But Yet

on September 19, 2013 in Features with 0 Comments

5.13_f3_shakespeare50 years later, a lesson in life and literature still rings true

By Robert Day

The year is 1964. The scene is a large office on the first floor of old Fraser Hall (now defunct) at the University of Kansas. The man sitting at his desk is framed in morning light and lawn by the campus behind him. His name is Professor Charlton Hinman and among the literary lessons I learned from him was that Shakespeare did not always observe the classical unities of time, place and (about to come) action. But yet …

The door to Professor Hinman’s office was usually closed; however, he had told his students they were welcome, just knock. We had developed a story about him (one among many) that he liked the flourishes that opening doors created. Yes, come in please, you would hear him say in a baritone not (yet) diminished by his smoking (was it a pipe, or cigarettes?). Yes, do come in and take a chair, he would say, and curiously enough, stand to greet you, as if you were more important because you were one of his students than was he, being your professor. I walk in and sit down.

In those days Professor Hinman taught only seminars, and the rude rumor was that he did so because he was a poor teacher in large lecture halls. Not that anyone I knew had ever taken a lecture course from him, nor did my friends know anyone, nor … and so it went: campus folklore.

5.13_f3_hinman1And it was also folklore that his celebrated seminar on Shakespeare’s tragedies was by invitation only. While this prerequisite had made its way to the gossip among the student writers drinking our tomato beers at the Gaslight Tavern just off campus, it has not stopped me from being in Professor Hinman’s office this morning because I had the impertinence to attend the first meeting of the seminar with an 5.13_f3_hinman2“Add” slip for him to sign. Which he did. As result, we are to talk about King Lear.

—Now, Mr. Day, is it? Professor Hinman says as he sits down, checks his appointment book, then gets out a single sheet of paper on which I had the week before typed three questions (Professor Hinman is to pick one) for me to address on my final exam toward the end of 5.13_f3_hinman4April. He studies the list, puffs his pipe (or takes a drag on a Camel), leans back, then forward.

—Mr Day, is it?

—Yes.

There is a phone on a table near the window behind him; it is going to ring.

Among the stories about Professor Hinman was that he had been a bombardier in World War II (in one version, he was the bombardier on the Enola Gay), and it occurred to him later, when he was at the University of Virginia or Johns Hopkins (as a student, a professor? And we were never sure if there was an “s” on John or not), it occurred to him … that … what? Well, we were not sure what, but it had something to do with looking through the Norden bombsight, but instead of seeing Hiroshima, Professor Hinman was looking at Quartos or Folios, or First Quartos or First Folios or Bad Quartos—but to what purpose those of us at the Gaslight Tavern never quite understood. We did, however, understand he was a famous Shakespeare scholar of a special kind: a Textual Scholar. And again, we were not sure what that meant; only it must mean something about the footnotes he used.1  Remember, we were not only the kin of Falstaff at the Gaslight, we were trying to be writers at the expense of being English majors.

Then there was Professor Hinman’s wife, Mrs. Hinman. She had been a friend of Hemingway’s in Paris. She had known James Joyce. There were photographs of her (not that we had seen them) inside Shakespeare and Company, where she had surely met Professor Hinman. Maybe Professor Hinman knew Joyce. Or Ezra Pound. My private hope was that he had seen Josephine Baker dance.

In any case, Mrs. Hinman (she never had a first name to us) could be seen on campus, a milkmaid of a certain age (always wearing aquamarine) with a braid wrapped around the top of her head for a hairdo. She looked like an elegant version of Gertrude Stein. If anyone in Lawrence, Kansas, could have known Hemingway, Mrs. Hinman could have.

Still, those of us who drank at the Gaslight felt a bit sad for her. What must it be like for a woman who once walked up and down Boulevard Montparnasse stopping for a champagne cocktail at the Dome or the Select with Jake Barnes or Lady Brett Ashley; a woman who probably bought and borrowed books from Sylvia Beach, but who we could see walking along Jayhawk Boulevard past the Gaslight to stop next door at the Abingdon Book Shop—not a bad bookstore, to be sure, but not Shakespeare and Company. One of us (I won’t say who) thought we might invite her in for a red beer; it was not an invitation we would have made to Professor Hinman, but to Mrs. Hinman it seemed possible.

There were 12 of us admitted into the seminar on Shakespeare’s tragedies (well, 11 plus one gate crasher). My colleagues were very serious graduate students, some of them well on their way to PhDs; one had just been signed to a three-year contract to teach at a Great East Coast University.

During the semester each of us was to present a seminar paper which was mimeographed (it was that long ago) and handed out the week before so that the following week the author could be questioned (“grilled” was more like it, when it came to the graduate students—but never Professor Hinman). Mine had been on “false hope” in King Lear. It, alone among all the papers presented, was bereft of footnotes. (I didn’t quite know how to do footnotes; also, I had contracted a chronic aversion to literary research.) But I wrote well enough to be amusing:

“It would be as if a Western Kansas rancher fenced off his High Plains free-range pastures and cut out 10 sections for one daughter, 10 sections for another, and 10 sections for a third. That’s a lot of fencing, and even (maybe especially) among siblings, it will most surely make for spite fences and not good neighbors.”

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