'The World Balanced on a Sentence'

Professors Colwell and Slusser were English superstars

Slusser, who specialized in English literature at St. Thomas from 1947 to his retirement in 1969, and Colwell, who taught European literature from 1952 to his death 19 years later, were a contrast in personality and in teaching style but shared a powerful influence among students. The undergraduate universe was divided into “Slusserians” and “Colwellians” who talked about their mentors in the Grill.

There was much to talk about. Slusser was a convert who had read his way into the Catholic Church. He was of the Mr. Chips mold – kind, congenial, wise, empathic, the kind of teacher with a long line of students, not all of them English majors, waiting for a conversation every day. Kevin McKiernan ’66 recalled, “He had a cubicle in the library where he corrected papers and prepared for class. You could visit him there unannounced, if it was important, and you didn’t do it very often. My friends and I would go in when ‘the weight of the world’ got to us. The talk was about poetry, writing, life. We called it ‘getting Sluss-ed up.’ ”

Students were not the only ones who sought time with Slusser. A colleague, Ann Hoversen, said she made it a point to arrive early in the large departmental office so she could enjoy “a beautiful, elegant, incisive mind.”

Colwell also spent time with students, but his desk in the southwest corner of the library was somewhat barricaded with bookshelves. One did not seek out Colwell for battery recharging; he appeared cold and intimidating, even to serious students. “Colwell had the habit of pushing pieces of ice into a conversation, hoping you’d slip at some point,” a colleague remarked. While he was often disingenuous in discussions with his peers – feigning agreement or naiveté until springing an ironic trap – his analytical mind was a magnet for all. “I often thought Colwell ought to be teaching graduate students at Princeton,” a colleague, Robert Lippert, admitted. “Colwell was a nonhabitual thinker who saw relationships where others did not,” Hoversen observed.

William Delehanty ’59, a former student who returned to the campus to teach history, pointed to Colwell’s deep respect for the need to know. “Breadth of learning was exemplified and inspired by Colwell’s teaching,” he said. Colwell was, however, intensely private, betraying none of the intimacy that marked Slusser. “A door would often close,” Hoversen recalled. Some glimpsed “a true kindness and courtesy beneath an eccentric demeanor,” in the words of one student, but more often Colwell seemed a lonely, brilliant man, his brow creased with a mild form of intellectual dyspepsia.

In the classroom, Slusser took a Socratic approach to the teaching-learning experience, while Colwell was more of an information-dispensing lecturer. Colwell spiced up the classroom by leaping on a desk or window sill to dramatize a point, and when he did ask a question in class he was not above coming down and sitting knee-to-knee with the student struggling to answer. He gave take-home tests with large questions on the order of “define Greek tragedy.” I carry in memory one Easter vacation when it seemed I spent every waking moment on some seminal query or other concerning The Brothers Karamasov.

“Colwell didn’t try to be a soul mate,” former student Daniel Shea ’58 remarked. “When he taught Lucretius, and atomistic materialism as part of the package, in effect banishing Slusser’s imagination and romanticism from the room, I remember his peering into my innocence one day with his rigorous eyes and saying, ‘Shea, what makes you think you have a soul?’ I’m still working on that one.” Shea is a professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis.

Slusser was unmatched at getting students to write from their experience in composition courses. I recall being selected for 111P (the freshman composition course for so-called advanced students) on the basis of a prose description of rolling down a hill covered with fall leaves. Shea and I received our course grade for a movie script bearing more than a passing resemblance to the film based on John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Slusser was meticulous in going over student writing, his small but very legible handwriting filling the margins. He apparently would read essays more than once. In one blue book, I received an A-minus on the title page and a B-plus at composition’s end, the latter apparently being the final judgment.

It would be wrong, however, to take too far the stereotypes of Slusser as the heart of the department and Colwell as the head. Slusser could be analytical. He could take students deftly through Henry James, an experience he once described as “looking through a keyhole at someone looking through a keyhole at someone looking through a keyhole.” And he could spend hours at the Hill Reference Library, tracking down every allusion in Four Quartets. “His was an excitement that came with effort,” noted Delehanty.

Counter-intuitive stories about Colwell are not as numerous, but McKiernan recalled the time Colwell watched him race his motorcycle down Summit Avenue, prompting a heartfelt personal talk on dying young. Colwell could approve of a term paper comparing the country western lyrics of Hank Williams to Rabelais, and colleague Patrick Lally witnessed occasions when he laid aside intellectual rank and acted much like a regular guy.

Slusser was a nature lover. He knew every tree, shrub and plant, and he and his wife, Lois, were dedicated birders. His ability to name things reflected his emphasis on “the density of specificity” in writing. His Wordsworthian relationship with nature was an object of kidding. One day he rose to sally forth into a spring morning when an impish colleague, Bob Bastian, peered over a newspaper and said, “Kick a tree for me, Herb.” Hoversen once invented a fictitious species of rare bird just to see what Slusser would do.

Colwell was more mechanically inclined. He was a ham radio aficionado, and one former student recalls visiting his apartment to find him studying the circuit boards of a completely disassembled television set. He once took a class down to the old computing center, with its huge Honeywell machines, and predicted that students would someday own a much-downsized computer. On a student trip to Italy, he read a book on sailing, convinced a boat rental he was an accomplished sailor and took students on an uneventful excursion on the high seas.

Slusser once was walking down an Aquinas Hall corridor when a book, thrown over a transom for reasons lost to history, happened to hit him. It turned out to be a copy of his own A Modern College Rhetoric, a book published in 1954. It was used now and then in the department, although not to everyone’s approval. Lippert recalls a departmental meeting, absent Slusser, where he was the only advocate of adopting the book. I have consulted my copy of A Modern College Rhetoric frequently over the years. Its overall tone can be inferred from the opening sentence: “Words and language are our means of growing into rewarding relationships with other human beings and with human affairs.”

The writing throughout is masterly, and my favorite section is a “Glossary of Some of the Last Infirmities of Almost Literate People.” Most of the distinctions noted in this appendix are no longer honored, even in The New Yorker. For example, “Thoroughly literate people make a distinction between the use of due to and that of owing to. The former modifies a noun and the latter modifies the sense of a whole statement. His illness was due to exposure. He became ill owing to his working 15 hours a day.” One would search a long time today to find a copy editor to split such a hair.

While Slusser could write prose that would make Strunk and White jealous, Colwell was a linguistic genius who, it is said, could learn a language in the time it took others to register for a course in it. A list of languages with which Colwell was acquainted include Russian, French, German, Italian, Chinese and Arabic. In addition, he taught Hebrew at the St. Paul Seminary, and his Ph.D. thesis from the University of Edinburgh involved medieval Gaelic vision literature. In a course I took from him, his blackboard notes suddenly veered into an unknown tongue, later identified as Sanskrit. It is said that he knew some Dakota Indian words. Language gives access to culture, and Colwell’s multilingual ability enhanced his effectiveness as a teacher. One former student recalled an evening of entertainment by native Russian singers and dancers organized by Colwell, who conversed in Russian with members of the troupe.

While Slusser wrote a book on rhetoric, Colwell seems not to have published, surprising in light of his varied interests and critical bent of mind. He did, however, develop syllabi and course materials, including an outline of more than 100 pages for his public television course on Russian literature. A colleague remembers Colwell’s debut as less than successful – “he was paralyzed by the camera” – but others recall his pioneering educational forays on television more positively. He served a stint as department chair but was not cut out for the role. Paul Hague recalled a reluctant Colwell visiting his classroom to observe a newly hired teacher. “He entered late and scurried to the back of the large classroom in what I can only describe as ‘a Groucho Marx stoop.’”

Slusser, an Anglophile, died in April 1973 after suffering a heart attack in Sussex, England, while visiting a son studying at Oxford. He is buried at Tunbridge Wells, Kent. In his eulogy, Father James Lavin praised Slusser’s ability “to communicate to students a taste for the noble.” A friend put it another way when he said simply, “Slusser taught a culture.”

A lifelong smoker, Colwell was still teaching when he succumbed to lung cancer in 1971. Students and colleagues alike watched him struggle up stairs to class and collapse for 30 minutes at his desk afterwards. Even at the last, Colwell was brilliant, according to William Carter III ’73, who was in his final class. “He could hardly breathe when he arrived, but I will never forget his teaching us Waiting for Godot,” he said.

The same people who talked about Slusser and Colwell in the Grill decades ago remember that time fondly today. Shea put it this way: “I can’t help thinking those old ways were the best – great texts and sensitive, rigorous engagement with them: the world balanced on a sentence.”

About the author

Richard Conklin ’58 retired in June 2001 from his position as associate vice president for university relations at the University of Notre Dame. He and his wife recently moved back to the Twin Cities, where both grew up.

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