In the spring of 1987, John and Mairi McCormick hosted a party at their grand home on Terhune Road in Princeton, New Jersey. Faculty and graduate students from the Rutgers Department of Comparative Literature were the primary guests although, as I recall, several friends and family members were also present. The McCormicks had often hosted delightful parties at the end of the school year, but this one was special. We were celebrating John's retirement from the program he had founded almost thirty years previously. I was also celebrating, more privately among the select few guests whom I knew, the recent successful defense of my doctoral dissertation.
During the party, as we were enjoying the warming effects of a delicious claret, an undergraduate whom I recognized from the department approached and asked me who I was and where I was from. I don't remember his name, but he was older than most undergraduates and apparently had made an impression on John since John rarely invited undergraduates to these parties. I considered the inquiry briefly, and although I usually find such questions dull and difficult to answer, this evening the words came quickly to my lips: "I am John McCormick's last student." While such a claim might appear haughty to some, technically, it is true. John stopped teaching at the end of the fall 1986 term and had only two remaining doctoral candidates preparing to defend. On the morning of March 31, 1987, Carol Colatrella defended her dissertation, and in the afternoon I defended mine. In John's own words, I was his last academic responsibility.
I first met Professor McCormick in January 1977 at the start of my last semester at Rutgers College. Although I was majoring in the biological sciences and had applied to Ph.D. programs to study genetics, I discovered a love of literature in my junior year and took more courses in various national literatures than in the sciences during my last two undergraduate years. As a result, while many of my classmates were coasting to graduation with elective "gut" courses, I needed two major science courses, Microbiology and Biochemistry, to finish the B.A. Although I only needed twelve credits to graduate, in a moment of apparent madness I also registered for a survey course in Spanish literature, half-term courses in Camus, Sartre, and the Weimar Republic, and my first comparative literature class, John's European novel course.
On the first day of the course John required members of the class to introduce themselves. Using a technique that I have also long since adopted for my upper-level literature classes, John asked us to name the most recent novel we had read. I recall several Vonneguts among the usual suspects, but when my turn came, I said timidly, "Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann." John's face immediately lit up as he lifted his head and looked over the top of his reading glasses as he often did when he grew interested in a student's discourse. A friend had just introduced me to Mann during the winter break, and so since Mann was new to me, I naively asked John, "Have you ever heard of him?" John let out a loud chuckle and kind-heartedly noted that I had excellent reading companions.
The syllabus for The European Novel challenged but energized me. Of the nine titles on the list, I had only read Père Goriot. After spending one week discussing Werther, we were scheduled for Don Quixote and then Tom Jones, each to be completed in two weeks. Because of my five other classes, two with weekly labs, I was already behind in my reading by the second week of class. Then John announced that he wanted us to start writing weekly essays. I panicked. Feeling overwhelmed, I rode the campus bus to the registrar and dropped John's course on the last day of the add/drop period.
I consoled myself with my other literature courses, in particular, the seminar that I was taking with Professor Josephine Diamond on Albert Camus. I met Professor Diamond in the fall of 1975 when I signed up for a half-term course on the Theater of the Absurd. Professor Diamond so stimulated my interest in French literature that I end up taking several courses with her in all of my remaining undergraduate semesters. When letters of rejection starting arriving from the various doctoral programs in genetics to which I had applied (from committees who obviously saw more clearly than I that my passion lay with the humanities), and I was considering taking a year off before trying again, Josephine urged me not to stop going to school. She suggested that I apply to a master's program at Rutgers in one of the sciences and that I start learning the French language so that I could apply to a doctoral program in Comparative Literature once I had finished the master's degree.
The idea of getting a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature started to grow in my mind, so on a whim, I took the campus bus to the Livingston campus to discover the admissions requirements for the Comp. Lit. graduate program at Rutgers. The secretary suggested that I speak with the Graduate Director, Professor McCormick, who she said was in his office. Without waiting for my response, she rang him up and announced that a prospective student would like to talk to him. I almost ran, but I calmed my nerves by convincing myself that he would not remember me. After all, I had only been in his class for a week and a half. As he greeted me at the door, my hopes sank. Although he did not remember my name, he called me in his typical manner "our friend of Herr Mann." I was unprepared for our interview, so I just blurted out honestly why I had dropped his course and why I was there in his office. He asked me several questions about my studies, my readings, and my languages and then surprised me by stating that assuming all of my paperwork was in order, he would admit me into the graduate program starting in the fall of 1977. The Graduate School at the time allowed for applicants to submit requests for up to three graduate programs with one application, so as a safety net I applied for an M.A. in Biochemistry and in Pharmacology together with a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, but after spending nearly an hour with John McCormick, I had no doubt in my mind which degree I was going to pursue.
As John was standing on the steps to his home in Princeton that spring evening in 1987 to wish the last of his guests goodnight and to offer us his hospitality should we ever chance to visit England, I did not realize that that would be the last time I would see John in person. We came close in the year 2000 when I was working with the U.K. telecommunications company Orange in Bristol and was planning a visit to two of our new installation sites in Manchester and Newcastle Upon Tyne. I was living in Cologne, Germany, and had written to John to announce joyfully that I had finally finished reading Buddenbrooks, twenty-three years later, because my German had gotten good enough to do so in the original language. John wrote back to say that I should call once I arrived in the U.K. to ensure that he and Mairi would be home when I planned to pass through York. Alas, that trip was canceled, and I never had another opportunity to plan another visit.
Despite the physical separation, however, John and I maintained a lively correspondence over the years. Upon receiving the Ph.D., I had intended to leave my full-time job at Bellcore in Piscataway and take up teaching full-time. But Bellcore presented me with an offer too sweet to pass up—an expat assignment in Italy. Like John, who left for Europe shortly after finishing his degree in 1951, I also left for Europe to experience the culture firsthand that I had only read about or tasted on short holidays abroad. Like John, I also discovered the European Division of the University of Maryland upon my arrival and was able to get some good teaching experience there as an instructor. In 1993, I fell in love with a German citizen and tried to move to Germany, following once again in John's footsteps. Despite introductions from John to faculty at the Freie Universität in Berlin, my hopes for employment there, or elsewhere in Germany, were dashed. Western universities were being overrun by East Germans, or Huns, as John often fondly referred to them, following the reunification in 1989. I wrote to John about my back-up plan to buy a bar and open a restaurant. He shot back that the restaurant business consumed a man and described his experiences working in kitchens during the Depression. I ignored his advice, and in 1995, I took a leave of absence from Bellcore to design the restaurant and to study German. As the restaurant was about to open, word arrived that Bellcore had won a contract in Germany, and I was being asked to manage the on-site operations. In retrospect, I don't have any regrets about working two jobs while studying German at the Volkshochschule, but John of course was right that the restaurant business would consume me. For seven years my career as a comparatist was on hold.
I never told John that I had ignored his warning, but otherwise I shared the experiences of my sojourns with him. In 1995, I wrote that I was turning forty and had planned a month-long holiday in France as a celebration. He wrote back that he would give his left arm to be forty again—I took note that it wasn't his right arm that he was offering—and that he had learned how to fight bulls when he was forty. His advice, fight some bulls, was meant figuratively but led to a lively discussion between us about the merits of toreo. He once invited me to join him in Logroño and offered to introduce me to the bull-crowd there. He truly believed that toreo was part of the Spanish soul. After reading The Complete Aficionado, I agreed.
We had similar lively discussions about Santayana. I read the biography shortly after it appeared, which stimulated me, as John had hoped in writing the book, to read some of Santayana's work. Once I felt comfortable with some of the material, I finally got up the nerve to ask why John thought it necessary to dwell on Santayana's anti-Semitism but practically ignore his homosexuality. Anyone who knew John well would be familiar with his distaste for contemporary public discourse about sexuality for which he blamed the various "liberation" movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. On that topic, he wrote to me, "I have always found the emptying of the closets a savage business, giving rise to excesses (among the feminists, too) that I find barbaric." He dismissed my question as an inappropriate topic for a biography yet came back to answer that question in his essay "Brutality in Biography" in his memoir, Seagoing. In 2004, after I had moved back to New Jersey and had read Seagoing, I also came back to the subject. I was brutally honest when I wrote to him that his "negative reaction to homosexuality comes out particularly strong in certain essays," and that in light of that, I had to question his glossing over Santayana's homosexuality. I disagreed that Santayana's sexual orientation had no bearing on his philosophy. The response was classic McCormick: "It behooves you to indicate where and how."
My last two letters to John went unanswered. In the first letter, I wrote praise of Mairi's memoir, Clearances, which I had just finished reading, and complimented her on discussing parts of their life together that John had left out of his memoir-essays. After no response, I thought that my letter had gone missing, so I wrote another letter detailing my recent decision to retire finally from my telecommunications job, my efforts to get some recent teaching experience at a local county college in New Jersey, and my success in landing a tenure-track position at West Virginia State University teaching literature, technical writing, and German. John had once praised me for staying clear of academia and warned, "God keep you from community colleges," so when I did not hear back from him a second time, I thought that somehow I had offended him. Shortly after my fifty-fifth birthday, I thought of John again as my mind wandered while grading a student's composition and counting the years to retirement when I realized that I was now only three years younger than John was when I first met him. Searching for the title of his most recent book, Another Music, I came across his colorful obituary in the Telegraph. John once wrote in a letter, "The Reaper may be grim, but I am ready for him." I knew that the day would be arriving soon, but it saddens me that I had to find out such news on the Internet.
I'll never know why John admitted an inadequately trained student of the natural sciences whose writing was terrible, whose critical analyses were naïve, and who did not know a word of French to the prestigious Department of Comparative Literature at Rutgers. In a letter of recommendation that I had asked John to write in 1987, he noted, "After several years of acquaintance with Thomas Kiddie, I can say that he is the most teachable student I encountered in a long career." While some who did not know John or my background might view that comment negatively, I like to think that John recognized my passion for literature and delighted in "saving me" from the horrors of the natural sciences. I also like to believe that our "Buddenbrooks episode," as we often referred to it, had some influence. In any case, I cherish the knowledge that John has given me, and I celebrate his life along with all of his "last students."
About the Author
Thomas Kiddie is Assistant Professor of English at West Virginia State University where he teaches courses in Technical Writing, American and Comparative Literature, Media Studies, and German.