02 March 2008

Sears R. Jayne

Let us now praise Renaissance men.
(This is
The Triumph of Bacchus, by Velasquez.)

As the twenty-fifth anniversary of my college graduation draws nigh, my thoughts turn daily to my professors. They were a remarkable lot, and in coming days I expect I’ll post little portraits of some of them: Barbara Monahan, my “staraya babushka,” who tried so valiantly to teach me to speak Russian; Bruce Donovan, who tried equally to teach me Ancient Greek; James O. Barnhill, who remains for me the living embodiment of the joy of theater. Yet in some respects the best of my teachers, and the one who summed up what we used to call “The Brown Experience,” was Sears R. Jayne.

His physical resemblance to my paternal grandfather, a fellow Midwesterner who died when I was 5, might have earned him my automatic affection, as might his innate kindness, another trait the two men shared. My grandfather was a preacher, and so in a sense was Sears Jayne. But my grandfather’s faith was Methodism, and Mr. Jayne’s was humanism — a concept new to me at the time, though I became at once the truest of believers. For all I know, he practiced some other faith, in his private time, but he converted me.

He taught a survey of Renaissance literature: Montaigne, Erasmus, Boccaccio, Rabelais, Cervantes, Machiavelli, Quevedo, authors who delved deep in the multiplicities of experience and whose works haven’t left my side since. He taught English poetry, too, and I daresay that if he’d taught basket-weaving or a survey of medieval laundry lists, I’d have enrolled in that course, too, and learned something lasting about humanity.

In his rolling, somewhat foggy baritone, language was never more ecstatic. One of my most vivid memories is of his reading of Eliot’s “Sweeney Agonistes,” portions of which quote “If You Lakka Me,” an old song of dubious racial sensitivity but great charm. (Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien sing it in Meet Me in St. Louis.) Hopping and shimmying, swaying and braying, Mr. Jayne attended some other melody than the original. “Under the bam, under the boo, under the bamboo tree!” he howled, until the whole campus seemed to dance along with him.

It was impossible to take any text lightly, or less than passionately, when Sears Jayne offered it to you.

His own words were even more potent. Seldom was the lecture that didn’t end with some or all of the students moved to tears, as we were the morning he spoke of the future. He saw us so worried, he said, about nuclear war and personal relationships and money, and all the rest, and turning to drugs and drink to escape. That saddened him, and he searched for comfort to offer us. Whatever mess the world was in, however beleaguered we might be, he told us, all would be made well on the day when we came home and found our children smiling up at us from the bath.

That huge voice became knotted with emotion as he spoke, and the glass of his spectacles seemed to fog over. We all saw the image of his own daughters, years before, when he was a young man like us.

“It’s going to be okay,” we thought. “Life will go on.” As indeed it has, so far.

He adored us, and it had been the unsettling surprise of the English Department, who had hired him as a star to lure in graduate students, that he preferred us undergraduates. I responded in somewhat like fashion: he taught lecture classes, with discussion sections, and although he encouraged us to attend the sections led by his teaching assistants, for the benefit of exposure to other opinions, I steadfastly attended only those that he led himself.

That may have been selfish, yet I couldn’t force myself to regret it, and it was in keeping with his methodology. He was deeply interested in our responses to literature, and whole essays might be devoted to how we felt about a poem or a book. The final exam in the Renaissance survey course asked which of the authors we’d studied we’d prefer as a father: I chose Cervantes, after lingering wistfully over Rabelais.

To have studied with a teaching assistant would have been to deny myself the full force of Mr. Jayne’s instruction — and my reaction to it.

In poetry class, we were asked to compile an anthology of poems that were meaningful to us personally. I made a point of including Kipling’s “If,” because Mr. Jayne had proclaimed that it wasn’t a poem at all, just a series of statements. But when I was a boy, my mother used to read “If” with such conviction that I believed she’d written it: “And, what is more, you’ll be a man, my son!”

Returning my anthology, Mr. Jayne thoughtfully wrote, “I apologize for insulting your mother’s poem.”

His solipsistic approach pretty much derailed any ambitions I might have harbored for a career in comparative literature, which in the Ivy League in those days (and doubtless still) was subjected to rigorous deconstructions and arcane theories. Mr. Jayne would not endorse these methods, I think, or have much patience with them, either. One of the most astonishing essays I have ever read was his almost entirely theory-free analysis of King Lear. To his eyes, the play is “the tragedy of people who fail to love each other enough.”

He retired at the end of my sophomore year, having at the last minute persuaded me to become an English major, and at the end of his last lecture, current and former students crowded into the hall to bid him farewell. There were readings and tributes, and I presented him with a three-quarter life-size portrait I’d painted (badly, of course) of him in full cry, reading from a little book marked “Sweeney Agonistes.”

I corresponded with him, briefly, after I graduated. I should have kept on writing to him — not least when I discovered The Firebrand of Florence, Kurt Weill’s adaptation of Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography, one of the pillars of the Renaissance survey course and the occasion of one of Mr. Jayne’s most unforgettable lessons.

When he was teaching at the University of Virginia, he told us, William Faulkner came as a guest professor. The great author was in his full gentleman-farmer mode in those days, and he arrived in horsey regalia, jodhpurs and boots, a red jacket and a little riding crop.

A young reporter from Life magazine had been assigned to cover Faulkner’s first class, for these were the days when the movements of great authors still made news. It’s likely that if the poor journalist had simply sat in the back of the classroom, as he intended to do, Faulkner never would have noticed him. But he made the mistake of going to Faulkner’s office to ask permission first.

Mr. Jayne’s office was on the same floor, and when the commotion began, he ran into the hallway to see Faulkner thrashing the journalist with his riding crop, chasing the fellow down the hall, down the stairs, and out the door. Faulkner returned, dusting off his jodhpurs and grinning. To the flabbergasted professors, the Nobel Prizewinner crowed, “I showed that bastard, didn’t I?”

“Now, William Faulkner wrote the greatest novel of my lifetime, which is The Sound and the Fury,” Mr. Jayne said to us. “But the question arises: Does great art excuse bad conduct? And the answer — ”

He paused, as every one of us leaned forward over the seminar table to hear.

“ — is no.”

No preacher ever made the point more indelibly. It was Mr. Jayne’s belief that Cellini halted his autobiography when he read over the manuscript and found himself disgusted by its catalogue of his own excesses.

Be that as it may, in the years since Mr. Jayne’s class, I’ve seen his lesson tested by many artists, those I knew personally and those I did not; I’ve tested it myself. Great art doesn’t excuse bad behavior. (And mediocre art doesn’t excuse even itself.) Mr. Jayne was right. As usual.

I’d like to tell him that, but I fear that I’ll be able to do so only if my grandfather was right, and we meet some day in Heaven.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I needed to read this. I haven't corresponded with my grandfather in many years...not since I took issue with something that he wrote in one of his lengthy letters to me. Your words about him have encouraged me to get back in touch. Out of curiosity (and perhaps boredome) I Googled him and found your blog entry. Your imagery of him looking down on my mother in the bath reminded me of the value of family. I regret that he has never met my daughter (Linnea Jayne Fairfield). I am going to try and correct that.

William V. Madison said...

It is I who thank you. For one thing, I realize now that it may be a good thing that neither of my grandfathers ever wrote me a single letter. My paternal grandfather (who so resembled Mr. Jayne) died when I was young, as I say, and my maternal grandfather held some pretty obnoxious opinions that would have been harder to gloss over in writing than in conversation.

But the comments section of a blog is a lousy forum for discussions of family. I'd be very grateful to you if you found a moment to get in touch with me: I'd love to know more, and I'm quite pleased already just to know that your grandfather is still around. If you think it would be appropriate, I'd like to write to him myself. He's been a tremendous influence on me.

To thwart spamming programs, I don't publish my e-mail address in conventional form, but it looks much like any other, and I hope that, if you see this, you'll reply:
billmadison AT mac.com

Anonymous said...

Wow, Bill, this is kind of weird. I am Matt Diebel, married to an old Brown friend of yours, Barbara Zakin. I got to reading about Sears Jayne when reading about his brother Mitch Jayne, who also was an incredible man. I am sure you can Google him for the full details, but, briefly, here is his resume. He was an English teacher who somehow ended up teaching in one-room schoolhouses in the Ozarks, where he documented the Elizabethan English then still being spoken by the people in the backwoods. He then got a radio show -- he was an incredible raconteur -- in the small lead-mining town of Salem, where he discovered three boys playing bluegrass, the Dillards. Joining them -- he learned to play the bass and banjo from them -- they picked up and went to California, where they were almost immediately discovered by someone from the Andy Griffith Show, where they appeared for several years as The Darlings, a regular feature of the program. Eventually, Mitch moved back to Salem, which is where I met him. He was an incredibly warm and gracious man, and I was invited to one of his "picking parties" -- I play bluegrass and country (badly). This was 27 years ago and I still remember everything about it. He was one of those people who made everyone around him think he was interested in just them, pretty much as it appears his brother did, as well. He must have thought, "What the heck is this English boy doing here in the Ozarks trying to sing and play country music?" but if he did he never let on. Another coincidence: Barbara comes from Rolla, the next town over from Salem (Rolla is a corruption of Raleigh -- the people had brought the names along with them from North Carolina). I met her in New York and am pretty much the only person who knows her home town. That's it!

William V. Madison said...

Thank you for writing: my mind is officially blown! Sears Jayne’s brother was one of the Darlings? And as a matter of fact, I was Barbara’s roommate for nearly a year in New York, while I worked on the Broadway musical Rags — yet I don't think I ever heard about Rolla. (Is she going to be angry with us for posting this classified information in such a public place?)

Kheir said...

Greetings. I have recently been reading Dr. Jayne's second translation of Marsilio Ficino's Commentary on Plato's Symposium, which seems to me an absolute masterpiece of humanities scholarship. I wanted to write to him to thank him for this magnificent work. Do you happen to know where I could write to him? Thank you for posting your memories of him. Kheir Fakhreldin

William V. Madison said...

Greetings in reply. I don't have an address for Sears Jayne, but I am planning to write to him in care of the English Department at Brown University, Providence, RI, with the idea that they'll be able to forward correspondence. (This ingenious plan occurred to me only recently.)

John Whiting said...

The weirdness accelerates. I've found this website by accident. I was a reader for Sears Jayne's lower division lit course at Cal Berkeley in the early 1950's -- that's before he was denied tenure and booted out for being too popular. He used to entertain his students in small groups in his Berkeley hills home. One legendary lecture began with him turning out the hall lights and reciting Milton's sonnet on his blindness.

William V. Madison said...

What a terrific story, John Whiting! It really does illustrate the kind of invention and playfulness that characterized Sears Jayne's teaching when I studied with him. Thanks for sharing your memories.

Lisa Rothstein said...

He was one of my favorites too. I graduated in 82 and only got to take one course with him before he retired...or at least that's why he said he was leaving. (I recall it was a huge personal tragedy at the time.)

I tried to look him up afterward but never found a trace. I googled him tonight and your blog post that so beautifully describes him turned up. Where is he? Is he still with us? What really happened to him to make him leave? He did not seem ready to retire to me.

Thanks for any news.

Lisa Rothstein said...

Bill, seeing your photos, I'm feeling we must have met at Brown, or at least had a number of the same friends. And I was an American in Paris from 1993-2004.

In any case, glad I found your blog. Looking forward to reading your notes on Providence and Paris.

Lisa Rothstein Brown '82

William V. Madison said...

Lisa -- Your name is incredibly familiar to me, too, though I can't grasp the reason. (On the other hand, I've had only one cup of coffee so far this morning.) I was Class of '83, active in Film Society, as well as theater and some other stuff that was less public and probably prevented me from finding gainful employment as an adult.

Now that I'm back in the U.S., I hope to do more to track down several of my professors, following up (for example) on reports of Sears Jayne's whereabouts. I'll post any discoveries in this space.

Thanks for writing!

Ken Wolman said...

I was in Prof. Jayne's early English Renaissance Literature in 1966 in Hunter College--my first English graduate course. Jayne looked like my fantasy image of a classic tweedy professor: ramrod straight, not twinkly, but with a sense of humor. And yes, that voice: it really WAS a foghorn, wasn't it? Jayne introduced me to Sir Thomas Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, and Spenser--and I became a lifelong lover of the English Renaissance because of him. I earned or conned a Ph.D. in the period's history and literature and inhabited it throughout my doctoral work up in Binghamton. Yes, Sears Jayne was an influence and I still feel his presence.

William V. Madison said...

Thanks so much, Doctor! It's really a treat to hear from others who have known and studied with Sears Jayne; we may not all wind up in the same place, yet our journeys do resemble one another at points.

Will Chapman said...

Thank you! I will never forget the chilling, surprise final essay question in my final exam for his Renaissance Literature course, though I confess I forgot the answer I wrote; " which one of these books failed to move you, and to what personal defect do you attribute this?"

I was and remain humbled.

Anonymous said...

I read the comments tonight after an idle Google search wondering what had become of him. It was wonderful to find that others remember a fine teacher. From your descriptions of him I know it was the same Sears Jayne, although when I was in his class during one semester, as a freshman, it was in the forties, at University of Missouri. I will never forget his readings of Browning's poetry to us. I salute all you who remember him.
Rosamond Howe (Mrs. J. N. Warfield)
July 25, 2013.

William V. Madison said...

Dear Rosamond -- a name that Prof. Jayne must have admired!

I realize with regret that, although I posted the news elsewhere, I did not post here that I received a long and thoughtful message from Prof. Jayne some months ago. He is alive and well and living in Massachusetts, though he has endured significant loss of sight, as well as hearing, and even more significantly, the loss of his beloved wife. It is safe to say that he was moved by the many affectionate expressions of remembrance here.

Kathleen Randall Van Heuit said...

Sears Jayne made profound impressions on me, initially painful and then, finally, positive. When I entered UC Berkeley in 1954 I was an immature seventeen-year old but I recklessly enrolled in the second half of his Masterpieces of Literature class. I knew nothing about how to study or how to write a blue book. On the first midterm I got a D—perhaps John Whiting was the reader!

I'd never had a D in my life. In a meeting with Jayne he read it and said "Well, you were lucky—I'd have given you an F. What's your major?" Near tears, I said "English." He suggested I change my major. I fled before the deluge could start.

Three semesters later, when I had filled quite a few bluebooks, I took the first half of his Masterpieces of Literature class. When the bluebooks were returned mine wasn't there. I told him and he asked my name. I told him. He said "Oh Kathleen—I kept yours as an example to show other students how I wanted those questions answered—I hope you don't mind." "Oh feel free" I airily answered and floated away. I still feel the impact of his lectures, the top of my college experience.