could be hard on writers and their airs. Though humble to
a fault, he was never reverent nor pious about great writers.
He sought in literature not necessarily the truth of human
experience, but the means by which we might ourselves move
toward it. It was literature's ability to illuminate the reader's
own experience that interested him most. He deplored the romanticizing
of art. He believed with Coomeraraswamy that "every man and
woman is a special kind of artist." At the beginning of his
class in literary criticism he used to ask his students to
write down whatever came into their heads on the subject of
was not surprised to learn," he sadly recalled, "that they
thought of art not as making and of the artist not as a
maker of things. To nearly all of them," he said, "art was
expression," a notion he denounced as the "supreme silliness."
Andrew and his father had little time for each other, it
was not for nothing that he was born a plasterer's son.
Like my grandfather, his dear friend, he saw art through
the eyes of an artisan. He wrote approvingly of Renaissance
Florence, where fine painters were regarded as fine craftsmen,
like skilled cabinet makers, masons, and boat-builders.
He admired most the artists who worked within an imposed
structure. "Those who plan carefully before they write,"
he assured me, "or who write in fixed, conventional patterns
can, if they have the genius, avoid frigidity and never
sacrifice spontaneity." He believed with the Frenchman Bourdelle
that "harmonious construction is the secret of everything;
faulty proportions can never be redeemed by details," a
quotation that rang in my ears whenever I felt tempted to
stray from the sturdy outline I had constructed for my novel.
am the proud possessor of a complete set of the mimeographed
quotations he handed out during his many years of teaching.
He began to send them to me when I started writing my India
novel. It was the first time someone quoted chapter and
verse to me without oppressing me. Another kind of pedagogue
might say, "Ah, yes, well, Hegel put it best, I think, and
certainly better than you have, when he said..." But Andrew's
quotes made me feel that though I may have been preceded,
I had not been negated. "I think great ideas have been repeated
many times," he told me. "I tried to show that on these
sheets, in hopes a student would reabsorb them."
quotations suggested that I was a part, however unwitting,
of a continuum. He seemed to understand
that what a writer needs almost more than anything else
is audacity. And so he managed to convey the notion that
I was free to argue or agree with the great writers and
thinkers of the past, that they were all the greater for
being mere and fellow mortals.
was very old when he died, of course, but he looked no
older in 1998 than he had in 1964. His handwriting was
as minute and steady as ever. His hands were hardly speckled.
His face was eerily devoid of creases. And though he audibly
creaked when he rose from his chair, he still stepped
lightly as he made his progress down Kendal's halls.
remember that after helping him move in to Kendal, I strolled
with him to the dining hall for his first residential
supper. Here and there along the fluorescent maze of hallways
someone looking infinitely older and feebler than Andrew
would pause and gape up from a wheelchair and say, in
a voice like crisps, "Professor Bongiorno?"
would stop, of course, and extend his hand, but had to
confess that he did not remember who they were.
came the reply, "I'm so-and-so. You taught me English
literature back in 1941."
have apparently committed a great sin," he told me sadly
as we sat down to dinner. "I have outlived my students."
think he envisioned his move to Kendal as a kind of monastic
retreat. He intended not to bring any of his pictures
with him, nor more than a dozen books. Everything else
he would send to his relatives, give to the college, or
sell. I almost had to tie him to a chair to make him choose
pictures for his walls and select something more than
the tiny library he had kept for himself. Paul Arnold
built a bookshelf for him which rapidly filled with books
and letters and bric-a-brac. But somehow his beloved eleventh
edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica did not make
it to Kendal. So I sent him a set that had been languishing
in my attic which he received with almost childish glee.
He embarked on a program of reading one biographical entry
every 24 hours. "Today," he once declared, "I am reacquainting
myself with Ruskin."
a young student and teacher at Oberlin, Andrew was mentored
by the Italiophiliac Professor Charles Henry Adams Wager--up
to the time of his death Andrew kept a portrait of him
by his mirror. In fact he modeled his dress, his manner,
even his speech after Professors Wager and Mack. But he
refused, as he put it, to "cultivate" his students. "In
a way it was a matter of principle," he told me once,
"because students are flattered by teachers' attentions,
and they may find themselves attached to a person who
isn't quite to their liking. I have always received any
sign of affection or friendship from my students, but
on the other hand I never tried to make a
friend of them."
that were so, hundreds of students befriended Andrew,
and he never lost his empathy for them. Just after Laurine
died I accompanied him to Wilder Hall to sit among a smattering
of retired faculty and teaching assistants and hear President
Starr wax subjunctive about Russia. Suddenly, in the middle
of his talk, an echelon of students entered the room and
lined themselves along the walls until, with locked arms,
they had the president and his audience completely surrounded.
looked over at Andrew. The last Oberlin demonstration
I could remember hearing about was the time protesters
surrounded a corps of military recruiters and, as Andrew's
friend Recha Jaszi indignantly put it, "would not even
let the poor men urinate."
it come to this? I wondered: that after 20 years I now
have to break through a cordon of student demonstrators
so my poor widowered godfather can pee?
off a peculiar whiff of righteousness and narcissism
that took me back to my freshman year, a young man stepped
forward to declare that he and his comrades had come
as representatives of every minority group on campus
to confront Starr with reports of a rash of racist incidents.
agreed to hear them out on condition they permit him
the courtesy of finishing his remarks and allow whoever
wished to leave to do so. The young man agreed, and
Starr hastily brought his talk to a conclusion.
rose to escort Andrew out of the hall.
he whispered. "I should like to stay."
I slowly settled back down, and we sat together as one
after another student went to the lectern to report
racist epithets on campus buildings, racist incidents
on campus grounds. As the night deepened around us,
Andrew looked gloomier and gloomier, and when it was
over, and I was helping him to navigate the rows of
folding chairs, I said, "Well, there'll always be an
was shocked," Andrew said with a scowl.
thought, yes, well, Andrew would be shocked by this
breach of decorum, this interruption of a talk he had
been enjoying by a man he respected.
he continued, "I had no idea that such things were possible
at Oberlin. No student should have to endure such treatment.
And what admirable young people!" he exclaimed. "So
poised. So upstanding. I thought they were tremendous!"
were a sin, we should pray for Andrew's immortal soul. Once
at a dinner party at our house he sat next to a professor
of English from somewhere who happened to have a PhD. Afterwards
Andrew took my mother aside to express his astonishment
that he had treated Andrew as his equal.
he said, "that man is a scholar."
so are you, Andrew," my mother insisted.
no," he said gravely. "I am no scholar. He is a scholar."
could not for the life of us convince him to accept an honorary
degree. Oberlin's trustees were twice lined up to confer
one on him. My father worked on him, and I remember I spent
part of my last visit with Andrew standing in his little
room at Kendal and working myself up into a rage about it.
told him that he owed it not only to himself and the students
who revered him, but to the endangered vocation of teaching
itself. It would at least throw a wrench into the new Oberlin
that would never have hired Andrew, let alone given him
tenure, because he tended to teach rather than publish and
lacked a PhD. Here, I told him, was a chance for Oberlin
to exalt as pure and noble and abiding a teacher as ever
graced its classrooms.
obviously enjoyed my harangue, listening with his eyes twinkling
beneath his dark sprays of eyebrow.
you're not going to do it, are you?" I said.
my dear boy," he told me, "and for the simple reason that
I would not offer myself an honorary degree, and therefore
could not accept one. They should be reserved for scholars,"
he said sternly. "I am not a scholar. I am merely very old."
every visit but the last I would drive Andrew to the florist,
and we would buy a bouquet to set on his beloved Laurine's
grave. The gravestone had been prepared to accommodate both
of their names, indeed his own entry was nearly complete:
Andrew Bongiorno: 1900 to 19-blank.
better hurry up, Andrew," I used to kid him as the 21st
century approached, "or they're going to have to cut a whole
new stone for you."
is perfectly conceivable that in his humility and kindness
Andrew passed on when he did so as not to trouble the stone
cutter. I think we would have gladly paid the difference if
he had chosen instead to see us into the new millennium. But
it is hard to begrudge his taking leave of us at the age of
98, and, not to press the argument too far, if God is, as
I suspect, not all powerful, only just, He is going to need
Ward is a writer in Seattle, Washington.