Nostalgia and longing for the middle of nowhere and the flowering of culture one finds there
By Michael Dirda
Over the past few weeks I’ve found myself thinking a lot about Oberlin College, my alma mater. During the National Book Festival weekend, held on the National Mall in late September, I spent much of the gala on Friday night with novelist Marilynne Robinson. In her latest collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, is one entitled “Who Was Oberlin?” (John Frederick Oberlin was a saintly, civic-minded preacher in 19th-century Alsace.) Turns out, moreover, that Robinson is a great admirer of those small, theologically grounded colleges that sprung up during the early-to-mid-19th century, and were led, as in the case of Oberlin, by men like Charles G. Finney, the most electrifying speaker of his time. Portraits show a man with piercing eyes that really do seem to bore into your soul.
Because of the strong convictions of its founders, Oberlin College became our country’s first coeducational institution of higher learning and the first to admit both black and white students. The place was, of course, a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment. The social and political activism of Oberlin in the 1960s—my era—grew from more than 100-year-old roots.
On Saturday at the book festival I got to talking with Tony Horwitz, whose latest book is Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War. He reminded me that many, if not most, of the men who rode with John Brown had graduated from or had connections with Oberlin. I actually knew this from having reviewed, a decade or more ago, Nat Brandt’s provocatively titled The Town That Started the Civil War. Brandt’s book focuses not just on Oberlin as an abolitionist stronghold and a stop on the Underground Railroad, but also describes in detail the 1858 “Wellington Rescue,” a key event in the lead-up to the Civil War, in which a band of Oberlinians marched to an adjoining village to free an escaped slave from bounty hunters.
Oberlin, I once remarked, fosters two kinds of people: artists and activists. My middle son, Mike, who graduated from the college in 2009, occasionally still wears a beloved T-shirt that reads: “Oberlin: Where dirty, crunchy hippies go to frolic.” At the same time, no liberal-arts college produces more graduates who earn Ph.D.s than this small institution, located—as the jokes have it—either in an Ohio cornfield or “somewhere in the middle of nowhere.”
I can remember when I first became aware of the college, or to be more exact, of its celebrated sister institution, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. One day at Admiral King High School, in Lorain, Ohio, the students were ordered into the auditorium for an assembly. As my buddies and I sat restlessly in our chairs, probably playing rock-paper-scissors to pass the time, the stage was suddenly invaded by these scruffy older kids in blue jeans and baggy sweatshirts. They looked like 20th-century versions of the ragtag street urchins Sherlock Holmes used to employ—except that they strode across the polished wood of the stage carrying violins and clarinets, lugging cellos and French horns. After some momentary confusion, the group sat down on folding chairs, placed some sheet music on metal stands, and, with a nod, began to play the most beautiful music I had ever heard.
Many, many years later I got to know the pianist Eugene Istomin and his wife, Martita (whose first marriage had been to the very elderly Pablo Casals). At a particularly ritzy dinner party I remember telling Eugene that what I loved about Oberlin was the easy availability of music, the way it was integrated into one’s daily life. Student recitals at Warner Concert Hall might start at 7 or 7:30, so one could drop by on the way to Carnegie Library, slump in a seat, and listen to a friend play a Beethoven piano sonata, then go on to study for a couple of hours. You didn’t need to buy a ticket (except for the special visiting artists series), and you could wear flip-flops and a T-shirt if you wanted.
Eugene could see my point, but objected: the way to show one’s respect for musicians was to dress up. Slovenliness was a sign that the music wasn’t worth any effort. I could understand his argument, and these days I do put on a dark suit and tie when attending a concert. But, now—alas—the cost of tickets, the trouble of getting downtown and parking, and a dislike of going out at night combine to make those concerts few and far between. Instead I listen to CDs and old records. But at Oberlin I must have heard live music virtually every day. Even the pianos in dorm lounges were constantly in use, as show tunes and Gilbert and Sullivan rang through the hallways.
Our age, said Emerson, is retrospective. Certainly, Oberlin has been on my mind lately, but not just because of Robinson and Horowitz. A week ago there arrived in the mail a gigantic photographic album titled Oberlin, which offers a pictorial homage to my old school. Daguerreotypes and digital photos share many oversized pages. Some of the scenes pictured I remember all too well: the silent vigils in Tappan Square during the Vietnam War, the protesters surrounding the car of a military recruiter. Most make me ache to be 19 again: classes lounging under the trees on a spring afternoon, distinguished guest lecturers on the stage at Finney Chapel, painted messages adorning the big rocks across from the old Co-Op Bookstore, the lighted shop front of Gibson’s Bakery (known for its whole-wheat donuts and elephant ears pastries), blankets of snow covering the streets of the city and campus, the neon sign of the Apollo movie theater, rows and rows of Steinway pianos in the conservatory, the façade of Allen Memorial Art Museum (designed by Cass Gilbert, with a modern addition by Robert Venturi), pretty girls on their way to class carrying bookbags, Claes Oldenburg’s giant three-way plug, the farmland outside the city limits.
It’s an excellent photo album, even if—Obies are nothing if not critical—it could have been better. I would have liked more text, more pictures of teachers, more testimonials from notable alumni—though there is a very good one from screenwriter William Goldman. I’ve just finished reading a biography of Thornton Wilder, which reminded me that the future author of Our Town attended Oberlin for two years and that his best friend there was Robert Maynard Hutchins, later the almost legendary president of the University of Chicago. Wilder said that in an education that embraced many schools and universities, including Yale and Princeton, he had one truly great teacher: Oberlin’s Professor of English Charles Wager.
You probably haven’t heard of him, unless you are connected to the college in some way. But I used to study in the Wager Seminar Room in Carnegie Library. As a freshman, I took a class from one of his students, the quietly formidable Andrew Bongiorno. He, too, like so many Oberlin teachers before and since, poured his energies into teaching, rather than swanning about as a “public intellectual.”
Readers familiar with my memoir An Open Book know that Oberlin College dramatically changed my life. For a decade after I graduated, hardly a day went by when I didn’t imagine that I would eventually return there to teach, to live in one of those big old houses on Morgan Street, to become, in fact, a professor just like Bongiorno and Wager before me. I have fallen short of that dream. Still, if I were ever, like Emily in Our Town, permitted to relive one day of my checkered past, I would choose a beautiful October afternoon in Oberlin, when all the world was young.
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.