Friday, October 7, 2016

Tertan and Blackburn and Howe

Lionel Trilling, “Of This Time, Of That Place” (1943).

A colleague pointed me to “Of This Time, Of That Place” some years ago. Reading John Williams’s novel Stoner (1965) and thinking about its depiction of the student Charles Walker prompted me to read Trilling’s story again. Its protagonist Joseph Howe is a poet and instructor at a private college in a town of picket fences and dinner parties — the academic pastoral. Into Howe’s life enter two cases of what now would be called “the difficult student”: “Tertan, Ferdinand R.” and “Blackburn, sir, Theodore Blackburn, vice-president of the Student Council.” That’s how they introduce themselves.

I suspect that Trilling’s depiction of these students, one of whom — but which one? — is madder than the other, will be of interest to anyone who teaches young adults. Who is really the more troubling case: Tertan, whose writing in the first passage above is an extemporaneous response to the in-class prompt “Who I am and why I came to Dwight College”? Or Blackburn, who pleads “I've never had a mark like this before, never anything below a B, never”?

You can read “Of This Time, Of That Place” at I found the story in the Trilling-edited anthology The Experience of Literature  (1967).

[An aside: I suspect that Williams had Trilling’s story in mind: like Blackburn, Walker gets into in a class by special arrangement, as a result of a teacher’s generosity. Please, please, please.]

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