comparative Literature and Associate Dean of the Honors College at Hofstra University.