Leo Marx, former professor of English and American Studies at Amherst College, was interviewed by Robert (Kim) Townsend, former professor of English at the College.
Townsend: I'm Kim Townsend, and I have the pleasure and honor of sitting here with my old colleague, Leo Marx, who came to Amherst as a visitor in '57, and returned in '58, and stayed for almost 20 years, and left in '76 for MIT. And it's obviously those years that I'm gonna ask Leo to talk most about. But I want to go before and after, and to go before, to get to the roots of what I think is an important fact of those exciting years at Amherst, which is the field of American Studies. And I think I need go back no further than your graduation from Harvard in 1941. And it was there, that was the first PhD program in American Civilization, if I'm not mistaken. And I associate those years with the History and Lit program. And you were there at that beginning as I--
Townsend: So take us back... I should say, you graduated in '41, and went off to the war for four years. But already, before the war, you had planted some roots in the field, right?
Marx: Right. And I should remind you that '41 was the year that Dan Aaron and Henry Nash Smith enrolled as the first two candidates in the... What they called "The History of American Civilization," which subsequently, like last week, changed its name to "American Studies."
Townsend: You mean just now?
Townsend: It's funny that you should talk about the change of names. We don't wanna get too far off track, but I remember in a piece you wrote, quite a long while ago, in which you pointed out that American Studies itself was a misnomer, it should be "United States Studies." I mean, there's something a bit wrong with American Studies, given the...
Marx: Yes, I was reminded of that once when I was introduced as a speaker in Mexico, and they said, "Well, we consider ourselves America too."
Townsend: And that was the program. But just for the record, it might be worth mentioning the extraordinary mentors of the time, Matthiessen particularly.
Marx: Well, yeah, Matthiessen and Miller were the two stars in American Studies at Harvard when I was there. But it also included Samuel Elliot Morrison and Kenneth Murdoch. It was quite a... Quite a illustrious group.
Townsend: And you got your BA under that tutelage.
Marx: Right. And it didn't seem too much because it was separated by four years out in the military service.
Townsend: Would you say a word about your military service?
Marx: Well, I graduated in June of '41, and I already... The draft had started. I was 1A, which meant I was gonna be drafted. So there wasn't much point in starting a job or anything. And by Columbus Day, I had it... I just enlisted in the Navy. And I knew I wanted to be in the Navy because I'd been so impressed, or depressed, by the story of World War I and trench warfare, and I like ships and so on. And I went in as an enlisted man, which was an extraordinary experience. I was one of 90 recruits in the company at Newport Naval Training Center, and I was the only one who'd ever been to college.
Townsend: And upon your return, you went into the PhD program at Harvard?
Townsend: And anything... 'Cause I get a sense of you're coming to... Well, no, we go to Minnesota first. Pardon me. Is there anything about the PhD program that was obviously in advance on your... Obviously, at the level of education, but the definition of the program, the development of it? Had things progressed or transpired in a... In a way worth pointing to?
Marx: Well, I mean, I think the program was influenced by the GI generation. I mean, when I went back, all the students were vets, and teachers, like Henry Smith, took advantage of that by giving it to us. They say, "Well, of course, "you all know John Locke's treatise on government." And of course, none of us knew it. And he kept pointing... Shoving our noses in our ignorance, and that was...
Townsend: Good for you.
Townsend: Good education. And you were a... His name comes up often in these years, and I'll return to his name, but you were a section man for him, an assistant in the course that he gave--
Marx: Which was?
Townsend: Smith's course.
Marx: Well, no, he was... He was not a regular member of the Harvard faculty. When I came back in '45, I went to visit... I went to get an interview at Harvard Law School, and then I... Crossing the yard, I thought I'd stop in and say hello to Mattie, F. O. Matthiessen. And he said, "Oh, you don't want to go to law school. "We could use you here." And while I was in his office, this tall Texan walked in, and it was Henry Smith. And he had just lost his job at SMU in a fight about the ability to use John Dos Passos' "U.S.A" in courses that they didn't think... They thought that was subversive. So they gave him a visiting appointment for that year, and he said, "I could use you as my assistant." And so, I assisted him in his course.
Townsend: And then he goes off to... This all leads up not only to your career there, but the man we remember vividly, Bill Ward.
Marx: A whole bunch of people followed Smith when he gave that one course at Harvard, and he was very influential. And then, he accepted a job at Minnesota, and we all followed him.
Townsend: And you, with degree in hand.
Townsend: And... Then, according to the American Historical Dictionary, then and there were the heydays, or the singular heyday, of American Studies. In other words, it took deeper and richer roots once you were all out there, and I know that was... There was Matthiessen, and Miller, and Witcher at Harvard, but in Minnesota, it was an incredible star-studded English department-cum-American Studies in its embryonic years.
Marx: It was quite remarkable. It had Allen Tate, and Robert Pennoyer, and--
Townsend: Saul Bellow was there.
Marx: Saul Bellow, yes, briefly.
Townsend: And Bill Ward, whom you had known at Harvard as a tutee, came out there for his PhD program, and that's the beginning of... Or not the beginning, but the enrichment of that association.
Marx: Yeah, it isn't... It is not the case that I knew him as a tutee. I met him on the steps of Widener as I was getting ready to leave. And he had just been turned down as a graduate student at Harvard, and had heard about Henry Smith and decided he would go to Minnesota. And so, we went to Minnesota at the same time.
Townsend: And I'm following my chronology with a stumble or two. But in 1957, through the offices, as it were, the go between of Alfred Kazin, you end up at Amherst.
Townsend: And you're... Kazin is taking a term off and asks you to take his course, or teach in his stead, for that term, right?
Marx: More or less like that. Actually, he quit in the middle of the year, and I was on my way back to go to Minnesota, and they got in touch with me and asked me if I would come and finish Alfred's year.
Townsend: Ah, that makes more sense because it was not a happy place by his lights.
Townsend: That makes more sense. I had heard that he was off and they were substituting.
Marx: They asked him to recommend someone, and it just happened that I had published an essay that got a lot of attention, called "Mr. Elliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn." And he, when they asked him to name someone who might succeed him, he mentioned me, though he scarcely knew me.
Townsend: Ah. I didn't realize that essay went back that far. Amazing essay. And why people hadn't written it before, I don't know, but that... That's the beginning of your good career. And you went back to Minnesota, and then comes the invitation from Amherst to come east.
Marx: Right. Minnesota had already denied me tenure.
Townsend: Oh, really?
Marx: Yeah. When we left... As we were leaving for Europe, they told me that I would not get tenure at Minnesota. But when they found out that Amherst offered me, they changed their minds.
Townsend: That game. Yeah, and you obviously didn't turn back. What... You had been at Amherst, so you knew what you were in for. What was appealing about Amherst?
Marx: Oh, I found the students really interesting. And as it happened, in the first class I taught at Minnesota, one of the most important students I ever had was John Dower, the great Japanese expert, and he was in my class. They were very good students.
Townsend: You have noted elsewhere, we've talked about this, Lord knows, about Amherst as a teaching college, but it's also the fact that not only were there good students, but, word had it, you were a good teacher. So you had courses that were far larger than courses you had at Minnesota, right?
Marx: Yes, that was a strange part of it. A small school with large classes.
Townsend: And very large, three digits.
Townsend: And that didn't obtain at Minnesota, would've been a rarity by fiat or by... By happenstance.
Marx: Mostly happenstance, yeah.
Townsend: Tell me, Minnesota's the heyday, and we perhaps went over that a little too fast, the establishment of American Studies there and the various fields that came together. But we can do that by coming quickly to Amherst and clearly, it had some appeal. Not just the East, where you were from, and not just teaching, and good students, but the continuity of American Studies, and the fate of American Studies as you could be part of it surely had something to do with your... Amherst's appeal.
Marx: Oh yeah. Amherst was really on the map for its American Studies program, and I'm amazed how this has been forgotten. But the most influential teacher in American Studies at Amherst was an economic historian named George Taylor. And he invented these... DC Heath's problems in American Studies, which sold millions of copies. Each one was dedicated to a particular episode in American history, with little essays conveying its influence. And we built the course around those so that it was a big course... Everyone had to take it, 250 students took it, and it was broken up into sections or seminars. And these pamphlets, the DC Heath pamphlets in American Studies, were designed to fill those slots. And so, it was very well organized.
Townsend: Two things. One, just as a correction, it's the way it started at Harvard, I think it's important to get the title right. If I'm not mistaken, these were in American Civilization. And so it was... It laid a large claim for its importance, whereas if it were to have been in American Studies, it would've looked like a more departmental effort. But it's worth... Well, the second observation I wanted to make, or have you speak to, is why George Taylor came to this realization and when he came to it, that this was a way to address problems of American Civilization. If I'm not mistaken, it's during the Depression, isn't it?
Marx: Probably, yes.
Townsend: And as an economist.
Townsend: It wasn't enough to do the numbers out of MIT, which we'll get to. It was a cultural question.
Townsend: And he was teaching still when you were... When you came to Amherst?
Marx: Yes. He was.
Townsend: And it was a... It was a very distinguished group that gathered around American... The teaching of American Studies.
Marx: Yeah, a lot of people taught it in that course who were not themselves specialists in American Studies, like Benjamin DeMott and George Kateb, and so on. The course was a big lecture course, and then it broke into section meetings. And these DC Heath pamphlets were designed for those section meetings.
Townsend: I think it's important now, we're getting onto it in another context, but to contextualize the American Studies course as part of the new curriculum.
Townsend: When you speak of 250, it doesn't sound like a lot, but that's a quarter of the freshmen. I mean, a quarter of the student body, i.e all freshmen undertaken.
Marx: Absolutely, yes.
Townsend: And that was sophomore year for students, I think.
Marx: Probably, yes.
Townsend: And freshman year was all required.
Townsend: That in itself is quite extraordinary, that a college would say, "Well, we have a required freshman year, "but sophomore year you're gonna take this course."
Marx: Yes, and it was often coupled with Arnie Aron's famous course... Introductory course in physics, which was also required.
Townsend: And English One.
Marx: English One.
Townsend: Yes. Do you remember those numbers and that moment of American Studies becoming more of a responsibility than you as a department could handle, and therefore--
Townsend: I do find it quite extraordinary and a test to the strength of the program, the faculty at that point in the field.
Marx: It sounds rather technical, but the fact is we were not a department, we were a program. And there were certain responsibilities of departments that we did not have, and also privileges. There were no appointments in American Studies, for example. Everyone in American Studies belonged to another department. A department. And I was the exception there. And so, the English department was... Persuaded to take me, even though they had not sought me, so that I could be a member of a department. And this became very important later on because when, for instance, Allen Guttman didn't have a departmental... He was let go in one department and we wanted him to stay around, we finagled an appointment in American Studies for him.
Townsend: I think one thing worth mentioning, it's always been a crusade of mine which never got past the castle gates, but from the beginning, did American Studies require a thesis or did that come when you tried to keep the numbers down? I think it's an important... Because the number of theses, certainly in your old departments, English, have gone way, way down. And the incentive to write a thesis, which I think is a very important, climactic event, is minimal. But American Studies still requires a thesis, and I wonder if it was part of those years.
Marx: Yeah, I mean, there were some wonderful theses in those years. And Amherst had a program where the best theses were published in little pamphlets. And several of the best ones that I had anything to do with were published.
Townsend: And he's succeeded by Cal Plimpton, the doctor.
Townsend: The half brother of the chairman of the selection committee. And the two were the sons of a former president of the board of trustee. Whole different... Whole different feeling under Cal.
Townsend: How do you remember him? And again, the... Well, the years were a contrast to Cal, but Cal first.
Marx: Well, Cal was a medical doctor whose qualifications for being the president of Amherst were sort of dubious to put it mildly. And he... I had a few encounters with him during... At one point, he called me into his office and said that he had heard that I was proselytizing against the Vietnam War in my classes. And I said, "Well, I didn't consider that." I occasionally stopped and had conversations, but I never made my opposition to the war the subject matter of my teaching, and I was able to reassure him about that.
Townsend: Well, I'm sure, though, you were aware the dis... The lines that distinguished conversation where your opposition was voiced in the classroom, where it would've been inappropriate. But... How do I put it? History, the war, the draft, the Civil Rights Movement, they so permeated the atmosphere, what stands out as--
Marx: Well, one of the things that I would wanna say about that is that those were wonderful years for teaching, and that the students were insistent on addressing certain issues, and made themselves felt in the classroom. And once or twice, I had students who actually came up on the podium and asked... Pushed me aside. And I always thought that was rather wonderful that they had that rebellious spirit when they didn't think we were doing justice to the issues of the day. That was a wonderful period of teaching, and it never was repeated where the students were so engaged in the affairs of the moment.
Townsend: May I just trigger your memory? I'm thinking, first and foremost, of the letter to the New York Times.
Marx: Not to be boasting, it was my idea. But I knew that it was not... Wouldn't fly with just me. And I persuaded Prosser to join me.
Townsend: Prosser, the Dean of the Fac... First Dean of the Faculty.
Marx: Right. And we did write it jointly.
Townsend: Do you remember it? I mean, it...
Townsend: It was a powerful statement and it received extensive...
Marx: Yes, it made the front page of the New York Times.
Townsend: And The Globe and The New Republic.
Townsend: And it really was at the forefront, especially at the New Republic. They prefaced it with remarks about... That the academy should not be divorced from politics, and that Amherst is leading the way with this letter. It was... It was a letter... Do you remember the burden of it?
Marx: Oh, yes. I mean--
Townsend: Put it in your words.
Marx: Oh, no, I couldn't give you the contents of the letter in any extensive way.
Townsend: Well, just for the record, Nixon was speaking about the unruly students and the administrators who weren't keeping them under control. And you and Prosser, it was a letter from Plimpton, ultimately, under his... Over his signature, but said, "You have to change the domestic and foreign situation, "and that's what will bring the students to order. "We can't do it, in effect. "We can't do it."
Marx: We had that big meeting in this, what do they call it?
Townsend: It was in The Cage.
Marx: The Cage, right.
Townsend: It was very... It was exhilarating.
Marx: Yes, it was a very exciting moment.
Townsend: That came of it. Do you remember some of the issues of student governance which necessarily were part of that?
Townsend: Well, that's... The students, in the name of reformed social and political situation, wanted to bring this about at Amherst College, and to be on committees, and not have to go to chapel. They even wanted to be represented on the board of trustees. Why not, as it were? In the spirit and in the calling off classes, trustees showed up.
Marx: Yes, I remember being at odds with my colleagues who deplored this unruliness, and said that it was one of the best times for teaching that I could remember, that having the students actually come up on the platform in classes, and push the teacher aside, and have their say.
Townsend: Well, not only might they have done it in your class, but at the same time, they came in small groups to a whole host of classes that they weren't in, and just marched into the classroom. And... I think it's important to register, as you're putting it, that we had colleagues who protested loudly against this.
Marx: Oh, yes.
Townsend: And the student's voice itself wasn't unanimous. It wasn't that every student was against the war. And most prominent among them was David... Who handled himself very well, David Eisenhower. An interesting name to throw into the cast. There were many students, and there was a terrible incident in which... Let's just cliche, call them "conservative students," burned the pamphlet of an antiwar group that had come to Amherst and was distributing them, and Cal went ballistic on that in the name of free speech. And I always wondered how... You begin with Cal's worrying about your proselytizing, how much he changed over these years was...
Marx: Yeah, that's an interesting point. I think he did learn some things.
Townsend: So there was another moratorium in 1970, brought about by... As it were, inspired by the National Students Association. And the faculty called off classes under the pressure of students with no particular event triggering it. But one thing that... Always in danger of being left out during these years, which alas, we are replicating so far, is the growing and necessar... Needless to say, on balance, militant black student population, which grew, expanded, enormously quickly at Amherst College. Do you--
Townsend: What's your remembrance of...
Marx: Well, I... I'm not sure the exact year, but I offered a course in African American literature, and I had a seminar with practically every black student enrolled in it. I only was allowed to teach the course once because the Black students very rightly thought that it was inappropriate for a white guy to be teaching that. And so, that led to the hiring of the first black assistant professor, whose name I'm not gonna be able to remember.
Townsend: Well, I don't know if you're thinking of Jim Denton.
Townsend: A mathematician. But the Black resistance, or rebellion, took more dramatic forms than complaining about the skin color and the background of a teacher, which you may remember that. And by then, you have a five college or four college Black community of hiding in four buildings. Do I trigger this?
Marx: Yes, I remember that.
Townsend: Go ahead.
Marx: Well, I...
Townsend: And once everybody had closed down, they came out of their hiding places and chained the doors of Converse, the library... Converse, excuse me. Anyway, four buildings. And then they also seized African American texts from Frost Library and just... "Those are our books."
Marx: Oh, wow. I don't remember that.
Townsend: And took 'em over to the Black Culture Center. And the first Black faculty member was Jim Denton, came with Janice, who worked in the library, ironically, and to this day, is contributing volumes to the Black Culture Center, or to Frost Library, to make sure that there's a legitimate and proportional representation of Black texts. So... And after the moratoria, the Blacks alerted the community that they too had their problems, it was not just an issue about the war, and petitioned the college to close down for what was called "The Day of Concern."
Townsend: I'm just providing a little chapter and verse as to why these were heady days.
Marx: They were.
Townsend: Plimpton said he would serve 10 years. He stayed an extra one while they found a president. And Bill Ward was his successor, as it turned out, who was on the search committee. And as the search narrowed, it didn't look as if one of the finalists was gonna emerge victorious, so he was convinced to run and was chosen to be the president. I remember those years vividly, and I've been thinking about them and writing about them. But your impressions are what we're here for, and...
Marx: Well, I know that I was instrumental in getting Bill to leave Princeton and come to Amherst. He and I had taught together a little bit, and we respected each other. And I felt that was a quite a coup to get him to come and participate in the American Studies program.
Townsend: You were obviously an attraction, a positive reason, for his coming. Did he ever tell you what was negative about his reasons for coming to Amherst, as it were? What he was fleeing?
Marx: Well, he had a number of dissatisfactions with Princeton, but I think he found it rather stiff, and formal, and welcomed the idea of a more hospitable attitude toward American Studies.
Townsend: I can imagine more ought to be said about that. Doesn't go without saying that it was the American Studies connection, by definition, if your association was so prominent. But he was at Minnesota, and perhaps you'll say a word to segue back to his relationship to Henry Nash Smith.
Marx: Right. Oh, he and I were both devotees of Henry's. Henry was a remarkable teacher. And... Of course, after Henry attracted a whole bunch of us to come to Minnesota, he decamped himself and went to Berkeley. And in fact, invited me to imply... Apply to Berkeley. And was practically... I was practically assured of a teaching post there, had I wanted it. I think something similar happened with Bill Ward.
Townsend: Isn't it the case that American Studies was a positive reason for his coming to Amherst?
Townsend: Isn't that the case?
Marx: Yes, I think... I think Am... Princeton was much more tentative about the whole issue of American Studies.
Townsend: And it's worth mentioning Smith's work, his thesis at Minnesota. It sounds perhaps not as important as in fact it was. And then, later, your book, which we'll get to. These are pivotal... To mix metaphors, these are pivotal props in establishing American Studies. This is not just a matter of enrollments, and interest, and interesting students. But that this is a field that you stand out in, and that Smith's was a seminal work in, and Bill Ward's thesis coming in 19...
Marx: Yeah, I might say a word about that thesis because it was based on a most ingenious idea. Namely, that he knew that Andrew Jackson died on a certain date, and that on that following Sunday, practically every pulpit in The Klan would have a sermon about Andrew Jackson. And that by looking at those sermons and finding the themes, he was able to build the book. These people had no chance to be influenced by each other because of--
Townsend: They were simultaneous.
Marx: They were simultaneous. And so he found the key words, repeated over and over and again. I can remember him sitting at a long table with little cards, and he really boiled down the three themes of the book, which were taken from the sermons.
Townsend: Well, it was an extraordinary success. And there are other titles that were there at the beginning of this field. One reason that it became so popular, isn't it the case, was that just as the beginnings of American Studies come out are there at the Depression, with a time of deep problems in the culture that profs, and with eager students, wanted to examine, to say what was wrong. But we're now well into the Vietnam War, so that... It's a crisis in American sense of its exceptionalism and its magnificence. And it was in-keeping with student protests, whether they were majoring in American Studies or not, to say, "we want to know what is wrong with this society "and want to do something about it "before we're going to play a role in it "that we can respect ourselves in playing." And they converge. Although, I want to throw in a footnote for this moment that your "Machine in the Garden" came out a little later. But unlike these other texts, I don't know other text, it's been in print for 50 years and we're coming on the celebration of that. You can take a bow of the camera. This is an extraordinary achievement. And this is a magnificent, magnificent book that came out while you were at Amherst. And this, as Smith pointed out about his book and Ward's, really did provide a firm foundation for the field. Now, again, you and the students, some of us, as we say, were acting on our beliefs. And perhaps, you would build up just as the moratoria was the most climactic event and the letter to the Times in '69, in the spring of Ward's first year comes Westover.
Townsend: Give us your version of Westover.
Marx: Well, the protest against the war was building at Amherst, and so we had a... Called a meeting to discuss it in the chapel. And... The discussion went on for some time, and turned to the question of "what could we do about it?" And someone suggested that... Oh, I should interrupt this by saying that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the planes from Westover Field were flying at 15 minute intervals over Amherst. The whole ground shook 'cause they were carrying such a heavy load of bombs. And that gave us certain drama to the situation. But--
Townsend: Let me put a footnote in 'cause I'd forgotten that as a... It is also the case that the" mountain range to the south" was the eastern sack base, it was hollow.
Townsend: And I remember teaching my first classes, saying, "Well, if the Cuban Missile Crisis ends up in nuclear war, "I'm not gonna fret too much "because the bombs are gonna land "a mile away." Because they knew that our... Part of our nuclear arsenal was in the mountain, which is now, specifically, a library depository, but keep going.
Marx: Well, and so, we had this meeting, and the discussions about what we could do about it. And someone said, "Well, one thing we could do would be "to sit down at the gates "and close down Westover." And Ben DeMott, my colleague, credits me of being the rabble rouser. I mean, I'm not sure I deserve it, but he said--
Townsend: You've turned "Proselytizer" and "rabble rouser" into honorifics.
Marx: At some point, I said, "What are we waiting for?" And so, we decided right then and there to go and sit down at the...
Townsend: You leave out Ward. It was called by the ad hoc committee, and that must have included you and a host of others, but he wasn't in it. The students had called his house and said, "You've gotta do something about this," right? And he did something about this. And he read what he wrote that night in the chapel, which, as far as I know, he didn't even tell his wife. And that was the moment at the chapel. You play a key role after he read that statement. Do you remember it? Do you remember his letter? It was in--
Marx: [Leo] Yes.
Townsend: Again, like Plimpton, it was on the op-ed page of the New York Times the next morning. How does it sit with you in retrospect?
Marx: Well, I... Without putting too much of a fine point on it, I considered myself the origin of that thing because I know I was.
Townsend: And that's a twofer because that's the way it was in the moratorium too. You were always the voice in the faculty that--
Marx: My main concern was to disguise that fact as much as possible. I was quite aware of the fact that my being associated with it was not a plus. And that I was seen, at the faculty, as something of a troublemaker.
Townsend: I remember... I can remember a letter from an alumnus that I was looking... Was saying "Warden, Marx. "Princess, aptly named."
Marx: But when Bill became president, he and I had a conversation and he said to me, "Everyone knows we're good friends, "but we've gotta curb it now. "And I'm not... "We're not gonna be seen as that close "in the Amherst public eye."
Townsend: Good luck. Yeah. Again... African Americans, blacks, didn't... Things got only worse with blacks and you had left. But in the last year of his presidency, there was a cross burning.
Marx: I remember that.
Townsend: And that sent him off the charts in anger because it turned out to be by two black students.
Townsend: Concurrently, we're talking about the pressing political issues and by implication, or, at least concomitantly, racial issues. What do you... What did you think of... 'Cause it was all transpiring before you left, what did you think about co-education and the debate that went on for many years? That's two pronged. The fact of it and the process by which it was arrived at.
Marx: Well, as you know, it was not actually put in practice until after I left.
Townsend: Well, the first... The first group of transfer students came--
Marx: Oh transfer, yeah.
Townsend: And that was the transitional device, and a good one, a good one. Just as unruly students made teaching more exciting, transfer students were terrific 'cause you had, so to speak, veterans of life at other institutions, or even quite a few older students. So the student body was by no means homogeneous. But anyway, the issue was going on and it was decided two years... A year-and-a-half before you left, that first year... Your last year had transfer students.
Marx: Right. Well, we had always had some.
Townsend: Oh, of course.
Marx: Four, five college students in our classes, so women were not invisible in the classroom.
Townsend: But I remember you're saying... This is typical rabble rousing Marx, saying, at the outset, "Of course, people are gonna look back on this "as like giving women the vote." So how did you feel about its meanderings towards the conclusion or the way that Ward handled it? Do you remember? It did take four or five years, however you want to count.
Marx: Right. I saw it as a sort of continuous process. I didn't see it as a--
Townsend: Of course, it's what it was.
Townsend: I mean, having said that, and one of Ward's own sons said, "If you think this is a first rate institution, "this isn't debatable."
Townsend: But Bill believed in process.
Marx: Well, what was the alternative?
Townsend: Well, he had gotten himself arrested in the... Acting was the alternative. And he said, much to the chagrin of many people, many times, "I am prouder of the process by which it was arrived at "than the conclusion." Do you think he was for co-education at the outset?
Marx: Probably not.
Townsend: That is probably relevant.
Marx: Yeah. Well, he wasn't... He certainly was not passionate about it in any positive way. He said... Nor was he against it. I mean...
Townsend: No. There had been... Were you on the long range? One of those committees... Cal set up, because of these tumultuous times, long range planning committee, "what ought to happen to Amherst?" And one of 'em was on co-education. And DeMott, and Kateb, and Fink were the overseers of the long range planning committee. And... And then, in its summary, they took the task force's work, and DeMott wrote a very witty, and again, he referred to the Guinea as a coin of the realm, and brewing having been maintained in southern Maine. Well, his rivalry in relation to Bill Ward is another story. But Ward just went like this to the co-education thing, which had been recommended under Plimpton. And he said, "I have to..." He said... Bill said, "I have to look this over "before I make my decision." How much do you think Westover hung over him because the trustees weren't for it, and you can be sure the alumni weren't for it? You say, "What could he have done?" Well, he... Mightn't he have said, "I'm for it"?
Marx: On co-education?
Marx: No, I don't think he was that militantly committed to it at all. I think he was perfectly willing to be a party to it, but he wasn't taking the lead. And...
Townsend: Well, he... I don't think he did. I don't think... And those were such times. Another thing that was in the air, and you've commented on this elsewhere, we talked about American Studies and the new curriculum and requirements, well, by the time these years rolled around, there were no requirements left for students. It was an open curriculum. How did you feel about that then? How do you feel about that? And in the back of my sub-question is you move to another institution where a certain kind of orderliness prevailed, but let's not go too fast towards that. What did you think about, which were very important at the time, it's amazing all that was going on, with the debate as to what... Whether Amherst should have a curriculum and if so, what kind of a curriculum?
Marx: Well, I always felt that there was a kind of pendulum that the faculty got restless with the curriculum after a while, and a campaign for a new curriculum came up and we adopted it, and people--
Townsend: May I just back up? They became... Unre... Restless under the old curr... The new curriculum with all the requirements, and then... Yeah, go ahead.
Marx: Well, and then, after that faded, people saw ways in which it wasn't such a great idea. I'm afraid, I think this tendency of faculties to get restless with whatever curriculum exists is fairly predictable, and none of them are perfect. And the fault of the current one become obvious. And...
Townsend: To many, when the dust of demolition was settled, there was no curriculum. There would... And there hasn't been for years. There's a required freshman seminar. The definition of which is very elusive, so there's nothing there. So there is that... Is the remedy to have the faculty shape up and really try to come together to have a curriculum? And the reason I ask that is because you left for MIT to go to a situation in which there really was a quite inspired idea of a curriculum. Not MIT-wide, but to be in a program. And you can jump to that if you'd like.
Marx: Well, that was a much better way through this issue from my point of view, that you become part of a program within the institution which represents certain interests, and have students come to it but not impose it on others.
Townsend: I hadn't thought of that. So it's an analogy with American Studies, which is, itself, multidisciplined and interdepartmental. So students who do go to that, I hadn't used the word yet, but we are talking about the liberal arts in a way, and in more venturesome ways at MIT. I know almost something about it. Describe what appealed... Who was there at that start, that beginning, and it's history, and it's--
Marx: Well, I made it quite a discovery about Amherst in relation to MIT because when I went to MIT, the program... I taught some undergraduate classes and I was not a very good undergraduate teacher at MIT. And the reason was that you had a class of very bright students, none of whom was interested in particular in your subject. And I found that quite impossible because the students would come to me and say, "I'm interested in this course, "but I have to put all my energy "on my physics or my..." And they just weren't that available. And unless you have a few students in a class for whom that subject is of paramount interest, you don't have a class. And I was... I learned that lesson. Also, there's one other thing that's very important, and that is to be a good undergraduate teacher, you have to know the student culture ins... You have to really know it. And I hadn't been aware of how well I knew where this Amherst students were coming from, what mattered to them. And you can touch on that in a very subtle way without... Without pounding on it. I was totally ignorant about the MIT.
Townsend: What was the enrollment of MIT when you--
Marx: Close to 2,000 learners.
Townsend: Oh, is that small? Because Amherst--
Marx: That's not...
Townsend: That's undergraduate.
Marx: Yeah, right.
Townsend: Well, Amherst was 1,200 when you left. And with co-education in '75, it began to jump up to 16 or 1,700. But even being surrounded by a graduate population means that it's much harder to bring the student culture into focus, I would assume.
Marx: But also, you have to say that MIT student body was a totally different. It was not the suburban middle class. Most of the students at MIT were the first ones in their family ever to go to college.
Marx: Yes. And they were just a different slice of the society.
Townsend: And they had a very narrow path that they were following, why they were there, comparatively speaking. No talk about liberal arts.
Marx: No, they didn't... Were not particularly.
Townsend: But then, in the middle of this comes this program... Department. Again, I'm not sure of the right word, that obviously was very, very appealing to you, given the colleagues who were coming from other institutions. Say something about that because specialization and professionalization has been more the name of the game since you left. And by definition, because the draft is over, careers and ulterior motives kick in. And the idea of exploring the curriculum to get a broad education is... To see what gives is not as tempting or appealing. And something came up at MIT, which really, even more than an Amherst is, is trying to bring together the two cultures. And how did it take root?
Marx: We were brought to MIT in order to invent a new kind of program. And they had a very ambitious notion. MIT is divided into five schools: engineering, science, urban planning, etc. And they had the idea of having a new school that would cut across all of them. They would be the sort of vertical pillars, and this new school would be interdisciplinary. And they persuaded Lilly, the Lilly Foundation, to come across with a huge amount of money. And at the last minute, Lilly himself died. He was... He liked the idea. And once he died, it died. And so, they didn't get that pot of money, so they started with much more modest aspirations. There was still a very... I mean, they... Ken Keniston and Loren Graham, and two or three other people came, and we spent several years trying to design this program.
Townsend: I mean, I can imagine them saying, just as Kazin said, "Hey, this guy knows something about Huck Finn, "go read his article." They're saying, "Hey, this guy wrote "a book called "Machine in the Garden." "Let's get him on to handle..." Because there was a physicist, and chemist, and there was a psychologist. How great was the appeal of it? I mean, you've described the student body that is not likely to rise to this bait.
Townsend: How many... How much traction did it get?
Marx: Well, what happened was they brought us all there, four of us, maybe five if you count Carl Kazin, who was in a somewhat ambiguous position. And we spent three or four years going... We had weekly dinners with each one's... Each department at MIT and solicited their advice. And what we came away with was the notion that you couldn't launch a new program at MIT at the undergraduate level, that we had to start with graduate students, and it was very sensible advice. And that's what we did.
Townsend: And the numbers, to put it crudely--
Marx: Small. It would... We would have as few as 15, 20 students in each year at the beginning.
Townsend: What was its fate?
Marx: Well, it's been very successful. It's began... I mean, it was called STS and it was one of the first. It's now... There are now about 150 such programs around the country. It's very successful. And the Journal of Technology and Culture is a very esteemed journal, and--
Townsend: That's come out of this?
Marx: It had begun a little before, but it became adopted as official journal of the program.
Townsend: You have, in your culmination of your career, an interdisciplinary program which, unlike that at Minnesota and at Amherst, has technology and science in it. In a time when things are narrowing, you're--
Marx: Central to it, yes.
Townsend: You're taking on more.
Marx: And being able to teach literary texts in that context is quite interesting and challenging. The DC Heath pamphlets, which sold millions of , and each one... They were very ingenious. Each one had a set of articles about an event in American history with different points of view. And they became, each, the texts of seminars in this class at Amherst called "American Studies," and--
Townsend: But it's... If I may interrupt, its focus is much narrower. There was no... Well, I shouldn't say "much narrower." It was narrower than what obtained in the Keenan, and...
Marx: Well, I did some pamphlets in that series. I did one on Walt Whitman. I did one on--
Townsend: Yeah, I know, but you didn't do... Well, maybe in your book, there's Walt Whitman and Passage to India, and they're very techn... I don't... And presumably, you were able to bring this in, in your case. But as a series of pamphlets, Supreme Court cases, civil rights things, it didn't have the curricular breadth or--
Marx: Well, what happened was that, I mean, we took one of these topics every other week in the course, and there was a lecture on it, and then there was section. And then, the students wrote a paper each two week... For each two week unit. And it made for a very interesting course. I think... What made me feel very good about Amherst was the extent to which the faculty was really interested in teaching. And that brings up the question that there were no graduate students, and there was no... There were... The students... The graduate students at a big university are careerists, and that makes a whole different... These students will take risks with ideas and commit themselves to ideas for which they have no particular financial or careerist incentive, and that makes for a disinterested and accessible student body. They really are able to get committed to interesting ideas at no cost to themselves, no career to lose.
Townsend: A 20 year old hearing that sentence would say, "What do you mean disinterested? "I thought they were really interested." It means distanced, trying to learn dispassionately--
Marx: To become yourself to ideas without necessarily--
Townsend: Real grounded, intellectual pursuit.
Marx: Right. It's a little bit like the Keatsian definition of negative capability.
Townsend: Yes, yes. Well...
Marx: They were good students at Amherst, and the spirit of the classes was quite special. I don't think there are many institutions that generated that kind of interest.
Townsend: Thank you, Leo.
Marx: Thank you.
Leo Marx taught at Amherst between 1958 to 1977. In 1976 he went to MIT where he is now Senior Lecturer, Kenan Professor of American Cultural History, Emeritus. His lifelong work has focused on the relationship between culture and technology in the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and how the two shaped each other. His The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America has been in print since 1964.
Robert C. Townsend came to Amherst in 1962 as a member of the English Department and served as the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities until his retirement in 2008. He has taught everything from Wordsworth and Keats to nonfiction writing.
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