My tenuous brush with the literati and how I got an A- from Nabokov

I don’t know the names of many movie stars, or other entertainment “celebrities” I don’t watch TV.  I get my news from NPR and the Economist and the New York Times, and I read The New Yorker and Science.  My idea of a celebrity is probably someone who has been dead for quite a while, like Margaret Mead.

Recently in Science there was a review of a book (The Trashing of Margaret Mead by Paul Shankman) which trashes Margaret’s trasher.  Mead wrote a book, Coming of Age in Samoa, which I read during my brief sojourn at Radcliffe College. (Actually, it was Harvard but in those days the fiction of separate men’s and women’s institutions was still maintained.  And we did have examinations in separate rooms.)  I read it for a course called “Peoples and Cultures of Oceania.”  It was an easy read, and it idealized the casual attitude toward teen age sex in Samoan culture.  It turned out later, according to Derek Freeman, that there was no such casual attitude, and poor Margaret was being hoaxed by her informants.

Now it seems, Dr. Freeman bent his facts, and although some of Mead’s information was incorrect, her ideas about adolescent development in diverse cultures were seminal, and she made important contributions to theories on the relative importance of nature and nurture.  Freeman was promoting himself by discrediting Mead’s work.

Reading this made me think of the time I met Margaret Mead and discussed adolescent development with her.  It happened at a cocktail party, I think in the early 60’s when I was a young mother.  The party was at the home of Jack Kemper, then headmaster of Phillips Academy in Andover.  Andover is where I grew up in the house of my aunt and uncle, Bart Hayes, who headed the art program at the academy. I was visiting them and so went to the party.  Margaret Mead seemed like a very old lady to me — I guess she was in her 60’s.  She was heavy, walked with a cane, and had short bobbed hair.  She was no beauty.  She seemed quite content to talk to me, and though I didn’t know much, at least I had read one of her books.  She told me that when her daughter was a teenager she had sent her to live on a Kibbutz in Israel.  She said there they had “sensible” attitudes about sex.

Another of the literati, Michael Chabon, might qualify as a celebrity, since every time he writes a book he gets interviewed on NPR.  I feel a tenuous connection to him and he’s not even dead.  He is a novelist, and sometimes he writes op-ed pieces in the New York Times (see the above link).  I feel connected to Michael because, though I have never met him, I was a pal of his father, Robert Chabon, when we were in college together at The George Washington University majoring in zoology.

I used to study with Bob Chabon and another pre-med student, Joe Mankowski.  I was a little older than both of them, was already married and had kids, but we went through many classes together and had a collaborative rivalry about grades.  Of the three of us, Joe was probably the smartest.  I call him brilliant.  He was a recent immigrant to the US, from France where he and his family had hidden in the woods throughout World War II because they were Jewish.  He had not attended high school, and when he began at George Washington he didn’t know enough English to check in to chemistry lab.  By the time I knew him he spoke fluent English.  Joe generally got the highest grades.  Bob was keen to avoid being beaten in test grades by me, since I was both non Jewish and female, and he usually, but not always, achieved his goal.  All three of us got A’s, it was just a question of the difference between, say, a 93 and a 97.

Sometimes we had advance information about what might be on a test and we always shared because it wouldn’t gratify to get the highest grade because of some advantage not associated with superior intelligence.  We might, for instance, hear what questions were on another section’s test.  Or you could get last year’s test from someone in a fraternity.  Somebody figured out that Dr. Desmond gave the same lab tests in histology (the study of microscopic anatomy of cells and tissues) every year.

Here I need to explain for those who never had a lab test like this how it worked.  About 30 microscopes would be set up at lab tables around the room.  The test paper would be one sheet with 30 numbered blanks.  You would look at the specimen through the microscope and identify it in the numbered blank.  There was a buzzing timer that would sound every minute for you to switch places.

It puzzled me that Dr. Desmond would use the same key year after year.  It would only take a few minutes to scramble it and make a new key.  But Bob was convinced that it was a good idea to memorize the old key.  He urged me to do it, but I refused for the first couple of tests, because it just seemed ridiculous to memorize a list of randomly ordered terms.  I studied in the usual way for the tests and Bob duly got higher grades by memorizing last year’s tests.  For the third test I finally gave in and memorized the stupid thing.  But I also studied the slides.  We started the test and I realized immediately that it had been changed.  It was a completely new test.

The lecture preceded the lab period.  Graded test papers would be placed at our lab stations before the lecture, but the door was locked and we couldn’t see them until after the lecture.  Bob used to race upstairs to the lab to look, first at my paper and then at his, to see who got the highest grade.  Usually he was pleased to see that his was the higher score.  On this occasion we arrived together and I looked at my paper — 95.  I looked over at Bob.  “What did you get?”

He shook his head ruefully.  “The reverse.”  I asked what he meant, looked at his paper and saw — 59.  He hadn’t been able to forget the memorized old test.

Nevertheless, we both got A’s in the course.  Bob and Joe went on to medical school and became doctors.

So as I listen to Terry Gross interviewing Bob’s son Michael I remember our old friendly rivalry.  Michael is a novelist, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist.  My daughter wrote a very fine novel.  (It is called Outward and Visible Signs — I hope I don’t get into trouble for revealing this in my blog.)  Then she became distracted by life; raising children and earning a living.  She says Bob won the contest of successful children novelists, but I think she’s at least as good a writer as Michael.  And I like his books.

It was an article in the New Yorker made me think about Nabokov, another well dead celebrity.  The article was about a the Berg Collection of rare books in the New York Public Library.  The marginalia specialist of that collection, Anne Garner, was displaying some examples; books owned (and written in the margins of ) by people like Ted Hughes, Coleridge, Thoreau, and Mark Twain.  One was an anthology of New Yorker stories owned by Nabokov in which he had gone through the table of contents and graded each story.  He was a tough grader and had given only 2 stories A+: one by J. D. Salinger and the other by Vladimir Nabokov.

I’ m back again in college, at Harvard.  I took a course in the 19th century novel.  Although I am a 20th century woman, the 19th century is my literary period.  I love the novels of Austen, Hardy, Elliot, Trollope, Dickens etc.  These are the books I read and reread when times are tough.  Bear with me for a minute, I’m getting to Nabokov.

The course was a disappointment.  The Professor was only so-so, and he had no contact with students.  They were divided into sections with graduate student leaders and graders.  My section was conducted by a weasely little sourpuss man.  I guess he was young, but at 19 I thought he was old enough to be untrustworthy.

Two term papers were required.  I wrote the first one on some broad philosophical subject.  My uncle, who was trying to convince me that I had a future as a writer and not as an artist, was full of enthusiasm for my paper.  The weasely little graduate student gave it a C+.  I was stung and mortified.  I was not accustomed to C’s.  His only comment was that the subject was too broad!  The next paper I resolved would be limited to something really narrow.  One of the books for the course was Dickens’ Bleakhouse. Reading it seemed an endless, though pleasant, task.  My second paper was entitled: “The Use of Coincidence as a Literary Device in the Novel Bleakhouse.”   The weasely grad student gave that one a B+.

Toward the end of the semester my boyfriend, Pete, (later my husband and father of three of my children) was in trouble for a paper in a course in Russian Literature he was taking under Vladimir Nabokov.  Pete was a graduate student in the Russian Affairs program.  The night before his paper was due he hadn’t even decided on a topic but wanted to write the paper on Crime and Punishment.  I had never read Crime and Punishment (still haven’t), but I said, “Tell me the plot, and perhaps we can adapt my paper on Bleak House.”

He told me the plot, and with my B+ paper in hand I dictated his paper.  He typed, I talked.  It took all night.

Nabokov gave “The Use of Coincidence as a Literary Device in Crime and Punishment” an A- !

It’s fun to remember the little triumph of my salad days.

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12 Responses to My tenuous brush with the literati and how I got an A- from Nabokov

  1. Tabor says:

    You have certainly known important and smart people, but it is an interesting irony…isn’t it. I wonder where the weasel is today?

  2. Old Woman says:

    Tabor, considering that he was probably 10 years older than me, he’s quite likely dead by now.

  3. Tessa says:

    Nabokov was one of my favourite writers when I was younger and a bit more pretentious in my reading habits. I still think his Pale Fire was one of the finest and funniest books I’ve ever read. Pity he wasn’t your English prof; you might well have taken that path your uncle wished for you.

    Nowadays, when everybody can get their fifteen minutes of fame, thanks to reality programs on television, it’s not easy to decide who the real celebrities are, even among the literati. But I did have my photograph taken with Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobel Laureate and poet, which I thought was fairly cool. It was a bonus that he was also a nice man.

  4. wisewebwoman says:

    Oh what rich posts, you write, my dear! You certainly brushed shoulders with the creme de la creme! Margaret Mead, wow!
    One of my few tiny claims to fame was that I sat on the black satin top hat of Michael MacLiammoir in a pub one night in Dublin. I was so overcome that I couldn’t apologise properly.
    Oh and I did sing with Liam Clancy once. On a train. Before he was famous.

  5. Elizabeth says:


    Nice Post.

    You might want to read “Talking with Sartre: Conversations and Debates”, John Gerassi, and find out what Sartre did with his PHD dissertation the day after. You would enjoy it, I think.

  6. That’s a good grade to get from Nabokov. I was just reading in The New Yorker how he had gone through a collection of short stories that had appeared in that magazine and scribbled appallingly low grades in the margins for most of them. (Although he gave his own story an A+. But that may have been nepotism.)

  7. beth says:

    Fascinating post, thanks so much!

  8. I love your posts. And Margaret Mead! Wow – how I would have loved to have chatted with her!

  9. pauline says:

    Interesting how Mead’s detractor was caught out. She would be one of the people I’d like to be in the proverbial boat with for a day. For a time I lived among some famous writers in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Bill Lederer and Reeve Lindbergh became friends, putting them in a softer light than “celebrity.”

    My grandchildren live in Andover – small world!

  10. Darlene says:

    Wow!! I am so impressed. You have lived a very interesting life. It would be fun to talk to you someday about the intellectuals that have crossed your path. I would love to have had the opportunity to talk to Margaret Meade. Her detractor was really low class and I’m glad he was ousted.

  11. Friko says:

    I am afraid I can’t compete, my world was that of the International Labour Movement and although it had famous names, they wouldn’t be well known, but I have met, and rubbed shoulders and had conversations with a great many famous musicians and opera singers.Not on my own behalf but as an appendage to my husband. Does that count?

    Sadly, otherwise only live academics as yet, who are not famous except in their own fields.

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