Stanley Kunitz

The Careful Young Men of 1957

In March of 1957, the Nation magazine ran a feature called "The Careful Young Men," with this subtitle: "Tomorrow's Leaders Analyzed by Today's Teachers." They sought contributions from English professors--all men as it turned out, not surprisingly--at mostly elite universities, soliciting comments on what students were thinking, writing and reading. These students, "tomorrow's leaders" per the subtitle, and the "careful young men" per the title, befit--lo and behold!--the general notion of Nation articles and editorials of this period: the Fifties were pretty much uniformly a time of quietude, caution and rising orthodoxy. That the late fifties was a time of extraordinary experimentation is nowhere indicated, not even marginally, not even in one sentence in one of the entries--not even as a hint or premonition. Of course I see the names of the contributors (Carlos Baker at Princeton, Stanley Kunitz of Queens College, Wallace Stegner at Stanford) and understand that a major problem here is the narrow choice of respondents. The obvious irony is that these male literary academics, for the most part lamenting the aesthetic conservatism of their students, evince no sense of the intellectual diversity--to mention only one form of diversity--that might be required to see the resistance and experimentation at the edges of their classrooms or perhaps outside their office windows or at the fringes of campus (or indeed far down the academic road, at places like Black Mountain). It may be that these gentlemen are writing in 1957 but thinking of their students of 1950-1954, the cowed McCarthyite generation recently graduated. Or it may be that the freer spirits on campus had stopped taking lit courses, or kept quiet whilst Stegner and Baker were lecturing at them, or saved their heterodoxy for the sloppy garrett and cheap coffee shop six blocks from campus.

Anyway, Kunitz notes that the students don't seem to have culture heroes who are themselves young, and seem to be stuck with Jung, Mann, Yeats and Eliot. Stegner claims that "only Eliot seems to arouse enthusiasm in students." (He's talking about a San Francisco-area campus in 1957! Can that generalization really hold even for students on the conservative Stanford campus of that time? I doubt it, but of course I'll need to do a little digging to confirm my hunch that he's wrong.) J. A. Bryant of the University of the South notes that the Hemingway these young men love is not the unallegiant expatriate Hem but the Hem who "symbolizes the virility and essential goodness of the American male and is identifiable with the warrior [and] the athlete." R. J. Kaufmann says that his students "like Joyce's Portrait very well up to the point in which he works out his elaborate aesthetic." John Willingham of Centenary College says there's no rebellion in these students at all--that they "envy the undergraduate of the twenties" [sic - not "the thirties"].

I should note that Leo Marx (then at Minnesota) wrote an exceptional piece for this feature, and so, to some degree, did Alan Swallow, whom we think of now as primarily a great publisher but who had then recently left the University of Denver but was in any case never really comfortable in the academy the way Stegner, Baker and Kunitz were.

Introduction to a Symposium on Poetry in 1960

My introduction to the recent symposium on poetry in 1960. It begins with a look at a late late 1959 essay by Stanley Kunitz predicting that the 1960s will in poetry be a time of consolidation and not of experiment--that experiment was all exhausted, played out.

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