Do you remember our english high school teachers? I remember my first one was called Eddie. He introduced us to William Blake, had us reciting Tyger off our hats, started me on obscure readings, and used to rest like a lion on our school table. I really liked him, and he was a big part of how I started loving literature (though admitably there were other childhood fancies).
One should make a memorial to Rowse Wilcox.
The obituary for his son Ted – a creative Harvard administrator but also like his father a magical teacher – is on the internet. But I find no record of Rowse.
Rowse was one of the most remarkable high school English teachers in a history that includes some notable high school English teachers. Almost everybody literary has serious memories of an English teacher. But Rowse was special, in ways both positive and negative.
Literature to him was real and writing a real way to see and understand the world – and he communicated that actively to a wide range of students.
The neuroses that kept him in a high school job, even if it was at the Friends School in New York City, encased him, and by the time most of his students had dealt with him for four years they had had enough of him – so there is no memorial. But there should be..
Rowse began his forming of a new 9th grade by attacking our young notion of plot. There were, he said, only 17 or 21 plots (how many – I forget). Actually he went back to the plot elements of the Finish folklorists and Stith Thompson (I doubt if he knew Propp), and translated these into the plot cards he said were used by Hollywood (-sneer-) writers, who just shuffled the deck to get a new story. What he was doing was sneaking in a notion of ‘reality’ and ‘meaning’ in experience to our sense of literature. “Reality” as something to be explored by writing. By attacking plot for not having any relation to “reality” – as he saw it -.
The negative side of this was that it also attacked our young sense of story. And thus our sense of myth. And robbed some of us of the ability to appreciate story as a way of exploration.
Then he tried to replace plot in our minds with perceptions – with “moments of realization”. Here he combined reading – Checkhov – with writing. Writing one sentence exercises he called “imaginative appeals”. One type of “imaginative appeal” was to descibe a scene in one sentence that implied a story that was not told. We had to go home and find 50 of these, pick the best ten and bring them to class in a week.
At the same time we had, probably not his choice, to read a Tale of Two Cities which he hated. So here he attacked “sentimentality”,, and introduced the notion of character by attacking Dickens’ inability to portray women with any “reality”.
While this was useful and probably true, it did make it impossible for me to read Dickens for the rest of my life.
And there were his attacks on New England and Boston ‘culture’ – he came from New London. This included his claim that in Boston the horses had books in front of their faces at lunch, instead of feedbags.
As he attacked 19th century plots, so he attacked conventional verse – and championed the free verse of the kind we could find in Louis Untermeyer’s anthology of modern poetry.
Literature for him was a way of seeing. And with it he emphasized the principle of selection – at many levels. So he introduced our young minds to the notion of the exact word – and had us write sentences in which we searched for such words. And the significant detail – in presenting a scene or a character.