An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

Basking In the Light of a Sick Genius

I was too young to be a Beatnik, and too old to be a Hippie, but just the right age to be a student at a large land-grant state University. The University of Minnesota in the late '50s was well endowed, charged almost nothing for tuition, and boasted a faculty of competent, and sometimes well-known lecturers.

In my time there, I learned from such literary luminaries as Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov, historian Clark Chambers, and political scientist Arthur Naftalin. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Index was developed there, as well as open heart surgery. The Great State Uni-Varsity, as some called it, was a great bubbling cauldron of ideas and achievement.

Both to its' credit and its' sorrow, the faculty included a drunk, near-psychopathic poet and genius named John Berryman. Born in 1914 in Oklahoma, and educated at Columbia and Cambridge, Berryman's high-pitched voice revealed trace accents from all three places. Between bouts of hospitalization, brought on by a combination of his alcohol-induced weakened condition and his physical problems such as Parkinson's disease, he was the most brilliant lecturer and classroom performer I have ever encountered. His seminars (he never lectured in basic courses), part of the Interdisciplinary Studies (“Humanities”) curriculum, were always filled in spite of the fact that he was widely known to enjoy putting down his students on occasion, not really maliciously, but just to show off how clever he was.

He was also a notorious name dropper, a predilection that most tended to forgive him given the names he dropped. More than once, he started a story with “one night, when Dylan Thomas and I were drinking together in McSorley's pub…”

We were studying Ann Frank's “Diary of a Young Girl”. Berryman started off the day's session this way:

“During the war, when I was lecturing at Princeton, we had a little discussion group. There was me, Al Einstein, (etc.). One time, the topic was “are the German people, as a whole, collectively guilty of the Holocaust?”. After a couple of hours, we held a vote to decide the issue. What do you think we concluded, G?” pointing to a student whom we all knew to be a sincere, sensitive Jewish fellow.

I'm not sure, Mr. Berryman. “I didn't ask you if you were sure, G. I asked you what you THINK we concluded. But let's make it simpler. Do YOU think they were guilty, G?”

Probably, Mr. Berryman. “Come now, G, can't you be more positive? Tell us clearly, G. Were they, or were they not? Surely you have an opinion, G.”

I guess they were. “You guess? Don't you know? Don't you have a mind of your own? Spit it out, G.”

Yes, Mr. Berryman, they were. They were guilty. “Is that really your opinion, G?” Nod. “I can't believe that you believe that, G. If you did believe that, you would be an idiot, just like they were idiots!” and then went on to expound his own analysis of the question.

G, meanwhile, was thoroughly embarrassed and not a little angry. He bided his time. A couple of weeks later, Berryman called on him to answer another question, this time not a trick one. G said I will not answer that question, Mr. Berryman. Barely able to contain himself, Berryman asked “and why is that, G?” Because, the last time I answered one of your questions, you called me an idiot.

Berryman, almost pissing his pants with glee, now could complete the joke he had set up with the first session. “Now, G, you must be mistaken. I would never call you an idiot. In the first place, you are manifestly not an idiot, otherwise how would you account for your presence here? And, secondly, to call you an idiot in front of a class full of your peers would have been highly unprofessional!”

In spite of all the entertaining and personal insights into great figures of our time, it was sad and uncomfortable to bear witness, twice a week, to the self-destruction of this great man. He would enter our two-hour class bubbly and sparkling, and by the time the first forty five minutes were gone he would be shaking and sweating. When the bell rang he would dash down the hall to his office, brush aside anyone who might be waiting there, and lock himself inside. Through the door one could hear the clink of bottle on glass, and after a few minutes, the door would open on a smiling, relaxed Berryman, welcoming visitors in to his office.

When, after a long session of hospitalization punctuated by brief periods of self-abuse, he took his own life, no-one who knew him was much surprised. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, bon vivant, raconteur, teacher John Berryman stepped off a bridge high above the Mississippi river one winter morning in 1972. Simple, direct, and yet not lacking in a flair for the dramatic.

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All materials copyrighted, 1994-2004 by Stan Gotlieb and