Marion Peter Holt (’49)
Professor Emeritus of Theatre, The Graduate Center, City University of New York
& Professor Emeritus of Spanish, College of Staten Island, CUNY
Corresponding member of the Real Academia Española
Within months after my discharge from the Army Signal Corps, I enrolled at Wofford College under the G. I. Bill. Determined to make up for lost time, I began classes in summer school, taking two courses each session. The influx of new students under the G. I. Bill had caused the college to ask some older faculty to delay retirement or return to the classroom, and temporary instructors (now known as adjuncts) covered a few classes. Dr. Mason Dupre was my algebra professor that summer, while a young man whose name I have forgotten taught English composition. Both classes were consistently routine, and my Algebra grade would represent my academic nadir. The English instructor demanded absolute fidelity to spelling and grammar, and he awarded me a B on one composition because I had used a single word not found in the dictionary.
I puzzled this same instructor with another paper entitled “How I saw Faust at the Met.” Prior to enrolling at Wofford, I had endured basic training at an outpost on the Jersey shore, close to New York City, and I would go into the city at every opportunity and stand in line for a free theatre ticket at a small center known as 99 Park Avenue. Although I had seen a number of plays on Broadway, I had never set foot in the Met. So the vivid performance I described in the composition was pure fiction. At any rate, I received an A for the course, and that balanced off my algebraic limitations.
The second summer term was a decided improvement over the first. I found trigonometry far more to my liking than algebra, and my final grade reflected that. But it was the second part of English composition that proved to be the most challenging and the most rewarding. Professor Raymond Bourne—normally a teacher of French—had been recruited to teach English composition 2, and his approach to the material could not have been more different from that of my previous instructor. In fact, English comp 2 turned out to be my first “Great Books” course—and one of the best courses I would have from my undergraduate beginnings until completion of doctoral studies years later. Raymond Bourne was considered one of the younger faculty at Wofford when I first met him. He was not tall, but slender and compact, with reddish hair and a slow, deliberate way of speaking. He also had one prosthetic leg. I quickly learned that the students called him “Peg Bourne,” though not with any deprecatory intent. I also learned that “easy A’s” did not happen in his classes. I knew vaguely how Professor Bourne had lost a leg just below the knee. It had been a streetcar accident but no one ever provided specific details. In any case, using a cane, he would walk determinedly across the campus and up the stairs of Old Main with nearly as much speed as those without impairments.
The first day of class he handed out a long mimeographed book list. We were to choose the title we preferred and, as we read the book, write our feelings and impression on large 5 x 8 cards. Students’ reactions would then provide material for class discussion and analysis. I remember that the list included works by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Dreiser, possibly a play by O’Neill, and titles by European novelists such as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. I had become a devotee of the long novel in my senior year at Spartanburg High School and had read Les Miserables (twice!), Anthony Adverse, and Gone with the Wind, so I took what would prove to be a larger leap than I imagined and chose War and Peace. As my reading progressed, I became engrossed in the mammoth novel. At some point I encountered a passage that triggered the memory of my own reaction to the star-studded night sky on an island in the Pacific. The comments I wrote on the 5 x 8 card were hardly objective. I handed in my card as required and continued reading. After the next class, Professor Bourne approached me and said he would like to see me in his office. We sat down, he picked up the large file card from his desk and, after a pause, asked me: “Where did you find these comments? You didn’t write all this yourself.” I was shaken. I assured him that every word was my own and that if I’d been influenced by something I’d read I was totally unaware of it. He looked dubious but ended our meeting without further comment. I got my not-so-easy A at the end of summer school.
Fortunately, I would have several other classes with Raymond Bourne—French 1, 3, and 4, and the pièce de résistance, Classical French Drama—another memorable experience and my introduction to Molière, Corneille, and Racine. Professor Bourne never seemed particularly interested in theatre performance per se, yet he managed to suggest performance at a time when play texts all too often were taught the same as novels. Raymond Bourne had no degree in French and only an M.A. in English, and he had always seemed to prefer fiction to drama. Yet he opened my mind to the genius of Molière, using an explication de texte approach that might seem outdated to some contemporary academics. It provided a thorough understanding of French verse plays as well as enlightenment on textual meaning and imagery. I will confess that I have on occasion used his approach in my own classes years later without giving it the name that some disdained. When we were discussing Racine’s Phèdre, he read aloud in French one of Phèdre’s laments over her incestuous predicament. A middle-aged professor reciting a famed Sarah Bernhardt specialty in a Wofford classroom might well inspire titters. But there was nothing ridiculous about it that day and, oddly, it still resonates in my memory. If Wofford had had a major in theatre in those years, I would no doubt have chosen it. As it was, I created my own theatre minor with William Hunter’s two superb semesters of Shakespeare (reading every play the Bard wrote), Dr. Watkin’s Classical German Plays, and his thorough introductory courses on Greek Literature and Roman Literature in English translation. In those courses I heard for the first time at Wofford the names Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, Artistophanes, and Plautus. Sadly, there was no course that even mentioned Ibsen, Chekhov, or Strindberg—much less Bertold Brecht.
When the time came to apply to graduate schools, Professor Bourne and Professor Jack Salmon provided letters of recommendation and I was offered fellowships at Tulane, Emory, and Vanderbilt. The same professors would also make a difference when Converse College was considering me for my first teaching position after completing the M.A. at Vanderbilt; they would lend their support yet again when I was able to return to graduate school to work on my doctorate. Professor Bourne and I occasionally corresponded during my graduate school years, and while I was teaching at Converse I would drop by to see him at Wofford from time to time. He became increasingly frank about his own frustrations over not having a doctorate and urged me to complete mine when I was faced with financial hurdles.
Years passed, and in the mid 1970s I heard that Professor Bourne had been seriously ill and was presently in a convalescent facility. When I went to see him, I brought along a copy of my first collection of modern Spanish plays in translation in which I had written a warm dedication. It is no exaggeration to say that his intellectual voice had its place in my own writing and teaching. When I opened the door to his room, I was taken aback at what I saw. He was slumped in a chair by the window with the stump of his leg propped on an ottoman. I knew this was a sight he would never have wanted others to see in years past as it confirmed a condition that he had long tried to minimize in the eyes of colleagues and students. He gave me a faint smile as I sat down nearby, and after a few minutes I handed him the book. He looked at it rather indifferently; he did not realize I was the editor and also translator of two of the plays in the collection. I knew that he had not seen my name on the dust jacket and thought I had only brought him a token book. I explained: “Professor Bourne, it’s my book. Please read the dedication.” He did and when he looked up at me, tears welled up in his eyes. “I didn’t know, I didn’t know,” he said.
I never saw him again; he died not long after our last visit. I can only hope that the dedication in my book gave him some comforting assurance that his work at Wofford had been very, very important to me and others. If I could relive that last meeting with him, I would undoubtedly put my arms around his frail shoulders before I left. But in those days we thought it proper to maintain a respectful distance. Now I am somewhat wiser.